Our stay in Edinburgh coincided with the birthday of Scotland’s beloved poet Robert Burns on 25 January. On Robert Burns Day – also known as Robbie Burns Day and Burns Night – Burns Suppers are held everywhere. That we had to experience a Burns Supper was without question. Which supper we went to was the issue.
A celebration of the life and poetry or poet Robert Burns, more affectionately known as ‘Rabbie Burns’, a Burns Supper can be quite a formal event with bagpipe performances, feasting and folk dancing, or more casual affairs, where the focus is on the poetry and life of the poet.
Whatever form they take, they generally follow a similar format, starting with some words of welcome, followed by the Selkirk Grace, a thanksgiving speech made before the meal in the Scots language, entertaining speeches about the poet’s life, toasts to Burns, and to ‘the Lassies’ who prepared the meal, various recitations of poetry by Burns aficionados, and much singing of Burns songs by everyone present.
The most important speech of the night is the Address to the Haggis, Scotland’s quintessential dish of haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes), as the haggis is brought out on a platter and shown to the guests. The haggis is served, guests toast the haggis, and all of this is accompanied by much sipping of Scotland’s famous malt whisky.
After consulting almost every person we met in Edinburgh we decided to opt for a fairly casual Burns’ Supper organised by the Scottish Storytelling Centre, at a cosy traditional pub on the Royal Mile, The Tass.
Whisky, Haggis and Storytelling at a Burns Supper in Edinburgh
Performed by professional storytellers Linda Bandelier, David Campbell and Donald Smith, and written by Donald Smith, our Burns Night turned out to be an entertaining evening of drama that skilfully interwove stories about Burns’ life with his songs and poetry within the traditional Burns Supper format, with plenty of whisky and haggis and storytelling.
The guests were an interesting mix of locals and tourists. At our table we had two American tourists in town for a short stay, two Frenchmen from Bordeaux, one of whom had been married to a woman from Edinburgh for five years but had never been to a Burns Supper, and a retired local couple, who’d only been to two Suppers in their lives.
“We felt it was time to experience more of our own culture,” the husband, a retired financial advisor, explained. And they were loving what they were experiencing, singing along to all the songs with the other Scottish folk in the room.
Although we didn’t know the words of the songs, nor were we familiar with Burns poetry, the performances were moving. It was obvious the poet’s words and lyrics were deeply affecting many of the locals in the room. When we were all asked to stand and join hands at the end of the evening to sing Auld Lang Syne, which brought the programme to an end, I actually had to wipe a tear from my eyes, so caught up was I in the emotion of the evening.
Over a whisky at the bar at the end of the night, we commented to storytellers Linda and David that we found it fascinating and heartwarming to observe how Burns, a poet born in 1759, still touched people’s lives.
“There is definitely a resurgence of interest in Burns,” David told us. “Burns writing is increasingly relevant today, with the threat of global warming and the threat to animals – especially the fear of extinction of animals such as the tigers – and the damage we’re doing to the environment. Burns had a real concern for nature and the environment.”
“Burns was also concerned about people getting along with each other,” David elaborated. “Burns was an internationalist. He had a sense of egalitarianism and he believed in freedom. He believed in the real worth in the heart of man, and within himself, and he extols the virtues of man in his poetry. His humanity was incredible and that really captures people’s imaginations. His humour is also incisive, even today.”
We asked them why storytelling is still so strong in Scotland.
“Oral tradition is very strong here,” Linda agreed. “It’s been kept alive by the Scots, especially by the travelling people who weren’t educated and whose culture was oral. We also have a rich literary culture and active literary scene. Even today, stories and storytelling is a recognised part of education.”
“Stories move people to relive what they experienced when they were young,” David added. “They make you think you were there and you believe you were there, even though you just heard the stories when you were young. They’re a replication of life in your imagination. They address life ‘eye to eye, mind to mind, heart to heart’.”
We were interrupted by an elderly gentleman who came over to speak to David: “I just want to thank you,” he told him. “I’m going to go home to Leicester and buy a book of Burns’ poetry. The way you presented it… it was just great. It was really great.”
And it was great. We made a note to buy a book of Burns’ poetry.
Scottish Storytelling Centre
43-45 High Street/The Royal Mile
1 High Street/The Royal Mile