Happy Burns Night! Every January 25th in Scotland people gather to celebrate the birthday of their favorite poet and native son, Robert Burns. “RabbieBairns” in Scotspeak.
Scotland is my favorite country in the world. It’s been a long love affair, one I began in 1994 after graduating college with an English degree. I signed up for a month-long writers retreat with my favorite professor, Dr. Richard Fine, at the University of Glasgow. It was my first time abroad and I fell in deep, deep love with the greener than Astroturf landscape, the cathedrals, the ruins, the loch water, the hills and valleys, the heather and thistle, and of course the whisky.
Most of all I fell in love with its people. Never before had I met a group so down to earth, so open, so honest. Everyone I met was fearless and seemed to wear their heart on their sleeve. They didn’t care what you did for a living and weren’t afraid to break into song in a crowd if they felt like it. I was hooked. Coming from a mother who valued etiquette and status over anything else this was a revelation. The lilting, musical accents were just icing on the cake.
I visited Scotland several more times over the next few years, working my ass off so I could visit a week here, 10 days there. I’d made a good friend at the retreat. She’d decided to get her Master’s from “Glesca Uni” (Scotspeak), and I begged to crash on her couch. She said yes.
For a year I worked two jobs, saving every penny I had. It bought me just under eight months of time. Precious time to explore my beloved country. I wrote poetry, my first short story, traveled to Dublin, London, the Highlands, the Lowlands, and every loch in between. I drank gallons of Dalwhinnie, lager, and Irn Bru, and ate my weight in scones with clotted cream. I walked home late, often alone, to my flat in Glasgow which sat high on a hill above Byres Road and never felt any fear. I busted my ass more than once on ice-covered sidewalks because in Scotland they don’t salt them down. You just suck it up and go. I fell in love with Gil Scott-Heron when I heard his music in a restaurant called the Cul de Sac, which sat in one and served cheap coffee all day long. Sadly, I was there for the Dunblane Massacre and its aftermath which is a story in itself. I toured Stirling Castle way before Braveheart, and I was green with envy when my friend got tickets to the Trainspotting premiere. I still think Begbie is the greatest movie villain ever.
But the most “Scottish-y” thing I remember is Burns Night, classically celebrated with elaborate Burns Suppers. At the very least, a Scotsman will proudly raise a glass of whisky at a pub. Scots NEVER EVER call it Scotch. Or add the “e” in whisky. A proper Burns Supper consists of Scotch Broth, then Haggis alongside neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes). Plenty of whisky is poured and if done properly, a be-kilted gentleman will enter with the haggis on a silver platter while bagpipes are played. He will then ceremoniously cut the haggis in half with a sword while reciting Burns’s, “Address to a Haggis”. Many other poems are recited throughout the evening and much merriment, food, and drink is enjoyed. It’s a big fucking deal.
My own Burns Night was just as memorable. My friends and I opted for a less formal approach and headed down to the pub for drinks. It was snowing heavily and bitter cold. You’ve never been cold until you’ve waited for a bus in Glasgow in January at night. Our boots crunched as we walked from the stop. We sat at the bar and talked, argued, told stories, dirty jokes, and gave the Welshman in our group shit. The Welsh are the hillbillies of the UK and if you have a Welsh friend it’s expected. It’s a thing. They just sound funny.
After a few hours, the snow still falling heavily, we’re feeling no pain, in hysterics from a joke Roy just told which I only half understood because Roy is from Cumbernauld and a Cumbernauld accent sounds like marbles rolling around in a dryer. Suddenly, we begin to hear something. A distinctive screeching, grating sound. Faint at first but getting louder. It sounds awful. Kind of like 2 cats screwing in a garbage bag.
“Aw bloody hell Roy, would ye tairn that shite doon! Ima tryin ta dreenk!” my friend Dario yells and we all laugh uproariously.
The sound turns the corner. It’s a Scotsman, in full Highland regalia playing the bagpipes. He blows into the pub, snow billowing all about him like celebratory confetti. Everybody cheers. After finishing his agonizing set, the man gently sets down his instrument and raises a whisky glass which has magically appeared in his grasp thanks to an attentive bartender. He places the other hand on his heart. We raise our glasses in solidarity as he recites Burns’s poem, “Scotch Drink”……IN ITS ENTIRETY. It’s a reallllly long poem and reads in part:
Let other poets raise a fracas
“Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.
O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!
I’m amazed. He finishes to thunderous applause and for the rest of the evening everyone in the pub takes turns buying him rounds. It’s fucking awesome. I’ve never forgotten it. The drunken beaming smiles, the claps on the back. The pride that permeated that pub like a nerve gas.
I’ve been back to Scotland just once since then. I took The Hubby, hoping he’d become just as obsessed as his wife. He did. We toured Tayvallich, Bellanoch, and Plockton, and visited the Ardbeg distillery and the worn Gallic crosses on windswept hills on the island of Islay. Sheep blocked our way more than once and the thistles were as big as oranges. We vowed to come back and rent a cottage so we could bike the entire island. It’s still on our bucket list.
Tonight I’ll pour a wee dram of my beloved Dalwhinnie 15 Single Malt. Maybe add a splash of water. Loch water is best, but I’ll have to settle for good old well. It will taste of honey and heather. And I’ll fondly remember. Slange Var!**
*NEVER, EVER add ice cubes to whisky. It destroys the flavor. Pure sacrilege.
**Gallic toast for “Get it to the hole!”
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