Sunday, January 25, 2015

Burns Night

Burns Night is celebrated each year in Scotland (and around the world) on or around January 25. It is in celebration to commemorate the life of the bard (poet) Robert Burns, who was born on January 25, 1759. It is also a great excuse for Scots and people of Scottish ancestry around the world (where the one-drop rule applies) to get together and drink single malt, and eat haggis, and drink single malt.


I lived in a 307-year-old farmhouse in Scotland from 1989-1992. The farmhouse, which had a fireplace in almost every room, and two in the bathroom and two in the huge kitchen, was named Little Keithock Farmhouse and was full of ghosts, as my two daughters, Vanessa and Elise can testify to. That's my drawing of the house to the left.

My landlord (Mr. Stewart) was a really nice guy and a big wig in the nearest town, which was the most ancient village of Brechin, and in 1991 he invited me to the village's Burns Night and not only that, but also to its greatest honor: to deliver the Burns' ode to the haggis and then stab the beast... in case you don't know, the whole focus of the evening centers on the entrance of the haggis on a large platter to the haunting sounds of a piper playing bagpipes. As soon as the haggis is on the table, the host (in this case me) reads the "Address to a Haggis." 

This is Robert Burns' ode written to that succulent Scottish dish. At the end of the reading, the haggis is ceremonially stabbed and sliced into two pieces and the meal begins.

This is what I was supposed to memorize and deliver:

Address to a Haggis

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

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad 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 slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie 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;
The 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 mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody 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 make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

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
As you can see, it is not written (nor delivered) in English, but in Old Scots language.

Being the amazing Renaissance man that I am, I took the challenge, and for about three months, I practiced my Scottish accent, with the help of Vanessa and Elise's local Scottish babysitter. 

I practiced and practiced, and she damned near died laughing most of the times... but towards the end she told me that I was pretty good and that I sounded like someone "from the Orkneys..."

On Burns' Night I arrived at the magnificent Victorian building that is the Brechin's Mechanics Hall, wearing my official US Navy kilt with the official US Navy tartan, ready for Freddy and confident about the challenge ahead. 

And yes, my babysitter had advised me (as all Scots do to newbies just to screw with them) that I was supposed to go commando under the tartan, which I did, and which caused a nightmarish next-morning shower event worth of its own story).

Scots are some of the friendliest people on this planet and Scotland is easily the most beautiful land on that same planet, and as a key part of the Night, everyone wanted to treat me to a drink.

That where the problem started.

I got there on an empty stomach about 7PM, you see... and to make things worse, I don't really like Scotch, single malt or otherwise... I know, I know... heresy.

But as a good guest, I accepted the dozens of Scotches delivered to me by the region's nicest gentlemen, and of course, everyone had a toast, and so... ahhh, I drank a lot of Scotland's best-known product.

The only issue to my spectacular abilities to hold my booze was the fact that the haggis wasn't actually delivered until 11PM, and by then I was three sheets to the wind and as drunk as I have ever been but a hundred times worse!

I actually like haggis and whenever it is on the menu (here or there) I usually order it... most of you would gag if you knew what it is... cough, cough... so that's not the storyline here.

Anyway, around 11PM, I was tipped that the haggis was being delivered... the bagpipes began to cry that spectacular sound of the Celtic world, and the huge platter arrived.

I walked unsteadily towards it, grabbed the large, sharp knife, and as protocol calls for, began waving it around while I started, in my best Scottish accent, to pay homage to the haggis while at the same time trying not to slice off my ears.

The hall was silent, and a couple of hundred people followed my every word and movement of the knife, sculpting invisible shapes in the air.

And then, as called for, I stabbed the beast and cut it in two.

The hall exploded in applause and I walked back to my table... so far so good... other than the unexplained laughter.

Mr. Stewart, who was sitting next to me, was standing and clapping furiously, as was everyone else. This by itself, my addled brain registered, was curious, as Scots are great people, but rather reserved. To my slight alarm, I also noted that he was laughing really, really, really hard.

So hard, in fact, that tears were running down his face.


Oh, oh....

He slapped my back as he hugged me and continued to laugh, and placed yet another single malt on my hand.

"That was great!" (sounds like "gret" in Scottish) he shouted above the din, as tears ran down his handsome face, "We've never heard 'Address to a Haggis' recited in a Japanese accent before!"

"What a gret ideee!"

Put yourself in my place for a moment here... there are a couple of hundred Scots thinking that I just pulled a comedy routine on their sacred ode, and they're laughing their ass off, so it must have worked... right???

"I practiced like crazy," I said, suddenly quite sober.

And that's the story of how this guy delivered on a Burns' Night in Brechin, Scotland, got drunk on his ass, made a lot of really good, decent Scottish men laugh, and had a most memorable night.

The story of how I got home, as I clearly couldn't and didn't drive, is a story for another day... suffice it to say that thistles usually grow on the side of most Scottish back roads and that if you brush against them, you are really fucked for a while. 

Scotch and thistles don't mix well on a really dark night in the Scottish country side.

1 comment:

Kathi Fitzgerald said...

This is a "gret" story! The perpetual peril for a linguist...the wrong accent!