Whither And Why: Burns’ Night etiquette
Whither And Why, with H.H. and Honk: Burns Night
From the desk of Gerald Honk
“’Gerald and Lillian’,” I said, reading the gilt-edged parchment received in the post one mild January afternoon, “’you are cordially invited to attend a Burns’ Night Supper at our humble abode in Felton. Dress formal, gentlemen kilts. Yours, Caroline and David.’ Do we know these people, Lil?”
My wife muttered assent from beneath her Northumberland Gazette, and her left hand emerged through a small tear in the Leisure section, intimating that I was to hand possession of the invitation over to the hand for its owner to RS, V, and, indeed, P. I sensed my wife was already rather looking forward to seeing me in a kilt in spite of the incident at old Jonty’s Golden Wedding, but I was apprehensive. I could not confess to my wife that I was utterly unaware of the appropriate procedures and customs of a Burns Night Supper, nor the fact that my presence had never previously been present at such a gathering. Hastily wishing Lillian a good evening as I stumbled over the threshold and into the wide world, I knew I had to learn the ins and outs of the occasion we would soon be celebrating. Luckily, I knew I could rely on my good friend, the boisterous braggadocio and all-round poached egg, Sir Hilary Harrison-Nairn.
My clattering of the gate to his charming riverside property alerted me to Mrs Clutterbutt, the housekeeper, with whom my path crossed. “Cravat on the hat rack, please, Mr. Honk,” she pleaded, “or he’ll have it in his teeth!”
I barely had time to ponder why my friend had begun to feast upon silken neckerchiefs when the front door opened to a momentous roar of “blasted hound!” and the blurred silhouette of a large beast bounded straight for me.
“Bismarck! H.H., what is your uncle’s dog doing here?”
“Chap took him to Richmond Park… frightful business, terrible, indeed, terrible, they can never go back… Bismarck was immediately couriered to me for a little Northumbrian rehabilitation. But I would hazard that’s not our business tonight?”
I noosed my cravat on the rack, as per Mrs Clutterbutt’s instruction, and introduced the subject at hand.
“You’ve been around the world, H.H. You know of customs, traditions, and so forth…”
“Indeed, Honky, Honk,” my friend replied from behind his Venetian carnival mask, as he and Bismarck waltzed up and down the hallway.
“Then you must tell me about Burns Night Suppers. I implore you. Lillian and I must be seen at one in Felton, and I am to learn all I can so as not to embarrass her.”
H.H. beckoned me into the dining room (“I’m trying to teach Bismarck silver service, but he just cannot get the hang of a soup spoon”) and sat me at the head of the table; a difficult task considering its somewhat circular shape. Wheeling out a series of slides, he began to relate to me the ins and outs of ‘The Scottish Event’.
“First of all old lad, old thing, you don’t fancy buying any of these from me, do you?” he said, tapping the tip of the huge proboscis attached to his feather-edged mask. “Only I bought eight dozen of the bleeders in error from the internet. I ticked a box that said 8×12, thinking that would be my preferred measurement. Next thing I know I’m getting bulk discounts, fawning emails and free feather boas! What say you, then, Honk? Mask?”
I indicated politely that I would, for now, prefer to dwell uncovered.
“Banisters! Oh well, I’ll just have to draw up some form of rota system and wear them accordingly. Perhaps I’ll donate a load to the school to doll up their next Nativity, add a bit of colour, you know the sort of thing. I could swear that Angel Gabriel outfit they use is as old as I am… Now, judging by your expression, my digression has become an obiter dictum too many, so I return to your pressing Caledonian query. A West Lothian Question second only in importance to that which busies the brains of our dear Lords, Ladies and those Right Honourable folk of The Other Place. Here, have a glass of this fizzy stuff. I’ve no idea what it is but the pep one gets from it is positively roaring!”
As H.H. leant to coax the slide machine into life, I surreptitiously allowed Bismarck to slurp away at the enigmatic bubbly. I would require a clear head if I was to ensure Lil and I passed Burns Night unembarrassed.
“I’ll dim these lights; we want to get the full benefit from this little gizmo. So. Observe! Oh NO! No, no, no, no, don’t observe, next, next, next. Golly, Honk, one must be careful what one loads into these things. Aha! Well here we have it! Chaps in dresses, or the “Distinguished Scottish Kilt” as I’m sure our cousins over the border would have it. Were you to attend this little show of yours dressed as such you would be displaying a sartorial savoir faire few Englishmen dare tangle with. Now, notice the pouch on the front there?”
I indicated thusly.
“It’s called a Sporran and its main purpose is to store pebbles, or Peebles, to weigh down the kilt and prevent it from rising up during dancing and… I trust, despite your wife, you will engage in some dancing, Honk, old chap? I only mention it because I know you saw a few sights at old Jonty’s Golden Wedding. What horrors, enough to fell the worldliest individual…”
My friend’s explanatory lecture began to lose clarity from this point onward, as Bismarck, uplifted by the drink I had allowed him, took it upon himself to eat the remaining slides. As H.H. tried to wrestle his pedigree chum to the ground with a front facelock Kendo Nagasaki would be proud of, I caught occasional fragments of other salient points.
“…the saying of Selkirk Grace, knew a Selkirk Grace once, and a wonderful cook she was too… sat on a standing committee, odd business, none of us knew whether we were meant to use the chairs or not, collection of parish elders leaping up and down like heavily regulated salmon… mistook one Burns event for a ‘Thorroblot’, which I think is pronounced ‘rowing boat’ and means ‘lawnmower’ … now, have at you, Bismarck, have at you! Give the blasted slides to Nairn!”
I sensed I had learned everything of value, and bid farewell to the tussling pair on the floor. As I reapplied my neckwear, I heard a final piece of advice, which I took to have been along the lines of, “when in doubt, say nothing and listen to Lillian! Smart cookie, that one, Honk! And don’t forget – Bismarck! Get down from that lampshade! – you won’t be asked to do anything of importance… you’re English!”
Burns Night itself was a roaring success, spent in most affable company. My wife had found, in the depths of the armoire, my long-buried kilt, still emblazoned with the Honk coat of arms. My dancing was tolerable, the supper exquisite, the poetry and toasts evocative, and the night passed without a single Honkish humiliation, until we made our goodbyes and opened the front door to find a masked H.H. stationed there, sitting cross-legged upon a crateful of his Venetian monstrosities.
“Cock-a-leekie, all! Anyone for a masquerade?”
Burns Night takes place on January 25th. Some of the details about the event contained above are actually almost true.
Thorroblot is a traditional Icelandic dinner similar to Burns Night, occurring between January and February. It features poetry recitals and, among other delicacies, the ingestion of putrefied shark face.
Neither H.H. nor Honk recommend allowing dogs to drink anything from a glass. Bowls of water are a commendable alternative.
Venetian carnival or masquerade masks are widely available, and Honk must recommend you purchase yours from a reputable retailer. H.H. respectfully disagrees, and maintains his prices are fairer than Juliet on a balcony.