Last January 25 and next January 25, I took and shall take part in a ritual at once solemn and amusing, timeless and spontaneous – not part of the Church’s liturgy, yet at the same time a fitting companion to the more liturgical observances of the Month of the Holy Name.
Despite it being observed primarily by natives of a single nationality, 2018 found me celebrating this ritual at the Tam O’Shanter Restaurant in the Atwater section of Los Angeles; this year will take me to the Chavagnes International College in the heart of France’s Vendée region. Yet this formal dinner – for such it is – honours neither some glimmering star of old Hollywood nor a stalwart of Catholic Counter-revolution, but a Scots poet who died all too young of exposure – Robert Burns (1759-1796).
To be sure, Burns Suppers, like bagpipes, kilts and tartans, may be found throughout the Anglosphere and wherever else in the world Scots have settled – and so in California and France. A Catholic might well wonder why his co-religionists should have any interest in the national poet of a nation as renowned for Freemasonry and Presbyterianism as for whisky and golf; but Calvinism is a relatively recent import to Scotland: the Catholic Scots opposed its advance in their country at least as valiantly and tragically as did the English, Welsh, Cornish and Irish in theirs. The House of Stuart lost its thrones – including that of their original Scottish realm – because of their faith, and their Catholic Cavalier and Jacobite supporters lost at least as much thereby.
Moreover, the Catholic Church in Canada, Australia and New Zealand owes much of its origin to Scots exiles: there are more Catholics of Scots descent (and native Scots Gaelic-speakers) in Canada than Scotland; St Mary MacKillop and her entire circle of family and supporters were ethnic Scots; and the Church in New Zealand’s Otago region was founded by Highlanders.
In America, the Scots’ predominance in bagpipe playing has led to pipe bands being created for innumerable primarily Irish police and fire departments. However socialist they have become in recent decades, one of the founders of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Erskine of Mar, was a Chestertonian and Catholic convert, basing his politics firmly upon his faith – as was Sir Compton Mackenzie. In truth, the Catholic Scots have proved faithful sons to St Andrew the Apostle, the nation’s patron.
But if those facts may give Scotiana in general some legitimacy in Catholic eyes, what are we to say of Robert Burns himself? Father of 12 children – nine of whom were by his wife, Jane Armour, although two of those predated their marriage – Burns was not a model of sexual morality. A happy drinker, he would not endear himself to any taker of the pledge. As with Kipling, the Masonic lodges he was affiliated with trumpet the fact with their order. What is there here to warrant our interest, other than to ritually sing a small fragment of his Auld Lang Syne every New Year’s Eve?
Quite a bit, actually. Despite his Masonic and Presbyterian memberships, Burns was devoted to the memory of the Stuarts. Moreover, he numbered several Catholics among his close friends – something unexpected among one of his background and raising. John Geddes, vicar apostolic of western Scotland, prized both the man and his work: he prevailed upon the Scots monasteries of Regensburg and Würzburg and the Scots colleges of Paris, Douai, and Valladolid (now Salamanca, Spain) to subscribe to the 1787 Edinburgh edition of Burns’s poetry, which work put him on the literary map of Europe. And Burns certainly foreshadowed the work of the Romantics in showcasing for his Protestant countrymen the beauty and nobility of their Catholic heritage.
In his masterful article on Burns for the Chavagnes College magazine, Eloquentia, headmaster Ferdi McDermott makes an important observation: “… Rabbie Burns famously saw through the pessimism of Calvinism to the Catholic truth that all men, places, and things have an intrinsic goodness about them that we should try to love.” It is for these and other such enumerated reasons that McDermott instated the Burns Night Supper as an annual tradition at Chavagnes.
These Suppers, whether offered in Los Angeles, Chavagnes, Sydney, Edinburgh, or Singapore, have had a fairly similar format since the first was held in 1801. The guests are escorted to their places by a piper, after which the host says a few words and Burns’s “Selkirk Grace” is offered. Soup is inevitably a Scots recipe, such as cock-a-leekie of Scotch broth.
Then, preceded by a piper, a large haggis is carried in and laid down on a table before the host, who recites Burns’s “Address to a Haggis.” During the course of this mock heroic poem, the host sharpens his long knife, and at its conclusion cuts it open. The contents – often marinated in Scotch – are served with potatoes and turnips.
The meal proceeds as does any formal dinner. With coffee comes three toasts: “To the Immortal Memory,” which is a speech in honour of Burns himself; “To the lassies,” a humorous tribute to the fair sex; and “Reply to the laddies,” done in an equally facetious manner. There may follow the singing of various Burns songs, ending with the company locking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne.
Grace builds upon nature, and the Burns Night Supper – like the man’s own work – is a celebration of the best of that nature. Burns’s work, like Sir Walter Scott’s, became a sort of preparation for the 19th-century Catholic revival in the British Isles. As with Christmas, in Scotland this celebration in such a murky season is a light shining in darkness. Any Scottish society or group in your area will quite likely be hosting one this year; attend, and taste some of that Scottish winter magic for yourself.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles
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