In the years since I got involved in doing a turn at Burns’ Suppers, I’ve been to all sorts of takes on them. From the grand affairs with over 100 people packed into a splendid hall to those held in people’s homes. To me, so long as people enjoy a bit of Burns and have a good time, it doesn’t really matter what the scale or venue or conformity to tradition is.
My 2015 Burns season comprised of five very different events and I enjoyed each of them in different ways. Which is why I thought I’d give my account of them here, so that I might look back in years to come and be reminded of an almost perfect collection of ways to celebrate Robert Burns.
Helensburgh Burns Club’s annual supper
It was the Helensburgh Burns Club‘s annual supper that kicked off the 2015 Burns season for me, not that I was performing a poem or anything at it, but by virtue of being secretary of the Burns Club I was involved with the organisation of it. Of course, not doing a turn meant that I got to sit with my family, enjoy the other performers, and take as many pictures as I could for use on the club website.
I was asked to act as haggis bearer and although my carrying duties went smoothly, the bloke doing the Address to the Haggis actually dropping it on the floor! I’d never seen that happen before and our club piper assured me that he hadn’t experienced it in all his years of Burns’ Suppers. Due to that nobody got any haggis with their meal aside from the token bit inside the Balmoral Chicken that was served.
The vacant seats at the top table belonged to the poor chap who was doing the toast to the lassies and his wife. They’d got stuck on the Erskine Bridge for a couple of hours due to a crash and we ended up running very late as we played for time until they arrived. As the weather showed no signs of improving, my mate Grant opted to leave early to ensure he could get back to Glasgow, but he missed a cracking toast to the lassies when it happened and a somewhat unique performance of Tam O’Shanter.
Still, aside from the weather and haggis dropping issues, the night was a success and I think everyone there enjoyed it!
The Friends of Victoria Halls Burns’ Supper
My first Address to the Haggis would come a week later at the annual charity fund raising Burns event at Helensburgh’s Victoria Halls. I wouldn’t have minded warming up with something smaller, but you take them as they come and I’m delighted to be asked to do a turn at these things.
I spent the week brushing up and my Address to the Haggis went off without a hitch. For the first time at a bigger event, nobody offered me any pointers on “how it should be done”, too. I took that as a good sign that I’m pretty polished at it now and sat back to relax and soak up the rest of the evening.
The performers were first class and included the brilliant musician and singer Steven Duguid, who I’ve got to know quite well during the Burns seasons of the last couple of years, and Donnie Graham Munroe, who is a talented poet in his own right and an effortlessly entertaining speaker.
The highlight of the night had to be my mate Graham Hill’s performance of Tam O’Shanter. Graham had first done it a year ago at our club Burns Supper and had raced through it a bit. At the Victoria Halls he absolutely nailed it, with a theatrical jump from the stage as the epic tale reached a crescendo.
Me and Crazy Uncle John bundled on down to The Clyde Bar in our kilts to compare notes on a brilliant evening when it was all over.
Cousin Iain’s annual Burns Night
In 2013 I’d travelled down with Crazy Uncle John to attend the Burns night that Iain helps organise as a fund raiser for his church. I’d skipped it in 2014 because I didn’t think I could justify the expense of it, but when the night passed I regretted that decision and told Iain I’d come back again for 2015. I booked the flights with BA months in advance, too, so by the time the end of January arrived it was all long since paid for.
On the plane down I’d wanted to work on a poem I was writing, but Trello wouldn’t let me edit the text on my phone in airplane mode. Instead I thought I’d have a bash at writing a toast to Cousin Iain that I could do for the vote of thanks. I had something together pretty quickly, although I tweaked it a few times before the night was upon us.
The next day, after helping setting up the hall I got into my kilt and a Scotland top, quite excited to be a part of the night ahead and ready to take on whatever was asked of me. In the event, I acted as Haggis bearerbefore performing the Address to the Haggis, which was very well received. Later on I did To a Mouse, which I’ve yet to do without stumbling in the middle of it. Not sure why that is, but it’s probably because it comes later in the night and I’ve had a few whiskies by then!
The food was great and the quiz went well, although our team weren’t quite the dream team that Iain had assured us we’d be!
At the end as Iain went up to give the vote of thanks I’d told him that he couldn’t thank himself for being quiz master, so I said I’d wander up, take the microphone off him and propose a thanks to him.
