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Riyadh Burns' Supper

I don’t need to explain what a Burns’ Supper is to native Scots. However I do know there are some others reading these occasional articles, so I’ll explain. We Scots (note - Scots, not Scotch, the latter is reserved for produce such as whisky, lamb or beef) do not celebrate our patron saint’s day (St Andrew, November 30) in the way some other nations do, notably the Irish with St Patrick. What many of us do though is celebrate the birthday of our national poet / bard, Robert Burns on 25th January. And it is maybe celebrated even more by Scots exiled abroad than those at home. At least in KSA we have some genuine Scots so are able to have the evening in our native tongue as opposed to north America where Burns’ prose and rhymes are mangled by third generation immigrants who have long lost their Scots’ brogue.

Born in 1759, “Rabbie” was a humble ploughman who had received a good basic education then was self-taught and became a prolific writer of prose, poetry and song. Over 550 of his compositions were published. He was fond of the drink, and was a notorious womaniser, siring 16 children by four ladies, one of whom was his wife Jean Armour and who bore him nine herself. His biography is available on the internet, and is a remarkable read. He died young, aged 37.

The Caledonian Society in Riyadh has their Burns’ Supper as a highlight of their calendar. Due to a diary clash at the UK Embassy, it was held this year on the 3rd February. The date not being correct is not an issue, Burns’ Suppers are moveable feasts, and some of the better Burns speakers make an entire two month season of it, moving from invitation to invitation and risking a surfeit of haggis.

Burns’ Suppers follow a traditional pattern. After a welcome address by the Chieftan, the event opens with Burns’ “Selkirk Grace”

“Some hae meat that cannae eat, and some can eat that want it, But we hae meat and we can eat, so let the Lord be thankit.”

The first course - often cock-a-leekie soup - is then served. Then comes one of the highlights of the evening, the piping in and addressing of the Haggis. A bagpiper marches in, leading the chef who has prepared, cooked and is carrying the haggis on a salver. We were fortunate as a member of the Caledonian Society committee had been back to Scotland the week before and had returned with enough haggis to feed the 140 guests. They beasts been slaughtered, stuffed and prepared by one of the premier Scots meat producers and were frozen for the journey. Fortunately they made it in good fettle, and the largest was chosen for the ceremonial “Address to a Haggis”, one of Burns’ most famous poems. Burns’ lauds the haggis as “Great chieftain o’the pudding race”, as fare of the common man, but fit for a king. The member who addresses the haggis, recites all of the poem, brandishing a knife at the appropriate moments, and slashing the skin open at the right instant. A well-addressed haggis is a delight, and the man delivering it did very well. The piper, the chef and the addresser all then have a dram of whisky to toast the haggis. It is then served with “neeps and tatties” (turnip and potato) and delicious it was too.

As the meal progresses there are formal toasts and addresses and recitations of Burns’ work. The Immortal Memory is the main event, with a speaker honouring the Bard with a learned biography and remarks on the impact the man had on the world. His works aren’t just poems, many are erudite pieces of philosophy and observations of human nature that are remarkable for one from his background. The lady who gave the Immortal Memory did very well indeed. The Ambassador should have been present to give the Royal Toast, but wasn’t able to attend on the night and a senior member of his staff stepped in. There is a “Toast to the Lassies”, always given by a man, and the Response is always given by a lady. Both of these are humourous speeches extolling the strengths (and foibles) of the opposite sex.

I had been honoured by being asked if I could do a recitation, and was able to perform one of my favourite Burns’ works, the tale of Tam O’Shanter. Unlike the addresser of the haggis, I was unable to do this from memory, but in fairness it is about ten minutes long. I do commend it to you – it has some really descriptive lines

            “There sits our sully, sullen dame, gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm”

(the wife awaiting her drunken man returning from the pub); and the description of the haunted churchyard scene is worthy of similar detail found in Breugel the Elder’s painting “The Triumph of Death”. Tam O’Shanter is also the source of the term “Cutty Sark”, the inspiration of the name of the famous tea-clipper that is moored and preserved at Greenwich on the Thames. A cutty sark is a short shirt or dress, and in the poem one was worn by a comely witch that Tam encountered in the churchyard on his way home. Anyway, I managed to get through the recitation unscathed and was rewarded by a drink of malt whisky from the quaich at the top table. The embassy is the only place one can legally have a drink in KSA as it is brought in under diplomatic immunity.

After the meal the tables were cleared to give room for Scottish traditional dancing, and the evening concluded with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, one of Burns’ most famous songs, sung in many countries as a way of parting friendships.

I have no photographs of the event as we are not permitted to take cameras into the embassy, so you will have to make do with a portrait of Rabbie himself. It was a very enjoyable evening.


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