In early January I answered my phone to an enthusiastic Crazy Uncle John, asking if I’d like to attend a Burns Evening at the Rosslea Hall Hotel. My ticket would be free on the condition that I could give the Address to the Haggis on the night.
Thinking it would be a private little party, I tentatively agreed. The fact of the matter is that although I’d obviously heard it being recited at various Burns nights, I did not know Address to the Haggis myself. Possibly confusing it with The Selkirk Grace, I took comfort in the notion that it was probably only a couple of verses that I’d be able to learn in no time.
Looking it up online a couple of days later I discovered, to my dismay, that it had eight verses. With my sense of panic rising only slightly, I printed off a copy of the poem and casually set about learning it by way of reading it on the train to and from work when the mood took me.
It would be later that week, whilst talking over a beer with my mate Adrian, he told me that the Rosslea Hall Hotel Burns Evening could be quite a sizeable event. By coincidence, Crazy Uncle called as we sat in Blackfriars to tell me that tickets were on sale at £20 per head and it was being advertised in the local paper. All of a sudden I found a new sense of urgency with regard to learning Address to the Haggis.
I read it before I turned off the light at night, when I woke first thing in the morning, I practised reciting the bits I knew in the shower and in my head whilst walking to and from the station, and read it over and over whilst commuting. By the Sunday I could recite it from memory with only a couple of pauses for thought. Finding out you’re in deep water is a pretty good motivator, it turns out!
With five days to polish my performance I wasn’t too worried about the weight of the occasion, and with my Argyll kilt outfit already booked from a hire shop in Glasgow I was actually looking forward to it more than I was stressing about it.
Feeling that, now that I knew it from memory, I should be able to embelish the performance where necessary I looked up some videos on the net of some Address to the Haggis performances. However, although I noted a few points on pronounciation here and there, I was dismayed by the ego outshining the poem in a lot of them.
In 2009, Crazy Uncle John had got us tickets for a Burns Supper that had been a disaster. From idiots who wouldn’t keep their traps shut for the speakers to speakers who assumed they were the stars of the show. If you’re going to have a Burns Supper then it should be about Robert Burns and his poetry, not willy waving for your own sake.
So this was how I wanted to deliver the poem on the night. It wasn’t *my* Address to the Haggis, it was Robert Burns’ Address to the Haggis and I should be trying to convey his poem in the way it was intended, not theatrically gesticulating to the audience or hamming it up in the way I’d seen some of folk on YouTube do.
I had a final practice on the Saturday afternoon before the event, while Crazy Uncle John sat with pen and paper to critique my delivery. The only note he made was that I should be sure to be looking directly at the haggis for the first few verses. This made perfect sense, of course, but until this point I had been practicing in the absence of one.
Pleased that I’d made such a good impression on a comparitive Burns officionado, I had more confidence in being able to deliver to an audience of strangers later that evening.
It was only after I got to the Rosslea that the nerves really started to kick in, and I found myself struggling to recall the words that come so naturally just a few hours before. Pacing beside the dance floor with a sea of empty, but expectant chairs and tables off to the side, I went through the first few verses. Each time I stumbled on a line or a word, my anxiety levels multiplied.
The only remedy for it was a drink to steady the nerves – I’m sure Burns would have approved. A pint of lager later and I was feeling a bit calmer, and glad that Fliss had told me to take a print out of the words with me. There were printed sheets on all the tables, but I noticed on a quick scan through that some of the words differed from the version I had. Since I’d got mine from an official looking Robert Burns site (as official as a site for a long dead poet can be), I decided against trying to make any last minute changes to what I had committed to memory.
To my disappointment there had been no PA system set up for the speakers. I don’t have the loudest voice and I worried that with a dry mouth I might not be able to make myself heard at the far end of the room. Speaking to the accordian player on the band, he said he could extend a cable across the dance floor to use the drummer’s microphone, as it wouldn’t be needed for playing in the haggis. I helped get the microphone stand set up, said the opening line of “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face”, and clicked the mic off. I could have done with getting more of a feel for it, but there wasn’t any time for extended testing, so it would have to do. I thanked the accordian player for his help and went back to my table.
As the guests began to file in, Crazy Uncle John found that the band did not know how to play The Star O’ Rabbie Burns. He said this was important for a Burns evening and insisted on dashing home to pick up a CD he had with the music on it. This led to half an hour of anxious glances around the room as the guests around their tables looked at their watches and frowned at the late running of the event. Things were meant to kick off at 19:30 and it was creeping towards eight o’clock.
