Burns in Budapest


Family dare leads to children’s charity

Join us on a journey through the misty veil of history deep into the folklore that surrounds the annual celebration of a Scottish birthday in Hungary…

It seems an odd beginning, but the Budapest Burns Supper started in 1997 with a family challenge, when a relative of Jock MacKenzie’s Hungarian wife Nellie suggested the Scotsman organise a party in honour of his country’s national poet.

MacKenzie is honest enough to admit he had no idea back then what a Burns Supper might entail. “Although I was born in the north of Scotland, the family had moved by the time I was three or four, so I was never really brought up with it; I was raised and educated in the South.” By “the South” he means England.

It was while researching Burns traditions that MacKenzie met someone who was to play a huge part in his life, and that of the Budapest Burns Supper; Zoltán Magyar, the chairman of the Hungarian-Scottish Society.

Magyar loved the idea of a Burns evening, and a plan was soon hatched to find a handful of Scottish expats and do “something small” in the countryside in January 1998. “I was going to provide a sheep and some whisky, Zoli a pig and the pálinka,” MacKenzie recalls. But even then, the Burns Supper had a will of its own. “Within three months, it had escalated to an event for 300 people in its first year,” MacKenzie says.

Letters of support were received from the office of the then President of Hungary, Árpád Göncz, and the Prime Minister. The British and Canadian Ambassadors attended. The Trade Unions’ Congress Hall provided the venue. Tickets, MacKenzie says, cost around HUF 2,000, but that was still enough to generate a surplus of HUF 150,000, which no one seemed quite certain what to do with.

Nellie MacKenzie was a teacher working with seriously handicapped children; she knew first hand that Hungarian healthcare was – and sadly still is – in great need of financial support. She began to ask around her colleagues for a worthy beneficiary. “Three or four weeks later, all the contacts were coming back pointing to Prof. György Fekete at SOTE II,” MacKenzie says. Another piece of what makes today’s Burns event had fallen into place.

He went to meet the good doctor at the Second Department of Paediatrics at Semmelweis University of Medicine to hand over the cash, and what he saw changed his life. It is still, he says, the thing that drives his passion to raise ever more money. Fekete showed him round a clinic were the obvious love and care of the staff was coupled to crumbling infrastructure and ancient equipment. “He took me to the second operating theatre, opened the door and a cloud of dust blew up. Once it had settled, and we could see again, it was like walking into a Dickensian surgery.”

With haggis from Cockburns of Dingwall (who supplied the late Queen Mother), and cheese from Orkney by Inverness Farmers Dairy (both still supply the event, with DHL transporting the goods free of charge), the first supper, called the Burns Overnight, had laid a basis; the second event, in 1999, would set the pattern. Ticket prices went up, but so did the level of entertainment. Overheads were to be avoided (the evening, indeed the Robert Burns International Foundation itself, is still overhead free), and there was to be a fundraising target: HUF 6 mln for a modern operating table for that unused, unusable theatre. MacKenzie laughs at the audacity of it now, but the table was brought out to Hungary and put on display during the evening.

“I remember we had some difficulty bringing it in, a deposit had to be paid, but somebody came to our rescue, as they generally do.” By the end of the evening, this time held in Hűvösvölgyi Vigadó, enough had been pledged to ensure the table could find its new home.

Now established as an annual event, the charity fundraiser continued to grow.

“There were key points when it jumped a level. One was when Mark Muss took over as Chairman for the evening in 2000; there’s no doubt he took us onto a new plain. A second was when Adrian Gray (General Manager of Le Meridien) got involved. His relationship with Adrian Ellis (GM of the Corinthia) moved us from a three-star operation to a five-star operation, and not just in terms of location. Another came when Stuart McAlister succeed Mark as chairman of the Burns Supper in 2004.”

The Robert Burns International Foundation – with Zoli Magyar as founder and Steve Jones, after many years helping the Burns Suppers, appointed General Secretary – was born out of a desire to put the fundraising on a more professional, transparent basis that was sustainable. It took over organisation of the Burns Supper. The joint patrons are the British Ambassador in Hungary and the Hungarian Ambassador in London. The Deputy Head of the UK Mission has a permanent seat on the Curatorium that runs the foundation.

Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed as the Honorary President and for five years has presented the annual Ferenc Puskás – Sir Alex Ferguson Sponsor of the Year Trophy.

The large scale Budapest Burns Supper also supports the “Small Burns Supper” held in and with the support of the Scottish Mission. Staged a few days later, it is supplied with the same food and drink and is designed to provide a more traditional supper; as it is not a fund raising event, ticket prices are kept much lower.

By Robin Marshall

Budapest Burns timeline.

1759 – Robert Burns born on 25 January in Alloway, South Ayrshire
1796 – Burns dies 21 July in Dumfries, age just 37
1998 – Burns Overnight, Trade Unions’ Congress Hall (MSzOSz), Budapest, the very first official Budapest Burns Supper
1999-2000 – Burns Supper at the Hűvösvölgyi Vigadó
2001 – Burns Supper at the Intercontinental Hotel
2002 – Burns Supper at the Marriott Hotel
2003 – to date – Burns Supper at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest
2002 – 5th anniversary
2005 – Robert Burns International Foundation founded
2007 – 10th anniversary
2017 – 20th anniversary