Rabbie Burns Rules Okay – a Foray into a Familiar Foreign Culture

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.

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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.

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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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Poetry, Seasonal Reflections, Traditions

8 responses to “Rabbie Burns Rules Okay – a Foray into a Familiar Foreign Culture

  1. sunray52

    Scotch Whisky ! Whiskey is US and Irish

    Viele Grüsse/Kind regards

    Raymond Gann

    • Thanks for stopping in. My American spelling of whiskey is only consistent with my spelling as a whole. I believe I also wrote “savor” and “organize” – of course, only to rattle my more pedantic British followers. What can you expect from an American? A bit of provocation only seems fitting.

  2. Sue

    …and now I’ve had my “European culture” class for the week! Sounds like a delightful event/evening – so glad you had Suzie with you after hearing that the glasses were “charged” in the entry lobby. What in the world did my poor sweet niece find to wet her wihistle all that long evening? Oh, by the way, did your loving Englishman wear a suitable kilt?? I’m sure not!
    S.

    • I fear “poor” Suzie had to stick to water. But she never ever drinks alcohol anyway! So it was not a huge sacrifice. And as for my Englishman, he wore dinner jacket and bow tie. It wouldn’t be fitting for him to wear a kilt.
      It really was a jolly evening and fun to spent it with all those at the Watson Clan table!

  3. Alison

    Raymond beat me to the comment about the spelling of “whisky”! It doesn’t matter if you spell the rest of your piece incorrectly, but that should never be mixed up with the US and Irish varieties. Having said that, if I do ever actually drink it, I mix it up with ginger ale, which just shows what a dreadful Scot I am! If you want to try understanding a Burns’ poem, I suggest “To a
    Louse”, especially the last verse.

    • Hi Alison,
      You being the one genuine Scot in my circle of friends, I will concede the spelling issue. But I still feel that spelling is secondary. Especially when the Brits get on their high horses about American usage. But I should save that rant for another post. As to whisky with ginger ale, to each his/her own. For my part I’d rather sniff it than drink it.
      Burns’ “To a Louse” was in the evening’s program. I will go back and read it to the end. I must admit that struggling through his lines is hard work. But his ideas are fine indeed. Cheers! Debbie

  4. The Cooktown Hash House Harriers always celebrates Burns Night, out here in Queensland, on the shores of the Coral Sea. This year we had (Polish) haggis and a piper, after doing our weekly run in the jungle. Doesn’t make any sense at all, but it is fun.

    • Hi Jacqueline! Thanks for your input on this Aussie version of Burns’ night. While we were freezing our tushies off, getting to Frankfurt’s venue, you were sweating on a jungle run. Love it! Also love the idea of Polish haggis . Cheers, Debbie

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