Planning for Burns Night
Created | Updated Dec 8, 2020
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 wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.
- Robert Burns, Address to a Haggis
'A social, friendly, honest man', the Poet Laureate of Scotland, Robbie Burns is a much-loved figure the world over. His birth date, 25 January, is royally celebrated with the fabled Burns Supper on Burns Night. This particular Scots-flavoured Community entry sheds a little light on how exactly we should pay homage to Scotland's great folk hero, next time the 25th comes around. Charge your glasses, please!
An Introduction to the Man Himself
Robert (Rabbie) Burns was born the son of a farmer in Alloway (the cottage is now a tourist attraction, not far from the Kirk and Brig mentioned in Tam O'Shanter). He was quite a racy lad, dallying with the ladies and writing poems, rather than keeping a farm going and a roof over his head. His first book of poems was published in Kilmarnock and was very popular with the Edinburgh gentry. If it had failed he had planned to emigrate to Jamaica. Most of his songs are actually ones he heard in local pubs, but he was the first to write them down.
Due to his revolutionary politics at the time of the French Revolution his Lordly supporters tried to prove his loyalty to the crown by making him join the local defence force. He eventually died due to bad living conditions in Dumfries. The first Burns Night was reputedly held ten years or so later in Tarbolton, Ayrshire, of which Burns himself said:
I've been tearin' oot ma hair,
Ye' think ah'd been moultin.
Trying tae think o a word,
That rhymes wie Tarbolton
A Wee Rabbie Expert Writes...
Some more information as we try and piece together a picture of the man and what we should do to celebrate his life. And the more we investigate, the more it seems that he wasn't, how should we say... backward in coming forward! As one Researcher says, 'Well, what can I say, the female members of my family all fancied him...
Add a fiddle and copious amounts of alcohol. It is acceptable for those sworn off the poison to drink Irn Bru. West Coast whiskies, or copious amounts of any would be the perfect drink. Our toast was, 'May your roof never fall in, and those beneath it never fall out.'
The food we ate was haggis, neeps (ie, turnip, or 'swede' as the southerners call it) and chappit tatties. In other words, haggis and chips. I have also been known to address a pizza... The poems are said like an after-dinner speech and traditional recital might come from 'Holy Willies Prayer'; it's long, but not too long, and it's amusing. Reciting parts of 'Tam O' Shanter' is also very popular, too. I haven't got my big Burns book that I got for my seventh birthday from my gran to hand, but the most quoted is the bit that starts:
'Tam Tam thy'll get thy faring,
In Hell they'll roast ye Like a Herring. '
The exciting climax of the witches' chase is always popular, too! The poems are written in Ayrshire Scots, a 'lallans' (lowlands) tongue.
He was so loved 'cos he was a very good looking man. See above. He was born the son of a fairly wealthy family in Ayr, west of Scotland, not such a long trek from Glasgow, if you want to visit - his cottage still stands as a museum to his life. He was sent to school in Edinburgh, played the fiddle, and although he worked as a ploughman, this was mostly romanticised, because as I mentioned, he was hardly uneducated. He cut a swathe through the local ladies; most of Ayrshire is probably related to him, and he had 12 illegitimate children.
One Researcher whisks us back to her school days in Scotland, where Burns's birth date was observed with appropriate pomp, and where the master who read the Burns address was called... Mr Burns:
This all reminded me of the school traditions that existed for Burns Night. I can't remember them entirely, but after nosing through a few websites, all the hours of those evenings came flooding back!
The school dining hall was a separate building from the rest of the school, and had a foyer that enabled teachers and guests to gather appropriately before the dinner, and to have a pre-dinner glass of wine. Meanwhile the pupils (from senior one to lower sixth) entered the hall through the fire exit around the back. Once all the pupils had gathered and were in place, the upper sixth entered the foyer and escorted the correct teacher/guest to their table. On arrival at the table, a dear old teacher - appropriately enough, named Mr Burns - delivered the age-old Selkirk Grace.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
We would then sit and soup - as far as I remember it was usually Cock-a-leekie - would be served. After the soup had been cleared, the pipes would start in the kitchens, and the room would go silent, and we would all crane round to see the haggis being piped in by the school's pipe major, and carried by the head-chef. It would take a long way round, but would eventually end at the top table, and was placed under Mr Burns's watchful gaze. The piper and chef were rewarded with a dram, and the well-known 'Ode to a Haggis' is recited, ending with the haggis being split open with a 'dirk' (the dagger Scot's keep hidden away down their sock). After this pomp, each table was presented with a haggis and a bowl of neeps and a bowl of tatties.
After the main meal, there followed a series of speeches, performed by various people. It began with a speech about Burns himself, (and from other websites, I have found this to be entitled the 'Immortal Memory'), which never changed from year to year. A guest would then normally recite a poem by Burns, and one that stands out is 'To a Moose', not entirely sure why, but something in the memory banks says that it was a particularly funny recital!
