We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

Robert Burns
Robert Burns

BURNS night will have been and gone by the time you pick up this newspaper — but when has punctuality ever got in the way of an excuse for a knees up?

Yesterday marked the annual celebration of the life and poetry of Scotland’s favourite son (and yes, that’s official, according to a recent STV poll — perhaps the nation forgot about John Barrowman).

Despite four years at university studying Scottish literature, I confess that my knowledge of Robert Burns is limited to a few lines and a lot of ladies.

Even more shameful, what you’re reading is not a reflection of my academic years, but the result of cramming ahead of a pub quiz last night (I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide whether we won or not).

There are, of course, a few facts which everyone can spout off — for instance that he wrote love poems for more than one special lady (Jean Armour, Mary Campbell and Nancy Clarinda McElhose, to name a few).

People are also quick to raise eyebrows at his acceptance of a job as a book-keeper on a Jamaican slave plantation, despite writing pro-abolitionist poems later in his career.

Still, Scotland — and a fair bit of the world, especially the parts which were once pink — seems to have taken the poet to its heart, and Burns night has become more of an occasion than that official national holiday, St Andrew’s day — in fact, festivities will continue right into this weekend.

So what does a celebration of Ayrshire’s best-known son entail?

First and foremost is that elusive of creatures and Burns’ chieftain of the puddin-race — the haggis.

Whether you’re asking for seconds or gurning at the ingredients contained within, haggis has become synonymous with January 25, along with a traditional side of neeps and tatties.

There’s also the Selkirk Grace — a thanksgiving for the food on the table (regardless of your feelings toward haggis) which is said to be before Burns’ time, despite being attributed to him.

It’s the one we were all taught at school — Some hae meat, etc etc — but take it from this reporter that teaching it to those of other nationalities can prove difficult.

If you’re lucky enough to attend a real Burns supper then you may see the haggis being piped in — but for anyone celebrating at home, it could prove a costly addition to proceedings (and the neighbours won’t like it either).

Readings of Address to a Haggis and other poems follow, as well as a toast to the lassies in the room (and if there are any, they get a chance to reply too).

Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without a dram or two, and you can bet that most Burns nights end on more than that.

Modernist Hugh MacDiarmid may have called Robert Burns and his romanticised version of the country all that’s wrong with Scotland today.

But whether you’re in love with his Sweet Afton or are fed up at the mention of him — whether you’re happy to see the back of haggis for another year or nursing a hangover in his honour — here’s to the national bard, and a good excuse for a party.

I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded either way.