Wednesday 25 January 2012

Rabbie Burns Day

Today is my sister’s birthday and the birthday of one of my grandsons.  That’s cause enough for celebration at our house.  Worldwide, though, people of Scottish descent have another occasion to celebrate:  Today is Robbie (Rabbie) Burns day.

Robert Burns is considered by many to be Scotland’s greatest bard.  His first book, "Poems- Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - Kilmarnock Edition" was published when he was 27, and within weeks he was propelled to national fame, becoming known as the Ploughman Poet. 

Although his poems are well known and oft-recited, the folk songs Burns collected (and sometimes  revised, expanded, and adapted) for the Scottish Musical Museum are considered to be his greatest achievement.  In total, it’s believed that he contributed more than 200 songs to the collection (1/3 of the entire collection) and edited many more. Many of the songs he collected had been part of the culture for centuries but only as a verbal tradition.  Until he recorded them, they'd never been written down and had he not compiled them for the museum's collection those songs might well be lost to us now.

Burns’ personal life was colourful.  He was the son of a tenant farmer and grew up in poverty.  He laboured hard on the farm and the harsh conditions left him with chronic health problems.  Besides writing, Burns attempted and failed to continue running the farm after his father's death, planned to emigrate to Jamaica but then changed his mind, and worked as an excise man.   He was a heavy drinker (some say alchoholic) who fathered 12 children—6 illegitimate—in his 37 years.  His last child was born the day of his funeral. 

There’s some speculation about the manner of Burns’ death.  Some documents say he died of rheumatic fever, others that he died from an infection arising from a tooth extraction.  However he died, he left behind him a body of writing that uniquely portrays the Scottish culture.  

A few years after his death, a group of Burns’ close friends held a memorial dinner on January 25th (Burns’ birthdate).  Over the 19th and 20th centuries, a cult of personality grew around Burns and the tradition of the Burns supper was widely adopted.  Scots carried the tradition with them when they emigrated.  Robbie Burns day is now celebrated the world over. 

Despite its growth and travels, the basic format and menu for the Burns supper remains unchanged: 

The chairman makes the opening address.  A few welcoming words are said and then the Selkirk Grace is recited.
The company are asked to stand to receive the haggis. A piper then leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table, while the guests accompany them with a slow handclap. The chairman or invited guest then recites Burns' famous poem “To a Haggis” with great enthusiasm. When he reaches the line 'an cut you up wi' ready slight', he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife.
 It's customary for the company to applaud the speaker then stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.[1]

The Burns Dinner menu traditionally includes:

At our house, we’re more likely to celebrate January 25th with birthday cake than haggis but we do pause a moment to think about our Scottish friends and family, to extend a wish for a happy Burns’ Day, and to raise a glass in honour of our Scots heritage.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

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