Robert Burns Birthday

I'd never heard of a Burns Supper until Donna's cousin and his wife arrived in the Washington area for his assignment at the Pentagon.  They'd been out west at Beale AFB near Sacramento, CA where he was flying U-2s and working in a senior management position.  They'd gotten together with a group of friends for the previous two years in late January to celebrate the January 25th birthday of Robert Burns and wanted to continue the tradition here in Northern Virginia.


There were 14 of us this year to pay honor to the one of Scotland's most famous songwriter/poets.  This year was especially important to the hundreds of groups all over the world that celebrate his birthday.  That's because it's the 200 year anniversary of his death on July 21, 1796 with festivities planned all summer around the world but especially in Southern Scotland.


The Supper is a structured affair that requires participation of several of the attendees.  Our gathering was a coat and tie event but many places it is formal with black tie or tartan tie.  What is a tartan?  It's the interwoven pattern of colors that signifies a particular clan.  At our event, however, anything that looked Scottish was appropriate.


The clan system of Scotland started around the 12th century.  Tartan's complex design of interwoven patterns and the interplay of colors reflect the intricate nature of Celtic art.  Different colors and varying patterns began to develop as the weavers in each area or clan developed their individual patterns and colors used depended on the dyes available in the area.  So particular styles of tartan began to be associated with an area or clan.  Following the disintegration of the clan system after the second Jacobite rising in 1745, the wearing of tartan became illegal, except in Highland Regiments.  The old loyalties never truly died away and building on the honor achieved by the courageous fighting of the Highland Regiments, the wearing of tartan began to be endorsed by the Royal Court.  This, combined with the dispersal of the Scots due to the Highland Clearances carried the story of Tartan to a global stage. 


Even the food that is served at the Supper is consistent from year to year.  It begins with Cock-A-Leekie Soup which is leeks with a prune in each bowl.  This is followed by the piping of the Haggis.  We were fortunate to have access to one of the attendees workmates who could play the bagpipes.  Dressed in complete Scottish attire, including the Kilt, he arrived to play three tunes and then while we gathered around the dinner table he played while leading a procession of the host and the cook carrying the Haggis.  The Haggis is an object of much discussion.  This one was flown overnight from Dixon, CA to be consumed at our supper.  If not consumed at least, "picked-at."  The reason that one was not purchased locally is because the State of Virginia has laws against selling them.  And why?  Because Haggis is a sheep's stomach filled with ground meats from internal organs.


As it is placed before the host there is a Scottish toast to the Haggis by the host and at one point he takes a knife and slices it open.  Those Suppers where the host is in Scottish attire he pulls his dirk (knife) from the scabbard in his woolly (sock) to slice it open.  The Haggis is served with champit tatties, neeps an' nips.  That's mashed potatoes and rutabagas.  By mixing some of the mashed potatoes with a bit of the Haggis I was able to eat most of mine.  Of course it didn't appear like it because my sister-in-law, Marilyn, secretly moved her Haggis to my plate when she thought I wasn't looking.  It must be an acquired taste for several of the participants finished all of theirs and commented that it was the best Haggis they had eaten.


The previous was just the appetizer.  The main course is called Stirk Pie wi' a' the trimmin's.  It was a meat pie with a carrots and string beans on the side.  Dessert was called a Tipsy Laird Trifle.  A trifle is layered with a sponge cake on the bottom soaked with raspberries and brandy, a custard next, and a thick whipped cream top.  It was the high point of the bill o'fare.


Now it was time for the clatter.  I had been asked to begin this portion of the program with a presentation which is always called, "The Immortal Memory".  It is usually the most lengthy of the speeches but I kept my remarks to a reasonable length.


