We had taken our seats in the rather fine Council Chambers in Wigtown. Wine had been poured and Raymond Armstrong had uncorked a bottle of Bladnoch 16 Years Old. Bring on the Burns! To be perfectly honest, Burns Suppers fill me with a certain sinking feeling (come to think of it the same goes for ‘awards ceremonies’ or ‘gala dinners.’ Let’s face it I’m just an antisocial bastard). It’s the enforced jollity I suspect, the flummery, the unquestioning adherence to convention (which is a different thing to tradition in my book).
The Wigtown Book Festival’s Burns Supper however was about to be given an extra boost by the appearance of our master of ceremonies: a Rabbie impersonator frae Kilmarnock dressed in the part, complete with wig and sideburns.
It struck me when he started to speak that some of Raymond’s 16 Years Old might have already been consumed but, hey, if method acting works for DeNiro and Day-Lewis then why not a Burn’s impersonator?
Though somewhat garbled, his introductory remarks seem to set out the running order. We return to the conversation and wait for the cock-a-leekie [WM translators please note: this is a chicken soup and not a venereal complaint] only for our MC to leap to his feet and cry “Be upstanding for the haggis!” This surprises the waiting staff somewhat who are hovering around a vat of soup. An equally bemused piper rushes in and starts playing. We all clap (more or less in time). No haggis. Time passes. The piper is going puce. The MC rushes out “Where’s the bloody haggis!” echoes down the corridor. We clap. Eventually it appears and is somewhat unceremoniously shoved in front of him.
He then delivers an address which borders on the incomprehensible. (Yes, I know Burns is beyond the ken of most people, but even I struggle with this rendition and I know the words). The piper faints.
The rest of the event, it must be said, is excellent with entertaining readings from contemporary poets’ responses to Rabbie, even if the MC has a tendency to forget the name of the person he is meant to be introducing. Robert Crawford, eminent poet and Burn’s scholar, delivers the Immortal Memory, which consists of a plea to “save our national poet from the Burnsamentalists”, a petition which I would willingly sign.
Burns has been set in aspic, his words learned by rote but placed outwith the context of Scottish poetry, outwith the context of poetry as a whole in fact. He is tied by conventions, seen through a narrow fundamentalist perspective. How like whisky that is.
In many ways the ‘What Is Whisky’ debate has never stopped. The SWA and its lawyers has its viewpoint, even whisky loving consumers have their fixed opinions on what is and what isn’t right which kinda boils down to “malts good, blends bad” and, if the reaction to my temerity to try and talk about Japanese whisky at Glasgow Live, “Scotch malt good, everything else shouldn’t be allowed.”
Like Burns, we look at whisky as a thing of the past: a drink with heritage and tradition (or convention). What we are less good at is looking into the future to see what whisky could become, how it fits into the wider world and a younger consumer who isn’t going to stop drinking vodka, or gin, or rum or wine.
Back at the supper, two poets have given Tam O’Shanters’ wife’s response to her husband’s reprehensible behaviour. The MC, who by now is what my dear friend Mr MacLean would term “over-served” staggers to his feet. “I’m going to give you the real story!” he slurs, and launches into a rendition of Tam O’Shanter in which metre, rhyme, rhythm, plot and indeed language are left bleeding on the floor. “Rembrtmshntrsmrrrr!” he ends, bows and slumps back on his seat.
The next morning I receive a surprise text from a friend who I didn’t know was also at Wigtown, but who hadn’t been at the event the night before. “There is a Rabbie Burns impersonator staying here,” she wrote. “He got so pissed he fell asleep on a bench, lost his wig and one sideburn. He’s trying to eat porridge and sober up. I am very happy to have had this authentic experience.”
The Burnsamentalists would be black affronted. Me? I think that Rabbie would have approved. Maybe it is a good thing to lose the wig and give an address to the soup. Maybe the haggis should remain lost. Might there be a lesson for whisky in there?