Burns Festival in chaos after organiser flees

Cash crisis and rumours plunge poet's bicentenary celebrations into disarray
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The Independent Online
A festival marking the 200th anniversary next year of the death of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, has been plunged into chaos after the chief organiser suddenly fled his home amid claims that the bicentenary celebration faced a cash crisis.

Eric Rowe, a councillor in Ayrshire where Burns was born, left his home abruptly several weeks ago. He later wrote to directors of the Burns International Festival Company telling them that he had resigned his post as chairman. His wife, Elizabeth, will not discuss the matter, nor reveal his whereabouts, but friends say he has given up everything and moved in with another woman at her home in Essex.

Mr Rowe's departure has left festival organisers struggling to raise more than pounds 100,000 in the six weeks before the bicentenary year begins. Before he disappeared, Mr Rowe was criticised for failing to secure the pounds 1m sponsorship that the festival needs.

Many Burnsians privately relish the disarray because during his lifetime the bard himself was famous for his poverty and torrid relationships with women. During one affair Burns even planned to flee, not to Essex, but to Jamaica. One writer, who belongs to a Burns society in Ayrshire, said: "This crisis couldn't have happened to a more deserving or appropriate festival. Burns was forever in debt and running off with the lassies. It adds a little spice - and more than a little realism - to the whole affair."

After Mr Rowe's disappearance organisers insisted that they would "work hard to ensure that the festival is a great success". But last week matters went from bad to worse when the main event of the year collapsed. Plans to stage the world's biggest Burns Night Supper on his birthday, 25 January - with Scots enjoying haggis and a dram at tables around the world, all linked by satellite television - were abandoned when talks with the satellite company broke down. Now a single supper will be held in a Glasgow hotel.

Moreover, some literary critics have begun to cast doubt on the quality of the events. The official programme has still not been published but organisers confirm that few international stars have so far been signed up. Fears are growing that hoteliers in Kilmarnock and Ayr, who are preparing for an influx of up to 200,000 visitors predicted to spend some pounds 4m, could be disappointed.

Despite all the setbacks, Mr Rowe's successors refuse to be too downhearted. They insist that negotiations with new sponsors are "at an advanced stage". They predict that agreements to secure the remaining pounds 100,000 will be signed in the next few weeks.

John Struthers, the former director of the Exeter and Devon Arts Centre who has the job of clearing up the mess, admits that mistakes have been made.

"The festival has had tremendous problems," he said. "In hindsight, we should have started things like fundraising earlier. But then this festival has never been held before. And when it is held again in 100 years' time, those things will be put right."

Some people, however, remain unimpressed. One local writer told the Independent: "It is extraordinary that things have been left so late. We don't even have a programme yet. Everyone knows that Burns died in 1796. Two- hundred years should have been enough time for everyone to get their act together, but they haven't."

Mr Struthers said last weekend that the festival programme would be published next month.