When you are invited to a Burns Supper, you never know if it will be a semi-formal affair with proper scholars or a dinner with drunken louts. A successful Burns Night is a combination of the two.
The first Burns Supper I attended was in 1995, in London with friends, and it was full of pomp and poetry, and I remember being enveloped by the warmth in the room. There was laughing and clapping, even some dancing.
What the Scots call a “Proper Do” or a cèilidh (pronounced “cay-lee”) usually involves a live band and dancing – traditional Scottish folk music and reel/line/square dancing (think blue grass meet Lord of the Dance). The whisky helps.
The next one I attended was in the States, in 2005, and a conservative St. Andrew’s Society affair up north; it was a stale dinner party evening, and I was not allowed to get drunk. I was disappointed by the lack of Burnsy Things. No one even made a jokes or speeches about women, or dying young, or the importance of poetry in life.
Until I sat to write this little blog post, it had not occurred to me that I have managed to attend a Burns Supper every decade for the last three. (That’s Shameful.) So this year, when Hubby and I were invited by our new bowling club to one, we jumped at the chance.
Yes, that’s right. Lawn bowls, bitches. Not ten pin. As in a veritable pensioner’s sport.
(It closely resembles the version of bocce ball we played in the mountains, when I tried – unsuccessfully – to get Yelladog to cheat for me. RIP YD.)
We had considered one of the local restaurant offerings; we live in an area with some amazing eateries, and were cruising the Burns Supper menus when we decided the bowling club would be more fun. For starters, we are new members, and this would be a great chance to make new friends. Also, we can contribute to the bar, and the club is a 150 yard stumble from our front door. Sold.
Since 11 of my 12 readers are Americans, let me sum up a Burns Dinner for you.
Robert Burns, national poet of Scotland, renowned and much beloved scoundrel, is honored somewhere around the 25th of January every year by Scots around the world. It is a dinner that also honors all things Scottish, with Haggis taking the grand seat at the table.
Robert Burns is forever linked to the haggis because he wrote a poem about it.
That’s right. A poem. Regaling the “Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!”
(Ah the power of whisky…)
Hubby had never been to one before, and this turned out to be a grand introduction. We get dressed up and walk down to the club. We are greeted warmly, our name cards located quickly, and are glasses filled heartily. We are introduced to the other couples at our table, discovering that one couple lives 5 doors down from our flat. They are lovey people, who are bemused and confused by the description of my research (why am I never prepared for these questions?) and then proceed to tell us how lovely the local baths are, if we’d like to visit as guests. Scottish Non Sequiturs are the Best.
Turns out, the “Victorian baths” (so-called because they were built in 1876) are actual Turkish and Russian baths in our neighborhood, and are a luxury to be investigated. Fitness classes, a pool, saunas and tea rooms, a billiards room, a bar and bistro, manicurists and masseuses of some fame. Yes please.
The actual supper is served: Cullen skink or some other brothy soup (think fish stock or chicken noodle with no noodles) Haggis (see previous post for details on this) with neeps and tatties (mashed parsnips and mashed taters), shortbread, cheese plates, and of course, the Water of Life (whisky aka Scotch).
The poem, “Address tae the Haggis” is always the first item on the program of a Burns Supper. The haggis is generally carried in on a silver tray escorted by a piper, who plays a suitable, rousing accompaniment.
For a great example of this, click here:
One of the honored guests then recites the poem, a theatrical production in and of itself which includes praising and drinking whisky and stabbing the haggis with a ceremonial knife.
Haggis duly praised and stabbed, we start drinking prosecco. The men and women at the table are varying degrees of subtle while checking out my ring, my boobs, my husband. Some things are the same in every clubhouse in every neighborhood in the world.
There is delightful conversation about the weather, the baths, the city and its live music scenes, and a rousing story of a quarreling lesbian couple cosying up to our neighbor Benjamin at Hogmany cèilidh. Evidently they were trying to make each other jealous and in Benjamin, a man in his late 60s, wearing a burgundy velvet tuxedo (complete with matching bowtie!) was not complaining, until his wife unceremoniously removed one of them from him, a process she compared to removing a leech. Brilliant!
I am warned about the cattiness that happens in the women bowling and I almost spew my cocktail. I am pretty sure if I can handle the Stitch and Bitch crowd of a southern Baptist Church than I can handle some Scottish Bowling Betties. The idea alone actually thrills me.
Robert Burns “Rabbie” lived hard and died young; at 37, he died before lamenting the passing of his youth into the midlife that brought me to his land. A notorious drinker and womanizer, many Scots take great pride in reminding a Burns Supper audience that while he had many (9 or 10?) illegitimate children, he provided for all them, financially. Including the girls, whom he insisted receive the same education as the boys.
His letters record him having a particularly great time one summer on Loch Lomond [side], which is very near where we live now. Tales of women, all night parties, drunken horse races, mysterious cuts and bruises, are all part of what makes the modern Scot love him.
My affection comes more from the fact that he never claimed to be anything more than what he was:
And this, in short, is why I love Rabbie Burns.
I am a woman of many sins, but I am not duplicitous and I will continue to live my life with as much abandon as I can while keeping out of prison.
So we drink and we toast and we eat and we drink some more. Rabbie Burns knew it, and every January we are reminded of it – that life is too fabulous not to enjoy the living of it.
Coming soon – – a post with thoughts of Rome, Chianti, and naked Gladiators…