January and early February can be a rough timr. After the champagne glasses have been washed and returned to the cabinet following New Year’s Eve, it sometimes seems there’s not much to do but hunker down and wait for spring. So, when word spread around the office that a few special kegs of oatmeal stout were to be tapped in honor of Robbie Burns I made one of my rare visits to the pub to get a pint or two before they ran out. I’m glad I got there early.
Not long after I’d settled into a seat in the corner and gotten my first taste of the stout . . . smooth as a baby’s bum it was, with a hint of chocolate in the finish and a head so creamy you’d swear you could whip it; but I digress . . . as I was savoring the stout the door burst open and a lanky fellow in a kilt arrived. He was leading a rag tag lot of close to forty. Tartans were in great abundance and there was no doubt that this self-selected voluntary clan was out to celebrate the poet laureate of Scotland with a Burns Supper here in the Pub. No idea where they came from given that the nearest village is twenty miles away from us!
What a sight they were. They ranged in age from a few who seemed to have slipped off from Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sporting their class emblems, to geezers with plenty of grey in their hair but spry of step and bright of eye. There was one bespectacled professorial chap in a tartan tie that you wouldn’t have noticed save for his face being painted blue. Some of the younger lot seemed to be returning to the old ways and sported druidic looking tattoos. By the time they all tumbled through the door there wasn’t a seat left.
I found myself sharing the corner with a few of them including a raffish young witch who tucked a fiddle case carefully behind her. Close by there was a hale fellow with a big drum, a balding gent with guitar and fiddle cases along with a book of Burns poetry, a wee little Goth lass and a vibrant woman who seemed to have forgotten that her lineage was more likely to include a leprechaun or two rather than Wallace or Bruce.
The ostensible head of this clan was enjoying his role as toastmaster, but it was clear that his lovely lady was really the one in charge. Belying the stereotype of Scots’ parsimony, I noted that the pub keeper was handed a well-weighted purse and told to keep the food and drink coming for one and all. Serving trays with steaming dishes were brought in and carried out to the kitchen to wait their proper serving time. And it seemed that for every one of the visiting crowd there also appeared a bottle of single malt; there were Highland, Lowland, and Islays of every description. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, what a night this is going to be!’ as Reynard poured a dram of a peaty 16 year-old Highland, refilled my stout and handed me a steaming mug of cock-a-leekie soup.
Now, I’d read a little about Burns Suppers and knew there were Burns Societies that held highly ritualized and formal affairs with specific toasts and a format that must be followed. One of the visitors explained that their approach was instead predicated on having the kind of party they assume Burns would have enjoyed, ‘Food and drink in abundance, shameless flirtation, jokes and poems, song and sentiment, how can you go wrong?’
Periodically someone would ring their glass to gather attention so that they might offer a toast or read a bit of Burns. A funny youngster with the ears of an orange tabby cat read the bard’s paean to the ritual center piece of the meal, haggis, that amalgam of oats and sheep parts you don’t want to know about, upon its emergence from the kitchen.
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!
A boon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang ‘s my arm.
Somehow, my own interest in the stuff waned at the lines:
Tenching your gushhing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
The several regular players in the Neverending Session were much expanded by the many guests who brought out instruments of all sorts once the haggis course was over and a sufficient quantity of single malt had been consumed. The lovely young witch with the fiddle case who sat in my corner played bewitchingly indeed. There were singers and dulcimer players and drummers and fiddlers. (Fortunately, no one brought bagpipes.) The material ranged from the expected, Burns’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘John Barleycorn’, to the incongruous, ‘Rocky Raccoon’ seemed to be traditional with this crowd.
Well, as I said, I had just gone down to get a pint of oatmeal stout with every intention of leaving when the pint was gone. Instead, it was nearly three in the morning when I stumbled out the door. By then the pub was definitely out of stout, not to mention low on brown ale and a few other provisions. I was stuffed with haggis and salmon, tatties and ‘neeps, shortbread and Dundie Cake, all of which moderated the many wee drams of single malt that had been pressed upon me. (I tried to resist, really.) I’d heard poems by Burns and a few other Scotsmen, but I swear someone read Ginsberg or Kerouac, too. All in all, I think Burns would have enjoyed himself.
Now, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we might yet make it to Spring.