What I didn’t tell him was that I was going to do a poem as a toast on his behalf and when I went to do it he was rightly mortified. It went something like this:
My cousin Iain was a funny wee boy And he's had quite an interesting life. Now he's made his home here in London, Alongside Nicky, his beautiful wife. In our youth we were together like brothers, Sharing toys and the bunk' in our room. Nowadays he lives so much further away, And I miss him when he's not around. Now one strange thing about Iain is his accent. It's unusual and quite hard to place. But his dad is Welsh and he grew up in Scotland, Which is why it's all over the place! For a living Iain's got quite an important job, Tending patients all day as a nurse. He is pretty good, or so I've been told, In his care you won't end up in a hearse! Iain's great passion in life is his football, And there's no place that he'd rather be. Than attending a game, commanding midfield, Or blowing a whistle as he referees. So an enigmatic man is our Iain. And tonight he's acting as our host. To this great Burns Night we're at here in London. So let's all raise our glasses and toast!
The above got a good laugh and Iain seemed to appreciate it, which was a result as far as I was concerned. I also made a mental note never to include the word “enigmatic” in a poem again – it’s easier typed than said when you’ve been on the whisky!
I’m glad I made the effort to go back down for this particular Burns’ Supper – it’s kind of cool to be in the depths of London enjoying something so quintessentially Scottish.
The Clyde Bar Burns’ Supper
Each year, Crazy Uncle John insists on helping to corral the moving parts involved in organising the Clyde Bar Burns’ Supper. Each year I tell him I’m not going to be involved with the ogranisation, but I’ll turn up and perform if need be. The reason for my reluctance is that Johnny, the landlord at The Clyde’, has a somewhat seat of the pants style when it comes to organising anything. This is as true for meeting us up in Glasgow for a meal, for example, as it is for organising an event in his own pub.
Me, I need to know that everyone is pulling both their weight and in the same direction if I’m to volunteer my time, so I can’t be doing with the stress of organising something if the chances of failure outweigh the chances of pulling it off in style.
As it turns out, Crazy Uncle John, Johnny, and others did just enough to bring together a very good Burns Supper. However, this was yet another occasion where the elements were not in our favour and, with the riverside location of The Clyde Bar, it was hard going trying to get in or out of the front door. As the start time ticked by I was a bit concerned, because there didn’t look to be enough people to fill the tables.
It turned out we had just enough to make it an “intimate” evening rather than a rowdy one, which worked quite well once things got going. The piper was new to me, but he was a nice guy and a solid performer, and the catering staff did a good job of feeding the two dozen or so folk who had made it.
I did the Address to the Haggis and To a Mouse (with yet another mid-way stumble. One day I’ll get it right!) and Crazy Uncle John performed Holy Willie’s Prayer in theatrical fashion. Donnie Graham Munroe joined us once again, all the way from Milngavie, to perform a toast to Scotland, and Helensburgh Burns Club treasurer David Kinniburgh did a great job of Tam O’Shanter.
Robert Ryan, who is the front man for the cracking local blues band Harmonica Lewinsky, performed a few songs and also gave a tremendous toast to the lassies that was jam packed full of one liners. He proved a hard act to follow with that and I felt a bit sorry for the lady he’d roped into doing the reply!
Josef, a local hairdresser, gave the most surreal speech about… something… that I’ve ever sat wide-eyed through at a Burns’ event of any description. My mother and brother were in tears of laughter more at my expressions of disbelief than anything that Josef was saying – it was that mental!
When he was done, Donnie Munroe Graham said to Josef “I didn’t quite know where you were going with that.” To which Josef replied, “No? Neither did I!”
We finished up with an enthusiastic rendition of The Star O’ Rabbie Burns, and the unlikely success of the evening was punctuated by Johnny pouring us all lots of whisky!
I still don’t know how it came together, but after it was out of the way I had one last Burns’ Supper to look forward to.
Geo’s Annual Burns’ Supper at Logiebank
George has held a Burns night at his house in Cardross for several years now and it’s a night that our various circles of friends always make an effort to attend. In previous years I’ve done the lion’s share of poetry; reciting The Tarbolton Lassies, To a Toothache, To a Mouse and numerous Addresses to the Haggis.
