Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy Burns Day

Today Scots everywhere celebrate the life of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. He was, like a lot of us, a complex character. Yet, despite the complexities of his life he was able through his poetry to launch ideas which were enormous in his day and ever the more potent now. Because during his personal pilgrimage life Burns observed life. He spied with a shrewd eye the very nature of humanity in all of its failings. The outcome is his philosophy of life - humour, equality and tolerance. His writings punctured the stuck up pomposity of the upper classes, the rank hypocrisy of the church and the unfairness of the class system - but he always did so with humour, with a graphic word image and the directness that is the hallmark of the Scot.

So when several people over the last few weeks asked me "What are you going to do in Santiago to celebrate Burns Night on 25 January?"  The answer was simple - have a traditional Burns Supper. And so I did a few evenings ago. Here is the table at which 10 friends would sit, feast and enjoy the spirit of Scotland's bard.
I debated for a while how Scottish an affair it ought to be because sometimes I think there is nothing sadder than the image of a kilt wearing, whisky swilling, ex-pat singing "By yon bonnie banks" with the out of tune gusto of which only the half cut seem capable.  Perhaps, I thought, it should be more modern and international. Maybe some Burns poetry mixed in with Galician poetry and music? I tried that suggestion on a few Spanish friends here. They reeled in horror at my proposed act of vandalism and it became clear that the "we want a Scottish Burns supper" brigade would not take no for an answer.
So I set about assembling the ingredients. What you need for this traditional event to celebrate the life of Scotland's greatest poet:

Friends willing to participate by giving the various speeches and recitations
Good food including HAGGIS
Music and singing

The friends were the easiest as it turns out. I gave them a list and they volunteered for the speaking parts. However they all agreed that I should give the opening Address to the Haggis and following a splendid procession to bag pipe music I duly addressed the beast reciting from memory the traditional verse: Fair fa' your honest sauncie face, great chieften O the puddin' race."  At the appropriate verse I sliced the haggis to a cheer and then led the toast to the haggis with a...whisky.

That last bit is of course fiction - I was struggling to get the food ready for the assembled 10 guests all from the pilgrim world in Santiago and so I did what any modern Scot would do and played a video of a proper Address to the Haggis complete with pipe band.
After we had all said the Selkirk Grace together the first course was served, a tapa of haggis, turnip and mashed potato. These Gallegos. I think they are actually Scottish (either that or starving) because they wolfed it all down.

The big question of course was where had the haggis come from? The answer is the Internet where I have discovered that all sorts of Scottish delicacies can be delivered to order.

The rest of the dinner followed punctuated by singing and a further toast (with whisky) to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
Then as the fulsome dessert was served two of the guests Ruben and Elena prepared to do battle. Ruben had been chosen to propose the Toast to the Lassies and partner Elena to Reply on behalf of  the Lassies. They asked in advance what it was all about and I explained that the Toast to the Lassies is usually a light hearted commentary on the many good points and many failings of the female of the species....the Reply is generally a robust defence of womanhood and with a humerous send up of men.  From his pocket Ruben produce some closely typed sheets of paper. He had come prepared. With a flourish he launched forth in Spanish and spoke faster and faster the more excited he got. I picked up most of the key words, "female drivers...addicted to shopping...your mother, my mother in one can wear so many shoes". The gentlemen present thought it was hilarious and cheered when he reached his peroration. I, however, wondered if his strategy was not a little suicidal. The lassies were then duly toasted...with whisky.

Then Elena stood and fixing the enemy with a stare produced 9 pages of well prepared attack. As she listed  the many debits and few credits of the male of the species the women around the table joined in volubly in agreement. Boys toys, cars, gadgets, failure to contribute to the housekeeping or even remember a birthday all got a cheer from the women as Elena punched home every point. People sat with tears of laughter running down their faces. Everyone agreed the girls had won the day.

They also agreed that Burns Night will become part of the calendar in the pilgrim world here in Santiago for the future.

I'm off walking to recover from all of this. I'll tell you where I get to when I return in a couple of weeks. Meantime have a wonderful Burns Day and remember toast Robert Burns with a wee tot of Johnniewalker.


  1. It woud take a whole lot of whiskey drinking for me to eat that Haggis stuff. Does sound like you had a good time!