Burns Night (January 25th) celebrates the birth of Scots poet Robert Burns and is generally marked by a traditional Haggis supper. As I look back to last year’s event I realise that in 2016 I began to truly embrace my “Scots heritage” rather than run away from it.
I was attending a Burns Supper for only the third time ever in my life. With less than 48 hours notice I was asked/told if I could do the Selkirk Grace, a Burn’s poem of my own choice, and recite the William Topaz McGonagall ode “Robert Burns”. I fell back on my old training from Cleland Primary where we all studied Burns for a local competition, although I never had the nerve to audition anything from the stage for the scrutiny of the school. So “To A Mouse” sprang to mind as my obvious poem choice, as I can still remember great swathes of the verse from school. The McGonagall piece was not an easy read and I spent most of my free day trying to get the feel of the words and find its rhythm. I had never heard of this chap before and a Google search told me he was considered one of the worst poets of the English language. Poor guy, and although I could see where that unfavourable label came from, I love an underdog and someone who keeps trying no matter what. So I persevered and came to an understanding with the verse. On the night I discovered I was on the top table “mistress of ceremonies” I guess, and had a formidable audience of learned folk with Burns anthologies in hand, only too ready to point out mistakes. No pressure then I thought as I stood to attention, knees quaking, to start the ball rolling so to speak. But as the evening wore on and my poetry section approached, I found myself nervously looking forward to doing my turn. Somewhere deep down that wee Scots school lassie was dying to perform the Burns words that came so easily to her, because many of them I spoke at home growing up anyway, and I had a natural affinity for them. I’m pleased to say I carried off the recitals without much trouble, then sat back to listen to the only other Scot in the room do “Tam o’ Shanter”. I smiled knowingly to myself as I recalled teaching Robert how to read this narrative over twenty years ago, and how I’d shook my head in appalled disbelief when he had admitted to never having “done Burns” at his Paisley schools.
My first ever Burns Supper in 2010 was held on my 40th birthday. It was with great reluctance I was persuaded to attend, and I only agreed on condition I had a strictly vegetarian meal and hired a Highland outfit. Much hilarity ensued when I was measured up for the outfit and had the fitting, but I felt terrific wearing all the regalia as I strutted into Keele Hall that night. It definitely felt like I was wearing an outfit ready for battle, I could have taken on the world. Since then I’ve worn a dress at the event, but last year I was asked about half a dozen times “where’s your kilt?” There was a palpable sigh in the air when I replied with my own question “why do you think I should wear one?” It got me thinking, and I toyed with the idea for the rest of the year. Eventually I came up with my own “alternative Highland outfit” idea which will be unveiled this week. This coincided with the discovery a traditional sweetie shop Mrs Mitchell’s and a kilt section in the TJ Hughes store nearby.
In the spring my thoughts strayed away from Easter eggs to sweets I remembered having as a kid, especially the “non PC ones” like sweetie tobacco and proper pipes with sherbet. I distinctly recall getting both of these in Martin Brennan’s Cleland paper shop when my Mammy got her own cigarette/tobacco supplies. Finding I had a decent enough wifi connection, I thought I’d tap a few choice words into a Google search and see what came up. To my utter surprise and delight I discovered many of the sweets I thought had long ceased production were still being made, many came under the handle of “traditional Scottish sweets” and could be found in select shops in big towns and cities. This is when I discovered Mrs Mitchell’s in Glasgow existed and on entering that wonderful sweetie emporium I was a wee girl again. The sights and smells took me right back to the Martin’s and also Bessie Allen’s corner shop, with the big sweet bottles and waxed boxes filled with delights such as odd fellows, floral gums, Berwick cockles and Chelsea whoppers. Willie Wonka could keep his factory this was my kind of place. After my first visit I came out with a canvas bag that was so heavy it felt like a kettle bell weight.
My appetite for Scottish sweeties satisfied I turned my attention to that burning thought of kilts and Burns suppers. Noticing a TJ Hughes store a few doors down from the sweet shop, I strolled inside for a look around, and happily noticed a nicely sized, not too intimidating, decently priced kilt section near the back of the store. I was travelling light for my Glasgow visit and had my sweeties to haul back home, but I promised myself I’d return for a proper look in November. I always have a pilgrimage that month to Glasgow to see Sydney Devine at the Pavilion Theatre. So back I went and spotted THE MOST GORGEOUS jacket, the only one of its kind in the store and in my size with a matching waistcoat. Trying them on, I again experienced that distinct empowered feeling, and the clothes sold themselves. Talking to Alex the concession manager we agreed a kilt purchase wasn’t really necessary, some black trousers would do just as well. With what is in my wardrobe already I can create about three different variations, and with the odd extra purchase that can stretch to six plus outfits. So I’m well sorted for January 25th now, and I just need to opt for the final permutation each year.
As well as seeing Sydney Devine in November, I went to see an 80th anniversary celebration of The Broons on stage. Despite talking like them growing up, my ears took about five minutes to acclimatise to the distinct burr of Scotland’s famous family. I’m just not used to hearing that style of talk from a stage, and my “Anglicised “ ears had to get back up to speed with the rapid fire delivery, the very specific style of humour, and general Scots patter. It was a terrific show and I felt very much at home. By the end of the evening I had reverted back to the Maw Broon dialogue of my childhood, and I didn’t feel in the slightest awkward or embarrassed about it, quite the opposite really. It was as I gazed at the packed bag containing my Broons program, some sweeties and my Sheriffmuir jacket and waistcoat, I realised that those Scots essentials filled me with an enormous pride. You can take the lassie out of Cleland/Scotland……