Stripping the Willow with the Ploughman Poet


Few times in our lives are we afforded the chance to transport ourselves back to our seventeen year old selves. Flashbacks of heartbreak, unadulterated foolishness, and social gaffes patiently wait to leap out at unpredictable moments. Last night was one such occasion for the Expat Princess. Invited to a Burns Supper by Scottish Jewel Box neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. MacTartan, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s most precious poet, Robert Burns, Mr. Understanding and I were keen to drink whisky with the Scots of Shanghai and participate in the festivities. For long ago, in my Senior year of high school, I selected Robert Burns, Scotland’s poet laureate, as my subject and memories of the experience made the Burns Supper a not-to-miss event.

Burns Suppers generally follow a certain protocol, which my high school research had not revealed: The Selkirk Grace, Address to the Haggis, The Immortal Memory, Toast to the Lassies and the Response from the Lassies, and finally, Ceilidh (pronounced Cay lee) dancing. Haggis, Burns’ favorite meal, is an unfortunate minced meat blob containing, among other things, beef liver, lamb kidneys, oatmeal, and suet. A special toast is said to the beastie before it is slashed with a knife. Accompanying the haggis are “neeps n’ tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes). A capful of whisky poured over the mess generally improves the flavor; fortunately for us, there were other things to eat as well. Scottish music was provided by three lads flown in from Scotland, presumably, by Virgin Air. On each table sat two bottles of Famous Grouse Burns Night whisky. There was also a raffle to benefit our favorite heart charity, fitting since Burns himself died of endocarditis, and we took home a case of wine.

The highlight of the evening for me, however, was the music and dancing. Ceilidh dancing, the predecessor of American folk dancing, reminds one of every Merchant and Ivory movie, except the pace is a lot faster and rivals Carnaval in Rio for constant heartpounding. I nearly stroked out on my first dance, Dashing White Sergeant. There is a lot of do-si-doing and flinging each other around by the crook of the elbow. Mr. Understanding even joined me for Strip the Willow. Scotsmen, young and old, some with young Chinese companions, made me wonder if men a hundred years ago were celebrating with such fervor in Shanghai. My guess is yes. One couple, a Scottish lass dressed in a Chinese qipao, was having a rip-roaring time with her Chinese escort. Although Bonnie MacTartan remarked that they looked like a couple of librarians, they looked like a couple of librarians having a lot of fun. The Chinese lad could not figure out the dance steps to save his life but his girl didn’t mind and flung him around to the best of her ability. The evening ended by all celebrants standing in a huge circle singing Auld Lang Syne.

Whilst engaged in last week’s garage purge, I came across a box filled with manila envelopes, one of which was labeled “Old High School Papers”. Why does one save such things? For posterity, of course, and to refresh one’s memory. Because one is a packrat. Yesterday, out of curiosity, I dug out the envelope and inside, with the staples rusting, was my term paper entitled “Great Scot!”. I thought it well written myself and had remembered getting an A. But no, there in Mr. Edwards’ scratchy handwriting was evidence to the contrary: “Interesting, generally accurate, and certainly informative! The style is at times fresh and at times cheeky, but the tone is alive. Explicate his poems in your presentation. B.” Hunh? Well, Robert Burns himself was nothing if not cheeky. It was dancing an Irish jig to some of Burns’ music for my in-class presentation, cementing my social geekiness forever, that earned me the A. Ah, to be seventeen again …..

Robert Burns died penniless at the age of 37, the father of many children, some legitimate, some not, leaving a trail of broken hearts and a legacy of poetry that withstands the test of time. Bones will crumble but words rise up. His songs and poems remain popular because “they describe universal feelings of love, pride and the glory of living. He captured the ordinary, mundane events of everyday life and made them seem special and significant.” [self-quote]. Here is but a bit, one of the most famous, A Red, Red Rose:

O my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my luve is like the melodie,
That’s sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

On January 25, Burns’ actual birthday, download some of The Proclaimers, pour yourself a scotch, and skip the haggis. In preparation for next year’s party, I am thinking of getting Mr. Understanding a kilt, they are so dashing. That red-haired gene had to come from somewhere … oh, and don’t throw away your term papers. They just might come in handy.

For more on the life and times of Robert Burns go to If you insist on making the haggis, there is also a recipe.



Filed under Birthdays, Charitable Endeavors, Customs, Fine Dining, Folkart, People, Traditions

7 responses to “Stripping the Willow with the Ploughman Poet

  1. Wow what a post. How long did this take. I learned a lot along the way. I think I never read Burns. But this has peaked my interest. More later. Mom

  2. MCV

    Thanks for the most excellent post! I was just coming to your blog to tell you we needed a new one and here it was. I LOVE the fact that you still have high school papers. Endless entertainment.
    “Flashbacks of heartbreak” had me running in a different direction . . . thankfully. I liked this direction better.

  3. Mood Ring Momma

    What a fun post – I so wish I was there!!! I think it is hilarious that Mr. Edwards critiqued your writing as “cheeky”. I think in a recent move I finally destroyed a stash of my old high school writings & journals – beyond cringe worthy. That’s the kind of posterity I don’t need! ‘

    P.S. – Love that the paper was entitled “Great Scot!” Even at the tender age of 17 you had a penchant for crafting witty titles – you have honed your skill well.

  4. Expat:

    I loved this post. Don’t the Irish and the Scotts generally collide? I thought the Calligans were Irish. Did you make sure you told everyone at the party that your presence in no way condones the bitter rivalry that has spanned centuries? By the way, what IS “cheeky” anyway? Isn’t it subjective?

    My husband married me for my “neeps ‘n tatties.”

  5. P.S. Who was Robert the Bruce? Was he related to Robert Burns?

  6. Radish: this post took a long time but I could have made it even longer. For example, I did not discuss kilts, their accessories, and my plaid preference. Next time!

    MCV: I am afraid to look in the rest of the envelope. Although, Thing 1 is encouraging me to post my Shakespearean sonnet parody …

    MRM: yes, even then I enjoyed a good play on words. Some, however, would say I have not matured …

    Lisa: no idea on Robert the Bruce but I think “bruce” means handsome. Everyone is Scottish at a Burns Supper, even the Brits who they really don’t like due to 1707’s Treaty of the Union, signed by Queen Anne of Scotland.

  7. gamamae

    Redheads rule! What’s your plaid? Is tartan another word for plaid or a type of plaid? I was totally having a Merchant Ivory image of the party as I was reading your post!! Hopefully nobody died of consumption or ennui.

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