The ultimate Burns Night
January. The most mediocre of months. Beginning with a horrific hangover and ending with a tax return, it’s a desperate time that requires desperate measures.
Which is why Burns Night has become “a thing”. If it wasn’t in January, no-one would take any notice. But after 25 moribund days of “meh”, celebrating the birthday of an 18th-century tax collector with some root vegetables and stomach stuffed with bits of sheep sounds like a brilliant night out.
It’s not. A clichéd caricature of Scottishness, it’s tediously quaint, painfully kitsch and all those endless Immortal Memories, cheesy Toasts to the Lassies and the dreary drone of the bagpipes would have bored the real Robert Burns.
Bawdier than Shakespeare and wittier than the watered-down Wordsworth, Burns was the ultimate 18th-century blue-collar bard who boasted a legendary libido, an insatiable appetite for alcohol and little time for a smug, stuffy supper.
Instead, here’s a guide to help you advise customers on how to host a Burns Night that Rabbie himself may have actually enjoyed.
Music: Don’t bother with the bagpipes. They sound like a fire in a pet shop and, besides, Burns was a libertarian lyricist and modern poet, like an olden Bruce Springsteen, or, indeed, the aptly named Bon Scott, lead singer of AC/DC. Put them on the playlist.
Dress-code: Keep the kilt and no knickers combination. Considered rebellious clobber when Burns was about, he would have commended such a sartorial display of individual free will - not to mention the extra ease of access that it afforded the prolific philander who fathered a dozen children from an array of illicit affairs.
Food: Have some haggis. Long before the pinnacle of Scottish cuisine was Tunnock’s Teacakes and Walker’s Shortbread, haggis was the height of epicurean excellence back in the 18th century and unless you want all those wild haggisses (or should that be haggae?) hurdling Hadrian’s Wall and worrying our English sheep, we should make sure we eat as many as possible.
Drink: Don’t just wash the haggis down with whisky. Monogamous in neither his love life nor his choice of drink, Burns was an enthusiastic imbiber of Scottish ale, claret, port, rum and Nantz – a rare French brandy – so make sure you broaden your Burns Night booze. But whisky is the one that whetted his creative appetite and he embraced the imaginative freedom it gave to both his pen and the contents of his underpants.
Poem: Scotch Drink, a 21-verse celebration of Scotch whisky and the evils of excise. This proved rather awkward when, some years later, he was employed as a tax-collecting excise man. But, while he collected money on everything from tea and tobacco to salt and soap, Burns turned a blind eye to the widespread dealings of illicit alcohol and, aged just 37, went to his grave having never demanded a penny in duty from a whisky distiller.