Friday, January 25, 2013

A couple of years ago my friend and I went for a walk in a graveyard at midnight.
As you do.
 The route was marked by candle lanterns. We had been fortified with hot tomato soup in the barn that acted as a holding pen for the walkers. We had to walk alone or in pairs and in silence. We went off at five minute intervals. It was a bitter cold, icy night with a bright bombers moon, with that kind of low lying fog that Hammer films are so good at. The cold wind whipped words from our lips as we walked nervously along the path that wound through the gravestones.
 It was midnight on January 25th.
Among the gravestones we heard a crow cawing in his Victorian cage. The Grim Reaper passed in front of us then vanished into the smoke from the smouldering fire.  An old man in a night shirt walked past us, the curve of his palm protecting the single flame of his lamp. He was clutching a bible under his arm and muttering.
The church with its brightly lit windows came into view, the noise of cheery banter floated out to us over the night. But to get there we had to walk across the bridge that runs over the babbling burn to the church beyond. We stepped on the bridge and were instantly assailed by the screeching of witches, the clattering of horses’ hooves, a heart rending neigh of a horse in pain. We flung ourselves flat against the walls with fear. The noise died on the cold air and then we heard the chanting ...  just a whisper at first  but  growing more insistent...
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.
Which translates as....
Now, do your speedy utmost, Meg,
And beat them to the key-stone of the bridge;
There, you may toss your tale at them,
A running stream they dare not cross!
But before the key-stone she could make,
She had to shake a tail at the fiend;
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie pressed,
And flew at Tam with furious aim;
But little knew she Maggie’s mettle!
One spring brought off her master whole,
But left behind her own grey tail:
The witch caught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
And we knew we had just been passed by the spirits of Tam O’Shanter and Meg on their flight from the witches...

The poets amongst you will know that  25th Jan is  the  birthday  of the great national bard of Scotland ...call him what  you will,  farmer, smuggler, tax man,  libertine,  lover, adulterer, socialist, humanitarian. Robert Burns (1759- 1796) was all of those things and much, much more.

"It is a well-known fact that witches have no power to follow a living soul further than the middle of the next running stream. You may be advised that if you are travelling and fall in with a bogle, the bigger danger may lie in turning back!"
Here is Burns...quite a froody looking dude. Dundee Uni have just recreated his face forensically and confirmed that he looked nothing  like this but who cares.


But all this is an excuse for me to do another very Scottish blog because Hogmanay and Burns Night are very close together in the calendar honest!
 The big thing about Burns to me is that he was a man of the people and still is, his words are clear and simple, nothing high faluting and clever, just beautiful. His work includes poems about the welfare of war widows, the evils of the tax man, the poor not having enough to eat, the hypocrisy of religion, the greater hypocrisy of politics, the fact that all men are  equal under the skin. Mankind might think he is smart but mess with mother nature at your peril. All sounds good to me, also sounds as if they could all have been written yesterday.

Burns night is a big thing  here. Next year I have been asked to do the Reply for the Lassies at   a very prestigious Burns Club. They invited me this year to get a feel for the event as these vary from all male outright drunkenness to an elegant dinner with lots of recitals and polite clapping. They all follow the same format though.   The company is assembled, men in kilts, women in frocks. We stand behind our seats, a piper pipes in the top table to rhymic clapping. Then the haggis is piped in. It is dead by this point.  Just to make sure a fierce man in a skirt wielding a very sharp knife kills it again while doing the address to the haggis. Then we get to sit down thank God.


Quote  There’s also much drinking of Scotch whisky at Burns Suppers which  makes the understanding of the “Address” so much more difficult, but apparently you don’t worry about it so much, instead, it helps let the rich words wash over you in a haze of literary genius.”
Here’s a wee taster of the haggis address if you pardon the pun.

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


The third verse actually contains the word entrails...  as does the haggis!
Funnily enough the line about ‘great chieftan of the pudding race’ was translated into German... as “ king of the sausage people!”


