We’ll Drink a Cup o’ Kindness Yet: Robbie Burns’ Night
The year 2020 was a misery and 2021 has not gotten off to better start, at least not in the US. At times like this, we need to find joy, a reason to have a little fun. Fortunately, Celtic culture offers us one. February 25th is Robbie Burns Night, a grand holiday in Scotland but the rest of us can celebrate it too. Who’s Robbie Burns? Ach, you know! He’s the guy. You know the one. Wrote lovely poetry and that song. Aye, you know. You sing it every year at Hogmany. Y’haven’t heard of Hogmany neither? Ach! Right then. Ye sing the song on New Year’s Eve. He wrote “Auld Lang Syne.” But there’s more to the man than just that wee song and more to the night. It celebrates Scottish culture as well as the man. Ye dinna need to be Scottish neither to enjoy it, so read on to find out more.
Robert Burns’ poetry made such an impact on the Scottish psyche, the poet is officially called The National Bard of Scotland. If you simply say “The Bard” to most people, they’ll think of Shakespeare. Scots will think of Robert Burns. As with many great artists, his life story is at once wonderful and tragic. The son of tenant farmers, Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, just southwest of Glasgow. He spent most of his life working hard on the family farm and living in poverty. A typical meal for him was oatmeal and milk. Despite their poverty, his parents saw to it that Robbie got an education, hiring a tutor for him. As he got older, Robbie furthered his education through reading as much as he could. He especially studied the works of Shakespeare and philosophers, particularly fellow Scot, David Hume. Philosophical thought and considerable insight into human nature permeate his poetry.
In 1788, Burns married Jean Armour. Together they had twelve children, four of whom were born before the marriage. Prior to marrying Jean, Robbie had made quite a rogue of himself with the ladies and had had several other children from his pre-marital affairs. But Burns had many platonic relationships with women as well. He is said to have valued their opinions and insights.
So between working on the farm and spending time with the ladies, when did he find time to write? It’s hard to say, but write he did. By his death on July 21, 1796, he had written an extensive collection of literature, mostly poems and songs, including “Auld Lang Syne” and “Red is the Rose.” By the mid-1780’s, he’d even published a book of his poems and moved to Edinburgh, where he was embraced and celebrated by literary society. His book sold well, but not well enough. In need of money, Robert sold the copyright of a new edition of the book to William Creech. That edition sold well not only in Scotland but in London, Dublin, New York and Philadelphia. Sadly, because he’d sold his rights, Burns made no money from those sales. At the age of thirty-seven, he died of a fever, leaving Jean a poor widow with a newborn child and eleven other children. The whole country mourned his death. Soon he became a beloved legend.
On July 21, 1801, the first Burns’ Supper was held in his honor. Soon after, the suppers began to be held each year on Burns’ birthday, January 25th. The custom spread across Scotland to England and beyond. Since Robert Burns wrote his poems in the Scots language (a Scottish dialectical version of English, not Scots Gaelic), Burns’ Suppers have become not only a commemoration of the poet and his works but a celebration of Scottish culture.
Your Own Robbie Burns’ Supper
To celebrate your Scottish heritage or just to have a bit of fun, you can have your own Burns’ Supper. Since it is your own, you’re free to do it however you like, but here are the traditional elements of a Robbie Burns Supper.
It takes a bit of planning. First decide how formal or informal you want it to be. For a formal affair, invite the guests to wear proper Scottish dress. The men should wear the kilt, of course, along with a kilt jacket and other accessories. Women should wear a long, solid-colored dress with a great plaid or a tartan sash fastened with a brooch. See the website Scotland.org for guidance, if you need it.
Even a casual, come-as-you-like event requires some advanced planning. A master of ceremonies is needed along with a few people willing to give dramatic readings and speeches. Musicians or a band would be a great addition to the festivities but recorded music will do in a pinch. Next, choose some of Burns’ poems to be read at the supper, pick the music, and plan the menu (see the “Good Eats” section below). The venue can be as grand as a banquet hall or as cozy as your home. Below is a description of a Burns’ Supper that can be held at home.
