Robbie Burns’ Day is fast approaching on January 25th. I (Gayle) dug out my file and photos from an article I originally wrote in February 2005 when Ian and I were on our two-and-a-half year sojourn in Mexico. I’ve been put into a Scottish mood, having convinced Ian that we should attend this year’s Robbie Burns Dinner on Saturday, January 24th at the Vernon Rec Complex sponsored by the Kalamalka Highlanders Pipe Band and the Arran Campbell Memorial Pipe Band here in Vernon, British Columbia. Last year Ian just didn’t feeling up to attending even after I altered his fairly new but way-too-big kilt (McKinnon clan tartan: McKinnon is the clan to which the Morrans family is a sept). The kilt was tailored for him several years ago when Ian had gained about 40 pounds while being treated with prednisone for almost five years. Once he went off the medication the pounds literally dropped off, which is what happened to his kilt as well once he tried it on for the second time! The above photo shows him in the McKinnon tartan kilt while it still fit. In the story that follows Ian is wearing his old kilt, a hand-me-down in the Royal Stewart tartan that Ian received from his former sister-in-law. (Not the correct tartan for him, but a Scotsman can’t pass up something free, and he was thrilled to get his own kilt at the time.)
This time it is I (Gayle, the blogger) who is acting as the Scottish Canadian author. To set the scene, we had set up temporary quarters at a small RV park on the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, in the mountainous part of central Mexico south of Guadalajara. It just so happened that all the other RVers in that park were fellow Canadians and a few of them had Scottish heritage as well. We met weekly for a specially catered dinner in the RV park’s lounge and had decided that it would be fun to have a Robbie Burns’ Dinner on a day close to his birthday. Ian and I had brought our kilts with us and the rest of the company improvised. You will note that I refer to Ian as “Scotty”, the name he became known as amongst our Mexican and ex-pat friends. After the event we met the editor of a local ex-pat on-line magazine and she asked me to submit an article telling of our unique evening. Here is the result, completed by the slide-show of photos at the start of this blog post to document our party.
Article originally written for an e-zine: Mexico Insights, published in Ajijic, Mexico, February 2005.
Roca Azul RVers Celebrate Scotland’s Robert Burns
by Gayle Moore-Morrans
Throughout the world on Robbie Burns’ birthday, (January 25), Scots, those of Scottish ancestry, various Scottish “wannabees” and poetry enthusiasts gather to celebrate the immortal memory of Scotland’s national bard. Not to be outdone, 18 Canadians residing at or near the Roca Azul recreational vehicle (RV) site on the western shore of Lake Chapala enjoyed a traditional Burns’ Night complete with tartans, pipe music, haggis and Scotch whisky, as well as recitations and singing of some of Burns’ famous poems.
Our illustrious director and entertainer was none other than fellow RVer Ian “Scotty” Moore-Morrans, sometimes known as “Winnipeg’s Mr. Scotland.” Originally from Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula, Argyll, Scotland, Scotty welcomes any excuse to don his kilt, sporran, skean dhu (Gaelic for “black knife”, worn in the stocking) and Argyll jacket, and break into a Scottish/Gaelic ballad or spin a highland tale. He has entertained at Robbie Burns’ Nights and other Scottish-flavoured gatherings over the years, including last year at the prestigious Fort Garry Hotel (Winnipeg) for the Cameron Highlanders 2004 Burns’ Supper. He is also an enthusiastic member of the international Robbie Burns’ Society.
A neighbour, Carmelina “Carmie” (McPherson) Bourner who hails from “New Scotland” (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) and has spent a lifetime enjoying Scottish music, dance and tradition, agreed to serve as mistress of ceremonies for the evening. Other campers good-naturedly agreed to recite a Burns’ poem, give a traditional toast, bring along some appropriate recorded music or just come and participate in the festivities. The contributors quickly got down to business, digging through their CDs, writing up their pieces or rehearsing their poems while enduring Scotty’s coaching if they wished to attempt reading with a Scottish “burr.”
