Best-laid schemes gang aft agley

When it comes to Scottish suppers honoring Robert Burns, an Englishman muddles though.

Robert Harbison/CSM/File
Scotland's Bard: A stained-glass window with the likeness of poet Robert Burns hangs in the museum at his birthplace.
Robert Harbison/CSM/File
As part of the Burns National Heritage Park, the cottage Robert Burns was born in has been fully restored to its original condition.

Ah well, another of my potential careers appears to have bitten the dust.

Admittedly, this was among the less likely ones to take off in a big way. After all, I am English.

If I had been born Scottish, I suppose there might have been a greater chance of becoming established as a Burns Supper Speaker or Entertainer. Who knows, I might have been on the roster and called upon annually anytime between mid-January and late May to propose The Immortal Memory, to sing "My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose" or "Rantin, Rovin Robin," to recite the whole of "Tam O' Shanter" or "Holy Willie's Prayer." I might even have been asked to "address the haggis." And I might moreover have commanded a surprising fee for such Burnsian services rendered.

I have now lived in Scotland longer than I have anywhere else, and I have long known that in this small country, the words The Bard do not apply to Shakespeare.

Robert Burns is held in high regard here all right, and Burns Suppers traditionally celebrate his birth with a uniquely Scottish blend of boisterous humor, nostalgia, sentimentality, and solemn respect.

I can describe the peculiar medley that makes up these occasions because I have now attended two of them, by invitation, in 2006 and 2007. It looks, however, as if this year I am not to be so favored, and next year – the 250th anniversary of The Bard's birth – who can tell?

My first Burns Supper was the one given by and for the drama club of which I'm a member. Paola was the organizer that year and she showed herself prepared to break daring new ground by inviting (or perhaps I should more accurately say, by charmingly press-ganging) an Englishman to perform one of the essential functions of this indelibly Scottish event. "Darling," she purred, "I'd like you to propose the Toast to the Lasses. Would you?"

"But I can think of three reasons right off why I can't and shouldn't," I protested, knowing that I had probably lost the argument anyway.

I was right. Paola had thought of all my possible objections, not to mention a few I hadn't come up with yet, and had discarded them as entirely irrelevant. My Englishness would only make my speech fresher and funnier. The fact that I had never been to a Burns Supper before only meant it was high time I did. And she was quite sure that my being a teetotaller would not be noticed at all, precisely because nobody else there would be one.

She went on to explain that the Toast to the Lasses needed to be jocularly teasing, as politically incorrect and sexist as possible. And while provocative and even lightheartedly insulting to lasses in general, it should end up with a sincere footnote confessing that women are women for a' that – that, indeed, women are wonderful. At least, that was what I took to be the gist of it.

"Oh, I think I could do that," I admitted.

"Nor," she went on, "will you have the last word. A lady answers you back with a response to the Toast to the Lasses, and you can be sure she'll give as good as she gets."

So I agreed ... and very soon regretted my decision. What on earth was I going to say?

In the end I came up with something – a story or two, a suggestion that the female sex is a total mystery to a mere man, Scottish women in particular to a mere Englishman, a plaintive observation that I was really a fish out of water. I even hinted that Burns himself was perhaps not always as respectful to women as they undoubtedly deserved when, for example, you consider his use of the adjective "sonsie." I pointed out that the great poet applied this word (meaning "good-natured, plump, buxom") to the haggis, to dogs, and to women. To thus imply similarities between all three would seem to me a risky policy, to say the least.

After looking into several ways in which one finds lasses hard to understand, I concluded with: "All the same, I believe one may, in fact, love the incomprehensible. And indeed I do. Perhaps I love the lasses because they are incomprehensible. That must be it."

Amazingly, this harmless nonsense went down a treat. Paola thought it had done my "street cred" a lot of good. Oddly, it was most volubly liked by the women in the audience.

On the strength of this effort, I was invited the next year to repeat the offense at another Burns Supper. I did, and once again the ripple of laughter suggested appreciation. But this year, 2008, I have received no further summons. It would seem that twice was enough.

Never mind, the "Complete Poetical Works" I was given as thanks after my second Burns Supper is much treasured. Even if I can understand only about half of what the great Scot so inimitably indited.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.