A couple of months in the preparation, last night, Saturday the 26th, was the night for the Allendale Lions Club special Burns Night Supper, which is usually an annual fund-raising affair.
Burns Suppers come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, but to be de rigeur, you really should have a piper, the Selkirk Grace, and the speeches: The Address to the Haggis; The Immortal Memory; The Toast to the Lassies; The Response of the Lassies; before the evening develops into an inebriated free-for-all that might rival Tam O’Shanter’s escapade on his night out. In addition, of course, to the haggises themselves (those strange pot-bellied creatures with one sided short legs, one sided long, the better to creep around the wee bit hills and glens, of course), the neeps and tatties, and if you’re lucky, cockaleekie soup for starters and cranachan cheese cake for afters. Yum! We need not talk about the whisky, of which too many tots are inevitably consumed, of course.
I remember Burns Night suppers in Allendale with everyone blissfully standing on their chairs to link arms for Auld Lang Syne, or the immortal Billy Thompson reciting Tam O’Shanter faithfully from memory, holding the assemblage spell-bound. Or the late great Tony Brennan blaming the water for the idiosyncracies exhibited by Allendale residents. Other years there’s been excitable ceilidhs, or more prosaically a piper emanating ghostlike from the sound system (not the same at all as the real thing). Of course, it’s all in a grand two hundred year old tradition, and the event shows no signs of abating.
But the one last night was special for me, since I was the cause of a hiatus last year, and so as punishment I was delegated to deliver the Immortal Memory for the second time in my life. Now two years ago, I’d taken a reckless risk to deliver the first trans-gender inclusive, non-binary ‘Toast to the Lassies’ ever heard in Allendale, but the good folks took it all in with the normal tolerance we’ve grown to expect here, so I hoped that the 70 odd guests expected (thanks to the efforts of Sylvia Milburn, probably the best event recruiter/ticket seller in the village) at the New Hall last night might be ready for a lateral-minded ‘Memory’. The hall was certainly ready for them.
I knew I had to wait, gulping water and being cheerfully sober, while everyone else was enjoying their whisky toasts — Liz Sandison delivering a fine and diverting Address to the Haggis after Chris Bacon marched up and down with stirring, skirling pipes, and Anna Harrison capably presented the ‘chieftain of the pudding race’.
But then, finally for me, with my heart in my throat, I did have fun delivering the little address, because I got to chat about the emergence of heritage, of culture, from the most unlikely places, as championed by the most unlikely people. More than two centuries ago Robert Burns was His Majesty’s Excise man, but he still collected his countrymen’s Scottish dialect, building his immortal poetry from the language of dispossessed folks who lost their crofts and small-holding tenancies during the Highland and Islands Clearances. By comparison, in our lifetime, Billy Connolly assimilated the Glasgow sweary culture from his upbringing in the slums next to the River Clyde and the ship-building industry, and his comedy immortalises that vibrant heritage too, emerging just as the slums were cleared, and the ship-building died. I finished somewhat obscurely with the Vulcan blessing ‘Live long and prosper’, something Robbie Burns forgot to do but Billy Conolly accomplished so well. Everyone was a bit stunned, but very gracious in chats afterwards, though several opined that they’d never quite heard an Immortal Memory like that before. Mission accomplished then. A small sip of whisky slipped easily down.
John Hill and Catherine Stirling Hill raised the intellectual bar, thereafter, with apt readings of some of Robbie Burns’ poems in their toast to, and response of, the lassies, and the evening with all its trimmings proved to be a sumptuous affair of wonderful food (oh, the food! The cockaleekie soup was such a surprise, with ultra-tasty broth, copious chicken chunks, succulent prunes, and of course, it was only the very best haggis from MacSween, with dollops of freshly mashed neeps and tatties and lashings of super-smooth gravy, followed by the most unctuous Cranachan cheesecake, all carefully prepared by Carrie Winger), presented with delightful service by the Harrison and Baynes families, and able assistance in the kitchen from Bruce Martin, lashings of whisky and beer and wine provided by Steven Blair of the Allendale Inn as cheerfully tended by Amy Summer, hearty song led by a nearly worn-out Carrie, and special pieces from the floor, with thought-provoking stimulation all around. And Nigel, at the end an ever-so-slightly wasted compère, gave me a big kiss, so it must have been quite a night!
Perhaps, in like vein somehow, in this little diary effort over the coming months, we together, contributors and readers alike, can also realise something of the vibrant cultural life that binds us together here in Allendale in a shared perspective. No point in aiming low, after all!