Hugh Reilly: Rite of passage and a burning sensation

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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THERE are cultural differences as to how a youngster makes the transition from boyhood to manhood. For example, in years gone by, lads as young as 11 in the Lakota Sioux tribe jigged round a pole to which they were fastened by rawhide thongs pegged into their chests.

After four days of the so-called Sun Dance, kids became braves. A would-be warrior who wimped out at the sight of his own blood scooshing out of his bosom was forced to live with the squaws (hardly a punishment in my book).

In Scotland, the traditional rite of passage was a tad less masochistic. At the end of primary school education, the man-child moved to the “big school”, his newly acquired teen status marked by society’s permission for him to cast his short trousers to the wind and step into manly “longies”.

My weather-beaten legs had barely become accustomed to long trousers when I first heard of Robert Burns. In primary school, the only poems I’d been exposed to concerned hosts of daffodils and some effete bloke coupling lines about going down to the sea again. The verse of the Ploughman Poet was different; it was written in Scots, which made it utterly unintelligible without the helpful sidebar translations.

Unlike half the female population of 18th century Scotland, I’m not a lover of Burns, thus I was very surprised when the Scottish public voted him “The Greatest Scot Ever”, ahead of the decapitated William Wallace. There is more puzzling evidence that folk value an Ayrshire wordsmith above a martyred freedom fighter. On 25 January, Burns Suppers are celebrated throughout Caledonia and in far flung outposts of the diaspora.

I had reached the ripe old age of two score and ten before I was press-ganged into attending a Burns Night. The venue was a hostelry in a small Victorian market town in the south of the country, a hamlet that boasted a pitchfork-rental emporium for evenings when the citizenry were a tad upset with rumoured aristocratic decadence at the nearby castle.

If the pub landlord were to be believed, the bard once patronised this licensed establishment. (In the deep south of Alba, every tourist-fleecing hotel and restaurant makes implausible proclamations that Burns ate, sat or slept here – by comparison, Kilroy was something of a recluse).

A Burns Supper is a ritualistic affair. In what could be deemed a form of “respite care” for city dwellers, itinerant bagpipers are rounded up from street corners to pipe in the guests. Invitees stand proudly in their hired kilts with a chib (in Gaelic, Sgian Dubh) down the side of a stocking should any metrosexual Englishman present wish to imprudently check if the wearer is a true Scotsman. The guests sit down and the host recites The Selkirk Grace: Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae let the Lord be thankit.

Nodding heads signal collective approval of fine words Burns didn’t compose (they were written in the previous century). Soup – usually broth or cock-a-leekie – kicks off the gastronomical feast. On hearing the last slurp from the last bowl, the piper puffs in the haggis, the national dish that no-one eats except on Burns Nights. Akin to First World War troops being a given a stiff drink to strengthen their resolve to clamber up the ladder, most diners gulp down copious amounts of whisky before attempting to masticate the boiled remains of almost every organ in a sheep’s body. Once the host is satisfied that all food partaken will remain in the stomach, he calls on various speakers to address the assembly of Burns aficionados.

At my Burns Night, when a speaker noted that the poet had died after a dental extraction, a drunken English “lady” shouted: “He died of syphilis!” Going by the horrified looks on the visages of Burns zealots, I thought I was about to witness the town’s first lynching.

When I was teaching in Glasgow, a deputy headteacher tried (in vain, thank goodness) to stop a staff Burns supper on account of the poet’s freemasonry membership. Her attempt to cancel proceedings could have succeeded if she had, instead, cited Burns’ notorious womanising. He was the Bill Clinton of his day, taking advantage of his lofty position to have sexual relations with vulnerable hired help; fleeting liaisons with three servant girls produced two children.

Aye, a man’s a man for a’ that richt enough.