I have just made myself (and my lucky colleagues and housemates) some shortbread, because it is Burns Day! This won’t mean much to most of you, and to be honest, I had forgotten until someone mentioned it to me at lunch, but I decided to take the opportunity to be a bit of a Scottish stereotype for the evening.
Burns Day is a day to celebrate the Bard, Robert Burns (or Rabbie Burns), Scotland’s most well-known poet. For me, it calls to mind days in primary school when we memorised his poetry in time for Burns Day and the Burns supper.
Even if you’ve never been to a Burns supper, you probably know that the traditional meal is haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes, if you don’t know the Scots term – or swedes and potatoes if you’re trying to have an argument). Perhaps my clearest memory of these was someone telling me what haggis was just before I tried it and it putting me right off.
If you’ve somehow managed to miss what a haggis is, it was originally a sheep’s stomach stuffed with its insides and things like oatmeal. (These days, it’s not always in a stomach, if that’s the only part that sounded bad.) A haggis is not an animal, as much as we like to pretend that it is. (The song ‘How many legs has a haggis?’ is one of my other clearest memories from primary school.) I only tried haggis again a couple of years ago in the form of a starter of haggis balls, which was more palatable than being faced with it as a main.
Over the course of the Burns supper, there is the Address to the Haggis (one of Burns’ most famous poems), a toast to the lassies (a funny speech delivered by a man about women) and a reply from the ladies, amongst other toasts and speeches.
The approach of Burns night also meant those most dreaded of PE lessons: social dancing. Oh yes, in the days when boys were still gross you were expected to hold hands and dance with them! This was when we learned the traditional dances for ceilidhs: the Dashing White Sergeant, the Gay Gordons, and Strip the Willow to name a few. (And yes, they are an excellent collection of names.)
Of course, by high school this was all the more awkward, although it always turned out quite fun. Some people were a little too enthusiastic – one girl broke her wrist falling when a boy spun her round particularly quickly. By prom, everyone was determined to have someone to dance the last ceilidh dances with, because who knew how long it would be until the first wedding?!
I think next year, if I remember, it would be lovely to find a Burns supper and ceilidh going on somewhere in the city. There’s something about living away from home that makes you think about these things a little more!
So tonight I’m having a bit of shortbread and reading some Robert Burns. For some reason, ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is the only poem I can remember in full, as well as most of Auld Lang Syne. (Of course!) Even as a Scot, it can be difficult to understand everything Burns writes. Some lines, though, are universal:
‘But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.’
From Ae Fond Kiss