Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Scottish Burn's Night to Remember: Gorebridge Primary School 1971

Robert Burns: Address to a Haggis
On 25th January in Scotland and all over the world, people raise a glass of the "water of life" and say a toast to Robert Burns. Born on this day in 1759, Burns was a  Scottish poet, song collector, romancer and favorite son. His works are celebrated from Edinburgh to Edmonton, from Selkirk to Shanghai. At traditional Burns Supper or Burns Night events we lift our glasses, play our bagpipes, listen to the Haggis being addressed, and eat, sing, recite and be merry.

For a Scottish school boy or girl, performing your first assigned Burns poem at a proper Burns Night is like crossing the Rubicon, everyone remembers their own...

Gorebridge Primary School, January 25th, 1971. I was twelve years old.

Contestants from our school (Stobhill Primary, a smaller school from ‘up the hill’) were invited to the larger Primary school in the village for Burns Night. It seemed like we’d practiced our poems for ages, but it may just have been the few weeks since starting again after New Year. If truth were to be told, we knew some of the boys from Cub Scouts, but in the larger, older school, we felt distinctively out of our league. I mean, they even had printed programs of the order of events. So posh.

I recall the echoing corridors, hallways and rooms, brick built, much older than our ‘new’ school. I remember reciting my poem on the stage, getting it flawless, and getting off as fast as my gangly legs would carry me. I remember Sandy Allan trying a bit of Tam O’ Shanter, Burn’s epic ghostly tale, and being prompted when he paused, hundreds of parents mouthing the next line for him. And I remember being presented with my coveted Burns Anthology Book prize, duly marked with the date and place. But one recollection of the night lies far deeper.

At the traditional meal, we sat patiently at our large trestle tables waiting on the arrival of haggis, neeps, and tatties, the fare of champions. I had looked around for my usual addition of tomato ketchup or broon sauce, but realized early on that I was going to have to eat them ‘unseasoned’ for a change.

So, there we were, a hundred kids, black trousers/skirts, white shirts/blouses, waiting for our food. Then I heard the familiar sound of the bagpipes being played, and in he marched, full highland regalia, feathers and tassels, probably from Borthwick Pipe Band, I can’t remember, but Archie Pinkman used to live just a few yards from the school, so it was probably him. Anyway, in he marched, taking the long way, round the outside of the room, followed by two boys, one carrying a huge haggis in its skin, one walking with a knife in his hand. They all stopped at the stage, and we waited until the bagpiper had finished, and duly applauded.

Then Jock Devlin started the address to the haggis… we knew it was him, it said so on our programs. Jock was kinda famous in our village, he swam for the Scottish swimming team. (People knew him by his own name, not his parents'...at that time I was still firmly “Andrew Hall’s son”). Jock's address to our national dish began just as impressively...

"Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!"

We all knew it a little bit, but Jock marched through the verses flawlessly. I was very impressed. Now, in verse three, he started the dramatics…

"His knife see rustic Labour dight,"

And he raised the silver knife high above the platter, smiling, ready for the downward strike…

"An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,"

And with gusto Jock stabbed at the huge steaming bag of goodness… To everyone’s surprise the knife cut through the outer skin like butter, cut through the body of the haggis, and went right through the large china plate that held it. The boy holding the plate could do nothing else but let it all crash to the floor… smashing pieces of plate and haggis onto the linoleum tiled floor.

We all gasped… the sound reverberated round the room...
Then silence, then giggles, then the cacophony of uncontrolled laughter from a hundred twelve-year-olds. Jock, ever the hero, joined in the mirth.

I can hear it as if it were yesterday. I honestly cannot remember if Jock ever finished the poem, but it became a highlight of conversation for many years. I became firm friends with Jock in High school, and miss him now.

A Burns Night to remember, right enough.


Burns Night Extras~

I recorded my own, not quite as eventful reading of Address to a Haggis in full Braid Scots (yes, its an ACCENT;-) here:


You can read the full text of the poem and learn more about Burns and his legacy at the most excellent Robert Burns Country: The Official Robert Burns Site 

Read more tales of a Scottish rural upbringing here...
Tales of a life just south of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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