Written by Fiona Longmuir

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Feel the Burns

Tonight is Burns Night, so we asked Fiona Longmuir to metaphorically raise her glass to the Bard of Scotland. (She’ll be doing it literally later.)

Illustration to Robert Burns' poem Halloween by JM Wright and Edward Scriven.

Illustration to Robert Burns’ poem Halloween by JM Wright and Edward Scriven.

In 1801, a group of friends gathered together in a tiny cottage in Ayrshire to eat good food, enjoy good company and have a raucous great party in memory of a friend who would surely have approved of all these things. The gathering marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, and would start the tradition of the Burns Supper that carries on in Scotland today.

I’ve been to a lot of Burns Suppers in my time. There were the painstakingly organised primary school Suppers, filled with stilted, hesitant readings as we tried to wrap our tongues around a language that was so familiar and yet so alien to us.

One year, my entire class performed a rousing rendition of The Jeely Piece Song, a mournful ballad about jam sandwiches, only to be snippily informed by our headmistress that Burns most certainly did not write it. We wore kilts. We dithered and blushed as the ceilidh gave us our first ever excuse to take the hands of the people we fancied. One year, a girl fell over during an overly enthusiastic Highland fling. My mum caught the whole thing on camera.

Once we moved up to secondary school, Burns Suppers became a much more promising affair. Only the seniors in school were invited as guests – the juniors were hired as waiters. We took this job with glee, as it provided an excuse to sneak a peek at what really went down.

“Burns captures something quite wonderful about the Scottish condition in his work: a reputation for loving too freely, too fiercely, an unshakable loyalty, a lifelong tie with his country, a bittersweet awareness of how fleeting our happiness can be.”

I threw a plate of soup all over the most handsome boy in our school, so flustered was I at the sight of his knobbly knees in a kilt. Such is the power of the garment. When finally our turn came, it lived up to all expectations. The haggis was horrifying, as school dinners are wont to be. We’d shrugged off our adolescent awkwardness enough to attack the ceilidh dances with the ferocity they deserve.

The mocking Toast Tae the Lassies and the Reply were rife with barely constrained sexual tension and outrageous flirting, which the teachers kindly pretended not to notice. For the first time, I started to really listen to the poetry and for the first time; I found myself moved by it.

The non-obligatory Burns Suppers have been even broader in range. I’ve danced for hours in crazy, whisky-soaked all-nighters. I’ve watched in horror as my stepdad ate deep fried haggis from the chip shop.

I’ve shed tears as I’ve understood the beauty of Burns’s poetry. He captures something quite wonderful about the Scottish condition in his work: a reputation for loving too freely, too fiercely, an unshakable loyalty, a lifelong tie with his country, a bittersweet awareness of how fleeting our happiness can be.

When I think back on all of these different Burns Suppers, this is the thread that runs through each of them. Not just the poetry itself, but the ideas that the poems are built on. Seizing the moment. Stopping to look around at the world. Taking love where you can. The importance of friendship.

Robert Burns as painted by Alexander Nasmyth.

Robert Burns as painted by Alexander Nasmyth.

Friendship is a constant theme in Burns’s poetry, from the ill-fated drunkenness of Tam and Souter Johnny in Tam O’Shanter to the lifelong bond between friends in John Anderson, My Jo and even that warm-hearted stalwart of Hogmanay parties everywhere, Auld Lang Syne.

The first ever Burns Supper was a gathering of friends and I feel very privileged that as I’ve grown from my stuttered reading of the Sair Finger (which Burns also did not write – I don’t know how our headmistress survived us) to my impassioned Immortal Memory speech as a young adult, I’ve been surrounded by my friends.

Gather your nearest and dearest this Burns Night. Sit close to each other and talk loudly about what makes life so precious. Read beautiful poetry. Eat wonderful food. Charge your glasses often and don’t forget to raise a dram to friendship and to the immortal memory of the incomparable Robert Burns.

@EscapologistFi

Last year, Susan Calman told us about her Burns love. Read it here.
And Claire Goodwin made an offally smashing Burns’ feast. Recipe here.

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Written by Fiona Longmuir

Fiona Longmuir is a professional storyteller, reluctant adult and aspiring funny girl. When not getting naked in tube stations and binge-watching inappropriate TV shows, she can be found scribbling at the Escapologist's Daughter.