Up the Scots! Celebrate Burns Night

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How it’s New York: Thomas Burt is a New York lawyer, and the Iona Sessions take place in Brooklyn.
Robert Burns (1759-1796), portrait by Alexander Naysmith

Robert Burns (1759-1796), portrait by Alexander Naysmith

How it’s (Irish) Scottish: Robert Burns is Scotland’s favorite son, and symbolizes Scottish heritage. See below for Robert Burns songs sung by Jim Malcolm and the late Andy M. Stewart with Silly Wizard (with the late Johnny Cunningham, Phil Cunningham, Martin Hadden and Gordon Jones, filmed in 1988). Just try not crying when Andy M. sings it.

Trust me. You know a few poems by Robert Burns. What do you sing on New Year’s Eve? “Auld Lang Syne.” That was his. “My luv is like a…” if you’re thinking “red, red rose,” you’re right, and that was his, too. “The best laid plans of mice and men…” also his.

The “Bard of Ayrshire,” who wrote in broad Scots in the 18th century, has become over the years the national symbol of Scotland.

The Irish have Bloomsday, which celebrates James Joyce and “Ulysses.”

The Scots have Burns Night, which celebrates Robert Burns (1759-1796) in a formal dinner, complete with recitations, music, and, of course, Haggis.

There are fewer Scots than Irish in NYC, and as lawyer Thomas Burt points out, the Scots have been very good at assimilating. They are harder to spot, but they are here.

“It’s a focal point to remind us who we are, and what we have in common with each other.”

Burt is also secretary of St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, founded in 1756, before Burns was even born. He points out that past members include Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Carnegie. The society raises money for two children’s hospitals, provides scholarships for graduate study and more.   There’s also a Scottish Bar Association of New York.

Irish pubs are everywhere, true, but there are some Scottish pubs in NYC and Brooklyn: St. Andrews, 140 West 46th St.,  Caledonia Bar, 1609 Second Ave.,  are a few. More are listed here.

And the wonderful, amazing, BEST THING ON NEW YORK STAGE “The Strange Undoing of Pruedencia Hart,” which comes to the McKittrick Hotel courtesy of the Scottish National Theatre, with script by David Grieg, has just been extended until March 26th. The show, set in a Scottish pub,  includes free drams, Scottish music and a wonderful retelling of a “woman meets the devil” folk tale– in rhyme!  (this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Review/podcast has been delayed thanks to a cold that lasted pretty much all December and January but believe me when I say you do not want to miss this show).

IONA Burns-3There’s even a Scottish music session: the Iona Session is held on Mondays at Iona,  180 Grand St., in Brooklyn. And they are having a Burns Night celebration, too:

The IONA BURNS NIGHT returns in all it’s shaggy glory next Wednesday 25th January at 9pm. Fiddler Emerald Rae and piper Andrew Forbes will unleash the musical beasts. Poetry, comedy, haggis and cheap adult beverages will flow. JR StraussMax CarmichaelAmy LynnCalum MichaelMatt DiazPamela Jean AgaloosMiguel Coias and Karen Brown in the house. Crying and screaming permitted. Also dancing and laughing.

The Burns Society of the City New York was founded in 1871, and is still going strong. It’s a great resource for anyone wanting to throw their own Burns supper, Burt says. It has a supper, and so does the American Scottish Foundation.

But what is a Burns Night (Burns Nicht) supper, anyway?  It celebrates the poet’s life, and the history of the Scots, and is held around his birthday: Jan. 25.

“It’s a rallying point for a diaspora that is hard pressed to find rallying points,” Burt says. “We assimilate out of existence into the economic and power structure of anywhere we land.”

The Burns Supper is something that

“sticks us together as Scots.

“It’s a focal point to remind us who we are, and what we have in common with each other.”

As Burt explains, the dinner is formalized, as Thanksgiving dinners are. Some courses are always served, poetry is always recited.

Looking for tips to throw your own? Check out bbcgoodfood.com, which explains the courses and gives some recipes too.

From left: Lucas, Chloe, Xander and Thomas Burt, in their kilts.

From left: Lucas, Chloe, Xander and Thomas Burt, in their kilts.

Burt is first-generation American on one side: his father emigrated from Cowden Beath, in Fife, in 1959, he says.  Central Fife is a coal-mining region, he explains. Burt’s father was a classmate of the Scottish footballer Slim Jim Baxter, and a few years ahead of the late Stuart Adamson of Big Country. Burt’s late mother is also of Scottish descent; her family came over from the Glasgow area in 1909.

About 10 years ago, Burt says, he, his wife and his dad decided to begin having family Burns Night suppers at his father’s home. The first one, with about a dozen guests, was informal. This year’s will have more than 40.

Before he began throwing the, he had attended some formal Burns suppers, black tie events with head tables, but had never been to a family supper. A family supper is looser, he explains, although the menu is formalized.

There’s always a soup first course, usually cock-a leekie. His family does potato leek, because they prefer it. Then there’s haggis, then a main course, often lamb. (In this country, you can’t get traditional Scottish haggis as traditional recipes include lung and windpipe as internal matter, which is not permitted by the FDA).  These days in Scotland, the food is good: “Haggis and cheddar paninis are a thing,” Burt says. “The whole country went to culinary school.”

The order of proceedings is traditional too: here’s what the Burt family had last year:

Haggis! ©Kim Traynor

Haggis! ©Kim Traynor

Order of the Proceedings

Welcome

The Selkirk Grace

Appetizers

Address To The Haggis

First Reading

Supper

Second Reading

Loyal Toasts

Immortal Memory

Third Reading

Closing

Among the food in last year’s bill of fare were Scotch eggs, Haggis and Bashed Neeps, Lamb Chops, Trifle and Shortbread.

What is “Immortal Memory?” It’s the “big speech.” Often these speeches are about Burns, examining his work and heritage. Burt has done a speech that began “F**k the Man-Booker prize,” going on to talk about how Scots and other Celts have been excluded from this literary award for being too Celtic for middle-class English taste. He and his children have learned some Scottish traditional songs, and they also break into a sing-along, which is “something you don’t have at a black tie event.”

And they always include the song (to the tune of “She’s Coming Round the Mountain”):

Oh ye canna shove your granny off the bus

Oh ye canna shove your granny off the bus

Oh ye canna shove your granny, for she’s your mother’s mammy

Oh ye canna shove your granny off the bus

“which is about as informal as you can get,” he says with a laugh.

For Burt, Robert Burns, who became a poet to make money– and became an overnight sensation– gave the Scots pride in their nationality. He points out that Burns, who was famous for 9 years and died at 37, could have written in standard English and appealed to an “assimilationist British audience that didn’t want to hear somebody being publicly Scottish.” instead, he use his fame to collect Scottish folk culture, and write in Scots.

“Burnsian Scots plants a flag for Scots as a language, during a period of incredible decline,” Burt says. Since Burns, hanging on to Scots has become a rallying cry for the recognition of Scots culture. “He flew a flag for Scottish cultural independence and identity that has never been hauled down.”

And Burns’ love of the common man appeals to everyone, using themes that are universal, he says.

We don’t disagree.

I dare you to try not crying when Andy M. sings this song…

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