It’s that time of year when function suites and community halls from Annan to Zetland are packed out with revellers tucking into their haggis and looking forward to a dram or three to accompany witty speakers. And why not? Late January can be a bleak time and having some convivual means of celebrating our common culture gives Scots something to look forward to in the dreich days that stretch out beyond Hogmanay. And, just as the Irish have exported St Paddy’s day to an international audience, so you may attend Burns suppers from Auckland to Zaparozhe (where?? 15 admlirals of the Russian Navy were Scottish; their patron saint is St Andrew). Even apart from all this guys for whiskey exports, such widespread homage to Burns’ humanity must be a good thing in this otherwise fractious World.
Yet it seems the greater the distance furth of Scotland or the higher these social rank of attendees, the more formal and the more rigid the proceedings of a Supper become. Each of us should be free to imbibe the arts as we see fit. Poetry in general and Burns\ work in particular should be no exception and taken many ways. But the manner in which both dress and proceedings have become formulaic runs almost counter to both the culture and character of the man and what he himself might have preferred.
Would Rabbie have got himself into a fankle—as some Caledonian societies do—over Montrose versus Prince Charlie jacket or the clan sett of tartan? Given that such things were the (very profitable) creation of tailors milking the fiction created by Sir Walter Scott’s obeisance to George IV two decades after Birns lay beneath the sod he once tilled, I rather doubt it. And, amusing though the ritual poems and speeches can be, I suspect he would rather be found “bousing at the nappy” wi’ Tam than listen to some Company of Archers QC mangling Lallans in his mildly risque Toast to the Lasses. Though he could move in high circles, Burns was a man of the people. And the people of Scotland do not generally stand on ceremony.
Were he with us today, Burns would have gravitated to the kind of celebration North Berwick drama club put on, mixing play acting with conviviality. Or the completely ad hoc one held in Tyninghame Village Hall with spontaneous speeches before a roaring fire, prior to tables being dragged aside to permit a hoolie to go on into the wee hours. I eightsomed and stripped the willow with many partners that night. None of them was Rabbie. But I know he was there in spirit.