Some men in bow ties and dinner jackets, others wearing skirts shorter than most of the women have on. That was the scene Saturday night at the Masonic Lodge in Frankfurt (Main) that has served for 5 years running as the place to be come late January around the date of Rabbie Burns’ birthday. On this evening real-live-Scots and some wannabes, plus fans of Scottish country dancing and, above all, lovers of whiskey, donned their glad rags for a humble supper of haggis, neeps ‘n’ tatties. For the last four years, we have attended the Burns’ Supper, organized by the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany, and think it a grand event for kicking off the year. Of course, a true Scot would have already done that on New Year’s Eve by celebrating Hogmanay, but this serves us foreigners magnificently.
As guests approach the Masonic Lodge on the Kaiserstrasse, they are greeted by the sound of bagpipes and drum. The next greeting comes in the form of a golden nectar served in the foyer. I’m not a whiskey drinker – although I love sniffing it – but this time they are offering a Glenlivet, a smooth and mild tipple that even I savor.
Besides being a sociable evening with friends, the event revolves around Celtic traditions and the veneration of Scotland’s best-loved poet. Robert Burns (1759-1796) is a cult figure among his compatriots. Despite his short life and his modest roots, he wrote poetry and lyrics in the Scottish tongue but also sometimes wrote in a more accessible dialect or standard English. Rabbie was especially known as a lover of lassies and good whiskey. Which may partly explain his early demise.
Back to the haggis: For the uninitiated a haggis is a sheep’s stomach stuffed with ground innards, oatmeal and onions that is boiled in water and served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). Considering I don’t generally eat innards, I find it tastes surprisingly good. Which must mean it tastes nothing like liver, heart and whatever.
After the soup it’s time for said haggis. The piper pipes, the drummer drums and a procession enters the hall with the cook carrying the haggis aloft on a silver tray decorated with super-sized sparklers to electrify the darkened room. Then Clark McGinn, a genuine Scot flown in for the job, takes center stage and addresses the haggis by enacting Rabbie’s poem (“reciting” would be too understated a term). For us mere mortals, the only hope of understanding the words lies in reading the text in the program as Clark holds worth. (Sometimes the German translation is the only clue to the meaning.) Yet that would be a shame. Far better it is to listen to the sound of the archaic words and their musicality and watch the performance by a master of the art. At that moment the actual meaning is secondary.
After hunger has been satisfied and while thirst is still being addressed, the speeches begin. Andrew McNeill is the man of the evening. Andy is the incarnation of everything Scottish: full dress kilt, jacket and sporn. A beret is perched atop his white mane that flows unstoppably into his long fluffy beard. I spoke to him in the foyer at the outset and he told me he’d be speaking but it would just be ad lib. Well, he may be a Scot, not an Irishman, but he sure possesses the gift of the gab. He entertains us regally. His tales of Rabbie, spoken in a Scottish that even I can comprehend, are interspersed with the poet’s songs sung by Craig Herbertson, a man with a perfect voice for Burns’ music.
The next tradition follows: The address to the lassies by Clark McGinn, followed by the address to the laddies by Sarah Kelso. Both speakers understand their subjects and gladly tease and cajole with faint praise and well-aimed barbs. There’s nothing more to be done but reconcile the opposite sexes on the dance floor. The Frankfurt Scottish Country Dancing Club takes over and instructs the many willing participants in various choreographed dances. What feels like chaos at the start becomes a lilting dance experience. And the American in me clearly identifies the heritage from whence our square dancing developed.
But end the evening must, and how else but with a circle of guests singing Auld Lang Syne.
For some inexplicable yet understandable reason, Burns’ Suppers are proliferating all over Germany. Let’s charge our glasses and raise them for a final toast to Rabbie who made the world a more entertaining place and to the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany – especially to Susan Tackenberg and Neville Anderson – who sponsor and organize the event each year. Thanks so much for a glorious evening.