After failing to procure a Burns Supper ticket for the past two years, I finally got lucky! To my delight, my first Burns Supper had everything one could want in an evening of fun. Food, wine, music, poetry, and dance. All I had to do was tolerate the haggis, face the embarrassment of not having black-tie attire, and live with the possibility of dancing with my tutor. It was my highlight of the month, and so it seems fitting that I see this month out by recording my experience. But first, here are some facts you might like to know – well, that I certainly wanted to find out – from the event:
When was the first Burns Supper held?
It was held, privately among his friends, for the first time 6 years after Burns’ death, in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1802.
What is the purpose of Burns Supper?
To celebrate the life and works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Contrary to my original belief, Burns Supper commemorates Burns on the anniversary of his birthday (25th January), not the anniversary of the day of his demise.
Why do Oxford University colleges celebrate Burns in the first place?
The first major Burns Supper outside of Scotland was held at none other than Oxford University in 1806, by students from Glasgow. Unlike the first ever Burns Supper, it was held on the correct date of 25th January, not 29th January, which was originally believed to be the date of Burns’ birthday (but the mistake was spotted within a year). According to my tutor (who had taken on the role of compère that evening – in 2015 not 1806), not all colleges have Burns Supper, so I’m thankful that I belong to one which does.
So, getting to the point, at my college’s Burns Supper unfortunately there weren’t too many kilted guests around, but I guess, like Chinese New Year suppers, many Scots would have been holding their own Burns Suppers. The supper was organised by the English, and the entertainment conducted mainly by the English, albeit some with Scottish accents, or even just any accent. The most Scottish the supper felt was when a Scotsman of Clan Grant spontaneously took to the floor dancing while the rest of us ceilidh initiates were catching our breaths and refreshing ourselves with whisky. The supper ran along its traditional format: (1) the piping in of the guests, (2) the Selkirk Grace, (3) the Address to the Haggis, (4) the meal, naturally featuring haggis with neeps and tatties, (5) the Immortal Memory, (6) the Toast to the Lassies, (7) the reply to the Toast to the Lassies, and (8) the singing of Auld Lang Syne to end the evening revelry. We also had a ceilidh after the toasts. Toasts were tongue-in-cheek, and my college also paid tribute to the humble and downtrodden, with readings of Burns’ poem Tae a Moose, and poems by the notoriously so-bad-he’s-good poet William McGonagall, whom I had never heard of before that evening. McGonagall was the great twist of the evening – I hadn’t even expected any poetry other than that of Burns to be read out. The serious tone of his poetry jarred with the light lyricism of Burns, and I wondered why on earth his poems would be included in the readings…until I found out that he has been commemorated at the topsy-turvy alternative Burns Suppers since 2012. Seeing that my college is already half-way there, and that Harry Potter related ones are probably already being held, perhaps Oxford University will be the first place outside of Scotland to hold McGonagall Suppers!