Recovering My Heritage


It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in line with tradition: cock-a-leekie soup; haggis (one of my favorite dishes) with neeps (rutabaga) and tatties (potato); cranachan for dessert; whisky for the toasting.

For toasts are another standard feature: One of the male guests will be designated to give the Address to the Lassies (long ago it was a toast of thanks to the women who had prepared the meal, but in modern times it has morphed into a humorous speech about the female guests and women in general, edgy though that might sound), and a woman chosen from among the guests responds with a Reply to the Laddies. (“Should be amusing, but not offensive,” the Wikipedia article on Burns Suppers innocently recommends; I should think not!)

But the most important of the ritual speeches, virtually always included, is a recitation of the whole of Burns’s famous Address to a Haggis. It is a rare case of a poem addressed to a food item. I’m not sure I can think of another literary instance of a foodstuff appearing in the vocative construction (“O pizza, rich with herbs and spices, Cut up into eight broad slices, Well bedecked with pepperoni … “) — but maybe you can.

Somehow, in a brief meeting with the effortlessly persuasive organizer of our Burns Supper (how did she do it?), I found, bewilderingly, that I had agreed to take on the role of haggis addresser. And it’s a little daunting. Much as I enjoy public speaking, I must admit to being slightly nervous about this. The poem is in Early Modern Scots, the 18th-century vintage of a Germanic language markedly distinct from English in its phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax. References to “weel-swall’d kytes” or “skinkin’ ware that jaups in luggies” are not immediately intelligible to a Standard English speaker such as myself. I had to do some homework.

And here in my department there are world-class experts on Scots. I cannot risk mangling a single unfamiliar noun or mispronouncing a single vowel.

I arrived in this distinguished department direct from Santa Cruz, Calif., in the summer of 2007. I can well imagine some of the out-of-town guests at the supper tonight being surprised to see me chosen for the honor of reciting the famous address. Couldn’t they have nominated someone a little more ethnically appropriate than one of the American immigrants (who make up about a quarter of the faculty here)? Well, my ace in the hole is that certain aspects of my early life make me a little closer to being authentic than some might think.

Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, was born in Alloway, Ayrshire. In the year preceding my birth, my parents were living a few miles south of there, in Girvan. My father was flying for the Royal Air Force out of an airfield at Turnberry (it is now a golf resort owned by Donald Trump — that man is everywhere). My birth was difficult, and my mother eventually had to be rushed by ambulance up the A77, past Alloway, to a hospital in Irvine 15 miles to the north, which is where I was eventually delivered.

So Burns and I are sons of the same soil. He had the bad luck to grow up in poverty and hardship, the son of an unsuccessful farmer, while I had the bad luck to be taken away by my parents and raised in southern England. I never really liked England. I escaped, emigrated to California, became an American, and worked there for a quarter of a century.

Ever since I accepted the professorship of general linguistics here ten years ago, I have certainly been a Californian immigrant, in a sense; but in a way I’m as much an Ayrshire boy as Burns was. Perhaps the spirit of the place will find its way into me when I draw a deep breath and commence my recitation tonight.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o’ the pudding race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place
Painch, tripe, or thairm
Weel are yet wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm …

Yes; I think I can do this! It’s not about learning an alien culture; I’m autochthonous here. It’s just a matter of recovering my heritage.

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