This weekend Heather and I attended our first ever Burns Supper at the home of Bill Telford and his gracious wife Andrena. The supper is a time to remember the work of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns (known for poems and songs like ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘O my love’s like a red, red rose’), and that it involves haggis and lots of toasts (that each of us present gave). This is a quite traditional Scottish experience, which seems to be a mixture of the US Fourth of July for its nationalism, Thanksgiving for its prescribed meal, a wedding reception for its toasts, and the Dead Poet Society for the interest in reading poetry.
The meal begins with the piping in of the haggis (i.e., carrying it in with bag pipes playing) and an address to the haggis, which serves as the central item of dinner along with neeps and tatties (turnips/swede and potatoes, both mashed). You may be asking yourself, what is a haggis? According to a book from Dr. Telford:
The haggis as Burns knew it and as we know it today is a tribute to the Scottish gift of making something of excellence out of cheap materials. Its ingredients are heart, lights and liver, beef-suet, oatmeal and onions minced together and sewn into a large stomach bag of a sheep.
— Johnnie Walker’s Burns Supper Companion
I confess that I was quite scared of it, but it ended up having a similar consistency to black beans and rice, and tasted pretty good. After dinner, Dr. Telford gave the keynote address–the Immortal Memory, in which he shared the highpoints of Burn’s life and work. We each had a toast to contribute. Mine was Tae the Lassies, which follows in Burn’s path of love for women. It’s partly a roast of women but then concludes with things we find more positive. The sticking point is that it is supposed to be one of the more humourous toasts. Fortunately, mine seemed to come off well, along with the others that were given.
After the toasts, a few people shared other random poems, of which Shel Silverstein was a favourite. Dr. Telford gave a quite dramatic reading of Burn’s Tam O’Shanter, supported with a slide show, which was helpful since most of Burn’s poetry is in broad Scots–a variation of English but with local vocabulary and a bit of Scottish-phonetic spelling.
It was a great experience and are very grateful for the opportunity to share it with the Drs. Telford and a few other Durham postgrads. As it was the 250th aniversary of his birth, this was a special one to have as our first.