Burn’s Night – and how to do it!

Burn’s Night is here! January 25th is a big night for Scottish people everywhere – possibly the biggest night of the year after Hogmanay (the New Year) itself. So as a sassenach (meaning ‘southerner’ and really meaning ‘English person’) what does Burn’s Night mean to me and what does it involve?

I think that Burn’s Night is a wonderful event: I am a great fan of ‘The Bard Of Ayrshire’, his poetry is wonderfully evocative and beautifully lyrical even if it can often be unintelligible to those of us born south of the border. Scotland should be proud that their greatest celebration is in honour of a classical poet. England has produced a wealth of great writers but alas we do not recognise them as they deserve: surely there should be a place in our calendar for a ‘Shakespeare Day’ or a ‘Wordsworth Night’?


My own novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ is hurtling towards publication now – I can’t say any more as yet but within the next two weeks I should be able to bring you some exciting news. From then on expect lots of blogs about the publication process along with my usual random wonders. Maybe one day they will have an official ‘Holland Day’ that will be celebrated in Yorkshire? I have entered the realm of fantasy, not for the first time.

Back to Rab Burns and his celebratory night. The night opens with a speech from the host in Scottish Gaelic and then grace is said: not any sort of grace though, oh no. This grace goes: “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.” If you struggled with that bit, then you are going to find the rest of the night rather incomprehensible.

After grace, the haggis is brought in! Or should I say ‘piped in’? Yes, it would ne’er do to bring the haggis in on a serving pate and plonk it down onto the table – it has to be carried in ceremonially accompanied by the mournful wail of the bagpipes. What is haggis? If you don’t know – it’s best not to ask. Or at least to eat first and ask later.

There now follows the ‘Address to the haggis’: this poem goes on, and on and on but when done well it is fantastic. The climax is when the orator says: “His knife see rustic labour dicht”, at which point the carving knife or sword is drawn, followed by, “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht!” whence the haggis is sliced open from end to end.

Whisky is then drunk (this, I find, is the best part of the evening), and food is eaten before a speaker will give a talk about the immortal Robbie Burns himself. There then follows the ‘Toast to the lassies’: this is always a good time for feminists to make themselves scarce, as the speech that follows is rather old school in its views on women.

The women get their own back however, after more whisky, with the ‘Toast to the laddies’. By now most people will be toasted to within an inch of their lives – have a taxi booked in advance.

There then follows a wonderful climax to the evening: singing, music and dancing with Burn’s songs set to wonderful folk music. You can sing along – don’t worry if you don’t know the words to Tam O’Shanter or To A Mouse and the like – after half a dozen big whiskies or so you will sound just like the native gaelic speakers.

The Burn’s Supper ends with lots of hand crossing and the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (you will know that one) and then off home it is. What a wonderful and civilised way it is to celebrate the life of one of the greatest poets in the English (ahem) language.

Was Burns as great as I make out? Oh yes. One poem of his in particular holds a dear place in my heart: along with Wilde’s ‘Requiscat’ and Keat’s ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ it is one of my three favourite poems of all time. It is a love poem, and not one that you will hear at Burn’s Night but keep it in mind for Valentine’s day as the perfect serenade for whoever has captured your heart. So here I reproduce a work of genius, enjoy Burn’s Night as you read the greatest and simplest ode to love there has ever been: ‘Oh my luve’s like a red red rose.’

“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry , my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve !
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!”


Le Tour de France in Yorkshire!

The Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire in July 2014, and of course Tortoise Soup will be there to comment on it! The route of the Tour de Yorkshire was announced today and as a native of God’s own county myself please allow me to point out some of the highlights coming the cyclists’ way.


Yorkshire is a county of contrasts – large industrial conglomerations built upon now defunct steelworks and coalmines where towns and cities blend seamlessly one into another; beautifully bleak moorlands full of purple gorse and heather bushes; historic cities where Romans and Vikings have left their mark.

The Yorkshire people themselves are perhaps the greatest attraction: famously stingy, maybe, but we have warm hearts hidden beneath our dour exteriors and a self deprecating sense of humour. We have a saying: “Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, strong in arm and thick in ‘ead.” One thing that is for sure though is that if you do visit us for the tour you will get a very warm welcome indeed.

Stage one, the ‘Grand Depart’, runs from Leeds to Harrogate. Leeds is the largest city in Yorkshire and is a shoppers paradise with famous stores like Harvey Nicholls rubbing shoulders with Victorian era shopping arcades full of quaint little shops. En route to Harrogate the Tour will pass through the North Yorkshire Moors and the village of Hawes.

Hawes is much nicer than it sounds. It is a principal town of the Yorkshire Dales and is home to the world famous Wensleydale cheese so loved by Wallace and Gromit. The cyclists could do worse than stop off for a bite of its creamy crumbling loveliness.

The route also takes the cyclists through Haworth (confusingly pronounced ‘Howarth’), once home of the Bronte Sisters: Charlotte, Anne and Emily. It is an eerily beautiful village, although constantly thronged with tourists, and it is easy to imagine the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff stalking across the barren wind battered moors that lay all around. It is astonishing to think that such a small and desolate place produced three such incredible talents and, in my view, the greatest book of all time: ‘Wuthering Heights’.

The Depart will stop departing at Harrogate. This spa town was famous for its healing waters in the nineteenth century but the main attraction now is Betty’s Tea Rooms, home to the greatest collection of cakes in the northern hemisphere.

Stage two, on Sunday 6th July 2014, will run from York to Sheffield. What can I say about York other than that it is the ‘must visit’ English destination after London itself. The streets are full of museums, and one street is almost a living museum itself: ‘The Shambles’ where the ancient houses almost collapse into each other in wonderfully haphazard manner. I don’t envy the cyclists procession down York’s many cobbled roads, I hope that they have padded cycling shorts on! The Jorvik museum faithfully recreates York as it once was: a Viking town. And there is much of the Viking still living in Yorkshire today – the red haired youngsters running around will talk excitedly about ‘laiking’ (playing) in ‘snickets’ (alleyways) – both of them ancient Viking words that have fallen out of use elsewhere. The Romans have also left their mark on York – indeed the Roman emperor Constantine who converted Rome to Christianity and changed the course of the world was actually born in York!

From York the cyclists will head out onto a very gruelling and demanding stage: through the Pennine hills and moorland, up and down all the way. The views will be beautiful, if only the cyclists had enough breath left to take it in. En route they will head through the little Pennine town of Holmfirth: famous the world over (even in France) as the home of ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. Let us hope that the ghost of Compo doesn’t come hurtling past them in a tin bath on wheels.

After Holmfirth the Tour reaches Huddersfield where in the last Century your Tortoise Soup blogger went to University and learnt all that he knows. There is no statue of me there as yet, so ride on cyclists, ride on.

From Huddersfied the tour continues its tortuous wind through the hills and valleys towards South Yorkshire. It will pass through the pretty, hilltop village of Thurgoland. Thurgoland has two wonderful pubs: quintessentially Yorkshire (i.e. warm and welcoming) with great views across the moors towards Lancashire. At one of these pubs you might be lucky enough to bump into Nicky Holland, author of the lovely children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ (news on its publication will be coming very soon). I live in a little village just a handful of miles from Thurgoland, and will be heading up there early in the morning to get a good view. If you do happen to see me, then do remember that I quite like a draught of cider.

From Thurgoland the route heads into the industrial heart of South Yorkshire, passing through Hillsborough where the cyclists will bow their heads at the memory of the 96 who died in the terrible football tragedy of 1989.

The Tour de Yorkshire will then reach its climax in the city of Sheffield. Once renowned worldwide for its steel making the foundries have now all but disappeared but the city now has another export: music. Famous bands and singers to hail from the city range from Joe Cocker and Human League, through Cabaret Voltaire, ABC, Def Leppard and Heaven 17 to Pulp and Richard Hawley. Sheffield is also home to probably a thousand charity shops (it certainly feels that way), so have a browse around and pick up a bargain.

So please do come and visit Yorkshire during the Tour: I promise that it will be full of fun and full of a real ‘Joie de vivre’. Will I be taking part? Oh no, I do love two wheels but I prefer mine to have an engine driving them rather than pedals. I am in awe of what the cyclists, Bradley Wiggins et al, do and am so excited that I will be able to witness it at close hand! If you want any advice on Yorkshire, where to stay or what to do, then please feel free to contact me!