Burns Night is a time of celebration in Scotland when we can gather with friends, recite the poetry of Robert Burns, eat our national dish – the mighty haggis – drink whisky and become ever more boisterous as the evening continues. At least that’s my memory, somewhat hazy admittedly, of the Burns Night suppers that I have attended in the past.
These days I would rather stay at home with the children, then head out for a raucous night of haggis and whisky. And I will have to sneak the haggis into the house, as no one else eats it in my family. But I will still try and raise a glass of liquid gold in memory of the Bard.
I’m always intrigued by the choices people make for their fantasy dinner party guest list that you often see in magazines and newspaper supplements. So, I’ve put together my version for the ultimate fantasy Burns Night Supper. In doing so, I set a few rules. All the guests must be Scottish or have made a significant contribution to Scottish life. There must be an equal number of men and women. And it doesn’t matter if they are dead or still living. Who would you invite?
Ironically, Mary Queen of Scots’ private secretary met his brutal end whilst having dinner. Stabbed 57 times, whilst dining with Mary – will he be reluctant to attend our Burns Night? Although an Italian, he is on the guest list because there is no doubt he heavily influenced the Queen. As a result, he had an impact on Scotland. Jealous rumours swirled around the Royal Court. Many thought Rizzio was the father of the monarchs unborn child. His murder soon resulted in the revenge killing of the Queen’s husband, Lord Darnley. What secrets did Rizzio know? Will he spill the beans?
We need music at a Burns Night Supper. Traditionally, the bagpipes will come out to ‘Pipe in the Haggis’ as the chef brings it to the table, steaming on a silver platter. Afterwards, Scottish fiddle tunes are heard. I’ve opted for something different from the sassy Annie Lennox. After all, she is one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 greatest singers. More importantly, I grew up listening to her amazing vocals on every Eurythmics record that came out. Annie is a political and social activist, working to raise awareness of how HIV/AIDS affects women and children in Africa. She’ll have strong, independent views that will liven up the dinner table talk.
King Brude of the Picts
There is so much that we don’t know about the Picts. Yet, they were such an important part of our history and the creation of the nation we know as Scotland today. That’s why I want to chat with Brude (sometimes recorded as Bridei) at my Burns Night supper. He was King of the Picts for thirty years. The location of his royal court is thought to be around Loch Ness. There are many stories about him in the Inverness area. These include an account of his conversion to Christianity by the famous Celtic missionary Columba. I will ask him to decipher those mysterious symbols on the Pictish stones found across the Highlands.
If you are looking for the ultimate Scottish heroine then Flora Macdonald is your woman. She is most famous for smuggling Bonnie Prince Charlie, dressed as a maidservant, in a small rowing boat away from British soldiers hunting the fugitive prince. This daring feat inspired the well-known Skye Boat Song. Flora spent time in the Tower of London, as a prisoner, after her arrest by the government. Escaping execution, the fate of so many others associated with the Jacobite cause, she became a dinner-party circuit favourite. Her later escapades during the American Revolution and subsequent return to her native Skye are equally adventurous. After regaling us with tales of daring escapes, Flora can tell us whether she felt Bonnie Prince Charlie was worth saving.
The first TV programme I remember seeing David Tennant in was a rip-roaring period drama, as he charmed his way from bed-to-bed as Casanova. If you can track down this BBC comedy-drama online (it’s available in the US on Amazon Prime) it’s a great watch. You can see the trademark grin that became better known as Tennant morphed into the Doctor in Doctor Who. I grew up with the original Doctor Who in the 1970s and 1980s and its reintroduction to our screens after so many years was a big event. David Tennant is my favourite Doctor, despite all the great ones that came before. He is at the centre of our Burns Night Supper as his Scottish lilt recites the ‘Ode to the Haggis’.
This is the only person on my Burns Night guest list that I’ve met. Baxters of Speyside is a well known Scottish brand. Its headquarters on Speyside dominates the small village of Fochabers, where Ena lived with her husband George. Living and working not far from there in the late 1990s, I had dealings with both the company and Ena herself. Her obituary in the Daily Telegraph describes her as a ‘soup entrepreneur’ but she was so much more. At a time when men dominated the business world, Ena was the driving force and innovator behind this family business. Her business acumen secured three Royal Warrants (a big seal of approval from the Royal Family) and booming exports around the world. Of course, our supper starts with Ena’s Cock-a-Leekie soup. I suspect when asked what the secret is to her Royal Game soup I won’t get an answer!
In a former career, I worked in politics and my interest in political affairs continues. So, we need a politician at the table. There’s plenty of Scots, of all political colours, that made great politicians. Many went on to hold the greatest offices of state, including as Prime Minister. Did you know that Tony Blair is Scottish?
However, I am heading back in time to Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister. Ramsay Macdonald had the humblest of beginnings. He was an illegitimate child born in the small fishing village of Lossiemouth. Like so many Prime Ministers, maybe political events conspired against him and he reached the pinnacle of his career at the wrong time. As a pacificist, a witness to the early rise of Hitler and a key figure in the League of Nations, I will ask him what lessons we can learn from the mistakes of the past.
For my last Burns Night guest, I want a woman pioneer who led the way for females to shine in a field until then dominated by men. Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell all fit that bill. Collectively known as the “Edinburgh Seven” they were the first female students to attend a British university. Prevented from graduating with medical degrees from Edinburgh University by their male counterparts, they still paved the way for women to qualify as doctors when the law changed nearly thirty years later. I only have one place left, and it’s unfair to pick just one of these ladies.
Instead, I’ve invited Elsie Inglis a Scottish doctor who studied at the Medical College for Women established by one of the “Edinburgh Seven”. Elsie a committed suffragist, as well as an accomplished clinician, founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. During World War One she established a medical unit in Serbia before being captured by the Germans. History focuses on the events of the Western Front and the horror of war in the trenches. Inglis can tell us of what life was like behind the forgotten battle lines in Serbia.
That completes my fantasy guest list for my ultimate Burns Night Supper. It’s an exciting mix of historic and contemporary Scottish figures. After all that effort let’s hope they get on.