For the last couple of years, each time the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday rolls around in the last week of January, I’ve been committing to memory the eight verses of his Address to the Haggis to perform the duty on a Burns Evening. On my first attempt at the Rosslea Hall Hotel, back in 2010, I thought my delivery was fairly good considering I’d only learned the poem in the four weeks previous. However, the fact I missed a line out really bugged me and I was determined to do it perfectly the next chance I got.
Which is why, when I did the Address to the Haggis at Colgrain Bowling Club in 2011, I was mad with myself for grinding to a halt after just two verses because I thought I’d messed up. After being invited to do it again this year I was determined that I’d nail it, and tried to put the memory of last year’s screw up behind me. If Crazy Uncle John can reel off 14-odd verse epic’s from Burns’ repertoire with only a couple of fluffed lines, then surely I was capable of the flawless delivery of just eight verses?
This year I had an extra boost of confidence from wearing my own kilt outfit. It was practically the same one as I’d hired the last two years, save for a couple of upgrades. I’d decided that rather than wave goodbye to another £80 or so in hiring it again, I might as well bite the bullet and buy myself an outfit I’ll get many years of use from. That it was ready for collection a week before the night in question I took as a good omen, and I have to say that leaving the house wearing my very own brand-new kilt with all the trimmings really did make me feel the part.
Arriving at Craigendoran Bowling Club I slipped into the changing room area to check that everything was in order. My laces needed re-doing and my belt needed adjusting, but other than that I was content. Showtime!
I made my way into the main hall where I was greeted by Crazy Uncle John and the organisers, Rosemary and her husband Robin. They are lovely people and make us feel so welcome, considering we’re not members, nor do we have family affiliated with the club. We’re just there to help their Burns Evening, which is a good part of the reason I was so desperate to give a good performance.
My family were all along for the night and arrived shortly after. It was kind of cool to have my mum & dad there, along with Aunty Helen and my brother, although Andrew has been along to my last two attempts. Crazy Uncle John’s girlfriend Theresa joined them at the table, as did his pal Derek (or Degsy as we call him) and as the call was made for folk to take their seats the scene was set.
As part of the head table it’s great to be piped and clapped to your seat. The piper was superb – I’d had a brief exchange with him in the changing room where he said he’d have to dash home to get a new reed for his pipes, as he was sure they didn’t sound right. His trip was well worth it, as they sounded perfect to me.
Now, the tricky bit about the Address to the Haggis is more that you’re coming in cold than anything, I think. It’s essentially the first part of a Burns Evening, aside from the introductions, which I think is what threw me so much last year. I had barely taken my seat when I had to stand in front of an unknown audience. This time I was determined not to let that faze me.
Everyone stood to clap as the haggis was piped in and, as the piper led Robin around the hall carrying the platter, I made my way to a small table that had been placed in front of the head table. The knife lay on a cloth beside three glasses of whisky, so I knew I had my props to hand!
With the haggis delivered and the piper finished playing, I paused for everyone to take their seats. A lady sitting just in front of me had a bit of trouble untangling her chair leg with that of her neighbour, which was a great tension builder as I waited to get going.
And then I was off. The first, most practised verse came and went as I found my volume level and cadence. The next went really well, too – I’d been toying with a change of tone for the last part of the line “Your pin would help to mend a mill… in time o’ need“, to emphasise that Burns was being playful with that suggestion. It seemed to work a treat, and even got a chuckle from the club president.
Verse three was upon me and it was time to wipe the knife and cut the haggis. I briefly glanced up to see that Rosemary was filming me on her iPhone. This threw me a tiny bit, but it’s such a pivotal part of the poem that I just went for some added drama, vigorously cutting open the steaming haggis and “scotching” up the lines that followed, even dipping a finger in to taste the haggis before exclaiming the final word; “Rich!”
I was off to the races, and now that I could face the audience I did my best to look about the room to project my voice further around the hall. I have worried that I’m over egging the pudding when I do the verse that compares a haggis to fancier cuisine, but it brought a few chuckles and nods of approval from the audience, so I must be doing okay with it. I caught the smiling faces of my family off to my left during the run-in, and it felt good to have them there.
When I could finally raise my glass of whisky and say “Ladies and Gentlemen – to the haggis!” it was a great moment. I’d completely nailed it, I think, and I took the applause back to my seat at the head table. Crazy Uncle John was full of praise, telling me that some people just recite it, but I’ve got better each time and he thought my delivery was fantastic. Quite an endorsement coming from someone with his long experience of Burns Nights.
With my bit done, I got to sit back and enjoy the rest of the evening, which was brilliant. The Immortal Memory was performed by a lady – the first time I’ve heard a female doing it, and she was fantastic at it – really delved into the life of Burns beyond his poetry. That’s part of the evening I really enjoy, actually, learning more and more about this historic figure whose life and works we’re celebrating.
Crazy Uncle John did his usual double whammy of Tam o’ Shanter and Holy Willie’s Prayer with gusto, with the lights lowered for dramatic effect during both. The accidental illumination of the glitter ball failed to knock him off his stride in the early verses of Tam o’ Shanter, and he was in his element (and his smock & night cap) later on when he wandered in with a candle for Holy Willie’s Prayer.
The evening seemed to fly by and it didn’t seem very long at all before we were sitting together as a family in the corner of the hall for the last hour or so of the night. I’d had a few pints, a single whisky, and a couple of glasses of iced water when I was on the head table, so I’d kept it sensible.
The reason being?
Well, I wanted to remember as much as I could about the evening, especially since I’d finally done the Address to the Haggis justice on my third attempt, wearing my new kilt and shiny accessories, with my family there to see.
Sitting here the night after, typing this up with a small glass of whisky to my side, I can’t wait until we’re celebrating the life of Robert Burns all over again in 2013. 🙂