Anyone who has a whisper of Scottish heritage will be aware that 25 January is Burns Night, that annual celebration of three of Scotland’s great loves: the poetry of the Bard of Ayrshire, strong drink and offal. Scots, like all Celts, like to indulge in some slightly mawkish emotion, and the cold temperatures and dark evenings of January seem an ideal time to wallow in some homesickness and/or national pride.
You will find Burns Clubs all over Scotland, of course, and in many Caledonian establishments south of the border, but they are farther-flung too: Winnipeg, Milwaukee, Melbourne. All of them, more than 250, are connected by the Robert Burns World Federation, perhaps the best example of Scottish imperialism. The first Burns supper was held in Alloway in 1801, nine men sitting down to a meal of haggis and sheep’s head. They have not moved on so very far, though women are now welcomed and there are usually alternatives for those who can’t quite face a meal so heavily based on innards.
The key ingredients to a successful Burns supper are relatively simple. There ought to be haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes: this is not haute cuisine), whisky to drink and at least some guests with a working knowledge of Burns’s poetry: the Selkirk Grace, a traditional Scots observance from the 17th century, usually opens proceedings, and the centrepiece is the arrival of the haggis, accompanied by a piper, and the recitation of Burns’s Address to a Haggis, usually by one of the more flamboyant and outgoing celebrants.
This is, of course, the first Burns Night since the covid pandemic fully hit Europe, and the UK is mostly under lockdown, so there will not be raucous and convivial gatherings of tartan-bedecked revellers clutching bottles of Speyside and Island whisky. No overheated halls, tight collars and sweaty foreheads, no acres of thick tartan, no dancing or reeling. Like most other aspects of life, many suppers have been transferred to the virtual world, and will be enjoyed in small boxes on a laptop screen.
Perhaps we will, in some way, be given the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, then, across Zoom or Teams or some other teleconferencing platform. We must take our cups of kindness on our own or in our support bubbles, and enjoy the community, the fraternal feeling that Burns at his best brings out, across the ether.
It may be a timely reminder of the power of friendship and the durability of its bonds. One of Burns’s most famous poems explicitly asks this question:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne?
The answer should be a resounding no, and the way we have adapted to the pandemic suggests that we are a resilient species. It has of course been horribly difficult for some, and loneliness is an affliction we must all guard against, but what has been heartening is how many friendships have been rekindled and deepened in these times of crisis.
So if you are attending a virtual Burns supper, do so with joy, and fondness, and friendship. Strip away the flummery, the tartan and rough scent of whisky on hot breath, and the occasion is reduced to its essence. It is the human condition, as Burns understood very well.
But deep this truth impress’d my mind:
Thro’ all His works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.
Scots around the world may not feel especially God-like in the aftermath of Monday’s revelry, but they will have shared a special bond, however strained by distance. Location is a geographical accident. Where ye feel your honour grip, let that aye be your border.