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The Pipes & The Whisky Monkey !

John Ollason of Aberdeenshire contributed this amusing account of his attendance at a Burns Supper hosted by friends .

An account of a Burns Supper celebrated in rural Aberdeenshire 25th
January 2002.


It's half past five on Friday 25th January 2002. I get out the pipes for
the first time since 25th January 2001 (no Burns Supper last year because
we were partied out.) I gie em a blaw, and miracle of miracles---Thank
heaven for a Gore-Tex bag and plastic reeds---the reeds speak, a rough
tuning, a quick practice of _A man's a man for a' that_ and they're ready.
Then a frantic search for the silk ribbons. The piping might be a bit
sketchy, but the pipes will look gay. Where did I put the skean dhu, sgian
dubh, the damned sock-knife?

The whisky-monkey tends to put things away after Burns night. The
whisky-monkey? I hear you ask. Yes, the evil spirit who seizes you in the
middle of the night and drags you in a time-warp for about a week of
route-marching in the Sahara, and who systematically inflicts all those
scratches and bruises you wake up with after a good Burns night. As well
as this, it also steals things like your ribbons and sgian dubh and hides
them on the floor, under the bed, in the bookcase, the bookcase? Then in
the morning afterwards you wake up thinking 'If I'd known I was going to
be so thirsty this morning I'd have drunk a lot more last night.' and you
forget about the skean dhu (How do you spell the blessed thing anyway?)
until a whole year has gone by and you need it to trench the gushing
entrails once again.

One year one of my Edinburgh friends was so carried away with the
trenching that we had haggis on the kitchen ceiling. He used a carving
knife with such brio that next year we decided that something smaller
would be safer so we settled for the traditional throat-cutter and we've
used it ever since. We're short of personnel this year so I've got to do
the Immortal Memory as well as piping in the haggis. The usual flattering
invitation: 'We asked everybody we could think of and they all turned us
down. We know it's short notice but somebody's got to do it... I mean we'd
really appreciate it if you would do the Immortal Memory.' Panic-stricken
search for the collected poems, the whisky-monkey must have been slipping
because the book was with other books of poetry in the bookcase.

Fevered searching of the pieces of paper inserted between the
pages reveals one I made earlier, an Immortal Memory from about 1998. I
re-jig the illustrative poems, out with lice, in with mice, tenderness not
satire this year, and we are ready to go. The collected poems have a
variety of annotations on the back page:

Haggis: Essential to get Cockburn's haggis made in Dingwall.
Remember vegetarian haggis (whatever that is). Don't risk bursting the
haggis: cook twenty minutes per pound plus twenty minutes in a medium
oven. Wrap the haggis in foil with opening underneath so the foil can be
peeled off. A twelve pound haggis will feed thirty hungry guests (ie
students) as a main course. A diagram of the oven showing how to keep warm
a ton of champit tatties and bashed neaps, or is it bashed tatties and
champit neaps, for thirty.

Now we're ready. The pipes go into the car on the back seat so the
bass drone doesn't have to be disassembled, and they will be in tune
(ish), but we aren't competing for the gold clasp at Oban, and the only
person who will know if things are going seriously wrong is me.

Into the car and away to a little cottage in the country where
Annie and Douglas from Zimbabwe are having their first, probably their
only, Burns Supper. Things are rather quiet this year. One year we had a
stiletto-slender Italian wearing a kilt that went round him twice. He read
the Selkirk Grace unforgettably, absolutely unforgettably.

This year an Englishman. In fact the English are taking a big part
this year. We assemble. Annie and Douglas are expectant and fraught with
the cooking. People arrive and drink beer and chat. I disappear into an
adjoining room and gie em anither blaw, (strange how you lapse into Scots
when you are talking about the pipes) they have survived the journey, and
they do look very fine, classic blackwood, with ivory mounts old enough to
be creamy, green-velvet bag-cover, green cords and tassels, and Gordon
tartan silk ribbons. Then anguished discussions with Douglas who hasn't
been in charge of cooking haggis before. A pause, then the haggis is
deemed to be ready. In one corner of the room a man is nervously reading
over _The Address to the haggis_. The haggis is ready, it is mounted on
the trencher (well plate actually) to be carried in procession round the
room. I play and march in front. It's a bit limited because the room must
be about 12 feet square and it's pretty full. But we march about as best
we can and manage to return the haggis safely to the table without
dropping it on the floor even once. In the crush they forget to give the
piper his dram. The piper is speechless.

Then we address the haggis. I know that some people say grace
first but we address the haggis. We always have done and so that's that.
The man addressing the haggis is not happy. Dragooned into the task at the
last moment---The traditional flattering invitation, as above,
substituting _Address to the Haggis_ for _Immortal Memory_---he has a fine
Scots accent, but he isn't an extrovert. The entrails are prodded rather
than trenched, and sullenly refuse to gush---the sgian dubh is decorative
rather than functional and it requires a vigorous stabbing action to cut
warm butter--- but honour is served. The Selkirk grace is said, and we

There are far too many of us to find chairs so most are sitting on
the floor. One small snag: nobody has been able to find vegetarian haggis
this year and the vegetarian is looking slightly miffed and out of it
eating the pizza she brought with her. Somehow, _To a pizza_ hasn't got
the same ring.

Then, quite suddenly it is time for the Immortal Memory. As years
have gone by my view of Burns as a poet has matured. I thought that he was
simply the best that Scotland could offer, but not very good by the
standards of the English metaphysicals and cavaliers; but the English love
poetry is really sex poetry: it is elegant, calculating seduction, whereas
Burns can be tender and mean it. The sceptics say 'Perhaps, but he did
have a lot of affairs'. Yes, it's true he did, but I believe that he loved
each of his ladies _in her turn_. In conclusion I read _To a mouse_.
Silence for a while after the chilling ending, and then the toast. Glasses
are refilled, and the toast to the lassies is given by Douglas, and this
is replied to by Annie, and then the party continues. A couple of people
ask to blow the pipes and a certain amount of amusement ensues. Then it's
just another party.

A quiet party this year, marked by the welcome absence of the
whisky-monkey. The pipes were properly put away, the ribbons folded up,
and this year is the year I really will practice properly, but I know I
won't, and it will a year before the pipes are seen and heard again.

I wonder what has happened to the skean dhu ????

John Ollason