This week I looked back and thought about my first experience of Burn’s Night in Scotland. I was new to Arbroath and was invited by neighbours to join the festivities in one of the local church halls.
We gathered in the early evening and sat on hard stackable chairs at trestle tables. I remember thinking this would be a very authentic Burns experience.
Suddenly the chatter in the room was silenced by the penetrating wail of bagpipes. It was as if a reluctant sacrificial animal was being dragged screaming from its lair. The volume of the pipes increased and our haggis, (a seemingly wee timorous beastie ) held aloft on a silver platter, was ceremoniously carried around the room. Displayed in all its glory it appeared ready and waiting for the congregation to worship.
An upstanding chieftain of the town stepped forward, addressed the haggis respectfully and, with one spectacular thrust, plunged his dagger deep into its heart. The deed was done. The haggis was carried away and the revelry began.
Double doors leading from the kitchen were thrown wide open. A small army of elderly ladies, wearing their Sunday best pleated tartan skirts and hand knitted jumpers tottered out carrying trays of plates piled high with haggis and dollops of neaps and tatties.
A plate was set down with enthusiastic firmness before each guest, knives and forks were lifted and the beastie was devoured.
There was poetry and then we lifted our plastic glasses for the toast to Burns. As the orange juice drained down my throat I smiled with bemusement and enjoyed the curious spirit of the evening.
There was a beautiful interlude of Celtic singing of such haunting quality I was moved to tears. I recognised the soloist as the young nurse from my local doctor’s practice. This was a truly local community Burn’s Night.
The mood changed and an accordion and fiddler began the first chords of a Scottish reel. The room was filled with latent energy; sedate upright people surreptitiously tapped their feet, pensioners nodded their heads in delight, kilts swayed rhythmically on chairs and a troupe of young girls danced enthusiastically.
I enjoyed the fellowship of the celebration and this feeling of community but, there was one thing missing. I left quietly and headed down the High Street for the Commercial Inn.
“I need a whisky “ I said to the land lady. “I’ve just been celebrating my first Burn’s Night and it was ‘Dry’” She looked at me with incredulity and poured me a generous double. I’ve enjoyed many Burn’s Night since but I always look back with great affection to the spirit of that first one.