Get Your Scots Up for Burns Night!
By Hal Shepherd
After being invited to recite the "Address to a Haggis" at the Alaska Scottish Club's Burn’s Night celebration in Anchorage this month, I did some looking into in the background of Robert Burns and the why he is celebrated not only in Scotland but in other countries around the world at this time of year. Regarded as the National Bard of Scotland, Burns was born on January 25th, 1759, into a family of tenant farmers. He began laboring on the farm at the age of twelve, which is believed to have permanently damaged his health and may have led to his death at the young age of 37 in 1796.
Initially written in the Scots-Gaelic language, many of his more famous poems and songs have been translated into Scots-English making it easier to read them outside of Scotland. Burns was also one of the first naturalists who, in the poem "To a Mouse," recognized "Tyrannical man's dominion" over nature and advocated for the common man, as evident in the song "A Man's a Man for All That." His most famous work includes "Auld Lang Syne" (yes that one) and the long and somewhat ghoulish poem “Tam o' Shanter.”
According to the Scottish Poetry Library, "If ever a poet understood the character of his nation, he was Robert Burns. The language he was most fluent in wasn't so much Scots or English – it was the language of the heart."
Following Burns' death, a supper in his honor was held in 1801 by a handful of his friends at Burns Cottage in Alloway. The night included performances of Burns' work and speeches in his honor. The meal included haggis, which consists of sheep's stomach or ox secum, heart and lungs of lamb, beef or lamb trimmings, fat and lean, and of course, the traditional Scottish staple – oatmeal. The event was a resounding success, and the original group decided to hold it yearly in honor of Burns' birthday.
Since then, the Burns Night tradition has expanded into celebrations that occur every year around the globe and include a mixture of highly ceremonial bagpipe and other music, speeches, toasts in the poet's honor, and some crude comic relief the Scots are so fond off. One of the staples of the Burns Supper is the Address to a Haggis, which it's said that he came Burns composed off the cuff in 1786 when he was attending a dinner in Edinburgh. This would seem to be consistent with the lyrics of the poem, which poke fun at both the content of the haggis and the machismo aspects of Scottish culture. "But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread. Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He'll make it whistle!"
Initially resembling a gelatinous loaf of bread, the ground-up concoction must first be appropriately serenaded. "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o' the Puddin-race!" before being unceremoniously slaughtered "An' cut ye up wi' ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright!" then devoured with that luster that only the Scots can produce "Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive: Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive! Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes believe are bent like drums."
I was a bit surprised when the Scottish Club asked me to do the Address this year, as my first attempt at it was a disaster. That was a couple of years ago when the Club conducted an online version of Burns Night due to the Pandemic. After the original reciter fell through at the last minute, they made a desperate plea for anyone to stand in.
So, a few days before that event, I donned my kilt, and (like I do every year during the Highland Games seeking to do better than that 90lb weakling in my age class), I called upon my Clan Fraser ancestry to give me courage and strength so that I would do at least a passable job of the Address.
Instead, as I read the poem from a script that I got off the internet, in a honking and screeching attempt to mimic the Scots dialect.(It sounded like someone trying to play the bagpipes who had never picked up the instrument before). They politely rejected my recording.
With more time to prepare this year, hopefully, it will go better. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse to make the stunning winter drive through the Alaska Highlands to Anchorage thinking of Robert Burns and once again channeling ancestry.
…And, of course, there's the scotch.
Happy Burns Day!