Mystic Highlanders wow the guests

Burns Night Rhode Island – a pretty big deal. The St Andrew’s Society of Rhode Island takes the Rhodes on the Pawtuxet Ballroom – largest in the state – and goes all Scottish as interpreted by America…. The society has to make the haggis as it is unobtainable in the US – in fact they sell it to other Burns nights to raise funds! The Mystic Highlanders put on a display of piping and sword dancing and after dinner we Scottish Country Dance the night away.

This year they were silly enough to ask me to give the Immortal Memory. Speaking notes and some pictures follow……

Preamble

For those who have not been to one of these events before – traditionally there is a toast at the end of this piece – you might want to keep a wee drop in your glass so you are not toasting on fumes!

Robert Burns – a poor farmer who tried his hand at tax collecting, who turned a hobby of collecting old Scots folk stories into a career as a poet – dying an untimely death from a rheumatic heart brought on by early grinding labour in the fields. Some say dying of the effects of womanizing and drink. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

He was a media sensation in his time – before the term “star” was ever invented.
His friends gathered on the anniversary of his death to remember him – starting the tradition of the Burn’s Supper.

So why Burn’s longevity in the collective memory?

Why after 211 years are WE still doing this?
Will mankind be celebrating the Beach Boys in the year 2219?

The memories

When asked if I would propose the Immortal Memory I had to think carefully. On reflection I realized that Burns has been with me throughout my life – though I did not always recognize or appreciate it at the time!

In my early childhood in Glasgow – Christmas was for children but Hogmany was for the adults (you call it First Night here). There was huge celebration and threats of “Old Man Time” coming to catch any children who stayed up past their bedtime. At the bells all the adults gathered around and sang – “Auld Lang Syne”.

Auld Lang Syne – I was told was by “Burns” – which in my childish mind was what happened when I got too close to the fire in the kitchen.

Later in the year there was a “Burns Night” – but next morning the adults were not covered with sores and peeling skin. Breakfast table conversation centered on the previous night’s entertainment. My mother showed me the bruises on her arms from “Stripping the Willow”. It seemed terribly adult – though I was assured it was a dance! There would be discussion of the flavour of “the haggis” and the quality of the “the address” (and wasn’t John MacLean’s address tonight excellent – he does it SO WELL!)


Graeme Smith – The Immortal Memory
John MacLean – The Address to the Haggis
Joyce Dell – The Chair (and from Glasgow!)

It was a long drive from Glasgow to the village of Mauchline in Ayrshire where we used to visit my godmother Auntie Phemie and her brother Uncle Robert. Truth to tell I was terrified of Uncle Robert. He tweaked my ear while speaking to me in a completely un-intelligible accent – I think making jokes at my expense.

Eventually we would make the trip across the street to the café for ice cream served by Auntie Senga – Robert’s wife. On the way – a bar – just four doors down the street – would always be pointed out:

“That’s Poosie Nansie’s Bar” my mother would declare. “Burns used to drink there.” At that age I was more interested in ice-cream.

A summer trip to the beach at Ayr always included a drive past a low lying white painted cottage with a thatch roof – “That is Burn’s Birthplace” we would hear.

We lost touch with the Ayrshire relatives. Last year I retraced the journey to Mauchline for the first time in nearly 40 years. Godmother Auntie Phemie hadn’t changed; Auntie Senga was still serving ice cream at the café. And my nemesis Uncle Robert was still there – though these days he has to reach a bit to tweak my ear. Burns favourite haunt – Poosie Nansie’s bar is still open for business.

And I understand a little more – Uncle Robert is not un-intelligible – he does speak English though he speaks the dialect known as Lallans – It is as near to life as Robert Burns spoke when he was alive.

Don’t get the impression that Burns filled my childhood. The Beatles were a new sensation; I played with my model trains, my Lego and generally scraped my knees as I eventually learned to ride a bike. I was a pretty normal kid.

————

But Burns was always hovering – waiting to catch me out:
Mr. Wylie the school music teacher was a stern disciplinarian. Communal singing was a regular activity in his class.

..sing titles….

“John Barleycorn is dead”, “Green Grow the Rashes Oh!” and on one fateful day:

..sing falsetto drop some notes….
“Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?”

Mr. Wylie headed my way – he didn’t like people messing around. I quickly scanned the music – ready for one of the three standard questions:

  • Composer – Trad – that meant Traditional – we had a lot of that composer.
  • Time Signature – 6/8 – Heck a tough one to explain.
  • Lyrics – Burns – that struck a distant chord

But instead I got worked through the So-Fah on the wall.

..sing falsetto drop more notes – croak..
Do Re Me Fah So La Ti Do

After a few unsuccessful tries Mr. Wylie stopped me.

