Burns Night, 25th January   4 comments

Burns Night, 25th January

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert burns.jpg Replacement of existing commons image with higher res version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is agreed by most Scots that Robert ’Rabbie’ Burns was the greatest Scottish poet, especially since many of his poems were written in Scots, a northern variety of the language of the Angles who settled in Northumbria and occupied the south-eastern lowlands of modern-day Scotland in the seventh century. The Scotti were another Celtic people, originally living in Ireland, one of the five ethnic groups who settled in northern Britain in the Dark Ages, also including the Picts, the Britons, and the Norsemen. Each group had their own distinct language, but Scots emerged as the strongest, until in the seventeenth century it began to be replaced by English, due to the Scottish King James VI’s (James I of England) insistence on the use of his ’Authorised Version’ of the Bible in the Scottish ’Kirk’ (Church). In fact, the Kirk had already provided a Scottish translation into English, following the Geneva Bible, which had been distributed to every significant ’householder’ by a law of 1579.

A map of Scots dialects.

A map of Scots dialects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The themes of Burns’ poetry are nature and the humanity of nature. In ’To a Mouse’ (1786) he shares the problems of the mouse whose home is lost when the farm worker destroys it by accident. These lines have become particularly famous, partly through their use by the twentieth-century American writer, John Steinbeck, in the title of one of his novels:

The best laid schemes

Of mice and men

Gang aft agley

(The most carefully planned projects…often go wrong)

Burns was himself a farm-worker, born in Ayrshire in 1759, only later becoming a tax-collector, or ’exciseman’. Growing up on the land and living the hard life of a farmer, he had great sympathy for the life of country people and this, plus the sense of humour they needed to survive such a life, comes across to the reader of poems like, ’The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ (a ’cotter’ was an old word for a farm-worker, giving us the word ’cottage’ for a traditional, small village house, usually made of wood and thatch), ’The Twa Dogs’ and ’Halloween’. He was an immensely likeable, charming man, who enjoyed the company of women and, later in life, good living. After his poems became successful, he moved to Edinburgh and was able to live off his writing and his pension as an ’exciseman’ when his farm failed. His ’A Man’s A Man for A’ That’ (A’ = All) catches the mood of the times with its ideas of common humanity. Most of his compositions were now songs, which are still well-known, either new or adapted; ’A Red, Red Rose’, ’Scots Wha Hae’, ’Comin’ thro’ the Rye’, ’The Banks of Doon’ and ’Mary Morrison’. His hard-living lifestyle and a week heart got the better of him, and he died in 1796, aged only thirty-seven. He continued to be admired by the Romantic poets who saw him as the first of them, but he is remembered now as the first major figure to write in the Scots language as well as in English, a country poet with world-wide appeal. Throughout his life he was capable of both speaking and writing in formal English. Though well-educated, however, Burns was of peasant stock, close to the land, its customs and people. His genius was his ability to draw on the despised Scottish tradition, half folk ballads and half Court poetry. Burns fused these two styles into one with colour and eloquence.

Map of the areas where the Scots language is s...

Map of the areas where the Scots language is spoken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scots is a language you hear now in its full richness only when Burns is quoted. He gave his nation back its tongue and its pride. When Scots celebrate ’the immortal memory’ on Burns Night, they are honouring the writer who showed them that it is the loyalty to the Scots language and culture that is the best and most lasting assertion of Scottish patriotism. After his death, the process of Anglicisation took hold, though first Sir Walter Scott and later Robert Louis Stevenson continued the tradition of re-discovering Scottishness through a literature which drew on the authenticity of ’the Guid Scots Tongue’.

Burns Supper

Burns Supper (Photo credit: thorland2006)

The Burns Supper, held on our around the bard’s birthday on 25th January, is a major institution of Scottish life: a night to celebrate the life and works of the national Bard. Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance. The celebration begins with  ‘Piping in the guests’ with some traditional music, played, at bigger events, by a bag-piper in full highland dress. The audience stands to welcome arriving guests: the piper plays until the high table is ready to be seated, at which point a round of applause is due. At a more informal gathering – with no high table – the Chair simply bangs on the table to draw attention to the start of the evening’s proceedings. He/She then warmly welcomes and introduces the assembled guests and the evening’s entertainment.

A short but important prayer is read to begin the meal, The Selkirk Grace is also known as Burns’s Grace at Kirkcudbright. Although the text is often printed in English, it is usually recited in Scots:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it,

                             But we hae meat and we can eat,

                             And sae the Lord be thankit.