Then, 'The Toast to the Lassies', a very important part of the evening, in which men remind us women of everything that is wrong with us. Daft really, considering how much of a ladies' man Burns was, but then, that's tradition! This is followed by the 'Reply from the Lassies' where we graciously accept what has just been said, but tactfully remind men that they are most definitely below us on the scale.
The headmaster would recite 'Tam O' Shanter', an inescapable part of the evening. It's a fantastic poem, just fantastic! They even did a musical version of it, which I heard at primary school, and is probably why I am so fond of it. We would then all retire to the far end of the dining hall, where a ceilidh would then start in full swing, with pipes, dancing, the occasional song - I even once performed a sword dance! Now that is going to take some explaining if required!
At the end of the evening, before trudging home with very sore feet, everyone would stand in a circle, and sing 'Old Lang Syne'. Looking back now, and I may not have remembered everything absolutely correctly I admit, it still seems like a great evening out. Except having to eat haggis! Yuk!
Hazy Recollections from a Burns Night Supper...
The last Burns supper that this Researcher went to was at least six years ago, but from the hazy mists of his memory, he has kindly recalled for us the following:
Burns the Man - From the aforementioned Burns Night, one thing sticks in my head. The man was as randy as a rabbit on viagra! What is not often appreciated (at least, it wasn't by me up till then) is that about half his poems are about the various women in his life. And there were quite a few. Oddly enough, you don't tend to hear these poems a lot...
I recall he and Sir Walter Scott did not see eye to eye. Burns wrote some fairly scathing things about the Act of Union (1707) - there is a famous quote from him about it, which I can't recall at the moment. Sir Scott, on the other hand, was a brown-nosed lickspittle unionist, and more or less responsible for most of the tartan tat that poses as culture in Scotland today. However, I'll get off this subject before anyone can figure out my views on it.
Why So Loved? - Because he was a pretty good poet, and Scotland is a bit short of national heroes as it is (gits who would sell their own grandmother for glue, on the other hand, we are not short of). Most of the poems are pretty readable, as I recall. Anyone who can read the Broons or Our Wullie1 shouldn't have too much trouble with them. If you want a real challenge, try reading something written in High Scots. Nightmare.
The Order of Night - Depends how formal the occasion is, but you generally have some readings, addresses etc, the haggis is brought in led by a (bag)piper to a slow handclap (earplugs are useful at this point), the (normally) bloke doing the honours will address the haggis, stabbing it with a big knife at the conclusion. Then the grub is served and everyone gets stuck in.
Food - Traditionally haggis, neeps (turnips, normally shredded) and tatties (potato, normally mashed). That's what you normally get in the pub, anyway. Haggis is actually quite nice, really. Just try not to think about how it is made. Traditionally it involves a sheep's intestine, herbs and other stuff. You can just as easily buy it from the supermarket, though. Mind you, I suspect most haggis these days does not go near a sheep at any point. Especially the veggie variety. Note that the haggis is not normally deep fried, unless it has come from the chippy.
Who Reads Out the Poems? - Whatever poor sap loses the toss, normally...
Toasts - Hmmm, probably to the Queen. Depends how Republican the organisation is.
Personally, I'd rather skip straight to the ceilidh (a mixture of drinking, Scottish Country Dancing and close-quarters unarmed combat).
Anyway, let's end with Tam O' Shanter. It's about a man who ignores his wife's advice, gets drunk, ends up dancing with witches to the tune played by the 'de'il' (devil) himself, runs away, and ... well, you'll just have to read the ending!
When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An' folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Whare sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpases
For honest men and bonie lasses.)
O Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise,
As ta'en thy ain wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
That ilka melder, wi' the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That every naig was ca'd a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;
That at the L--d's house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown'd in Doon;
Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen'd, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
But to our tale: Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo'ed him like a vera brither-
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E'en drown'd himsel' amang the nappy!
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious.
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.
The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow'd:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.
Weel mounted on his grey mare, Meg -
A better never lifted leg -
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor'd;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Whare drunken Chairlie brak 's neck-bane;
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mingo's mither hang'd hersel'.
Before him Doon pours all is floods;
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
Near and more near the thunders roll:
When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!
The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight.
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
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.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And by some develish cantraip slight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light.
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murders's banes in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi blude red-rested;
Five scymitars, wi' murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi' mair o' horrible and awfu',
Which even to name was be unlawfu'.
Three lawyers' tongues, turn'd inside out,
Wi' lies seam'd like a beggar's clout;
Three priests' hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.
As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it her sark!
Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A' plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!
But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags was spean a foa,
Louping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach!
But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her cutty-sark, o' Paisley harn
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie,
Ah! little ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for he wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ' thegither,
And roars out, 'Weel done, Cutty-sark!'
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.
As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie's mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi' mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.
Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'!
In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy commin'!
Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o' the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie's mettle -
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
No, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son take heed;
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o'er dear -
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.