Monday, January 25, 2010

Gie her a Haggis - even if she toasts the President

Some hae meat and cannot eat.
Some cannot eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

         - Traditional Selfkirk Grace

Today, January 25, is the 251st anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national Bard, Robert Burns, or Rabbie as he is affectionately called and Scots are celebrating.  A few years after Burns death in 1796 the ritual of the Burns Supper was started by a few of his close friends as a tribute to his memory and tonight (or perhaps this past Saturday night)  all over the world wherever the Scottish diaspora has landed, ex-patriate Scots, simple admirers of the famous “Ploughman’s Poet” and the many who just wish they were Scottish because they know that Scots really know how to party will be celebrating.  Of course, nowhere will there be more Burns Suppers, ceilidhs and similar celebrations than in Scotland itself and in Edinburgh, in particular

 The kilt-hire shops will do a roaring trade, haggis will take center stage and speeches will be made as all the celebrations, no matter where they are, follow a standard. Some Suppers will be quite formal, some simple family affairs, many will be held in hotels and restaurants and will certainly be loud, bawdy and drunken.

 The basic format has remained relatively unchanged since the end of the 18th century. It begins with a  few welcoming words from the host and the Selkirk Grace (see above).

 Then the participants are invited to stand to receive the haggis.

A piper leads the chef, carrying the haggis to a head table, followed by a sword carrier and a whisky carrier (David’s favorite role),  the hosts and honored guests.  As they process the other guests accompany them with a slow handclap.

 Then, the highlight of the evening as someone recites recites Burns' famous poem To a Haggis. When the brave speaker reaches the line "an cut you up wi' ready slight", he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife.  Steam escapes, the poem is finished, the company applauds and  the host stands.  Using a small silver cup, the name of which escapes me, he will“Pay the Piper” with a wee dram and then lead the group in a  toast to the haggis with a glass of whisky. Participants take their seats and prepare to enjoy the feast.  The menu will likely consist of  cock-a-leekie soup and cranachan before and after the showpiece main course of haggis, neeps and tatties, and there's nothing much wrong with that. 

As the food is served, the toasts and speeches begin.  An invited guest gives a toast to The Immortal Memory of Burns. It may be light and fun or literary and historical, but the purpose is the same - to describe the greatness and relevance of Burns today.

The Immortal Memory speech is followed by a more light-hearted toast to the women in the room generally made by an invited make guest.   Originally this was a thank you to the ladies for preparing the food and a toast to all the 'lasses' in Burns' life. The tone is witty, but never offensive, and always ends on a conciliatory note.  In response,  a lass takes a turn detailing men's foibles in a humorous fashion and the women all stand for a Toast to the Laddies.

There is a Toast to the Queen (or King as the case may be) for which David and others believe a good Scot should never stand until there is once again a Scottish monarch.  I could argue that as the daughter of such a beloved Scot as Mary, the Queen Mum,  Elizabeth II deserves a bit of leeway.

A Toast to the President follows which can get a bit sticky depending on the pervading political climate and the general red or blue alliance of the guests.

Before each toast of the evening, all the guests are asked to “Charge you glasses and be upstanding.”  After so many charged glasses, the  upstanding part can become difficult!
But the formal program always ends with everyone standing (and swaying), linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne.
As the plates are cleared there is usually some form of entertainment and then dancing, especially Scottish country dancing.

When we lived in N.C. we celebrated each year along with other members of the Robert Burns Society of Charlotte on the Saturday night closest to the 25th.  I hope our dear friends had a wonderful time Saturday night.  How better to party than in a room filled with men in skirts! (And why do their knees always look more bonnie than women’s as they age?)

The year David was president of the Charlotte Burns group Bill and Monica had been called out for doing whatever it was they were doing with a cigar in the oval office.  Now, given that at that time the average age of the participants in Burns Night was over 55 (we were always the young’uns of the group) and  we were in NC where the likelihood of finding someone over 50 who had voted for Clinton was just a little less than ‘nil, finding someone to give the traditional Toast to the President was rather difficult.  Being both a loyal Democrat and a Bill Clinton fan (still am), and never one to pass up a chance to be in the spotlight, I volunteered.

 I worked for days on the short speech trying hard to make it a toast to the OFFICE of the President rather than the person holding the office in hopes that at least a few people would stand and clink their glasses.  It all went off OK until all the speeches were over and I was cornered by one of the Grand Dames of the society who told me in very explicit, and very loud, terms that I was not only an embarrassment to the group but should be ashamed to show  my face in public.  And here I was, the First Lady of the Society dressed in a fabulous formal Alexander McQueen frock of black velvet and silk satin Brody tartan, the tartan of my grandmother’s family.  Off- the- shoulder with a  boned bodice - I looked good peeps! Who was this badly-dressed matronly woman with gray helmet hair to tell me when to shut up?

(BTW, we had a full table of friends at the dinner who applauded my  speech.  Gotta love my peeps!)

Our now deceased good friend Donald Piver delivered the ode To a Haggis. I can’t imagine it ever sounding better than when delivered in Scots Gaelic with Don’s thick Southern drawl as he waived his Claymore over the warm reekin‘ rich glorious site. A real treat. 

But I ramble…

Tonight we will sup on both original and vegetarian haggis and partake of some good whisky.  We will miss Don’s wonderful toast but I have downloaded one so we won’t miss the tradition.

Address to a Haggis
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o'need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin', rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro' blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' hands will sned,
Like taps o' trissle.

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer
Gie her a haggis!

1 comment:

  1. So sorry for typos of the sort not caught by Spellcheck and my big gaff of calling the Queen Mum, "Mary". She was, of course, the beloved Elizabeth.