Minus the Pipes

Guest Blogger Kristie L Smith

The year was 1985 – fall of my junior year in high school. Mrs. Brinkley – a short, stout woman with a stern disposition and hair as black as a raven’s feathers – introduced us. His name was Robbie Burns. We hung out for a while. He was far more pleasant than that Beowulf guy she introduced earlier.

Much celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns

Robbie’s words were magical. A girl could really fall for him - hard. I remember what he said like it was yesterday O my Luve's like a red, red rose That's newly sprung in June; O my Luve's like the melodie That's sweetly play'd in tune… He was so sophisticated and worldly compared to the boys in my class. Sure, he was older, that probably had something to do with it. He had a certain flair. But red, red roses die, and eventually so did our love.

In college I met Walt Whitman – but for some reason that relationship went nowhere. I didn’t think of Robbie for many years. I married a Ukrainian/Russian biology professor. His colleagues at Grand Valley State University were a good-time bunch. More fun than you might think given one watched birds mate and called it research, one scooped up road kill and called it work and others pretty much fished on Lake Michigan and called it a living. On a frigid west Michigan January night, with snow measured by the foot, my husband and I went to a birthday party thrown by one of his fellow faculty members. It all came flooding back to me. …As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, So deep in luve am I: And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a' the seas gang dry: This party was for Robbie!
Robert Burns' Tribute Dinner at French Lick Resort

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun: I will luve thee still, my dear, While the sands o' life shall run. This shindig was a Burns Day celebration! I didn’t realize it at the time, but a Burns’ Day Dinner really is a “thing.” Many of the traditional earmarks were there – minus the pipes. Bagpipes really are an acquired taste or genetic predisposition.  In a traditional Robert Burns Dinner there is a nine-step ritual that is followed either closely or loosely depending on the host’s level of commitment to the evening.

As I was researching the details of this Scottish tradition, it occurred to me that what I attended was more of a Burns’ “kegger” than an actual Burns’ Day event. Some celebrations to honor Robert Burns are quite formal from dress to venue and everything in between. The gathering we went to, included some speeches, poetry, toasts, scotch and beer. I vaguely remember the haggis, but we only said “‘s’ up” to it instead of the full-on proper address that is required in an actual marking of the anniversary of Burns’ birth. I think the tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips) were served but I do not recall a dessert. Coffee was absent. At the time coffee seemed to be counter intuitive while drinking scotch and beer.

First celebrated in memoriam in the 18th century by actual friends of Burns, there would be a litany of speeches starting with one to honor the immortal memory of Robbie, himself. Then there would be a toast to the lassies, a reply toast to the laddies – often the lad and lass of distinction would collaborate on this exchange.  Individual guests would read poems by Burns or if from some other country they are encouraged to trot out something from their homeland. I believe my husband read some Pushkin for the party but it was in Russian so who really knows what he said? The speeches and the toasting and the drinking and the singing at a traditional Burns Dinner go on well into the night. That part I remember vividly-ish, along with the poem that tumbled from my lips when it was my turn to honor my old flame, Robbie… And fare thee well, my only Luve And fare thee well, a while! And I will come again, my Luve, Tho' it were ten thousand mile. As practiced for centuries, at the end of the festivities, the host leads all in the singing of Auld Lang Syne, or as we know it in this country, “that song from New Year’s Eve.”

So enamored am I of Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard that I remember him lo these many years later as do millions the world over – both Scottish and non-Scots alike. I invite you to attend a traditional Burns’ Dinner and make memories, like mine, that will last a lifetime.  Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne!