School Competitions


The minutes of a Club committee meeting on 2nd February 1892 state: “With regard to the presentation prizes for children at Balerno School it was remitted to David B. Fairbairn to intimate that the Club shall give two prizes of the value of 10/- ( £ 0.50 ) to be competed for this year”…and so began one of the Balerno Burns Club’s great traditions, the annual school competitions at what was later to be renamed Dean Park Primary School, Balerno.

Balerno School (opened 1878) later to become the annexe of Dean Park Primary School

It’s not recorded whether a competition took place or not in 1892. However, almost a year later, at the committee meeting of the Club held on 23rd December 1892, the minute records the following: “Regarding prizes to be given to the Balerno School Children, it was agreed that a sum of cash more than a £1 be voted towards buying four copies of Burns works, two of which to be awarded to boys and two to the girls for the best rendered Song or Recitation from his works.

Messrs David B. Fairbairn, Thomas Horsburgh and George Y. Robertson were appointed adjudicators.”  Almost 130 years later, the Club still provides adjudicators at the annual contests, and any Club member lucky enough to have been a judge, will appreciate the time and effort the children and the school staff have put in to this over the years.

In July 1893, the first record of a School Competition was made when the Club Secretary wrote: “As had been arranged, the Competition for four copies of the poet’s works by the children attending Balerno School was held in the schoolroom this afternoon when the prizes were awarded to the following successful competitors :


1st Recitation,             Jas. Falconer

1st Singing,                 James Garnet Fairbairn


1st Recitation               Mary Falconer

1st Singing                  Jessie Brown

George Robertson, David B. Fairbairn & Thomas Horsburgh awarded the prizes.”

One of the Club’s first prize-winners named above, James Garnet Fairbairn, son of Club President on many occasions David B. Fairbairn, and grandson of one of our Founder members James Fairbairn Snr., attended ‘Let it Blaw’ for the first time in 1907 and carried out the duties of Croupier at the 1910 Supper.

He died on 18th March 1915 fighting with 1st Battalion Canadian Infantry (Western Ontario Regiment) and is buried in Y Farm Military Cemetery, near the village of Bois-Grenier in Northern France.

Y Farm Military Cemetery, Bois-Grenier, France 

James is commemorated on a panel within Balerno Parish Church and also on a Memorial at Currie Kirk. A sad end for the wee nine year old boy who won his prize at Balerno School. It’s fitting that he’s also remembered here.

We’ve no reason to believe these competitions didn’t run every year thereafter albeit references to them in the Club records are scarce through to 1923. That’s when things changed! In the record of a Committee Meeting on 26th January 1923, a list of those attending the 1923 annual Supper included that of Fred Belford, newly appointed Headmaster of Balerno School. Fred was instantly active within the Club speaking at the first Supper he attended. By 23rd March 1923 Fred had been appointed to the Club Committee.

Fred became a keen, passionate and knowledgeable Burnsian intent on passing his knowledge and enthusiasm to future generations through his direct involvement in education. Under his stewardship, the school competitions thrived. In the Club’s report of the 1929 competitions, the following was recorded: “Councillor Horsburgh J.P., who presided, expressed his gratitude at the large audience and interest shown year by year by the  parents and the children. The entries showed a marked increase this year, 110 scholars taking part. The pieces selected for elocution were:- for Juniors under 10, ‘A Rosebud by my Early Walk’,for Intermediate pupils from 10 to 12, ‘To a Mouse’ and for seniors from 12 to 14, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.’ The Club was again fortunate in securing the services of Mr John McVie, Edinburgh (Secretary of the Burns Clubs Association of Edinburgh) as adjudicator.”

The record listed the many prize winners and went on to say: “Diplomas of the Burns Federation were issued to Annie Hogg, Nancy Ramsay (sister of the Club’s past Vice President Bill [Loppy] Ramsay), Annie Harper, Agnes Russell and Willie Garlick (believed to be grandson of our Founder Member, William Garlick ).

The bronze medal of the Federation, awarded to the competitor gaining the highest number of marks in the competition, was won by Annie Hogg with 83 per cent. A most enjoyable and instructive evening was brought to a close with votes of thanks to Mr McVie, Mr Belford and the Chairman.” This was the first mention of the Burns Federation in connection with Balerno School’s competitions. The record of the 1930 competitions ends “The Club are greatly indebted to Mr Belford, Headmaster, for his indefatigable efforts towards bringing the children to such a state of efficiency.”

Fred Belford

On 20th November 1931, the following was recorded: “The Chairman (Thomas Horsburgh) presented Mr Belford with a walnut bureau as a tribute from the Club for the eminent and enthusiastic services he had rendered to the Club during the nine years he had been a member. He also wished him all success in his new appointment at Dalkeith.

Mr Belford feelingly and briefly replied, thanking the Club for their extreme kindness and said he  would still retain his membership.”

