Some things defy the descriptive efforts of the novice. Some experiences are so unique to a particular culture and history that those who stand outside can only gawk as visitors to a strange ritual.
I attended my first Burns Supper this past Friday night and found myself at the end of a cultural fire hose. I can speak of historical information and report on tradition but a Burns night Supper is not so much a recounting of history and tradition as it is a reminder, a reenactment, a communion feast of all that it is proudly Scottish.
Of course, Robert Burns was a poet, but so was the Titanic a boat. He was and is the “Bard of Scotland.”
This year Scotland celebrates its Homecoming and the 250th anniversary of Burns’ birth in 1759. And, as they do every year, the men of Scotland celebrate with the Supper in his memory.
There are some elements to the Supper essential to its proper execution: a toast to the Haggis, to the Lassies and to the immortal memory of the Bard himself. There are readings of his most famous works, songs to be sung, and speakers to host the event with hilarity and solemnity. All of it is centered on a good Scottish meal of haggis, neeps, tatties, steak pie, biscuits and cheese washed down with copious drink and bawdy jokes.
But, each celebration of the Supper is unique to the clubs that sponsor it. The essential liturgy is the same, but the words vary in length and content from place to place.
I am Scottish by birth but uniquely American in cultural experience. The Supper stirs something me, but here, I am only Scottish by invitation. I am a learner, a student, a plebe, never more so than with the actual readings of the poetry. The words are to me incomprehensible, as if spoken in a foreign tongue.
Many Scots have assured me that they too find Burns difficult; all the while forgetting that they at least had the privilege of learning Burns in fits and starts during their school years: if they miss the particulars they at least grasp the gist.
At the heart of the Scottish identity is the yearning for freedom and Scotland remembers its gory past and the bloodshed of its forbears with an almost macabre fascination. Burns’ poem “Scots wha’ hae’” captures its heart. (I welcome the corrections of my Scottish readers).
SCOTS WHA’ HAE (Scots who have and will)
Scots wha’ hae wi’ Wallace bled, (Scots who have with William Wallace bled and died)
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led, (Scots whom Robert the Bruce has often led)
Welcome to your gory bed (welcome to your grisly death)
Or to victorie! (Or to victory)
Now’s the day and now’s the hour: (now’s the time)
See the front o’ battle lour, (see the battle looming in front of you)
See the approach of proud Edward’s power (See the coming of King Edward the 1st great army)
Chains and slaverie! (bringing the threat of chains and slavery to you)
Wha will be a traitor knave? (who will be a vile traitor)
Wha can fill a traitor’s grave? (he will end up in a traitor’s grave)
Wha sae base as be a slave? (who is so low as to embrace servile slavery)
Let him turn, and flee! (let him run away with his tail between his legs)
Wha for Scotland’s King and Law (who for the sake of Scotland’s pride and national identity)
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw, (will draw their sword and prepare for battle)
Freedman stand or freeman fa’, (We will stand or fall as free men)
Let him follow me! (let him follow!)
By Oppression’s woe’s and pains, (motivated by past history of oppressed suffering)
By your sons in servile chains, (seeing your own children quashed by English injustice)
We will drain our dearest veins (we will bleed to death if necessary)
But they shall be free! (But at least our descendants will be free)