I told about how Robert Burns was born in a two-room thatched cottage at Alloway, near Ayr in southwestern Scotland along the coast of the North Channel.  His father William (a deeply religious man) worked as a tenant farmer on a small market garden.  He was to be the eldest of seven children in all.  His education began at age six and was provided mainly by his father and an eighteen year old teacher hired by several local families to teach their children.  His mother Agnes was a great storyteller and also possessed a fine singing voice, qualities which probably were passed on to Robert and helped to inspire him to write the poems, stories and songs for which he became famous.  I talked about his youth, family, and friends and briefly about his literary works from age 14 until his untimely death at the relatively young age of 37. 


He was a common man that possessed the capability to create verse to celebrate the simple, and often earthly, love between man and woman, the pleasures of convivial drinking, and the fierce pride of the independent individual.  He was a keen observer of his fellow man and it is in this quality that he is recognized as one of the world's greatest poets.  He recognized the commonness of mankind and was able to put into simple words and phrases an intuitive understanding of the complex emotion of love.  The theme of his verses center around four main loves:  His love of land and Scotland, in particular, his love of the women of Scotland, his love of whiskey of Scotland, and his love for the social nature of man, usually lubricated by liberal amounts of whiskey.


Despite being a devout ladies man, having had several relationships and fathered several children, Robert settled down in 1788 when he finally took Jean Armour as his wife who bore him nine children. He farmed with his brother for a while until he got a job as an Exciseman or tax collector which provided more time for writing. 


He wrote for the enjoyment rather than for financial gain and friendship was more important than monetary wealth.  For example one of his friends was George Thomson who was a clerk to the Board of Trustees in Edinburgh.  Thomson was a musical amateur with the ambition to produce "A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs".  To this aim, he asked and received the co-operation of Burns.  During the rest of his life, Burns devoted his spare time to writing songs for this, and in fact supplied around 114 to Thomson.  Burns wanted no money for the songs, and was in fact offended when Thomson offered him an early 5 pounds, this was ironic as he and his family were later so stricken by poverty at the time leading up to his death, that he had to write a begging letter to a cousin to send him 10 pounds to cover a debt and keep him out of jail.


This was second such publisher Burns had helped.  Previously Burns had met an engraver and music-seller named James Johnson in Edinburgh.  Johnson had the first volume of "The Scots Musical Museum" ready when Burns first met him in 1787.  Johnson asked for Burns's co-operation. In the years following, Burns contributed over two hundred new songs of his own, and re-wrote many other songs for this work. The "Scots Musical Museum" was to grow to five volumes, the last of which contained "Auld Lang Syne" and was published after Burns death.


He was 37 when he died on July 21, 1796, of Endocarditis, a rare sometimes fatal infection of the lining of the heart cavity, heart valves and the bloodstream.  This may have been caused by the bouts of Rheumatic Fever he was suffering up to this point and possibly brought on by the heavy farm work he performed as a boy, not to mention that during his last days he bathed in the freezing waters of Solway Firth at Brow as part of what seems like a kill or cure remedy by his friend Dr Maxwell.  The fact that he had a liking for a more than occasional dram may also have been a contributing factor, but who can blame him as he was so beset by illness in his final years.  Humorous to the end, he, tongue-in-cheek, requested, "Don't let the awkward squad fire over my grave", referring to the volunteer defense corps to which he belonged.  On July 25th he was buried with full military honors, including three straggling volleys fired by his rag tag brethren from the corps.


At the conclusion of my comments I asked the group to rise and drink a toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.  This was followed by a presentation by one of the ladies.  She is Scottish and a graduate of Edinburgh so she's well acquainted with Burns' writing and the places to which he refers.  She recited the poem called, “Tam O'Shanter”.  She started by telling what a few of the words meant in modern English and as she did the poem was highly animated helping people to understand what was happening.  The remainder of the evening involved several participants reciting poetry of Burns.  One of them involves a male member reciting a poem to "The Lasses" while a female member does "Reply frae the Lasses".  The program concluded with everyone standing and singing together “Auld Lang Syne”.  Which was fitting finale to an enjoyable and educational evening.