However, this year would be different in that George was going to do the Address to the Haggis, big Grant had hastily agreed to give the toast to the lassies, while Jen would give the reply, and all I had to do was be the MC and give the vote of thanks. I was quite content with this, as I was proud of George for wanting to give the Address to the Haggis a go. Plus Grant is a funny guy and Jen is a natural performer, so after years of stealing the limelight I was happy to stand back and enjoy it.
Although previous attendees Holly, Tobin, Ross and Lynsey couldn’t make it, we had a bumper turnout regardless and with everybody packed into the dining room it was quite a crowd for Geo to be performing his first full Address to the Haggis in front of!
Acting as MC I called everybody to stand for the haggis and we had some suitably Scottish music playing in the background as Geo’s nephew Matt brought in the groaning trencher. As I brought the music down I could see that Geo was looking nervous and it brought back the butterflies I had experienced the first few times I’d stood with a piping hot haggis and an expectant room full of people before me.
As he got going I followed along with the words so I could feed him a line if he got stuck, but that wasn’t necessary and he pretty much nailed it, much to his relief. Like I often feel when it’s all over he was sure he’d missed a line or even a verse out somewhere, but back in the kitchen I assured him he’d delivered it all. That assurance didn’t do much to calm the shakes, though – for that Geo had a well earned dram of whisky!
Once the massive amounts of haggis, ‘neeps and tatties were out of the way it was time for Grant to do his toast to the lassies. Big G sent all the lads in the room a Hangout message with the chorus of a song he was going to sing that was based on Billy Connolly’s Welly Boot song. For whatever reason I never received them, so I stood beside Grant as he read the song from his notebook and did my best to join in with the chorus when it came.
As big Paul would later comment; “Crowd participation stuff is genius!”. Which is why If it wasnae for the lassies was a rousing success, carried off in a way that, of all of us, only Grant could get away with.
Next up was Jen, who had written a poem for her reply to the lads that mentioned pretty much all of the men who were expected to be in attendance. It was a pity that Ross and Tobin weren’t there to hear their bits, because Jen’s performance was an absolute masterpiece! She really had taken great care in putting it together, with the early line “Buy one George, get Ade free!” setting the tone for what was one of the finest replies I have ever heard at a Burns’ Supper.
So much so that I was immediately having second thoughts about the poem I intended to do as part of the vote of thanks. About a month beforehand I had the idea of writing a Toast to the Lord of Logiebank. I’ll concede that the original idea was laced with sarcasm and the title gives that away somewhat.
The verses came together really easily and, as they did, the more sentimental it became and that’s because Geo’s house is a cracking place to have a gathering and he is a brilliant host. So, when I cast my mind back there were so many fond memories of gatherings gone by that I felt I could write something meaningful.
As the night drew near I got more nervous about the thought of performing it and I added and removed verses almost daily, right up until that very afternoon. And then I had to follow Jen!
It didn’t help that I had to give the vote of thanks first which, due to fretting about the poem, was something I hadn’t put a lot of thought into. Keeping it simple I thanked Grant and Jen for their performances, then got heckled by Ade and Paul for not mentioning Geo which made me forget to thank the pair of them for bringing the cheese and dessert, respectively.
Anyhow, the Toast to the Lord of Logiebank went like this;
Standin' proudly to the east of the village o' Cardross, You'll find the home of Geo, and in there he's the boss. It's got a garden up the back of it and a driveway to the side. But at this time o' year it's freezin' when he gets home from a ride. It's bitter in the doorway, It's baltic in the hall. Geo's got a pile of firewood and by spring he'll burn it all. But when it hauds a gathering there's a warmth in every room. The kind that comes among good friends, and makes winter feel like June. There'll be a feast upon the table While the ale and spirits flow. There'll be a smile on every single face and the whole hoose is aglow. That's why we'll raise our glasses to the host we have to thank. By George; isn't it fantastic to be back at Logiebank!
George seemed to appreciate the sentiment, as did the rest of the room, so I was pretty happy with that.
With the formalities out of the way the rest of the night was swept along by chat, dancing in the living room and many repeat visits to the dining room table to eat way too much food. It was probably the best Burns’ Supper we’ve had at Geo’s and has set the bar really high for next year.
For me, this intimate Burns’ Supper was the perfect end the 2015 Burns’ Season and was celebrated in a way that I’m sure The Bard himself would have approved of – among good friends!