Imagine a country where a poet is one of the most valued national treasures; a place that sets aside a night of drinking, eating and poetry reading in order to keep his memory alive. The place in your imagination is not America. Americans would never think of designating a night of celebration in honor of a literary figure. The birth of Jesus, the founding of the country or its independence are the sorts of events that we celebrate with overconsumption; not the birth of a poet. But in Scotland, things are different.
Robbie Burns Night is a Scottish tradition celebrating the birth of Scotland’s most beloved bard. Observed on or around January 25th, it involves the reading of Burns’ poetry, the drinking of whiskey and the eating of haggis. The parties thrown on this occasion range from the informal to black tie, and the first week that I was in Glasgow, my nephew invited me to one of the more formal affairs. I had not heard of this tradition before, and so I was not clear on what to expect. However when I told some of my other Scottish relatives about the invitation, they all nodded in an approving manner, all saying the same thing: “Aye, you’ll enjoy that.” And I did enjoy it; although it was an enjoyment that would be had at the cost of a terrible hangover.
The event took place in the Grand Central Hotel in downtown Glasgow. It was a fundraiser in support of Kiltwalk, an organization that raises money for various children’s charities, and it was hosted by Cat Cubie, a local television weatherperson, and Ally Bally, a radio personality. The hotel is attached to the central train station, and the first indication I had that this would be a night of overconsumption was when my nephew and his wife, after picking me up, left their van in a nearby parking garage, telling me that we would be taking a taxi home. Sure enough, the first thing that greeted us were mixed drinks as we entered the hotel lobby to socialize and await the start of the festivities.
As we stood in the lobby, sipping our drinks and being introduced to one another, I felt strangely relaxed and somewhat detached; like an anthropologist scrutinizing an especially interesting, yet unfamiliar, culture. Though the gathering was a mixture of both men and women, the atmosphere felt very masculine. There was some irony in this, from an American point of view, as a good portion of the men were dressed in kilts. These kilts, however, projected not the least bit of femininity or softness. Quite the contrary. The individuals who were so dressed moved about in a way that, while not necessarily aggressive, was self-assured, confident and proud. And there was something more going on here than the confidence you feel when you put on formal wear. It was deeper than that; as if by wearing their kilts these men were participating in a holy event. These were their vestments, and by wearing them they took on a special status that channeled an unspoken history and culture. By proudly wearing their kilts they were doing something much more than I was doing by wearing a suit. I was simply paying tribute to the formality of the event with my attire, but by wearing kilts these men were embodying the essence of the event. They made the spirit of the Burns Night come alive, and their kilts seemed to channel the pride they felt in being Scottish. There was no irony, no sense of anachronism in how they were worn. Instead, it felt as if in this place the kilt was a sign of seriousness and reverence. The atmosphere felt religious, as if we were in a place special and different from the rest of the mundane world. It was a place where Scottishness was worshipped.
There is a structure to the Burns Night Supper that I was not aware of at the time. After the short period of drinking and socializing, the second part of the evening commenced with a bagpiper who began playing as we were ushered into the grand hall and to our seats at the dinner table. Once seated, the assembled revelers were admonished from the stage by Cat Cubie to “drink until ye canna tell your heid frae yer arse!” At the appropriate moments in her command she pointed towards her head (heid) and then at her butt (arse). And thus the alcoholocaust commenced. As we feasted on haggis, tatties and neeps, the drinking was continuous.
Wine was poured and buckets of beer arrived at the table at a consistent and steady pace. There was also whiskey, which I was careful to avoid as I knew that once I began drinking that, a blackout would soon follow. Things became fuzzier and more surreal as the night wore on and the booze had its intended effects. The swirl of activity, the kilts, the singing and the dancing all viewed through the haze of drink melded into something like a dream. This is the Scottish version of a peyote ritual. A hidden reality came forth revealing the unity of everyone in the room. There was no ill will, no suspicion and no hostility. Everyone blurred together as brothers and sisters. All were one.
Through this haze, I recall the appearance of a vision from my childhood: Oor Wullie materialized, hamming it up with Cat Cubie and Ally Bally. Oor Wullie is a comic character whose adventures I adored when I was a kid. He is a little, blonde, spike haired boy who looks like a miniature Johnny Rotten. He wears big boots and dungarees with suspenders. He speaks in a thick Scottish brouge, sits on a bucket and is always in trouble with the local policeman, PC Murdoch. This is the Scottish version of Denis the Menace, and here he was at the Burns Night Supper, manifesting like a religious vision. I was aware that people were bidding on the opportunity to appear in one of Oor Wullie’s new comic strips, but I was too transfixed by this apparition and his enigmatic presence to even think about money.
After the departure of Oor Wullie, I recall speeches. Only later would I learn that tradition dictates there be speeches by both a man and a woman. The man is supposed to offer remarks about women, and the woman is supposed to make comments about men. This is good Scottish fair play apparently. While I cannot remember all that was said, there were some words so stunning they became burned into my memory, scorching my psyche like lightning bolts from another dimension. Cat Cubie’s recitation of some particularly dirty poetry by Robbie Burns referred to a woman’s “gash” and how she wanted it filled with something “as big as a baby’s forearm.” These were words from the greatest poet in Scotland, and as one of the other hosts said afterwords, “You will never be able to watch Cat Cubie’s weathercast in the same way again.” In other words, we had all been transfigured by this mystical event.
There was a point at which all thinking and reflection ceased for me. I was just there, being with others and feeling like something strange and mysterious was unfolding all around me. Only impressions remain; people dancing together; a very tall kilted man who stepped aside, smiling, as I passed by; the earthiness; a passive feeling of abandonment to an encroaching void; contentment. I hope death feels something like this.
This celebration was all about words; poetic words that are cherished by the people of Scotland because they are written in the Scot’s venacular and because they encapsulate the Scottish spirit. These words embody what it means to be Scottish, and yet by the end of the Burns Night Supper, I was almost unable to speak. I was reduced to a babbling, emotional fool embraced by warm nothingness.