Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Cottarton Burns Night

Burns Night celebrates our poet’s birth. By January 25, we already notice more daylight when we wake up. This year's mild January even has a touch of spring. Traditionally the dinner menu is haggis, neeps and tatties, eloquent toasts and speeches that speak fondly of the bard, despite the fact that he was a scoundrel who seduced every lassie he came across. If you have the space in your house, a ceilidh. At Cottarton we do it a little differently, with a focus on poetry, song, good food, and conversations on deep philosophical issues and controversial ecology, all chased down with high quality whisky.

Amber procured the haggis at the Forbes-Raeburn butcher in Huntly. A necessity. There’s nothing worse than supermarket haggis, stuff with the consistency of glue that sticks to your mouth and refuses to be swallowed. Unfortunately US residents are deprived of the real haggis. People have ended up in jail trying to smuggle in Scottish haggis. It’s made of sheep’s heart, liver, lungs minced with onion and oatmeal, simmered for an hour in the sheep’s stomach. How to describe the sensation of eating it? You’ll taste a symphony of spicy meat, sweetness, all perfectly complemented with Amber’s classic, mashed potatoes and neeps (known in the US as rutabagas).

Alex, from Drummuir castle, read an abbreviated address to the haggis, standing with a knife to make the first ritual cut:

“His knife see rustic labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi steady slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then O what a glorious sight,
Warm reekin, rich.”

Makes your mouth water, then heat up like with good Mexican food, thirsting for a splash of whisky. Amber and Annie stayed with white wine. Rachel drank last year’s dandelion wine brewed at Cottarton, while Charles and I mixed the dandelion wine with cheap beer. Quite a cocktail. We decided that 2010 was a good year for dandelion wine. We had a Texas contribution to Burns Night --- chicken marbella, made of marinated chicken in a sweet prune sauce. An amazing complement to the haggis, that should from now on be added to the traditional menu. For dessert Annie made crannoch pudding, made of oatmeal, berries, cream and whisky.

Once we’d all not only eaten our fill, but lubricated our brains and tongues with more whisky, we struck up the poetry and song. We sang a capella, when we knew the choruses. Annie led “Ae fond kiss”, Rachel “Ca’ the Ewes”. The lassies have a great repertoire of which we were treated to only a few selections.Charles sang “Cald kale in Aberdeen” --- a poem that references our nearby river, the Bogie. I made an attempt at my favourite, To a Mouse, set to music by Battlefield Band.

Why the poet’s enduring appeal that crosses all classes and education background? He was the first poet of note to write in the people’s dialect, on every topic from misadventures with sheep and cattle, his romantic exploits, the mythology of the land and of politics. Very sympathetic with the plight of the common man, expressing his conviction that class and money have nothing to do with a person’s worth:

“A man’s a man for a’ that!”

He was a pacifist who saw war in all its forms as evil. He watched many young men march proudly away, never to return. Most biting are his words o politicians in “Logan’s Braes”

“O wae upon ye men o’ state
That brethren rouse to deadly hate!
As ye mak monie a fond heart mourn,
Say may it on your heads return!
How can your flinty hearts enjoy
The widow’s tears, the orphan’s cry?
But soon may peace bring happy days
And Willie hame to Logan Braes”.

His compassion extends also to the mouse, whose house he one day destroyed with his plough. The experience made him ponder the fragility of all our lives, in the final stanzas, lines unfortunately a bit overused.

But, Mousie thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men,
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee;
But och! I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear!
And forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess and fear.

Yes – some days I feel myself a lord, and other days when things “gang a-gley” I’m no higher than that mouse. Quite a normal feeling I suspect.

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