Decorations can be as simple as putting a plaid runner on the table and accenting with some heather and thistle, maybe a unicorn or two (since it’s the national animal of Scotland) or even a furry haggis critter as a centerpiece. Naturally, you can be more elaborate if you wish and the budget allows. The important thing is that the décor honors Scottish culture.
The Big Night
On the night of the party, after the appetizers have been enjoyed, the guests are led into the dining room by a piper (of course, recorded music would work too). Choose a stirring piece of traditional Scottish music to transition to the feast.
The star of the supper is the Scottish national dish, haggis. (See the “Good Eats” section for a description of this celebrated entree.) A piper (or recorded music) plays as the dish is brought to the table on a silver platter and placed in front of the Master of Ceremonies who recites Burns’ “Address to a Haggis.” This poem praises the dish and declares haggis to be far superior to French ragouts or fricassees. The speaker apologizes to the haggis then, at the line “An cut you up wi’ ready slight” (great skill), the speaker plunges a knife into the haggis and dramatically cuts the first slice. When the speaker reaches the poem’s final verse, he or she lifts the dish high. All at the table declare: “Gie her a haggis!” After thunderous applause, a toast is made to the haggis, everyone takes a sip of good Scotch whiskey, and the eating commences.
Readings, Speeches, and Toasts
During the meal (or after, if you prefer), dramatic readings of Burns’ poems are performed, speeches are given, and more toasts are made. There are two traditional speeches. The first is the “Toast to the Lassies,” a good-natured, preferably witty commentary on the shortcomings of the female race. This speech should end on a positive note, followed by the toast of “To the Lassies,” and a sip of whiskey. The second is the “Reply from the Lassies” in which a woman, speaking on behalf of all the lassies there, thanks the previous speaker for his “kind words,” then launches into a scathingly witty speech on the shortcomings of men. Again, the speech should end on a positive note. This also is followed by a toast and another sip of whiskey. In addition to the speeches, there are readings of Burns’ poems and the singing of his songs. The celebration continues with a ceilidh, a musical shindig with traditional Scottish reels and dancing. At the end of the night, the Master of Ceremonies gives thanks to all who’ve participated. The evening is brought to a fitting end by the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”
As stated above, the star dish of a Burns’ Supper is the haggis, but what exactly is that? There is an urban legend which claims the haggis is a furry animal indigenous to the Scottish Highlands. It is elusive and shy. Some people say it resembles a mountain goat but has green fur and its front legs are considerably shorter than its hind legs. There are many other descriptions of the critter but, in truth, they’re all just a big Scottish joke told to naïve visitors to the Land of the Unicorn. Haggis is a meat pudding traditionally consisting of the heart, liver, and lungs (or kidneys) of a sheep combined with oatmeal, fat, and spices, all stuffed into the lining of a sheep’s stomach. Generally, it’s served with a Whiskey Cream Sauce. The heart and lungs are illegal in the U.S., so the American version tends to be made with beef liver and lamb kidney. If eating an animals’ organs doesn’t appeal to you, see https://thepeskyvegan.com/recipes/vegan-haggis/ for a vegan version made with lentils and mushrooms. It’s also acceptable to substitute a steak pie for the haggis.
Neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) are the standard side dishes at a Burns’ Supper. Traditional appetizers include Scotch broth, cock-a-leekie soup, and cullen skink haddock soup].
For dessert, consider clootie, a pudding with raisins, dates, and currants, or cranachan (a parfait made with whiskey-soaked oats, raspberries, honey, and whipped cream. Of course, you can never go wrong with homemade shortbread.
The drink of the evening? Is there any doubt? Good Scotch whiskey is the traditional beverage but it’s your party, so drink what you like. You’ll be committing sacrilege if you don’t have scotch but, as I said, it’s your party.
Whether you hold a Burns’ Supper or not, I hope you find some joy in the midst of the stress we’re all currently living through. If you would like to explore some of Robert Burns’ works, check out the website Robert Burns Country. It has an extensive collection of his writings at www.robertburns.org/works/. For recipes for traditional Scottish dishes see https://www.scotland.org/events/burns-night/how-to-hold-your-own-burns-supper and http://www.robertburns.org/suppers/. Also, the website, Savor the Flavor has a recipe for steak pie.
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Tioraidh a charaid! Slainte!
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