Then it was my turn. As Scotty’s fairly new wife, I’d been indoctrinated into the glories of my previously little-known Scottish heritage. After I’d learned countless Scottish tunes and attended various Scottish events over the past two years, Scotty called me to the ultimate task! “I’ve got a great idea, Gayle; you can make the haggis!” Okay, I’m a fairly accomplished and adventuresome cook – but, HAGGIS? I’d eaten some samples (one very good, some not so memorable) while trying not to dwell on a few of the traditional ingredients – namely, mutton, suet, sheep’s heart and “lights” (lungs) and the non-eaten casing which consisted of a cleaned-out sheep’s stomach! But I’m usually up to a challenge. Obviously, the one cookbook I had in the motorhome did not contain a recipe for haggis. So, laptop computer in hand, I headed for an Internet café and did a search for “Robbie Burns.” An array of sites appeared with all sorts of instructions for hosting a Robbie Burns’ Night, biographies of the bard, the texts of his poems and a section on haggis. After downloading and printing the haggis section, I studied the various recipes, ranging from an excerpt from The Scots Book of Lore and Folklore to “Lady Logan’s Receipt from 1856” to a beef haggis and an “Americanized” recipe that could be baked in a meatloaf pan. The latter sounded more to my liking. I headed for a carniceria (butcher shop) searching for ground lamb and lamb’s liver.
“No, Señora, we don’t carry ground lamb. But you could buy a five-pound leg of lamb and we can grind it for you.” I declined, saying I only needed two pounds of lamb so perhaps I’d have him grind up 1/2 pound of lamb chops and would substitute ground beef that I already had for the rest. With a sudden, “Uno momento,” he disappeared into the back room, shortly reappearing with a partial leg of lamb that could be ground and would make about 2 pounds! Then I asked for lamb’s liver and was informed that the farmer who supplied their lamb meat sold all the innards to someone else. Okay, did they have any pork liver then? No, they had only beef liver (which I’ve been warned against in Mexico) and chicken liver (which I hate). My eyes rested on some pork pâté and I decided that would make a good substitute. With an added pound of not-so-lean hamburger (my “acceptable” substitute for suet), my meat supply was complete. To that I added minced onion, egg, oatmeal and about 4 times the amount of paltry spices that the recipes called for – nutmeg, ginger and cloves. The day of our Burns’ “do” the campground was treated to a delicious aroma emanating from the motorhome that flew the rampant lion flag of Scotland. At least we would be treated to something authentic in the way of a traditional menu for a Burns’ Supper.
That brings up the problem that Pat, our weekly communal dinner organizer, faced in trying to communicate with the Mexican cook about the proper menu for such an occasion. Most Burns’ suppers start out with cockaleekie soup. Then roast beef is served along with the haggis, complimented by “tatties” (potatoes), a rich beef gravy, green peas and “neeps” (mashed turnips). A typical dessert would be a fruit/cream/whisky-laced trifle. Pat and I were pretty sure that turnips were not available in Mexico so our recommendation was for the cook to prepare a chicken soup, some sort of beef, potatoes and other vegetables and leave the dessert up to her. The results proved interesting – but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Dressed to the nines in our kilts and laden with haggis and whisky, Scotty and I arrived at the clubhouse to the “oohs” and “aahs” of the other campers. Pat had decked out the table with red and white flowers and a big tartan bow. Matching them was Carmie, our MC, dressed all in white with a nice Royal Stewart tartan sash. After seeing that all had a toast glass of Scotch, she invited us to the table. With her opening remarks she explained the background of Burns’ Suppers, that we were joining people all around the world on this day to commemorate Scotland’s most venerated poet in celebrations, poetry readings and song. We were invited to receive the haggis by standing and clapping time to the pipe music. Then Carmie joined our four-person parade to “Pipe in the Haggis.” As the “chef,” I had the privilege of carrying in the haggis, followed by everyone else present who wore a tartan – in this case, Scotty, Carmie and her husband Richard in his version of a Scottish RVer, resplendent in shorts, white shirt and tartan tie. At the “skirl” of the pipes, we did a complete circle of the banquet table and then took our places at its head. Then began the most important element of a Burns’ supper – the recitation of Burns’ “Address to the Haggis.”
