Wednesday, and Susan Sarah here….
The first time my husband and I went to Scotland (without kids, thanks to a wonderful cousin), we took a wee day tour from Edinburgh up into the Highlands with a coach company called “Rabbie’s Tours.”
“Who’s Rabbie?” I asked the driver.
He looked at me as if I was a looney. “Rabbie Burns!”
Well, I’ve learned a good deal about Rabbie Burns since then. Robert Burns was one of Scotland’s "favorite sons," an 18th century poet and songwriter—and as part of my acquaintance with the memory of the good Mr. Burns, I’ve attended several Burns Night Suppers, and hosted my own as well.
Burns Night is a Scottish tradition, held on the 25th of January–-or as near as one can get to it. I’ve been to Burns Nights in February, even as late as March, though the ideal is January 25th in honor of Robert Burns’s birthday. While not everyone in Scotland, or elsewhere of Scottish descent, celebrates Burns Night, it’s a widely known annual event that honors a man who wrote poetry and ballads, a brilliant, bold writer who was as much a rebel as a romantic with his pen.
Why raise a virtual glass to Robert Burns on the Word Wenches blog (I mean, besides the fact that it’s Wednesday, and I needed a fresh blog)? Robert Burns is a fascinating example of a late Georgian gentleman, not a titled peer but a man of the educated upper working class so highly respected in Scotland, and one of the literati of his day; born in Ayrshire, he spent much of his life in the Lowlands and chiefly Edinburgh, and he worked a stint as an excise officer–even wrote some of his verses while lying in wait for smugglers along the Solway coast.
He flourished during an age of revolution and enlightenment, and his writings, admired in his lifetime, helped establish the romantic revival of Scottish culture and national pride at a time when the Scots were perhaps at their lowest ebb. He wrote brilliant poetry and songs that celebrated the romantic, noble heart of the Scots and of all mankind, and he wrote a lot of bawdy and downright hilarious verses; and he loved women (literally and often)…and besides, any historical romance writer worth the ink in her pen would have to stop to take a second look at Rabbie Burns — check out that portrait! 😉
Burns was born in 1759, and grew up in a time when the Scots needed a Robert Burns far more than they needed another Bruce or Wallace. The time for martial heroics had passed. In a larger sense, Burns’s poetry and songs helped to heal and restore Scottish pride and uplift the Scottish spirit after his countrymen had taken one of its worst beatings in centuries, with the devastation at Culloden in April, 1746 and the general humiliation of the Scots under the English–including the forbidding of the tartan until 1782–in the years that followed.
Burns wrote of Scottish freedom with fire and fervor, perhaps in response to the political upheavals of the 1790s. In his imagined address given by Bruce at Bannockburn, the lines still ring with a rebel’s natural passion:
Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has aften led
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victorie!
Robbie Burns was well qualified to write romantic love songs and poetry as well. He loved women, often… and to give the man credit, he seems to have understood women and respected them to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries–though that respect and appetite gave him a roving eye, and he said himself that he was "a miserable dupe to love."
There was Nellie, when he was 15, who encouraged him to write his first poem:
And whilst that virtue warms my breast
I’ll love my handsome Nell.
When he was 16, there was Margaret, to whom he proposed–
Peggy dear…My fair, my lovely charmer!
And Allison, to whom he proposed –
And by thy een sae bonie blue, / I swear I’m thine forever, O!
Robbie goes to dancing school, affording him many opportunities to research his love songs, and eventually resulting in the birth of Bess, the first of twelve children of different mothers, one of whom, the long-suffering and generous-hearted Jean Armour, he married. Of his darling Bess, he wrote:
Welcome, lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter!
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for
He helped found the Tarbolton Bachelors Club as its president. One of the rules stated that each member must be: “a professed lover of one or more of the female sex." No Hellfire Club for these wholesome, idealistic, lusty young Scottish gents, no dark catacombs and lechery, just true admirers and cravers after their opposite gender.
Robert Burns understood love in all its forms, joyful and sad, frolicking and profound. He understood passion…very well…and he experienced the full gamut of love and life himself. Even though he died far too young, his songs and his poetry reflect a genius ability to express emotional richness.
Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu’ o’ care!
The ritual of the Burns Supper was started by his close friends a few years after his death, and the format is very much the same today, including the various whisky toasts, the welcome to the Haggis, and so on.
Even today, the traditions of a Burns Night Supper are set, a series of recitations, addresses, toasts and songs. Burns is liberally quoted, though not all the verses and pieces recited are by Burns. Creative interpretation and original material encouraged, and most all is delivered very tongue-in-cheek — after all, one of Burns’s most enduring qualities was a rollicking sense of humor.
The guests are treated to a very fine meal, the highlight of which is the serving of the haggis, and each of the several courses is accompanied by frequent toasting with whisky. In general, the stages of the dinner are:
Piping in the guests– in grand style, with bagpipes if you can find a piper, but a CD will do.
The Selkirk Grace, which Burns wrote:
Some hae meat and canna eat
Some canna eat that want it
But we hae meat and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit
Piping in the Haggis: the haggis is carried in on a silver platter to bagpipe music, and the whisky glasses are filled in anticipation of lots of toasts.
Address to the Haggis: the reciting of "To A Haggis" a long, and very funny, exultation by Burns which begins:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o’ the pudden race!
Toast to the Haggis: raucous cheers and raise glasses when the haggis is sliced, steaming hot, and served to all (and even I, the non-meat eater, must at least taste…and really it’s not bad at all! Sausagey-like. Think Kielbasa, which can be used as a substitute when true Haggis cannot be found).
The main course is then served: a wide variety of traditional Scots fare might be served, but always include neeps ‘n tatties (turnips and potatoes). As the meal is finishing up-– often with a lovely dessert such as sherry trifle–one or two of the guests might perform a couple of Burns’s songs (he wrote a gazillion of them, among them Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Green Grow the Rashes O, and A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation).
The Immortal Memory Toast – a fairly substantial address to the memory of Burns, which can be a mix of biography, poetry reading and even singing, can be a heart-wrencher as well as funny, and should wrap up with a rousing toast to Robert Burns. I’ve given the Immortal Memory a few times myself. One of my addresses posed the question, Why does Robbie Burns Rate a Supper? And after running through the facts of his life, and the long, long (long) list of his true loves and the scrapes he got into, all of the above either funny or heart-wrenching, it seemed that nothing explained adequately why he got a supper in the first place (though perhaps, because his friends began the tradition, they remembered many a raucous supper in Rabbie’s good company) — but my examined conclusion was that it was because he wrote about food a lot – haggis, whiskey, puddin’, fricasee, stew, ragout – so a supper for Rabbie is a perfect tribute.
The Toast to the Lassies: one of the male guests stands to address the ladies with a touching, reverent, brilliant…okay often bawdy…tribute to the female gender, and the whisky glasses are raised once again. My husband has been asked to give the Toast to the Lassies this year, so I’d better duck.
The Reply to the Laddies: one of the female guests stands to respond in kind. This can be bawdy, irreverent…okay and often points out the finer qualities of the male gender. But not always. And this year, it’s my turn to give the Reply, so my husband better duck if his Toast isn’t adoring (he won’t let me see his address beforehand, but that’s okay, I won’t let him know what I have planned either!).
Then it’s time for "Auld Lang Syne," either sung or listened to, and glasses are raised in final toast as the planned part of the festivities wraps up. Often things end with a final toast to Robert Burns, usually with a quote from the great man himself.
My last year’s Immortal Memory Tribute ended with this quote from "Scotch Drink" (Gie him strong drink/until he wink/that’s sinkin’ in despair), where Burns talks about the virtues of whisky:
Food fills the wame, an’ keeps us livin
Tho life’s a gift no worth receivin
When heavy-dragg’d wi’ pine an’ grievin
But oil’d by thee
The wheel’s o’ life gae down-hill scrievin
Wi’ rattlin glee.
So here’s to the wheels o’ life, and here’s to Robert Burns!
p.s. — My last week’s blog, "The End," has a winner! Nina’s name was chosen at random! So NIna — if you’re reading this, send me your address and I’ll send you a wee buik. 🙂