Today is not technically a holiday in Scotland, but a night of celebration, and therefore a National Day where we commemorate the life of our beloved poet, song-writer (and flagrant womaniser), Robert Burns. This year also happens to be the 250th anniversary of the birth of ‘The Bard’.
The day is celebrated with Burns Suppers around the world, and is in fact, and still more widely observed than the official national day of Scotland, St. Andrew’s Day (or the proposed North American celebration Tartan Day). Although the date of the original Burns Night was set on 18th July, the date of his death, and was later changed to 25th January, it’s amazing to think that the format of Burns Suppers has not changed since his untimely death in 1796 at the age of 37.
No doubts about it, tartan and kilts abound this night. It’s a fiercely patriotic night, and very entertaining. If there’s one thing you should know about the Scots: We know how to throw a good party.
The evening begins with a general welcome from the host and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
The supper then starts with a Scottish soup, either as Scotch Broth or potato soup (shock, horror) or Cock-a-Leekie is served.
Everyone then stands for the main course where a bagpiper heralds in the entrance of the haggis which is presented on a large serving dish usually brought in by one of the cooks (it’s all taken very seriously at this point and almost feels like a regal affair), where it is then brought to the host’s table ushered by the piper. An appointed reciter or the host then gives Robert’s famous Address to a Haggis and the haggis is cut open with one deep cut from end to end. The haggis is served with ‘neeps and tatties’ — Swede, or yellow turnip and (mashed) potatoes shortly after the haggis is presented.
A guest then gives a short speech called the Immortal Memory, remembering some aspects of Burns’ life or poetry. This is usually either light-hearted, intensely serious or a bit of both. The speaker should always prepare a speech with his audience in mind, since above all, the Burns’ supper should be entertaining.
Everyone then drinks a toast to Robert Burns.
After dinner, another speaker stands and gives a Toast to the Lassies. This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to those women who had prepared the meal. However these days it is much more wide ranging, and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but should never be offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned. The men drink a toast to the women’s health.
When I was around 18 or 19, I gave the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Much the same as the mens’ toast, but can also include a satirical rebuttal to anything the other has said. I don’t remember much of what I did say, but what I do recall is one joke:
“How do you tell the difference between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? Well, they’re pretty much the same, except with Father’s Day, you won’t spend so much.”
If any other toasts are called upon, this is when it generally happens.
After the speeches, there’s usually a lot of singing and recital of some of Burns’ literary work. One of my all-time favourites that I first heard from my teacher in primary school was Tam O’Shanter. I even recall that we made a huge freeze that we displayed on our classroom wall depicting the story.
After, there may be Scottish dancing, like a Ceilidh, if time and venue permits, although this isn’t a traditional part of the evening, but still very much accepted. Finally the host winds the night up, calling upon one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing another of his well-known songs, Auld Lang Syne which brings the evening to a close.
Address to a Haggis, with some translation, thanks to wikipedia:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, sonsie = cheeky
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, aboon = above
Painch, tripe, or thairm: painch = stomach, thairm = intestine
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill, hurdies = hips
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dicht, dicht=wipe, here w/the idea of sharpening
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, slicht = skill
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Warm-reekin, rich! reeking = steaming
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive, deil = devil
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve, wall’d=swollen, kytes=bellies, belyve=soon
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive, rive = tear, i.e. burst
Is there that o’re his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow, olio = olive oil, staw = make sick
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect scunner, scunner = repugnance
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit; nieve = fist, nit = louse’s egg, i.e. tiny
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade wallie = mighty, nieve = fist
He’ll mak it whistle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned, sned = cut off
Like taps o’ thristle. thristle = thistle
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware skinkin ware = watery soup
That jaups in luggies; jaups = slops about, luggies = two-handled bowls
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!
Burns was one of the very few who wrote in the Scots tongue.