“Just sing where you feel you can fit in and don’t worry about it.”
he offered rather gently. I was confused.

To the class:
“Graeme’s voice just broke – it is normal”

and with heavy emphasis directed at the other giggling boys –
“He is growing up – faster than some”.

It brooked no argument but I sat and rued this guy “Burns” for singling ME out that day.


Oor table!

Terror of the English class – Mrs Mizen – insisted that every word of our work could be verified in the English Dictionary. The exception was when Burns was on the desk. “Scotland’s National Poet” seemed to be sufficient excuse for the fact we couldn’t find many of the words HE seemed to use in the dictionary.

The onomatopoeia of a terrified mouse’s “bickering brattle” as it was turned over by farmer Burns reaping the corn in “To a Mouse” fell on my deaf ears.

I would flick back and forth through the collected works – trying to find something more interesting or that I could even comprehend!

I found:

“To a Louse”
” Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowling ferlie? Your impudence protects you sorely”

as a louse crawled across a lady’s hair in church one Sunday morning.

This Burns character – like me – didn’t like church on Sunday either. He was easily distracted.

….and then the teacher asked me to take up the next verse in the mouse poem she and the rest of the class were reading about.
Burns struck again – I was lost with the louse.

———-

Annually Scotland played rugby in the Five Nations Championship. The event was like the Superbowl on steroids. Only NATIONAL pride was at stake. When the Scots were playing at our national stadium – we got cheap “schoolboy” tickets.

With Scotland suddenly oil rich and thinking of independence – in our youthful rebelliousness there was debate about having our own national anthem. We observed the Scots team decline to sing “God Save the Queen” – the anthem of the United Kingdom. However they did not go so far as to sing the alternative we offered from the sidelines-

“Scots Wha Hae” – Burn’s collected words of Robert the Bruce addressing his barely trained peoples’ army before they fought the invading English army in 1314 – unexpectedly trapping them in the Bannockburn and routing them.

660 years later we were up against the invading English again – even if it was only rugby. We were playing at home and the Scots were not fancied to win. Throughout the match we were the underdogs – never quite keeping up. With just moments left to play the English were one point ahead. Then the English fouled.
Trapped deep in our own half of the field there was little hope but from the sidelines we gave the Scots team our best:

..sing..
Scots, who hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, whom Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!

Scotland’s Andy Irvine set the ball up for an impossibly long penalty kick at the English goal – over half a field away. He stepped back, lined up, cleaned the toe of his boot, danced on his toes:

..sing..
Who for Scotland’s King and Law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fa’,
Let him follow me!

Irvine struck the ball and the Scots charged forward. The ball lofted high and hung teetering in the breeze, wobbling and dropping – miraculously – between the English posts.


The Ball Soared……

..brisk..
Three points to Scotland and a two point lead. The referee blew the final whistle and the English were left – as at Bannockburn – defeated against all predictions.
The spirit of Burns and Bruce was surely there that day.

—————

I later came to understand how much of a radical Burns was. He was keenly aware of the contradiction between the increasing wealth of the Lowlanders and the plight of the dispossessed Highlanders whose kilt and bagpipes were banned by the Act of Proscription after the 1745 rebellion.

An educated man in the Age of Enlightenment – Burns trod a fine line:

His fame and wealth came from the establishment who were rich enough to pay for his work. They represented the status quo. Burns was a respected Free Mason.
But he was not afraid to record “Sco’s Wha Hae” which in his day many considered a “call to arms” for the Scots to revolt against English rule again.

He composed an “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday” – a pretty daring act of admiration in a country that had just lost a major war to a bunch of colonials.

His poetry eloquently recorded his dalliances with many women admirers and lovers while he was very publicly condemned from the altar for his philandering.

————-

A few minutes ago I posed the question – After 211 years why IS Burns still in the collective memory?

  • Wonderful poet, songwriter and story teller? – - Sure
  • Scotland’s first media star? – - Perhaps
  • Bane of schoolboy’s lives? – - Doubtful.
  • More likely is because he eloquently expressed his beliefs in liberty, freedom and the rights of man – - in the tongue of the common man.

Written in his final year – and published at risk of prosecution under King George III’s Royal Proclamation against seditious writings – his legacy echoes through the years and these words are as valid today as when they were first penned:

..declaim..

Then let us pray that come it may
As come it will for a’ that
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall have first place and all that!

For all that, and all that,
It‘s coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

Ladies and Gentlemen – please rise and join me as I propose a toast to Robert Burns and –

“His Immortal Memory”


The waitresses were rightly amused by our celebrations – though they fell for the story about the haggis having two long and two short legs to help them negotiate steep hills!

Superbowl on Steriods – the next day was the annual US Superbowl for American Football and Baseball was in the midst of an investigation into drug use by players

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