A second year in Scotland

At the Burns’ Supper, Kirsten welcomes the haggis and toasts the laddies.

By Kirsten Beattie (English, Studies in Women and Gender ’03)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

Kirsten Beattie (English, Studies in Women and Gender ’03) is in her second year of teaching and mentoring students at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a UK fellow. The UK fellows program is sponsored by the U.Va. Center for Undergraduate Excellence. She has agreed to give the readers of A&S Online a glimpse into her life in Scotland through monthly updates.To read her previous reports, click on “Related Links” at the bottom of this page.

Cullen skink, creamy finnan haddie soup. haggis, neeps and tatties. cranachan drizzled with athol brose. Such was the fine feast commemorating the life and works of Scotland’s number one poet, Rabbie Burns, held at Fettes College on Saturday, January 29, 2005.

Our annual Burns’ Supper was a traditional celebration for our pupils and staff; for me, it was an evening granting me a firsthand experience of one of Scotland’s great traditions. For not only did I attend the supper, but I also had the opportunity to present one of the speeches for the evening: the Lassie’s Reply, a toast to the gentlemen.

Having enjoyed the Burns’ Supper from the staff table last year, I knew what to expect. A delicious (and very Scottish) supper of creamy haddock soup; haggis; mashed turnips and mashed potatoes; and a crisp pastry basket filled with a raspberry flavoured mousse and raspberries for dessert. Throughout the supper, various speakers would present speeches and recitations of Burns’ poetry, in Scots, of course.

This year, my position on the head table was a bit more stressful, as the evening revolved around us. The school rose as we entered and exited the room and sat after we did; we were served our meals first; and it was our speeches that drove the evening. Needless to say, as the last speaker scheduled for the evening, I had a long time to fret before I fully could relax and enjoy the occasion.

One of the best moments of a Burns’ Supper is the entry of the haggis. Haggis is not something most people care to think about in too much detail, but suffice it to say that is a tasty combination of minced meat, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep’s stomach. (At this point I must confess that, before I came over here, I thought that eating haggis was something that had happened only in earlier centuries; I couldn’t imagine that people still ate it in this day and age.) Despite its rather dubious preparation, it is a “must-try” for any visitor to Scotland.

During the supper, a plate bearing the haggis is welcomed by the rousing strains of the bagpipe. Then, Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” is read before the crowd, opening with the strain:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
                      Painch, tripe or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
                      As lang’s my arm.

While I am sure that most of the audience greatly enjoyed their meals, quite frankly, I was not able to attack my plate with the same fervour as most did. While I had felt quite confident in my speech before I went into the supper, as it wore on, I increasingly worried that it wasn’t “Scottish” enough.

The time for my speech drew nearer. A colleague of mine presented the Immortal Memory speech, celebrating Burns’ life and values, his love for his country and women.

Then, Colin Duncan, another colleague and friend of mine, delivered his Toast to the Lassies. Colin, another younger member of staff, is a burly Scots from the Isle of Skye, a rugby-playing Business Studies teacher, adored by the student body. He delivered an amusing toast about how lucky men are to have women in their lives, and how women are like the rainbow: beautiful, but you have to take the rain if you want to see the rainbow. Even as I sincerely cheered him on and congratulated him, the applause that he received did little to lift my spirits.

Even now, a month later, I still find it hard to judge how “good” my speech was. I was too caught up in the nerves of speaking in front of such a large portion of the school, of worrying whether my speech did everything that it was “supposed” to do. I had run it by the organiser of the evening, and he had approved, but the adage “we are our own severest critics” must apply in this case. (I hope.)

In my quest to celebrate the virtues of Scottish men, I decided to praise them by comparing them to American men, part of which I conveyed in a poem. I expounded upon the superiority of Scottish men’s beer, sports, chivalry, taste in clothing (love the kilts) and masculinity (how many other men in the world manage to look even more masculine in a skirt?).

With a toast to the lads, my speech concluded, and so did the evening soon after. In spite of the stress I felt throughout the course of the event, I consider myself very fortunate to have had that experience, to have taken place in a genuine Scottish tradition. Perhaps I will have to try to hold a Burns’ Supper next year, when I am back in the US. I’m not quite sure where I will manage to find haggis.