Robert Burns Day

By Gregg Smith

As January slowly rolls along and winter deepens people fall into a rut. The warm glow of the holidays is a distant memory and the return of spring seems more a mirage than a possibility. Everything is gray, when it isn't snowing, and so is everyone's outlook. What's needed, of course, is a cause for celebration and an occasion to party. the Beer & Tavern Chronicle prescribes a time honored cure - Robert Burns Day. What follows is a complete plan including a menu, scotch recommendations and schedule of events, but first some background.

Born in 1759 at Alloway, Ayrshire in southwest Scotland Burns spent his early years working his father's farm not far from Auld Brig o'Doon (old bridge of Doon.) Standing five foot nine he had curly black hair tied in back, and a taste for both scotch and the ladies. In fact his first poem "My Handsome Nell", from age fourteen, was the beginning of scores he would compose to those who caught his eye.

Most famous of his works may be "Auld Lang Syne" but others are full of the fun that was Burns. Try a read of "Tam o' Shanter" and how the drink loving hero barely escaped a covey of witches and warlocks by fleeing over Auld Brig o' Doon (folk tales clearly state the spirits and devils can't cross running water.) Bobby lived life hard and fast, and some say it was whiskey aggravating rheumatic fever which drove him to an early grave. He died at the young age of 37, but his short life won the hearts of his fellow scots. More than 10,000 turned out to pay their last respects at his funeral in Dumfries.

Soon after his death a men's club he helped start, the "Tarbolton Bachelor Club" began celebrating his birthday with dinner and drinking, copiously punctuated by toasts and readings of Burn's poetry. Soon Robert Burns could be found everywhere and the tradition of dinner, poetry and drinking was the highlight of the year.

To host a Robert Burns party requires a few things, among them a disposition toward a good time, a book of some Burns poetry, a bottle of scotch (The Beer & Tavern Chronicle recommends single malt), and a dinner.

Begin your festivities with one of those light, airy and somewhat sweet malts from the lowlands of Burns' home. Try the light and perfumey Cardhu or the more dry finishing Glenkinchie. Then if dinner is to be served tradition beckons, and the true celebrant will be looking forward to that uniquely Scottish dish, the Haggis. If you've never before encountered one a warning may be in order. The dish is made from chopped sheep's heart, liver and lungs generously mixed with oatmeal, onions, suet, and spices all stuffed in a sheep's stomach casing. So loved was Haggis by Burns that he penned an enthusiastic poem "To a Haggis" which should be read as the delicacy is paraded to the table

"Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan 'o the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place.
Painh, tripe, of thairm
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's m arm."
Then for authenticity reach down past your kilt to draw a dirk (dagger) from your knee sock and carve up the noble Haggis. All this is done as the scene is presided over by an honor guard with the poles of long lochaber axes, and the dying goose-like sounds of stirring bagpipes. The first piece is presented to the president of the society along with a dram of scotch in a two handled cup called a quaich. You may elect to offset the richness of the Haggis with a scotch of more complexity and B&TC recommends the smooth starting Dalwhinne which goes to a building finish of peat, or the more full, sherried and aggressive character of The Macallan.

Okay, if all that seems a bit much you can settle for the scotch along with tatties and neeps another dish Burns was known to favor. It's a simple farmer's meal of mashed potatoes and turnips. In this case opt for a scotch only slightly "bigger" than those of the lowlands such as the flowery and smooth Cragganmore or the popular Glen Fiddich. Of course other societies and clubs substitute a variety of other meals, but it seems the common denominator is the poetry and scotch. After the meal say up a second grace from Burns

"We thank Thee for these mercies, Lord.
Sae far beyond our merits;
Noo, waiter lads, clear aff the plates,
An' fetch us in the spirits.'
It is then, just before dessert when it's time for a round of toasts. In general there is no set order or limitation but a suggestion might be to toast the country, the queen, all those in attendance and any other deserving the honor. The last of course is reserved to the work, art, and memory of the immortal Robert Burns. Those put off by the Haggis will no doubt find great relief in dessert. Try 'cranachan' a mix of oatmeal, raspberries, cream cheese, honey and whiskey. Go with a scotch that favors seaweed and peat. One from near the ilse of skye such as Talisker should do nicely.

Next come speeches, along with more scotch and cigars. Here it might be good to pick a scotch with an even bigger seaweed character of islay such as the big, hearty taste of a peaty, yet dry Lagavulin or any other big enough to stand up to the cigars. Other choices would be either Oban or Laphroig. The speeches should, of course, contain the lengthiest praise possible in honoring the exalted Mr. Burns, but if inspiration does not strike a favorite poem might work. Anything is appropriate from the sentimental "Comin Thro' the Rye" to the witty crowd pleaser "The Fornicator".

Don't hesitate to have the festivities last well into the night, after all, it only comes once a year. Continue the evening with scotch, Burns poems, scotch, toasts, another scotch, cigars, more scotch, additional speeches, and scotch yet again, leading to another quote of burns

"There let him browse, and deep carouse, wi' bumpers flowing o'er. Till he forgets his loves or debts, An minds his grief no more."
Perhaps an evening really isn't enough, by the time it's over you'll have developed an accent and wished you'd worn a kilt. Robert would have liked it that way.

Gregg Smith


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