Last week-end we gathered together friends and family under our roof as part of the annual village celebration of Burns Night. The village is decidedly English in terms of ethnic mix for amongst the long-standing resident Staffordshire population there is just a sprinkling of Scots, Irish and Welsh amongst the immigrant population from Yorkshire, Lancashire and North Eastern counties such as Northumberland and Durham. Nevertheless, Burns Night is one of the nights in the village year so we were pleased to attend the 4 and a half hour event.
It is possibly the focus on all basic good things that appeals to so many. " Long may your chimney have smoke" declared our Scottish friend having been asked for a translation of the title; or in other words if you have smoke coming out of your chimney you must have heat and so you must have warmth in the home and a source of heat for cooking. Basic needs fulfilled. Except that our chimney contains a wood stove converted to natural gas. Somehow the appeal of having gas fumes emitting from the house doesn't have the same poetic ring to it.
It was the same with the food. The watery Scottish broth certainly didn't need the expertise of a hairy biker or Michelin starred TV chef. Just heat up everyday vegetables such as turnips, onions,carrots and parsnip in a large cooking pot and mix in a liberal amount of barley then serve with a bread roll. Even the mighty plastic bag bound haggis didn't contain many sophisticated items, though something in it was deliciously spicy. Served with mashed potatoes, mashed turnips and carrots and gravy - this proved to be a very filling and delicious meal. Raspberries for the sweet course and tea or coffee - that was the feast.
But there was much more to it than that. The evening began with a tot of whisky and a toast to Robbie Burns. A Gurkha piper resplendent in kilt and Scottish plaid toured the room piping the haggis towards the top table where a ceremonial dirk was used to test the consistency of the haggis. At least I think that was the idea. There was a spell of Gaelic muttering and eulogising before the stabbing but I didn't understand that and anyway there was a good supply of wine on the table. I did think the dirk was a good idea because when it came to cutting the bag of haggis for our table it took some time to get through the plastic with a table knife.
Then when everyone had finished eating the drone of bagpipes started up again and the piper marched back around the tables to the sound of enthusiastic clapping. He was a very ghurka looking Ghurka if you know what I mean, very intent on doing the job properly and clearly not prepared to accept anything less than total commitment.
Two speeches followed (or maybe they came before the piping - the wine was very good). First the local vicar gave a speech that paid tribute to the "lassies" though it did appear that Robbie himself had been a bit of a lad from the variety of sources quoted in the speech. It also contained unintended humour in the form of the sound engineer who was staring down forlornly at his un-used roving microphone, wondering how the vicar was managing to produce so much volume unaided. We all toasted the lovely ladies present, and opened another bottle of wine on our table. A very resplendent Scottish speaking, Scottish clad lady then gave a very sweet reply on behalf of the lasses, using the microphone and saying how lucky they were to have us blokes around. (Well that was my take on it.)
Next came the party game of clearing tables and chairs to the side of the room to create enough space for the Caledonian Society to demonstrate some Highland Dances.It was interesting that occupants of some tables chose to line up their chairs with backs to the wall and a good view of the floor across a defensive bank of tables in front. I think they already knew that after 3 dances the members of the Caledonian Society would then turn on the audience to 'persuade' more people to join their elegant hopping and skipping routines. What a great way to exercise! Most of those invited onto the floor lasted one dance before needing a rest. How amusing the scene must have been as confusion reigned for most dances. Choices had to be made about right and left; clockwise and anti-clockwise decisions were needed, then massively complicated manoeuvres called reels had to be attempted. I for one got a whole new insight into the term "reeling".
Simple food; simple dances but with good friends and family to share the experience. No wonder Burns Night is so successful - and our table even won the litre bottle of whisky in the raffle!