Fred Belford held the position of Vice President of ‘Let it Blaw’ for several years during the lengthy presidency of Thomas Horsburgh. He proposed the “Immortal Memory of Robert Burns” three times at Club Suppers in 1924, 1956 and 1968 and is included on our list of former Croupiers. In 1959 he was elected President of the Burns Federation and, in 1978 two years prior to his death, he was made the ‘Federation’s first ever Honorary Life President in recognition of his long and eventful service. Read our tribute to Fred by clicking on Fred Belford

It was intimated at the meeting that Mr Hope, Balerno School’s new Headmaster, had kindly agreed to continue the children’s competitions at the school which was much appreciated by Club Members. Mention was made of “senior” pupils from Balerno having been transferred to Currie School during 1930 and how they would be permitted to compete in that year’s competitions. Luckily, the headmaster of Currie School, a William Esson, was also a lover of Burns work and became an active member of ‘Let it Blaw’. And so the school competitions carried on for many years under the stewardship of Fred Belford long after he left Balerno, supported by Messrs Hope, Esson and their successors.

In 1934 the Burns Federation appointed Fred Belford as Honorary Secretary of the schools competitions in Scottish Literature. An honour for Fred and a huge honour for ‘Let it Blaw.’

The ‘new’ Dean Park Primary School in the 1970s

Beyond the late 1930s, competition records became almost non-existent but, with Fred Belford remaining active in the Club into the 1970s, rising to the very top of the Burns Federation as its President in 1959, it seems reasonable to assume they continued on an annual basis. Club records were lost in the 1960s and information on Club activities in that period remains vague. It is, however, recorded within the Burns Federation that Fred judged our competitions in Balerno at least up to 1973.

The record of the Annual General Meeting held on 19th December 1932 reported the following proposal for Membership: “Willie Shanks, Currievale, Currie.” Not a major development in any way, but the arrival of a man who did much in later life to revive the Balerno Burns Club when he became Secretary in 1973.

Willie Shanks BEM

A passionate supporter of the annual competitions in Dean Park Primary School, Willie followed the example set by John Fairbairn, the Club’s first Secretary for over 50 years, by recording the competition details and prize winners, setting the standard for the rest  of us to follow. The role of the headmaster throughout Willie’s time, Ian Falconer, was immense with Ian being granted Honorary Membership of the Club for his services. Ian became an active member of the Club proposing the “Immortal Memory” at the 1978 Supper.

Gordon Grant, past Secretary and Honorary Vice-President of the Club, carried on where Willie left off ensuring the Club’s association with school competitions in Balerno prevailed. He served on the Schools’ Committee of the Burns Federation and was our Club delegate at the meetings of the Edinburgh District Burns Club Association where he was actively involved in organising the Edinburgh area schools contests.

The Burns Book for

Competition Winners in 2016

The Certificate for

1st, 2nd & 3rd

Our sister club, the Marchbank Burns Club, has now joined us in funding the prizes for the annual competitions, and members from both Clubs act as adjudicators at the annual events. Encouraging children to experience the life and work of Burns remains a high priority for the Balerno Burns Club, and hopefully it will forever remain so. The standard of work attained by children from Balerno in recent years has seen a huge number progress from our own local competitions to District level and on to the National Competitions where the name of Balerno has been to the fore for many years thanks, in no small way, to the work of Fred Belford, Willie Shanks and those early members who had the foresight to start the competitions in the late 19th century. We are forever in their debt.

It’s never too young to start !

Tribute to Fred Belford
Written by Alex McMillan & Published in the 1976 Burns Chronicle

150,000 Children do Fred’s Competitions

Fred Belford, of jovial countenance and merry smile is, we suppose, the best known man in the Burns Federation. He was educated at George Heriots School in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, held headmasterships in Peeblesshire, Banffshire and Midlothian and, as far back as 1928, was honoured for his services to education

He was appointed Honorary Secretary of the Schools Competition in Scottish Literature by the Burns Federation in 1934, and has seen this side of the Federation’s services to Scotland grow until now, Fred is distressed if less than 150,000 schoolchildren take part in these competitions each year. They extend the length and breadth of Scotland and, in recent years, have reached down in to the Scottish Communities in England.

No one can tell how many thousands through the years owe a debt of gratitude to Fred for their introduction to Scots when they were bairns through the Federation’s competitions.

Fred’s work for the Federation was recognised in 1959 – why so long awaiting? – when he was appointed President.

If you are joining the train south from Edinburgh at or around the 25th January, you may see Fred with his well-worn travelling-bag, trudging up the platform, looking for a kindred spirit with whom to while away the time on the journey, for he will be on one of his many excursions to propose the “Immortal Memory.” Why is this Man so popular ? Because he was a fund of stories accumulated throughout the years of his long life; because he has a complete knowledge of the Poet; because he has a most retentive memory; and because he has a most endearing personality. His audience chuckles with him, and ends up loving him.

Not only is he the doyen of Burns Club speakers, but he has contributed many articles on the National Bard to magazines, and stalked the country with his couthy talks on Scottish Humour. He is Scottish Humour; he is the Burns Federation’s Laughing Cavalier !