January 25 marks the 255rd birthday of poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), who continues to be widely loved in the Scots-Irish community. Many of the bard’s songs and poems have become international favorites – even among those who find his use of Scottish lowland dialect difficult to decipher.
If you find yourself in Franklin, NC this week, you might want to track down The Friends of the Scottish Tartans Museum. They, like lovers of Burns everywhere, host an annual Burns Supper, a celebratory tribute to the life, works and spirit of the man, on, or about, the poet’s birthday. Suppers range from stentoriously formal scholarly gatherings to uproariously informal sloshfests of drunkards and louts.
Most Burns Suppers fall in the middle of this range, and adhere, more or less, to some sort of time honored form which includes only three absolutely essential elements: Burns himself – in a toast, a poem or a song, haggis or some other great Scottish food, and hospitality.
The meal commences with the recital of Selkirk Grace, which is actually the prayer read aloud before the meal and goes like this:
Some hae meat but cannae eat.
Some hae nane but want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.’
Address to the Haggis
This is a threatening moment for the haggis, which is about to be stabbed by the chairman after he pronounces the last words it will ever hear: The ‘Address to the haggis’!
‘His knife, see rustic labour dicht
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight’
The address should ideally be accompanied by some gestures to give a hint to those who are not familiar with the poet’s language and be followed by the guests toasting the haggis with whiskey.
The Bill o’ Fare
A typical Burns’ night menu might include: Cock-a-leekie soup, an old Scottish recipe, the main course of Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties and a sweet course of Tyspy Laird (sherry trifle)
The Immortal Memory
This speech comes in many different types, ranging from smart and humorous, to literary and historical, but the main point is to praise Burns as a great man and poet and invite everyone to toast to his immortal memory.
Toast to ‘the Lassies’
This toast aims to outline the importance of women in the life of the poet (and in ours!) It is given by a male guest in thanks to the women who have prepared the meal. The speaker invites all men to stand and toast ‘To the lassies’, in a complimentary or funny tone; however, he should be aware, as the lassies are the ones who have the last word!
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
A woman will stand and reply to the previous toast, (hopefully) thanking the speaker in an amusing way. She might also make a reference to Burns’ women and life. Burns spread his affections freely, and in one decade saw 8 illegitimate children born to him through 5 different women. One of these, Jean Armour, became Mrs. Burns in 1788.
Closing poems and songs
Favorite poems and recitations which usually follow are “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “To A Mouse,” “Tam o’ Shanter”, and of course “Auld Lang Syne.”
Holy Willie’s prayer is a poem written about a certain Willie Fisher, an elder in the Parish church of Mauchline, in Ayrshire. Burns rented a farm near Mauchline as a young man.
Fisher was a hypocrite and himself a sinner who spied on people and reported them to the minister if he thought they were doing wrong. The poem is a satire based on Fisher’s sickly self-righteousness. The phrase “Holy Willie” has become part of the Scots language for describing someone humorless and ultra religious.
“To A Mouse” was part of Burns’ first published work of poetry —”Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” —published in July 1786.
The success of this first effort convinced Burns to abandon plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Buoyed by his burgeoning reputation as an unschooled “ploughman poet,” Burns moved from Mauchline to Edinburgh. He was unable to find a patron to support his writing, but publisher James Johnson gave him work editing a collection of Scottish folk songs.
In 1790 he produced “Tam o’Shanter”, which was first published merely as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk, in a volume of “Antiquities of Scotland.”.
All the while Burns was still editing the folk song collection, titled “The Scots Musical Museum”, which was ultimately published in 5 volumes over sixteen years. Burns himself contributed over 150 songs, including “Auld Lang Syne,” a reworking of an earlier folk song of unknown origin.
It’s the one piece we ALL know of Burns, whether we know the man by name or not, and so it’s fitting that a Burns Supper always ends with everyone joining hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”.