My family has Irish heritage on both sides, and Scottish on one, maybe both. All I know is that I’ve mostly closely aligned myself with the Irish part, since it is fun (St. Patrick’s Day!) and convenient (fair skin and freckles!) When my mom asked me if I wanted to attend a Burns Supper with her and dad, I ticked off the family names in my head trying to figure out which clan we’d be representing exactly. Kelly? No. McNeil. Nay.
I knew very little about what to expect at a Burns Night, celebrating the life of Scotland’s favorite son, Robert Burns. Don’t know who he is? Yes you do. He wrote Auld Lang Syne, Tam O’Shanter and is responsible for about a million and a half common phrases such as “of mice and men,” if I’m to believe the emcee.
My mom asked if I wanted to go, and I said sure. Next thing I knew my sister was making plans to fly in from Arizona and there was talk of ordering tartan scarves and…. I didn’t realize there was so much preparation. Actually, there wasn’t, because I had pneumonia all week and figured I was lucky just to show up and stay upright during dinner, correct tartan be damned.
So here’s how it goes. The pipers (best part of any Celtic occasion, bar none) march in with the chef who is carrying the haggis. (No, I didn’t eat any, are you crazy?) The emcee recites Burns’ Address to the Haggis and everyone toasts with Scotch whiskey. (Except people taking antibiotics for pneumonia. They toast with ice water and avoid looking directly at the haggis.) Then there’s a dinner which is usually haggis, tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips) and more whiskey. Our Burns Supper was Americanized with the addition of chicken, salad and prime rib.
After dinner, there is a Toast To the Lassies and a return Toast to the Lads. The emcee speaks about Burns’ life (short) and times (bawdy). There were more recitations of Burns’ work, harp music, Celtic fiddle and more pipes.
At the beginning of the evening, I ordered a Rob Roy and that sad little drink sat untouched, ice melting, for five hours while I instead sipped water and tried not to think about haggis. I had a good time, but I bet the experience would have been all the richer with a little uisge beatha.