Burns suppers: neeps, tatties, and A Toast to the Lassies
January 25th is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, when Burns suppers are held in commemoration of the Scottish poet and lyricist. Despite being the national bard of Scotland, his influence spreads much further than those national borders, and his works have been translated into many languages including Russian and Czech. There are Burns clubs in such far-flung (in relation to rural Ayrshire, Burns’ birthplace) places as Atlanta and Dunedin, statues in Cheyenne and Melbourne, and Burns even appeared on a commemorative postage stamp issued in 1956 in the Soviet Union.
Many of us commemorate Burns at least once a year, perhaps without even realising it. It has become traditional, certainly in the UK but also in other parts of the English-speaking world, to sing Auld Lang Syne after heralding in a new year. Reflecting, as it does, on long-standing friendships, it lends itself to other occasions, such as weddings, graduations, and even funerals. Although it has become synonymous with Burns, he did state that it was a traditional folk song which he had written down rather than something he had composed. Whatever the origins, the song is now sung worldwide, in differing versions, at all manner of occasions.
The first Burns suppers took place on the anniversary of Burns’ death, in the month of July, but since the beginning of the 19th century, most take place on or around the 25th of January. Many are informal affairs, but there are also plenty more formal affairs, which follow a traditional format that has been in place for a long time. After the guests have arrived and been seated, the Selkirk Grace is said.
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 thankit.
Although strongly associated with Burns, this grace was already known in Scotland in the 17th century under a different name – the Covenanter’s Grace or the Galloway Grace. Its subsequent renaming and attribution to Burns is most probably down to Burns giving a rendition of it at a dinner attended by the Earl of Selkirk,
After a starter, which is usually a traditional Scottish soup like cock-a-leekie, it is time for the main event.
Gie her a haggis (unless she’s vegetarian)
The haggis is brought in to the accompanying skirl of the bagpipes, with all attendants upstanding for the entrance. The Address to the Haggis, penned by Burns, is then recited, and upon reaching the third verse, the speaker will plunge a knife into the haggis, cutting it open.
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Once a toast has been made, the throng sit down to enjoy the meal, accompanied by neeps and tatties. Afterwards, a traditional dessert of cranachan (whipped cream, whisky, oatmeal, honey, and berries), or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle) is served, and then the speeches begin.
Memories and lassies
The Immortal Memory could probably be described as the keynote speech of a Burns supper. It is not something that Burns wrote, but rather the speaker will deliver words on Burns’ life, his contribution to literature and society, touching on his political views, and commenting on his triumphs and failings. While essentially a serious speech with the intention of praising the man, it is usually delivered with plenty of humour
Burns had a great reputation as a ladies’ man, so it is entirely fitting that A Toast to the Lassies is given. This will usually touch upon his views on women, as well as women in general, in a good-humoured and tongue-in-cheek fashion. And swiftly following is the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, which allows the speaker to address any contentious points from the previous toast, also in a light-hearted way,
Interspersed throughout the evening there is usually entertainment in the form of songs and poetry. Burns was an extremely prolific writer, so there are plenty of pieces to choose from in this area. His most famous work is arguably Tam o’ Shanter, which describes the journey home, on horseback, of the eponymous Tam who has been in the pub for quite some time, and when he happens upon some supernatural beings enjoying a dance in a local kirk, instigates a thrilling chase home. The title has now passed into common parlance as a type of hat.
And of course the evening wouldn’t be complete without a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne.