Robert Burns Supper: A Scottish, Nevada City tradition
January 21, 2014
Robert Burns, who wrote such familiar songs as “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” is Scotland’s unofficial poet laureate.
In his short 37 years of life, he wrote 559 songs and poems. All over the world, Burns Night Suppers are hosted in his honor on or near his birthday, Jan. 25, 1759.
This tradition began in 1802 and is still going strong.
This is a local tradition as well, dating back to the centennial celebration Jan. 25, 1859, when the Scotsmen of Nevada County held theirs in the famous (or infamous) Hotel De Paris, a restaurant and gambling hall located where the Bonanza Market now stands.
This we know because it was reported in the short-lived Nevada Democrat on Feb. 2, 1859. According to that newspaper, “In accordance with previous arrangements, the centennial anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns was appropriately celebrated, in this city, by the Scotchmen of Nevada County, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 25. The festivities were held at the Hotel de Paris, and about seventy-five gentlemen and nearly as many ladies, were present.” Although the Scotsmen of Nevada County have faded into the annals of history, their love of Robert Burns and his poetry lives on in the Gold Country Celtic Society.
Saturday the society will host its 23rd annual Robert Burns Supper at Miners Foundry Cultural Center. This sold-out event has all the music, food wine and revelry that makes the Burns Suppers so popular wherever Scots or those claiming even a wee bit of Scot’s blood are found. It is an occasion where men are the peacocks, decked out in kilts, tartans and formal finery. The chief of the society will be piped in by a kilted bagpiper. Speeches are given on topics and in the manner of centuries-old customs. These consist of a piper escorting in a platter with a haggis and Scotch whisky with a recitation of Burns’ classic poem, “Ode to a Haggis,” followed by Toasts to the Lassies and Laddies, and an Immortal Memory talk dedicated to Robert (or Rabbie, as his friends would have called him) Burns.
What is this haggis, anyway? It is not some exotic French culinary masterpiece or a Scottish game bird. At the time of Rabbie Burns, it was the poor farmer’s fare. You see, Burns was the poet of the people. He wrote about what the common man experienced, whether it be a louse in a woman’s hair, a mouse the plowman unearthed or the food he ate. Since the farmer (or crofter, as he was known in Scotland) could not afford to keep the better cuts of the sheep he raised, he made a savory pudding, or steamed sausage-like dish, of the portions of the sheep that he could not sell. That’s haggis. Traditionally, it’s minced sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, mixed with oatmeal, suet, pepper and salt, then stuffed into the sheep’s stomach. After steaming for a few hours, you have haggis. It may sound rather, well unappetizing, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s actually quite tasty. However, no lord or lady would ever have eaten it in Burns’ time. But, although he was friends with some of the nobility, his heart was with the common man. His works were in their language and described their lives. He was a man of the people and they loved him then as they love him now.
Although there will be a wee bit of haggis served at the Gold Country Celtic Society’s Burns Supper, they and their guests will dine on prime rib, salmon or vegetarian dishes. After dining and toasts are given in the castle-like Stone Hall, everyone will head to the concert hall to round out the evening with a concert of Celtic music and a variety of drinks from the Brigadoon Arms pub.
There will even be an 18-year-old single-malt Scots whisky available. At the end of the party, everyone will join in singing Rabbie’s immortal “Auld Lang Syne,” which is literally “old long since” and means “long times past.” Although the celebration will not last all night, they will be in the tradition of the 1859 event where, the Nevada Democrat reported, “The festivities were kept up by the singing of Scottish songs, appropriate toasts, etc., until near 12 o’clock, when the table was cleared and the dance commenced, which lasted until daylight … the countrymen of Burns very properly made the occasion one long to be remembered.”
For more information on The Gold Country Celtic Society, go to http://www.nevadacountycelticclub.org/. The Society meets every fourth Wednesday at the Nevada City Veterans’ Hall for a potluck and Celtic program.