Knife poised in mid-air, Scotty began: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the puddin-race . . .!” A few verses later he enacted the verse while stabbing into my luscious creation: “His knife see rustic-labour dicht, An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, Trenching your gushing entrails bricht, like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sicht, warm-reekin, rich!” Finally ending this slightly unintelligible (for most of us) poem with “Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware that jaups ‘n’ luggies; But, if you wish her gratefu’ pray’r, Gie her a Haggis!” he lifted his whisky glass and invited everyone to stand and toast the haggis. “To the haggis, Slainte Bha!” (pronounced Slanje va – Gaelic for “good health!”)
Next on the program was Richard Bourner who imparted some brief but witty remarks about the manufacture of single malt Scotch whisky, to which we also stood for another wee dram and “Slainte Bha!”
After Scotty prayed Burn’s “Selkirk Grace” (“Some ha meat and canna eat; Some wad eat but want it. But we ha meat and we can eat and tae the Lord be thankit.”), “The Meal” followed.
We first enjoyed a delicious tomato soup while our hosts tended the outside barbeques – roast beef had become Biftec. That’s where any similarities to the traditional meal stopped. The steaks were accompanied by prickly pear cactus leaves and a medley of creamed, cubed white vegetables – probably peeled zucchini and celeriac. The meat varied from nearly tender to “shoe leather quality.” As each plate was served I went around the table to add a small portion of haggis. Some were a bit hesitant at first, having heard all sorts of disparaging remarks about it. After tasting the steaks, however, the haggis became more popular. In fact, the dish went around the table three times and I finally put the last two pieces aside so that Scotty could have a “wee drop” for breakfast the next day!
Following our fruit cup dessert, we retired to the camper’s recreation room to begin our ceilidh (pronounced kaylee), a Scottish celebration where everyone has a chance to contribute to the program – through song, dance, recitation or whatever. Al Laplante gave the traditional speech “To the Immortal Memory,” in which he outlined how Robbie Burns’ deep love for Scotland fired his ambition to write in the Scottish vernacular, resulting in the creation of a unique brand of poetry, full of character, integrity, humour, satire and lyrical harmony. Even though he only lived from 1756 – 1796, his popularity is still on the increase two centuries after his poems first appeared.
After Scotty treated us to a musical rendition of Burns’ well known, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” it was time for Bryan St. George to present the “Toast to the Lassies.” He mentioned that, though we women present came from a variety of different backgrounds, for this evening we were all “lassies” – more specifically “RV lassies” – and that we were particularly to be recognized for making comfortable homes for our men despite our small living quarters. Then it was time for the “Response to the Laddies.” Linda Rae responded by inviting all the lassies to raise their glasses in toast to all the men present who had such good taste in women!
Continuing on with our poetry readings, Pat Laplante gave a good attempt at a Scottish “burr” while reading “Coming Through the Rye.” Ian Rae followed with a rendition of “For a’ That an’ a’ That,” Burns’ tribute to universal brotherhood which ends with the ringing, “It’s comin’ yet for a’ that, that man to man, the world o’er shall brithers be for a’ that.” Scotty and I sang, “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon” and then we heard, “To a Mouse,” in which Burns, a farmer by trade, apologized to a wee mouse whose wee house his plow had disturbed – a good example of Burns’ search for universal meaning in the commonplace.
The evening concluded as Scotty led us through a singalong of Scottish songs, followed by some Scottish country dancing, an impassioned speech by Ross Hamilton about brotherhood and understanding amongst people and his demonstration of hand puppet “dancing” to a Scottish reel.
In the words that my hometown newspaper used to end all party reports: “A fine time was had by all!” Oh – I almost forgot! Our wee dog, Peppy, who accompanies us almost everywhere, joined us for the ceilidh portion of the evening. He slept through most of it but when it came time to join hands around a circle to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” Peppy decided to participate. Trotting into the circle, he took up his begging stance on hind legs with front paws pleadingly chopping the air. Scotty and Ross separated their hands, each taking him by a front paw, and we continued our singing and circling. As the Brits would put it, Peppy was “as happy as Larry!” Another Scottish wannabee!