 Before the meal we have the well known Selkirk grace, I have heard many men break down and cry at this bit...
Selkirk Grace

Some hae meat and canna eat, 
And some wad eat that want it; 
But we hae meat, and we can eat, 
Sae let the Lord be thankitt
The meal consists of cock a leekie soup, haggis, (it was traditional to pour whisky over it but now it comes in a whisky sauce), neeps (turnips all mashed up), tatties, (potatoes all mashed up),  steak pie and cranachan for dessert. (See killer cookbook  recipe!!)
There are weird folk who say that the haggis derives from those Vikings again, on a long boat, killing beasties and shoving their waste entrails in the stomach of dead beast to eat later. These people are obviously English. And should be ignored!
If I can get all David Attenborough for a minute, the haggis eaten at Burns suppers is now farmed.  The wild haggis (Haggis Scoticis) is still found in the Highlands, usually well above the treeline. It has been well recorded by Darwin among others that it has legs on one side of the body longer than those on the other, so that it can run around the bens without falling over. The Hebridean Haggis has been tracked by its DNA to be the oldest species.  The Benbeculan Haggis is the breed that the haggis farms use as it has legs all the same length.  This is because Benbecula is as flat as a billiard table.


A Benbeculan Haggis (Haggis Benbeculae) pup. They lose their mane as they grow to adulthood.

The second half of the Burns Supper is fab if you are a Burn’s fan, hell if you are not. There is a toast to the queen. Which is rather interesting as Burns was anti monarchy.
Other recitals on the evening include a speech commemorating Burns and a toast to the great man, known as the 'Immortal Memory' (no jokes in that one), the 'Address to the Lassies' (very sexist and jokes about women drivers etc)   and of course 'The Reply from the Lassies' (which is about men being useful only as an abstract concept. Why did they ask me to do that one I wonder ....)
Interspersed with all that is much solo singing, bagpipe and fiddle music. Recitals more than the clapping along and jigging about stuff.  Lots of people claim that Burns wrote everything in sight but he said himself that he recorded much of what he heard around him. He sent a letter to the Scottish Musical Museum with an old song he had written down. It had never been in print before. Some of the lyrics of this song were "collected" others were “fashioned” by Burns. The song in that  letter  was "Old Lang Syne". 
And on that note I will sign off as I need to take the haggis out for a walk. They get restless indoors you know.

4 comments:

  1. I've never been to a Burns Night celebration Caro. I'd like to. Come to think of it, I've never worn a kilt either. Though I have eaten haggis, neeps and drunk Buckfast on a park bench so I have soaked up some of the Scottish experience :-)

    Only joking. I've never eaten neeps.

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  2. Thank you, Caro, for bringing we non-Scots a wee bit further along the road to appreciating such grand Scottish traditions as "Burns Night." Most Americans would have thought it referred to a roast of Gracie Allen's husband than of the haggis had you not explained. And speaking of haggis, that lovely creature is spared its life over here in the U.S. by reason of a federal ban on its consumption...as described in yesterday's NY Times. http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/denying-american-scots-their-holiday-haggis/

    And I thank you for including a photograph of a domesticated haggis, albeit it only a pup still with its Farah Fawcett hair. Now, if you'll excuse me I'll switch into a kilt so you'll have no more pant leg left to pull:))

    Great piece. The frocked Lassies are lucky to have you as their champion.

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  3. Last year I went to a Burns Night celebration here in Knysna, South Africa. I couldn't find a MacGregor tartan kilt to fit, so had to slum it in a suit. But it was a marvellous evening, complete with pipes and haggis - imported of course. There is no haggis africanus as far as I know.

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  4. Another little known fact about haggis pups is their manes were used back in the 1980's to create Mullet wigs. 'Haggiwigs' were exported all over the world from Scotland. The industry was forced to stop using the animals pelts after protests from animal cruelty group PETA, which in turn led to the decline in popularity of the haircut. To this day it is near impossible to locate a hairy haggis on general sale, except in one butcher's shop on Skye.

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