Low life

The risks of being an Englishman on Burns Night

Fortunately, everyone was so blootered it didn’t matter

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

I’m rubbish at public speaking and detest it. Even the thought of reciting an English poem of my choice at a Burns Night Supper cast a long shadow beforehand, in spite of the strong probability that everyone at the table would be blootered when the time came for me to get to my feet. A further problem was: which poem should an Englishman choose to read at a celebration of Scottishness, if not of Scottish nationalism? Should it perhaps be an English riposte? Or would something amiable and irrelevant be more politic? A comic poem maybe? A comic poem in a comic dialect? Lewis Carroll? ‘’Twas brillig’, and so on? On the train up I took a doorstep anthology and speed-read English poetry, from Thomas Traherne to Ted Hughes, from one end of England to the other, unsuccessfully.

The males at the dinner wore the kilt, sporran, sock flashes, sgian-dubh (sock dagger) and ghillies. But they were a macho crowd even without the proud tartan. The first pre-supper drinks conversation I had was with a third-generation communist who demanded to know how we in England have allowed such an effeminate individual to take control of the party of Labour? Does anybody honestly expect a working-class Scotsman to vote for that very antithesis of a working man; a man with hands like those? This broad-shouldered giant in a skirt was genuinely puzzled. Moreover, he seemed to be blaming me personally. I enjoyed his assumption that I was a serious-minded person of the left.


Supper was announced. Twelve of us sat down around the candlelit dining table. The meal commenced with the traditional and very tasty cock-a-leekie soup. This was followed by haggis, neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes). The haggis was ceremoniously borne in from the kitchen on a silver platter. One of the men stood and gave the ‘Address to a Haggis’, which is a Burns poem. He had the verses off by heart and recited them with passionate intensity. The address began: ‘Fair and full your honest face/ Great chieftain of the sausage race.’ At the words: ‘Trenching your gushing entrails bright’, he dramatically flourished the knife and sliced the haggis in two so that we might see them.

After that another chap stood up and gave the Toast to the Lassies. Burns fathered 13 known children by five partners and has 600 living descendants. He loved the lassies and wrote of sex and love with frankness and simplicity. This guy’s toast to the lassies was a bantering but ultimately gallant eulogy to the female sex. Then one of the lassies stood and made a formal reply, the gist of which was that the ladies thanked him for his kind sentiments and that, taken all in all, we chaps aren’t so bad ourselves. One doesn’t often see gender difference formally celebrated these days, and I surmised what an English Burns-type Supper would be like. Would the Toast to the Lassies, for example, be given by the women to the men, telling them how useless they are?

We swilled down claret and whisky in incalculable amounts. The climax of the supper was a recital of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, an epic Burns poem written in a mixture of English and Scots dialect. On the way home from the pub one night, drunken Tam sees a wild party going on in a church. Witches and warlocks are dancing and throwing off their clothes to tunes played by the Devil on a fiddle. Taking a fancy to a pretty witch dancing in a ‘cutty-sark’ (a short skirt: hence the name of the famous Scottish-built tea clipper) Tam shouts, ‘Weel done, Cutty-sark!’. The witches immediately give chase and Tam makes for the nearest river, aware of a supernatural law preventing witches from crossing running water. The poem thrilled me, even though I understood only about two thirds of it.

Other Burns poems were then recited by other guests, and now it was the Englishman’s turn to contribute a poem. By this stage it had dawned on me that I had grossly misjudged the essence of a Burns Night Supper. There was nothing remotely nationalistic going on; it was simply a fond celebration of Scotland’s most dearly beloved poet. But I went ahead anyway with the satirically nationalist poem I had chosen one minute before we sat down: ‘The English Are So Nice’ by D.H. Lawrence. (‘The English are so nice/ so awfully nice/ they are the nicest people in the world.’) Given the unexpected absence of Scottish nationalist feeling, my choice of poem was, in the event, absurd. But my other guess was fortunately spot-on: by that stage we were all so gloriously and utterly pissed that Lawrence’s acidic little poem was received with uncomprehending but generous applause, and we moved on to the singing.

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  • Cymrugel

    Hmmm.

    I’ve got an idea.

    How about you read a Burns poem on Burns night? I mean given that the whole thing is a celebration of his work and all? Not exactly rocket science is it?

    Would you go to a celebration of Shakespeare and read a selection from Goethe?

    I doubt it.

    Burns has been translated into hundreds of languages and is regarded as a world class poet across most of the globe. The exception is standard English. Instead he is totally ignored in England and derided as a comic turn; “Rabby” burns; some sort of cartoon Scotsman hybrid of Harry Lauder and private Frazer from Dads army

    So we have a man of letters who is lionised abroad but largely ignored and even mocked in his own country – the UK I mean.

    and you lot wonder why the SNP is doing well.

    I’ll be going to a Burns supper tonight as well.

    We will certainly eat and drink heartily, sing songs and quote poetry, but I think we will still be sufficiently conscious to remember most of it.

    Why do middle class English types need to sneer at anything not their own?

    Morally speaking I think you should make your excuses and stay away.

    I doubt if you will be missed.

    • mikewaller

      You really are a touchy b——! I can well imagine a Scot coming to a Shakespeare celebration, reading out one of Burn’s pieces and bringing the house down. And, by JC’s account, that was the response he got. Bright idea! Why not form a party restricted to chipless Britons? It might sweep the country!

      • Cymrugel

        Ah chippy.
        The inevitable and predictable response of the Englishman with no answer.

    • fun-time freddie

      “Rabby” burns; some sort of cartoon Scotsman hybrid of Harry Lauder and private Fraz[i]er from Dads army
      Yeah, I’ll go along with that. Who cares? When you’ve got a tradition and a literature as rich as the English and American, why bother with someone whose vernacular grates? It’s not like he was Socrates or anything.

      • Cymrugel

        Fair enough.
        As I said though, why then go along to a Burns night?
        If you hold another cultural tradition in such scorn, surely its just basic politeness to politely decline an invitation, rather than go along and show how low your opinion of the Bard is by spoiling someone else’s event?
        Its not usual to respond to invitations by spitting in someone’s face.

        • fun-time freddie

          Maybe they like the haggis?

      • ted hagan

        Not at all, a handsome, dark-haired romantic rake who died young.

        • fun-time freddie

          Yeah but he spoke funny. Probably had bad breath, too.

    • vieuxceps2

      R.Burns? An adequate provincial poet with a penchant for plagiarism,much -lauded by his compatriots for want of anyone better.

  • Shinsei1967

    Neeps are swedes not turnips. The Scots call a swede the Swedish Turnip, hence neeps.

  • ted hagan

    ‘Fair and full your honest face/ Great chieftain of the sausage race.’

    Actually, your Burns reciter gave you the Anglicised version of the poem.
    The TRUE version goes like this.
    Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
    Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

    • fun-time freddie

      I don’t know why anyone gives him the time of day to be frank.

      • ted hagan

        Yes, but many millions do.

        • fun-time freddie

          True. But then many millions watch SuperBowl.

          • ted hagan

            And enjoy it. Good for them. Each to their own. Life’s too short.

          • You think life’s too short? I’m wondering if it’s too long.

  • Calum Paul

    “Witches and warlocks are dancing and throwing off their clothes to tunes played by the Devil on a fiddle.”

    In ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ the pipes are old Nick’s choice of instrument, not the fiddle:

    “There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
    A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
    To gie them music was his charge:
    He scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
    Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.”

    Or the anglisised version if you prefer:

    “There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
    To give them music was his charge:
    He screwed the pipes and made them squeal,
    Till roof and rafters all did ring.”

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