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Ploughman poet still leads field; CITY CALEDONIANS JOIN WORLDWIDE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS FOR ROBERT BURNS, WHOSE VERSE ECHOES DOWN THE CENTURIES.

Byline: EMMA SNODGRASS

THE 244th anniversary of the birth of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, falls tomorrow and Scots and their descendants across the world are dusting off their kilts to mark the Ayrshire farmer's biting wit and colourful life. EMMA SNODGRASS reports on the local celebrations

IN Coventry, Bill Lennox has been wrestling for months with the problem of how to feed and entertain about 100 Scots enthusiasts.

As president of the Coventry and District Caledonian Society, Mr Lennox is in charge of organising a five-hour marathon of Scottish literature, music and food for the organisation's 93rd Burns Supper tonight.

The 66-year-old retired architectural technician moved to Coventry from Ayrshire - Burns's birthplace - in 1960 to work for the Roots company, now Peugeot.

He has the job of appointing speakers, printing booklets, sourcing traditional haggis from a Scottish butcher and filling seats for the night's revels.

Burns Night has been a tradition for the Caledonian Society since the group was established in 1911 to help hundreds of migrant Scottish workers - who moved to the city to work in the mines and other industries - keep in touch with their culture.

The club now has about 150 members who, though not necessarily born in Scotland, are interested in the country's culture.

Burns Suppers started in 1796, the year that the poet, farmer, tax man and father-of-12 died of heart failure, aged 37.

During his lifetime the "ploughman poet", born the eldest son of a poor tenant farmer in a cottage in Alloway, near Ayr, wrote almost 1,000 poems and songs.

He wasn't a very good farmer and changed career to become an exciseman, but his talent for writing simple poetry which cut through hypocrisy made him Scotland's most famous poet.

After he died, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral, and poetry lovers decided to celebrate his life with an annual dinner and recital of his work.

The city's Caledonian Society holds an annual dinner at the Leofric Hotel, Coventry.

Mr Lennox, of Nordic Drift, Walsgrave, said: "The annual Burns Supper is the job of each president to organise and it can be a big worry - you tend to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the night and leave it to the next president to do the worrying.

"All the gentlemen wear kilts if they have them, although that number gets fewer every year because kilts are very expensive and everyone reckons they shrink, because they often don't fit the next year!"

The centrepiece at every Burns Supper is the haggis, a mixture of sheep's heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal and spices, and stuffed in the animal's stomach lining.

This is ceremoniously piped in by a bagpipe player high on a plate and then "addressed" with Burns' eight- verse Address to a Haggis in broad Scots.

As president, it falls to Mr Lennox to recite the poem and cut into the haggis before it is served.

He said: "I've done the address several times so I have it off by heart, which makes a difference.

"It can be difficult for non-Scots to understand because a lot of Burns is hard for people who don't know the Ayrshire accent.

"But Burns had this gift of writing which means that when he wants to get a point across, it's totally understandable."

After dinner, guests settle into speeches, including a tribute to Burns's life and works called the "immortal memory".

Burns's 12 children - seven of them illegitimate - were by four different women.

It is in recognition of this romantic side and the poet's chauvinism that each Burns Supper includes a Toast to the Lassies - a rundown of the shortcomings of the female guests and womankind.

"We always do the toast to the lassies with full Highland honours, which means you stand on a chair with a foot on the table and toast them - but with a kilt you have to be especially careful when you're doing this," confessed Mr Lennox.

But women have their chance for revenge in the "response" when they get to pinpoint the flaws of the male guests and mankind in general.

Mr Lennox believes the popularity of the society's suppers lies in the fact that Robert Burns's writing is as relevant today as it was when it was written more than 200 years ago.

"Burns had a very dry wit and his poetry is very telling at times. He hated the hypocrisy going on around him," he said.

"We are proud of our bard in the same way as the English are probably proud of Shakespeare.

"He is considered the national bard of Scotland and we like to celebrate the anniversary of his birth, not his death, to keep his spirit alive."

Night of revelry and a morning of sore heads

Emma Snodgrass recalls her own experiences of Burns Night celebrations.

HAVING grown up in Edinburgh I have been to quite a few Burns Suppers - all of them boozy, laughing affairs where the literature of the Scottish bard is just one aspect of the evening.

The last one I went to, drams of whisky and lots of red wine littered the table and after some Scotch broth, one of the guests, a Pakistani doctor dressed in full Highland kilted gear, brought in the haggis.

He was cheered as he processed round the table of about 20 to the taped sound of bagpipes.

He laid down the plate at the head of the table so another guest could make the eight-verse address - some of it unintelligible to me - before splitting open the haggis at the third verse to more cheers.

But it's the doggerel verses in the Toast to the Lassies and the Response that catches most people's imagination, as it is the chance to poke fun at other guests and score points against the opposite sex in often completely made-up "broad" Scots.

The tone of a good Burns Night is patriotic light-hearted fun with the speeches appearing funnier as more alcohol flows. The downside is that most guests wake up the next morning with a sore head.

ADDRESS TO A HAGGIS

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin' race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy of a grace

As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o need,

While thro your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,

An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve

Are bent like drums;

The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,

'Bethankit' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

Wi perfect sconner,

Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view

On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,

As feckless as a wither'd rash,

His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,

His nieve a nit:

Thro bloody flood or field to dash,

O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He'll make it whissle;

An legs an arms, an heads will sned,

Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies:

But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,

Gie her a Haggis!

SELKIRK GRACE

Most Burns Suppers are started with the traditional Scots' Selkirk Grace.

Some ha'e meat and cannae eat

And some wad eat that want it

But we ha'e meat and we can eat

And sae the Lord be Thankit.

CAPTION(S):

WORD PERFECT: Bill Lennox (above) shows how he will salute the haggis at the Burns Supper tonight and (right) Vital ingredients for the supper - haggis, whisky and the sgian-dhu, the dirk carried in the Highlanders' stocking. Pictures: STEVE HAYWOOD; PLACE OF PILGRIMAGE: The cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire, where Robert Burns was born in 1759
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Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Jan 24, 2003
Words:1381
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