Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rabbie Burns, the Scottish bard

Who, you ask? Robert Burns is Scotland’s best-loved poet, known for classics like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Green Grow the Rushes Oh.” If you haven’t heard of him, it’s probably because his preference to write in Scots dialect rather than in standard English makes his writing less accessible to the rest of the English-speaking world, but in Scotland it has made him an icon of Scottish heritage. So much so that his birthday, January 25, is celebrated as Robert Burns Day: he is commemorated throughout Scotland in special suppers complete with bagpipe performances, a ritualized salute to haggis (a dramatic recitation of a Burns poem addressed to the classic Scottish dish), a toast to Burns' "immortal memory," a toast to the lasses, and a final response from the lasses. It’s a bit like a Scottish seder, except with boiled sheep organs instead of matzoh balls and recitations of Burns’ love poetry (both the classics immortalized in song and the naughty bits less commonly taught in school or sung by choirs) instead of reading from a haggadah.

I must admit I hadn’t realized how much pride Scots take in Burns (so much so that in his toast to the immortal memory, the president of Orkney College explained that Burns was a more famous writer than even that lesser-known English poet Shakespeare, who alas has no day dedicated to his memory), but after finding a flyer about the supper in the local grocery store decided that I would have to go see for myself. And so I attended my first ever Robert Burns Supper, hosted by the Stromness Pipe Band, an evening of many firsts for me – drank my first Scotch whiskey (free with entry, of course), heard my first bagpipe band, danced my first Scottish two-step – and with a man in a kilt, and even tasted my first haggis (my first time eating meat in over a year…for the record, it was surprisingly tasty). Although I didn’t ever get a full explanation of how the traditions of the Burns Supper came about, it seems that it started out as a Masonic tradition (explains both the formal structure and the custom in places that take the event more seriously of barring women) and probably became popular as Scottish nationalism grew in the nineteenth century after Burns’ death. After centuries of feeling oppressed by the English, Burns’ patriotic poetry written in Scots dialect must have seemed an excellent symbol of nationalistic feeling, and the inclusion of farming themes and love poetry written in common language certainly make him seem relevant to most Scots. The added color of bagpipe performances and dressing up in kilts or tartan-patterned clothes may not be traditional to locations outside the Highlands (the president of Orkney College explained to me that kilts and bagpipes aren’t particularly Orcadian, being somewhat remote from the center of Scotland, which probably explains why the supper was relatively informal and most people not participating just wore regular clothing), but it certainly felt like quite an impressive demonstration of Scottish pride.

Here are some samples of the evening’s entertainment:

The Stromness Pipe Band and a group of young dancers, all in proper Scottish regalia, process onto the stage.

The dancers’ performance – really quite difficult steps, especially for girls so young.

And a selection from the dancing at the end of the ceremony – old and young, kilted and unkilted, they all seem to know the steps (and those who don’t just fudge it, in proper folk style). Also, the astute listener might note that the band is playing one of my favorite seagoing ballads, Leaving of Liverpool.

Personally, though, I was less impressed by the ceremony of the occasion than by the genuine interest in Scottish traditions – the dancing, the music, the poetry – among the young people. In the US, of course, most folk traditions seem to be more popular among middle-aged and older people, and in Denmark certainly something like folk dancing was not a place to find anyone under age thirty (and scarce under fifty). Here though, Scottish teenagers seemed to think it was cool to learn to play the bagpipes or traditional step-dancing, or to do couples dances (two-step, three-step, quick-step, etc.) to fiddle music. Growing up in a place that doesn’t have any single folk culture, I’m used to thinking of traditional music and dancing as appealing to a particular subset of the population, not to everyone and certainly not to the typical teenagers. But even though there is certainly something constructed about this form of Scottish traditions (the spread of kilts and bagpipes out of the Highlands, for instance), this is really much more what folk culture is about – something that has a place for everyone, that continues to develop. (The bagpipe repertoire certainly has developed – one of the pipers in the band told me that a tune they played near the end had been written in a contest during the first Gulf War and been played by a military band in Iraq.) A few weeks is certainly not enough time to really know Scottish culture, but it’s enough to make me wish that the US had more regional traditions that everyone took pride in and took part in.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Hi Hilary,
I enjoyed the dancing. Please post more photos in your album so I can travel vicariously along with you.
- Mom