PETER FROST recalls a unique meeting of minds and cultures during one Burns Night event decades ago
SUNDAY January 25 is Burns Night, for Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns was born on that day in 1759.
All over the world, particularly where Scottish emigres are gathered, the peculiar and very special event that is a traditional Burns Night will be celebrated.
From the backwoods of Canada to the far corners of New Zealand, in Africa, South America and the US, the standard format of the night will be played out. The skirl of the pipes will be heard, the haggis will be addressed and then stabbed and much whisky will be consumed.
Every town, village and hamlet in Scotland will have its Burns Night. Many will be held in England too. Morning Star supporters in Manchester will celebrate in fine style, raise some useful money and a smile on Ivan Beavis’s face.
I’ve celebrated a good few Burns Nights in my time, but there is no doubt which is the most memorable.
Some three or more decades ago I was working for a short while in Moscow. Soviet journalist comrades invited me to the International Friendship Club for a special event.
“Oh yes,” they asked, “and could you could buy a bottle of whisky from the hard-currency shop in the tourist hotel where you’re staying?”
I found a bottle, although from the label and the brand name I guessed it may have been brewed beside the Volga rather than the Spey.
The event that night turned out to be a very traditional Burns Night. I hadn’t realised just how popular Burns and his poems — inspired by internationalism and a love and respect for the common man — were among the Soviet people. They recognised the poet as a republican and a revolutionary — a kindred spirit indeed.
We started, despite any official atheism, with the Selkirk Grace:
Some have meat and cannot eat, Some cannot eat that want it, but we have meat, and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.
As always Burns’s humanity and his principled egalitarianism was much stronger than any of his religious sentiments.
The night took the usual form, but sometimes with a distinctly Soviet twist. The chefs in the club had made a remarkable job of recreating the haggis — a dish they had read about but never seen or tasted. Neeps and tatties however totally defeated them — my explanation came much too late.
The address to the haggis was bilingual. A Soviet literature professor proclaimed it in stentorious Russian and yours truly did the job in as near to the original Scots as a London boy could get.
Poems too came in a variety of languages, including French and Vietnamese from the assembled international Burns fans.
Most of the toasts — and there were many — were taken in good vodka but my bottle of the “water of life” gave many a Russian their first experience of what all the fuss was about.
And from the Moscow conservatoire came a brave young man with a set of ancient bagpipes.
Regular readers will be pleased to know that I only disgraced myself once. I was chatting on the top table with two top Burns experts from Moscow University. Which was my favourite among the poet’s works, they asked.
I explained that I had always had a soft spot for some of Robbie’s ruder works. They looked puzzled, so I gave the assembled poetry lovers my party piece. It was one of his works unknown in Russia — and indeed not too well known in Scotland — his notorious Twa Wives.
If you don’t know the work here’s a fragment:
She farted by the byre-en’ She farted by the stable;? And thick and nimble were her steps As fast as she was able.
In retrospect I’m not too proud of my contribution to Anglo-Soviet cultural understanding that night.
Perhaps I can put it down to the whisky. What I do know is that I’ll never forget that amazing Soviet Burns Night in Moscow all those years ago.