Where the heck was Crazy Uncle John?
I read through Address to the Haggis a few more times and decided to get myself another drink to drown the butterflies still swirling in my stomach. As I approached the bar I recognised Glasgow Rangers’ manager Walter Smith sitting with, I assumed, friends and family. As far as I know he’s a Helensburgh resident, so it kind of made sense that he’d drink in a place that’s a bit further out of town from where the drooling mobs might frequent. I didn’t think he’d be there for the Burns Evening, though – I was sure someone like Walter Smith would be attending a far more lavish affair.
With my drink in hand I got back to my seat a short while before Crazy Uncle John and Bro’-in-lo’ Ian returned with the prized CD in hand. Upon them taking their seats, Dave, the hotel manager, made the introductory announcement. I knew once the band started playing in the haggis I’d be up.
The signal was given and the band struck up a rousing tune – one which Crazy Uncle John had told them to play when he had discovered there wouldn’t be a piper available to pipe in the haggis. The chef strode in with the haggis on a silver platter, followed by Dave swirling a couple of whisky bottles around above his head. He must have seen that on TV somewhere, as it was a new one on me.
I got to my feet and took my place at the presentation table while they snaked around the far end of the room. As they passed the table, Dave wheeled round to a halt while the chef took off toward the other end of the hall unaware. There were a few moments of panic as Dave tried to discretely call him back, but the chef didn’t go far before realising. A bit of a comedic start, though!
With the platter finally on the table I approached for the task at hand and accidentally kicked the mic stand, making a loud POP noise, so in the event my first word was a sheepish “sorry.” There might not be a piper, the band might not know The Star O’ Rabbie Burns, and the chef might have gotten lost on the way to the presentation table, but I had hoped to be a bit more polished myself.
A deep breath and off I went, with the first verse coming without much hesitation – no surprise as I’d practised it the most. I even remembered to pronounce “pUddin'” instead of “poo-din'” as I’d mistakenly been doing earlier in the week. Verse two went great – I could finally say “The groaning trencher, there ye’ fill” with some conviction – having an actual haggis on a platter in front of me.
Verse three came quickly, and I’d noticed with a line or two to go that they’d failed to provide me with a cloth to wipe the knife on as requested. Taking it in my stride, I wiped the blade on the sleave of my Argyll jacket before cutting into the haggis “wi ready slight!”
With that verse out of the way I could look to the audience rather than the haggis. Unfortunately this led me to make eye contact with a smiling lady in the sea of faces before me and it was then that I lost my concentration and missed a line out.
I didn’t really notice at the time and nor did most anyone else, I don’t think. I had a feeling that it hadn’t gone perfectly, but sailed through the final two verses, lifting the platter up to finish with “Gie her a haggis.” The was a round of applause as I raised a glass of whisky in the toast “Ladies and Gentlemen, the haggis!” before clinking glasses with Dave and the chef.
I don’t even like whisky, but with the relief at getting through the eight verses without totally making a hash of it I sipped it like it was nectar.
When I took my seat back at the table it was Ian that said I’d missed a line, as he’d been following along with the print out. I was almost certain that I hadn’t, and he couldn’t tell me which line, either, but after rewinding my memory of events I narrowed it down to “Wi perfect scunner”, the fourth line from the 5th verse.
It’s maybe the only line that can be missed without ruining the balance of the poem entirely, which I think is why I didn’t stumble at the time, but I was still kicking myself for it after the event. All week I hadn’t missed that line out, when I’d had trouble with several others, so it must have been the over confidence that had me casting a glance around the room which caused me to skip it.
Everyone else seemed pleased enough, and Dave said I’d done a great job, too. I said that if he had me back next year I’d do all the lines and he laughed saying that he was sure nobody noticed.
Whether that’s true or not I’d still like another chance to do an Address to the Haggis. I think I’ve got the hang of it now and I believe I’m delivering it as it was intended, as opposed to taking a showboating opportunity that many people cant resist when they’re centre stage.
As it turned out, the haggis I addressed and cut up was very tasty indeed. Crazy Uncle John did his usual passionate performances of Tam O’Shanter and Holy Willie’s Prayer – both very long and technical, but receiving good rounds of applause from the crowd.
After the food and the poems, the band struck up proper and were good at encouraging most people to get up for some traditional Scottish ceilidh dancing. Overall, I think the evening appeared to be a great success – considering the only cost to me was learning a poem and hiring a kilt, I think it was well worth the effort.