Today is Robert Burn’s birthday, a man who, more than any other, typifies Scotland and its culture. Any fan of Bill Monroe should take note of this, but I have an extra reason. As a former resident of Santa Barbara’s Mountain Drive community where I performed with my friends as The Scragg Family, I have many fond memories of celebrating Robert Burns Night at Vernon Johnson’s residence there, called “The Castle”, it did indeed resemble a medieval banquet hall. We all showed up in costume to help celebrate. The 7-Up Bottling Company even had a Scotts pipe band who showed up to “pipe in” the Haggis, proudly carried in on a platter by its creator, George Grayson, chef (back then) at the Miramar Hotel.
What follows is a little more background, for those who care about true civilization . . .
WHAT is it with the Scots and fire traditions? Nearly every celebration seems to revolve around fire, which makes it pretty ironic that among the only ones that does not is actually dedicated to a man called Burns.The Burns in question is Robert – Rab or Rabbie – and is none other than our national bard. Robert Burns, the ploughman’s son from South Ayrshire who tilled the soil and tugged at our heart with his poems and songs.
He is remembered on his birthday, 25 January, all across Scotland, the UK
and the world, when celebrants gather to give thanks. And how better to
praise the great man than to sit down, feast and drink and generally have a
good “craic”. Deciding what to eat at the very first Burns Supper was never
going to be much of a problem. It’s not as if Rabbie wrote reams of
Epicurean poetry. There could never have been a moment when the host
considered lamb chops or fillets of sea bass. After all, this is the man
who wrote the immortal words:
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,”
He was writing, of course, about our proud national dish, the delicately
flavoured, oh so sumptuous haggis. Yes, some great people are remembered
with medals, others have a library named after them. Scotland’s greatest
ever poet is remembered by a stodgy meat pudding made from the sheep’s
pluck wrapped up tightly in a stomach. Yum… The haggis is only the first
part of this great tradition. A proper Burns Supper follows a very strict
way of doing things. Whether Moses actually had the programme dictated to
him on top of Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments is debatable …
but possible. So back to the supper. A bit like a recipe, it must be
Take one group of guests, and although it is not strictly necessary, it is
jolly good form if they dress – or at least bedeck – themselves in some
small way, with tartan. The meal starts with grace – in this case the Selkirk Grace. Short, sweet, effective and to the point. “Some hae meat and canna eat And some would eat that want it But we hae meat, and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit” After grace comes a wee gless o’ something”, followed by cock-a-leekie (chicken with leek) soup. Then comes the big moment, the reason you’ve travelled out in a cold January night, the one, the only parade of the haggis. Presented high on a platter, carried by the proud chef, piped in and given the full “Address to a Haggis” treatment, usually by the host.
When the whole ceremony is completed, including the slashing open of the
steamy haggis with a skean-dhu, the dish is served up with mashed neeps and tatties. (The real aficionados substitute whisky for salt and pepper, but
you need a stout heart for that particular condiment.) Once the meal is consumed, there is just time to re-fill your glasses and lubricate your voice box in readiness for a song. Take your pick, but make it Burns. After the singing comes the speeches which come thick and fast (if you’re lucky), or long and tedious (if you haven’t picked your speakers well.) Intersperse these speeches with liberal dose of songs, reminiscences and, yes, more drink. By now it’s late and you will be feeling rather “tired and emotional”. The evening is brought to a close when the chairman thanks his guests. Drink. Toasts the chef. Drink. Refill. Toasts the piper. Drink. And so on until everyone staggers to their feet for a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”.