Last year I was “volunteered” to deliver a Toast “To the Immortal Memory” at Burns Night by my fellow committee members for the Inner Temple Students’ Association Burns Night. Evidently “I’m not, even distantly, Scottish and have never been to a Burns Night before” is not a reasonable excuse.
I’ve done St. Patrick’s day. Well the booze and pretending to be Irish to try and get free drinks or hats (barely distinguishable from most weekends but I feel a poor attempt at the accent sets the whole event apart for me). Burns Night is not in any way the Scottish equivalent. The intensive drinking is preceded by a formal dinner of traditional Scottish fare (I’d advise looking it up before you agree to eat it) and involves dancing either reeling or a ceilidh. There are clubs which give lessons in these dances; I occasionally attend a reeling one in London for approx. £7 per session and there really is no better way of impressing a female than at least knowing the basics.
So in preparation for this I decided that in the spirit of the event I ought to “tartan myself up” (pun intended). Care ought to be taken when doing so as one must never wear the Royal Balmoral tartan without the monarch’s express permission and should not wear the tartan of a clan or regiment you have no affiliation with. Unlike heraldry tartans are only loosely regulated (so you can probably get away with it if they only have one left is Moss Bros.) and Sassenachs (Englishmen) can avail themselves of the Royal Stewart tartan, as it is appropriate for a clansman to wear the tartan of their clan chief so it is appropriate for subjects of HM The Queen to wear this tartan. It is also worthy of note than there are various tartans in other Celtic countries as well as the United States. For more information on tartans you can go to http://www.tartanregister.gov.uk and if you have money to burn you can design and register your own.
The next decision once you have decided upon a tartan you’re faced with the choice of kilt or trews (tartan trousers). Generally speaking kilts are summer wear and trews are winter wear but as the kilt is traditionally worn without underwear my rule is if you haven’t the confidence to “go native” stick to trews. Incidentally my trews are circa. £35 from a military surplus website so it can be done on a budget (in fact I have spent more than that on tartan underwear but that is a story for another time). If in doubt the dress code will usually permit black or white tie.
The next part was deciding what to put in my toast. During the course of the night there are several formal spoken parts. Some like the Selkirk Grace and the Address to the Haggis are the work of Robbie Burns and are therefore to be memorised and delivered. Interestingly the Address to the Haggis was once translated into German, a group of which decided it ought to be read out in English and “Great chieftain o’ puddin’-race” was rendered back into English as “mighty führer of the sausage people”. However the Toasts to the Immortal Memory and to the Lassies (the latter is on women and often includes reference to Robbie Burns and his prolific womanising) are to be composed by the speaker. The Immortal Memory should be biographical, refer to the poetry and most of all entertaining. “I know nothing of Burns or his work” doesn’t get you out of it either.
Robert Burns, for the hereto unfamiliar, was a poet of the Romantic Movement and has become an important cultural icon in Scotland for writing a significant portion of his work in Lowland Scots and the Scottish Dialect as well as English. In short he is “that bloke what wrote Auld Lang Syne”. When considering Burns’ influence it is vital to consider that he was born in 1759 (dying Mozart-like in 1796). When he was born Scotland had valiantly come second to Hanoverian England at battle of Culloden in 1746 and was feeling the reprisals. The chieftains were deprived of their near sovereign power over their clans, the Scots were prohibited the bearing of “war-like weapons” and highland dress was abolished. This was compounded by the Highland Clearances which was the mass migration of people to the lowlands and even to the Americas, this was mainly for agricultural and economic reasons as well as the odd uprising.
Scotland was a nation and a culture that was fast disappearing and yet in 1782 the Dress Act had been repealed. The fashion conscious King George IV was the first of his line to visit Scotland and did so in full highland dress. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle which Queen Victoria later retreated to. All over Great Britain you can find all sorts of Scottish-influenced touristy tat and faux tartan can be found in all sorts of high brand fashion outlets. Scotland was and is fashionable (sexy is possibly too strong a word but there is an extensive range of tartan underwear). When Robert Burns poured out his poetry with others of his ilk like James MacPherson they romanticised the disappearing Scotland, and as a result their work has inspired millions around the world to explore this rich cultural history.
The whole argument about the pros and cons of the Union aside I am proud that the Scots care passionately about their culture and take steps to preserve it which ought to be an inspiration to all. So if you’re not Scottish but want to fully immerse yourself in the festivities remember as Burns himself said:
“I’d bemair vauntie o’ my hap,
Douce hingin owre my curple,
Than ony ermine ever lap,
Or proud imperial purple.”