Culture’s Naomi Simpson brings a merry night of whisky wonder and haggis hiatus to Selly Oak in honour of Scotland’s much loved poet, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns
The name may sound alarming but fear not, Burns Night is not some health and safety defying bonfire ritual gathering cultural force. That’s not to say there isn’t a potentially terrifying aspect to the proceedings, at least for those of you who were brought up south of the wall (Hadrian’s Wall to be specific, but when has a Game of Thrones reference not gone down well?). The greatest threat and ultimate joy of Burns Night is this: the celebration of Scotland’s nationally adored poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns with a few toasts of whisky and some haggis, dare you try it.
The evening of the 25th of January sees people of Scottish descent the world over come together to enjoy a moment of nostalgia in the form of fairly out-dated but charming traditions, artery-clogging food and mind-fogging drink. This is what I, a proud member of the miniscule group of Scottish students at the University of Birmingham, decided to inflict upon my housemates last week as reading lists piled higher and we all needed a little late January cheer.
At its core, Burns Night is an evening of recitation. Poetry is obviously central to this, and I would like to thank my obliging housemate who navigated his way between a crisp RP accent and Burns’ broad Scots dialect to recite his well-loved tongue twister ‘Selkirk Grace’ (“Just don’t pronounce any ‘t’s and you’ll be fine!”). Burns was a true poet of the people, a unifying voice who could write about love as easily as folk tales with a deft manner of taking the specific occurrences of his rural life and the rhythms of the Ayrshire Scots dialect and making them universal. If you think this sounds like patriotic hyperbole, it’s worth bearing in mind that John Steinbeck used one of Burns’ lines for the title of his canonical American novel Of Mice and Men. Recitation takes on a role of cultural reaffirmation in the evening, as bagpipes blare out of ballrooms from Elgin to Edinburgh and kilt-wearing partygoers get a wee bit closer to their roots with each bite of haggis.
As we progress through our university careers, I have noticed that there is often a sense that to return home after moving away to study is a step in the wrong direction. Those of us lucky enough to be able to study abroad are even more likely to be constantly looking forward and outwards to new cultures and experiences, but we run the risk of overlooking the joy in where we came from. It may not have been the most elegant or traditional night, but indulging in a little home-cooked culture is something to be treasured. As an English Literature student, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about poetry and its supposed impact, but very little time living poetry. If you’re looking for a sense of Celtic connection and want to explore the actual cultural impact poetry can have, I urge you to give Burns Night a go next year for a perfect excuse to drink nicer spirits than normal, taste some haggis (vegetarian options available!) and enjoy the fact that some national celebrations have earned their place in your phone’s calendar for their inclusion, light-spiritedness and general delight. It’s Scottish homespun hygge and I’m all for that.