Last week saw the 253rd anniversary of the birth of the man who became Scotland’s most famous bard – Robert Burns, who was born on 25th January 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire. His life was short but packed to the gunnels nonetheless. He is well known for his poetry, and also for his reputation as a carrouser and womaniser. Even most Scots don’t understand the language he writes in – Lowland Scots, with influences of English, French and Latin thrown in - but we know well the story of Tam o’Shanter and his grey mare Meg, who had her tail pulled off by witches. We know about the wee fieldmouse whose nest Rob destroyed accidently with the reaping machine. We know several of his love songs, and some of his political poems too, and even if we don’t know all the words by heart, we hold them all in great affection. Burns was only 37 when he died, leaving behind a wife and family and a collection of poems and songs, and each year on the anniversary of his birth we celebrate his life and works with a Burns Supper! The supper consists of several dishes, the main one being haggis, accompanied by champit tatties (mashed potatoes), and bashed neeps (what non Scots call Swedes, but we call turnips, and some folk rutabagas!) It was good nutritious food easily come by, and of course tasted all the better with a wee dram of whisky.
The format of a Burns Supper follows a traditional pattern. First, the diners sit up to the table, and the master of ceremonies welcomes everyone. The grace - the Selkirk Grace – is said and everyone is then asked to stand while the haggis is borne in on a trencher, or ashet as is the Scots word, by the chef,
or a member of the company, led by a piper who marches around the table/s, to a slow handclap – in time to the pipe music - and back to the top table, where the haggis is set down in front of the MC. The piper and chef then take a dram of whisky offered by the MC.
Everyone sits, and waits in anticipation for the MC to address the haggis in Robert Burns own words…..
“Fair fa yer 'honest sonsie face, great chieftain o’ the pudden race. Abune them a’ ye tak yer place, painch, tripe and thairm. Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace As lang as ma airm……..” (Basically saying that the cheery round face of the chief of puddings is the best of all and worth praises galore) It goes on to describe its round hill –like appearance, and the anticipation of cutting into it, the wonderful sight and smell of it… The big moment comes when the knife is raised and with great show plunged into the haggis to cut it open, across and from end to end. In due course the poem compares it to the dishes of other countries – of course the haggis comes out on top – and finally it ends with a piece of advice, that if the men wish to impress their lady they should “Gie her a haggis"!”
In some instances a bowl of soup precedes the appearance of the haggis, but the main dish is the important one! Again it may be followed by a Scots trifle or other Scots dessert – pudding, we say, regardless of whether it is ice cream, apple crumble or gateau! Cranachan is another favourite pudding. Shortbread, cheese and biscuits…all Scots favourites, are possible choices to follow the haggis.
The meal finally over the MC calls on one of his guests to deliver the “Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”, a speech about the bard, extolling his virtues as well as outlining his failings; what he means to us; what has been his legacy… things like that, and ending with an invitation to drink a toast to the man himself – Robert Burns! There’s a lot of toasting goes on at a Burns Supper! The next speaker in fact is asked to toast the lassies, which he does after as humorous a speech as he can make it, generally making fun of the female of the species, telling jokes and funny stories, but ending of course with an Of course we love you really, and a toast!
Of course the lassies are allowed to respond these days and the representative of the ladies of the company replies in similar vein, bringing up all the complaints women usually have about men – they never listen; they walk away when you’re trying to have an argument with them; they think a new vacuum cleaner the ideal birthday gift……. and maybe giving them some advice on how to understand their womenfolk. Of course everything is resolved in the end and the laddies are toasted by the lassies.
Then there’s the toast to absent friends, and anyone else that merits a toast from anybody. Often there is entertainment laid on – singing, dancing - and finally everyone stands taking hands with the people next to them, to sing another of Burns songs – famous the world over - Auld Lang Syne, which looks back to the past and remembers friendships which should never be forgotten, present friendships in which we enjoy the company, and more toasting , this time to times past! Auld Lang Syne!
I was at two very different Burns Suppers this weekend, but as you can see from the photos they followed tradition! One, on Friday, the smaller of the two was held at the Borders Deaf Club where the speeches were signed, instead of spoken. Mike signed the Grace, signed the gist of a few verses of the Address to the Haggis and later gave the toast to the lassies I spoke the Immortal Memory, aided by Morag signing it. Above Helen is signing My love is like a red red rose. The guests were fascinated by the bagpipes and those with no hearing at all got a chance later to investigate the bag and the drones.
It was a great evening.
The Saturday Burns Supper was hosted by the Lothian Gaelic choir of which I am a member. It was altogether rowdier and the speeches long and funny. We sang a couple of songs, which were followed by dancing to a band playing on the stage. You can see by the out of focus dancers just how fast they were moving. Scottish ceilidh dancing is not sedate! I can’t dance any more so sat on the sidelines watching for a while but then with a drive home to Peebles in front of me and a possible threat of snow – which thankfully came to nothing – I decided to head off home. I left the hall to its fun and laughter, and headed off into the night!
Talk again soon.