Burns enthusiasts every January celebrate the Birthday of Scotland’s national bard but it is doubtful if any mark it in such an elaborate manner as Bathgate spinning wheel maker John Stark did during Victorian times.Â Every year on 25th January, Starkie, as he was known in the old mining and weaving burgh, marked the birthday of his favourite poet by declaring Burns’ Day a personal holiday and decorating his home. He then proceeded to hold open house, welcoming not only his neighbours, but all the townsfolk who cared to visit him.
His little cottage was decked with Scottish flags and garlands of holly. In front of the house he set up a life size wooden model statue of Burns, which he had carved and painted himself, depicting the poet as a farmer, dressed in grey, busy with his plough.
Inside his living room, Starkie always arranged a display of curios, which he assured his visitors had a definite connection with the poet. The items ranged from some old thatch, which he claimed came from Burns’ birthplace at Alloway, through to an array of stones which he had gathered from the banks of the River Doon. Then there were two of Possie Nancie’s tall china jugs and even, so he maintained, some grey hairs from the missing tail of Tam ‘O Shanter’s grey mare Meg!
Pride of place, however, went to a little prayer book, which Starkie solemnly informed his guests had once belonged to Holy Willie, the church elder for whom Burns guaranteed infamous immortality as a hypocrite.
Whether or not the good folk of Bathgate, back in the 19th century, truly believed that any of John Stark’s collection of Burns’ relics were genuine, they always turned up at his home on the 25th of January to join in the festivities, listen to him reciting the works of the bard and tuck into the haggis, cooked on top of the massive range which occupied a whole side of his living room. Here, Starkie, dressed in his black Sunday best suit, proudly welcomed them all to his humble home.
Among the visitors there were always a lot of bairns, but they appear to have had an ulterior motive for keeping in with Starkie because, as well as scoffing his haggis, chappit neeps and tatties and listening to his renderings of Tam ‘O Shanter and To A Mouse, they knew there was a good chance they would come away with a gift. For as well as making spinning wheels for a living, throughout the year Starkie carved little wooden spinning tops, which he gave away to any weans who called on 25th January. Thus, while the adults toasted the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, the youngsters Â played happily with their new peeries, which they whipped into life with little wooden handled whips, also crafted by Starkie.
Shortly after Christmas 1881, news spread through the streets of Bathgate that Starkie was not well. In fact he was very ill and died the day before Hogmanay. Bathgate had lost a character and a Burns’ enthusiast, the like of whom the town has never again experienced.