(Some have meat, but cannot eat, and some would eat but lack it; but we have meat and we can eat, and so the Lord be thanked).

Dr Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Bur...

Dr Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Burns supper, St Columba’s United Reformed Church, Oxford, 2004-01-24. Copyright Kaihsu Tai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guests then stand to welcome the dinner’s star attraction, delivered on a silver platter by a procession comprising the chef, the piper and the person who will give The Address to the Haggis. At bigger parties, a whisky-bearer is also on hand to ensure that the toasts are well-lubricated. During the procession, guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The music stops and everyone is seated in anticipation of the address.

The honoured reader now seizes their moment of glory by offering a fluent and entertaining rendition of To a Haggis. The reader should have his knife poised at the ready. On cue, he cuts the casing along its length, making sure to spill out some of the tasty meat within. This distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded  as a part of the fun.The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!’, which the guests greet with rapturous applause. Prompted by the speaker, the audience now joins in the toast to the haggis. They raise a glass and shout: ‘The haggis!’ Then it’s time to serve the main course with its traditional companions, neeps and tatties (potatoes). In larger events, the piper leads a procession carrying the opened haggis out to the kitchen for serving; audience members clap as the procession departs.

Served with some suitable background music, the sumptuous ‘Bill o’ Fare’ includes:

·        Starter: Traditional cock-a-leekie soup;

·        Main course: Haggis, neeps & tatties (Haggis wi’ bashit neeps an’ champit tatties);

 

·        Sweet: Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle);

·        Cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes) and tea/coffee.

Variations do exist; beef lovers can serve the haggis, neeps & tatties as a starter with roast beef or steak pie as the main dish. Vegetarians can of course choose vegetarian haggis, while fish-lovers could opt for a seafood main course such as Cullen Skink.

To drink: Liberal lashings of wine or ale are served with dinner and it’s often customary to douse the haggis with a splash of whisky sauce, which, with true Scots understatement, is neat whisky. After the meal, it’s time for connoisseurs to compare notes on the wonderful selection of malts served by the generous Chair.

The nervous first entertainer follows immediately after the meal. Often it will be a singer or musician performing Burns songs such as:

My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, 

That’s newly sprung in June: 

O my Luve’s like the melodie, 

That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, 

So deep in luve am I; 

And I will luve thee still, my dear, 

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, 

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; 

And I will luve thee still, my dear, 

While the sands o’ life shall run.  

And fare-thee-weel, my only luve!

And fare-thee-weel, a while! 

And I will come again, my Luve, 

Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile

 

Alternatively it could be a moving recital of a Burns poem, such as Tam o’ Shanter or ‘For a’ that and a’ that’.

Following the songs and recitals, the keynote speaker takes the stage to deliver a spell-binding oration on the life of Robert Burns: his literary genius, his politics, his highs and lows, his human frailty and, most importantly, his patriotism. The speech must bridge the dangerous chasm between serious intent and sparkling wit, painting a colourful picture of Scotland’s beloved Bard. The speaker concludes with a heart-felt toast: To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!

The chair next introduces more celebration of Burns’ work, preferably a poem or song to complement the earlier entertainment. Then follows the humorous highlight of any Burns Night comes in the Toast to the Lassies, which is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This must be done by selective quotation from Burns’s works, building towards a positive note. Particular reference to those present makes for a more meaningful toast.

The final course of the evening’s entertainment comprises more Burns readings, followed by a Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, revenge for the women present as they get their chance to reply. A vote of thanks’ is the Chair’s last act in the proceedings, as he now climbs to his/her potentially unsteady feet to thank everyone who has contributed to a wonderful evening and to suggest that taxis will arrive shortly. He/She closes the proceedings by inviting guests to stand and belt out a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The company joins hands and sings as one, having made sure to brush up on those difficult later lines.  At some gatherings, the evening will continue with Scottish Country Dancing.

Printed Sources:

Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English: Penguin, 1986.

Ronald Carter and John McRae, The Penguin Guide to English Literature: Britain and Ireland: 1996

Internet:

BBC Online Guide to Burns Night.

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4 responses to “Burns Night, 25th January

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  3. Pingback: Burns Night | Louise's Lexiconology

  4. Reblogged this on hungarywolf and commented:

    Reblogged for Burns’ Night, 25th January 2016

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