Monday, 25 January 2016

Burns Suppers

Some iconic Scottish things, like the tartan tat shops lining Edinburgh's Royal Mile, are just for tourists. But some curiously and uniquely Scottish traditions have been adopted by ordinary Scots living in Scotland and are currently part of Scottish life. For example, even Lowlanders will wear kilts to international sporting events, particularly the rugby. Yet another generation of Scots are learning to play the pipes. Scottish schoolchildren continue to learn Scottish country dances at school. And Burns Night has become Burns Weekend. It's not just for sentimentalists in the colonies.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) was a poet from Ayrshire, which is in the south-west of Scotland. He wrote a lot of verse in (mostly extinct, Ayrshire) Scots dialect and the vaguely Scottish English you may have puzzled through in school. Some of the stuff was set to music, and Scotsmen adopt most unconvincingly pious expressions when they sing his soulful love songs. No wonder, as what Burns knew about constancy you could stuff up the left nostril of a garden satyr. He littered the countryside with illegitimate children, tossing money to the poor lassies he got up the duff (and after he died, a hat was passed around for the support of his extended family).

Despite this, Burns is considered a national hero, and if we all grew up with adults who recited "O my luve is like a red, red rose" in all seriousness and credible accents, no doubt we all would take him seriously, too. Probably there is an ocean of value to his literary work over which I am blindly sailing, having been well and truly disgusted by Canadian cod attempts to read his work aloud. However, there is the work and there is the man, and one of the most amusing aspects of Burns night is women trying to cope aloud with his penchant for bedding the hired help.

This was once a non-issue, for Burns Suppers used to be restricted to men. However, women have long since been admitted although laughingly put in our place by the more "traditional" Toast to the Lassies, which will be described later, so as not to put you off the whole concept of the Burns Supper.

For the Burns Supper is great fun indeed, and on January 25 (and the weekend nearest), Scots have private parties for friends or organize public suppers to which they sell tickets. Hosts and organizers peruse  "How to have a Burns Supper" handbooks and pick and choose what they can do. If you don't have a big dining-room or a piper to hand, you might decide to give piping in the haggis a miss.

The haggis is nevertheless central to a Burns Supper, and even if no other Burns poem is referenced, someone has got to stand over a haggis with a knife and read or declaim "Ode to a Haggis." The haggis is disemboweled during the recitation like an Aztec sacrifice, and served up with "neeps" (boiled, mashed turnips) and "tatties" (boiled, mashed potatoes). Haggis is a sausage with the consistency of cooked minced (ground) beef, only richly flavoured. It is much better than non-Scots assume and lends all necessary excitement to the mashed stodge. As with all Scottish comfort food, you do not need teeth to eat it.

A recent church hall Burns Supper did pipe in the haggis. A young piper played "Scotland the Brave" and "Mhairi's Wedding", while preceding a middle-aged, kilted paterfamilias bearing a small representative haggis from the kitchen. (One can order huge haggises that feed dozens of people, but the supermarket variety feeds two to four.) Around the room they went while the crowed clapped the time and stamped their feet. The haggis was delivered up to another middle-aged man, who flourished a knife and recited "Ode to a Haggis" from memory while sacrificing the fat thing to the shade of Burns. The murdered haggis was then marched around the room again to the strains of "S the B" and "M's W" and in the fullness of time all the guests were served a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties.

There had been, earlier on, the Selkirk Grace, or perhaps just an anti-vegetarian spoof of the Selkirk Grace--one table was unsure, so they prayed the RC Grace before Meals. There was the traditional Toast to the Immortal Memory, which involved some fretting over the circumstances leading to the conception of Burns' twelve bairns ("And Burns was a Freemason," muttered a lady at my table.) And there was the traditional Toast to the Lassies (about which more anon) and the modern Toast to the Laddies. But best of all, after all the toasts were done and the haggises eaten, there was dancing.

Ah! The dancing! There was a  live band formed from generous volunteers and a crowd of willing dancers, from young girls in pretty frocks who had never before been to a ceilidh to older Scotsmen in kilts. One handsome gent of naval aspect wore a black bow tie, a studded dress shirt, a Prince Charlie jacket, a waistcoat, a pocket watch,  green kilt socks (freshly hand-washed and air-dried) , and a proper £300 green kilt, in his clan tartan, which outfit he further accessorized with a red-haired wife in a matching tartan sash. He cut such a dash on the dance floor that no-one but the wife could have guessed he hadn't danced the "Gay Gordon" or the (so-called) "Canadian Barn Dance" in almost seven years.

Burns Suppers do not always feature dancing, of course. In a relatively more sedate house party, there are more toasts (e.g. the Loyal Toast to the House of Hanover, which, if given by either by Scottish anti-monarchist republicans or by English wannabe Jacobites, should be called the Disloyal Toast) and readings, recitations and perhaps singing of Burns' prose  and poetry. A friend of mine, who manages to make women's formal tartan attire--the hostess skirt--look chic, does a wonderful rendition of Tam O'Shanter. However, dancing is the only thing that can shake the traditional misogynist Toast to the Lassies out of female heads.

For, unfortunately, here a strict adherence to tradition risks ruining the enjoyment of the crowd at a Burns Supper. As this blog metaphorically rips the skin off  delicately sneers at North African and West Asian men who spit on women's dignity, it is only fair to deplore the subtler humiliations meted out to women by Scotsmen. Pride in one's own Scots heritage and the delight of feeling that one really and truly belongs can be dealt a knock-out blow by the questionable tradition of jokes at women's expense, a Scottish custom often excused under cover of the magic word "banter."

Three deeply traditional, pious and maternal women at my table exchanged looks of acute discomfort as the giver of the Toast to the Lassies did his duty, choosing as one of his themes How Women Talk Too Much. (One dearly hopes the teenage girls weren't paying attention.) Unfortunately, the speaker did his task so well that the lady in charge of the Toast to the Laddies could make only what seemed like a very feeble rejoinder--although come to think of it, her reticence rather gave the lie to the toast she was acknowledging.

A woman who has lived in Scotland for some years might well come to the conclusion that when Scotsmen accuse women of talking too much, it is because Scotsmen want to do all the talking, and therefore when a woman expresses an opinion, some man or other resents her hogging air time that might have gone to him. The men of Scotland could talk the hind leg off a sauropod. Apparently there are Scotsmen who communicate solely with deep sighs and utterances of "Aye-p", but they are rare to my neighbourhood.

Happily, such dark thoughts were laid aside for the duration of the "Gay Gordon", the "Canadian Barn Dance", "Strip the Willow", the "Dashing White Sergeant" and other dances so dear to the Scottish heart, be it male or female. Also, such blatantly misogynist speeches are now considered so old-fashioned, outdated and offensive that they have become rare, at very least in Scottish nationalist circles. There one hears only charming tributes to "the lassies" and equally respectful accolades to "the laddies," reflecting a companionship and co-operation that no-one takes for granted.

No, the greatest danger at a Burns Supper is falling in love with a man on the dance floor, especially if that man is your own husband, and you suspect afterwards that it will be another seven years before you are permitted to dance with him again. This ruins for you any subsequent thought of  dancing, and speaks to a depth and complexity of the female heart generally unacknowledged by Robbie Burns.


Cheerful Update: Ayrshire is also famous for its bacon and the joke, "Is that your Ayrshire bacon?" "No, just warming my hands."


  1. Oh! I know how to dance the Gay Gordan! I'm as Midwestern American as they come, but I learned it as a kid, and can still dance it now. How exciting to hear that it's a legitimate Scottish dance!

  2. Oh yes! It's an absolute staple.