I live in a community that has deep Scottish roots. There are summer Highland games, the place names and family names are, more often than not, imported from Scotland; no family is without its heritage recipe for shortbread, although more than a few are based on maple rather than castor sugar. And so it seems strange that I had never, before Saturday night, attended that quintessential Scottish heritage event, the Rabbie Burns dinner.
I had a bit of a debate with myself about what I should wear. I own a kilted skirt in Royal Stewart, purchased on a holiday in Scotland some years ago and in need of a lot of inventive adjustment of the pleats outward before it would be wearable. But somewhere I had picked up the idea that at Burns Dinners the women do not wear kilts; that sartorial splendour is left to the men. Women, I thought, are supposed to wear the tartan to which their heritage entitles them as a scarf or sash (arisaid) over ordinary evening dress. I do have a scarf in my husband's designated tartan but I thought that might be a bit ostentatious, given that my own heritage, while British Isles mongrel, includes not a drop of blood from north of the border. So I put on my usual uniform of black dress suit (and red shoes). My husband's curtsey to heritage was to dig out his school tie, said school being aggressively Scottish in nature.
I need not have worried. While there was one woman decked out in the long skirt and wound sash of perfect compliance, there were also many women in kilts and floor length tartan skirts, tartan jumpers and tartan suits. Those who did not rise to tartan wore black. And the attire of the men ranged from suit jacket with tartan scarf or jacket and kilt through the gamut to the full Highland regalia of black boiled wool jacket with small tails and silver buttons, obscure tartans that I am sure were their family heritage, highly decorated sporrans, shirts with stocks and some most creative socks and footwear. They were gorgeous -- peacocks in full plumage. It was the mirror image of the bright dress and black suit chiaroscuro of an ordinary dinner dance.
What is a Burns dinner, you ask. (I am going to tell you anyway!) At this dinner, the evening started with some dedicated drinking, followed by the piping in of the haggis, a Scottish delicacy immortalized in Burns' verse. That is, a resplendent gentleman appears carrying a large tartan bag with various things sticking out of it, blows into it and commences to march. The result is a howling noise not suited to indoor dining. Following him is a decked out person of indeterminate sex, bearing a silver platter on which reposes an undistinguished brown blob. All of the guests are supposed to follow this couple in procession around the room but the assembly skipped this step (I am not sure why as the master of ceremonies requested us to march).
After the haggis processes, it is placed on a table in the centre of the room, Burns' Address is read out and it is ceremonially stabbed with a sharp instrument. This instrument is probably a dirk although I hope the presiding mentor did not whip it out of his sock. The assembly is invited to recite the Selkirk Grace before meat in its best Scots accent. Dinner is then served. We were offered a roast beef dinner, accompanied by a small spoonful of haggis on request. One haggis served over 100 diners. I rather enjoyed my taste.
After dinner and a good few toasts and congratulations to the various cooks and organizers, a troupe of 'Highland' dancers took the floor and performed a variety of strenuous leaping dances, ending with a Highland fling. The dancers, all girls, ranged in age from perhaps ten to the late teens and were lovely to watch, although I was a bit puzzled by one set of dances in which they wore petticoats under their kilts and held the edge of said petticoat daintily in one hand throughout the leaps. A lot of discussion takes place about what is customarily worn under a kilt, but I have never heard of ruffled underskirts before.
After the dancers came a serenade by the piper. He seemed to have a defective pipe somewhere as one high note consistently became a dissonant squawk. The tunes, however, were recognizable and many people sang along.
When he left, a pair of musicians set up and played dance music. JG and I were among the youngest couples at the party, we figured, at 65 and 68. Much to our amazement, the bulk of the attendees danced, steadily and skillfully, for the better part of two hours. The older people in our community like to dance, throng to dances and dance well, even with the added weight and arthritic joints that most of them have. It was a lot of fun to watch the people on the dance floor but a tad dangerous to be on it if something like the 'Gay Gordon' was underway. And you have not plumbed the depths of delight, let me tell you, until you have seen a two kilted couple performing a spirited waltz.
I hope we go again next year. After I do one of A) serious dieting or B) letting out a pleated kilt.