Strip the Willow

The bagpipes scream into action and the hips in the room swing in time to its melancholy tune. A few paces behind, comes the Haggis, held high on a plate like the crown jewels. This joyous twosome parade together around the room before coming down to rest ceremoniously on the table.  A sharp serrated knife is held , hovering and quivering   above this edible ball of delight. Someone recites the  famous poem by Robbie Burns “ Address to a Haggis” ending with last line

” But if ye wish her grateful prayer – Gie her a Haggis”

Then, dramatically, the blade is plunged into the Haggis’ heart, tearing open the sheep’s stomach it is wrapped in, and the most delicious odour fills the room.

 “O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich! “

Everyone gathers around, holding out their plates hungrily for a generous helping, and then they line up for a dollop of mashed tatties and a big spoonful of orange coloured neeps. ( turnips) The result is artistic and fragrant, and  with forks  in hand   we all drool in anticipation of that first succulent mouthful. But wait – there is another tradition to follow before we can all tuck in! Someone has to say the Selkirk Grace.        

 “Some hae meat, And canny eat, And some hae nane, that want it, But we hae meat, And we can eat, And so we all be thankit.”

The date is January 25th and it is a night not to be forgotten if you are connected in any way to the beautiful land of Scotland. It is Burns Night.  The birthday of Scotland’s much-loved poet Robbie Burns who wrote prolifically during his short life that lasted from 1759 to 1796.

He was popular because he was a farmer and a local lad. Not a fancy highly educated wordsmith like most of the poets of the day. He hadn’t had much schooling and wrote from the heart about the simple things in life, like discovering  a mouse hiding in a field after its nest had been churned up by the plough.

Wee sleekit cowran timourous beastie, what a panic’s in thy breastie.” 

Or finding his way home after having had a bit too much to drink in the pub on a Saturday night. And of course, he wrote prolifically about his various relationships and heartpulls.

 “And I will love thee still my dear, till all the seas gang dry”.

 He was also very critical of the social inequalities that he saw around him and wrote powerfully about how we are all of equal value, regardless of rank, race, or social status, which was indeed radical thinking back in the day. Someone to remember and celebrate even after all these years!

And celebrate we do. In early primary school we learned to sing his songs and to dance the dances, setting the way for a lifetime of wild and wonderful Burns night celebrations.  Indeed, after the poems have been read, and the laddies and the lassies and everybody else have been toasted many times over,   and the traditional meal has been gobbled down, and washed away with a glass or two of good single malt, the real Ceilidh kicks into action. I am talking about energetic  and vivid dances,  with names like –the Dashing White Sargent, the Eight some Reel, the Highland Scotteesh  and  the Gay Gordons, to name but a few. But my very favourite, the dance that takes me into the territory of  high-ended blissfulness, is the one  called Strip the Willow.

I have Stripped the Willow many times and in many places. In these pandemic times, we tried once to do a socially distanced version, outside, using broomsticks to extend our arms, and thus maintain the desired six feet apart while we danced. I think it would be safe to say, that it was a hilarious and chaotic experience.  But, from the dance’s point of view, it was a total and absolute disaster. More successful was a slightly modified version of the dance that we did at a pre Covid gathering in my own living room on Jan 25th last year. And not too long before that, in the village hall at Rupert, the Ewan McIntyre Band  got us up on the floor to do a bit of  a moving and a shaking, and a striping of the willowing.

However, some of the most memorable times were when I was living on the Scottish island of Iona many years ago, where they had weekly dances every Friday night in the village hall, that would start after the pub had shut, and go on until  the morning  light was beginning to smoulder in the eastern part of the sky.

village hall on Iona

Let me warn you that there was nothing delicate or dainty about these dances. They were not for the faint hearted, nor for the one who was shod, say in high heels or fragile sandals. But, make no mistake, if you value your toes, this was definitely not an undertaking that should be done in your bare feet either.

“Take your partners for Strip the Willow “a voice would shout at some point in the evening, and as I heard those familiar words, a thrill would travel down my spine. This was always the highlight I had been waiting for.  

The fiddle music gets livelier. It is quick and full of energy and it provokes a flurry of anticipation as everyone gathers in the centre of the village hall, in groups of eight. The music calls out to us louder and louder and suddenly we spring into action and the dance begins. Bodies start to spin and twirl around the room, as we all move in time to the beat, dancing the familiar steps and following the age-old complex sequences. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. My delight heightens. The music gets faster and more urgent and we all become so dizzy we can scarcely stand up.  Then, just when it seems that the twirling is over, it all begins again. And again. And again. Until, exuberant and exhausted the dance winds to a close, and we stand still, gasping for breath. I would say that each time I have danced this dance, I have probably burned up at least 30,000 calories and expended as much energy as I would if I had run a marathon. Several times over.

 On such a night, there was always the risk of injury, not to mention the bruises I used to admire proudly on my arms each Saturday morning when I woke up after a wild night of Scottish reels. Once, in the process of twirling, my face met someone’s elbow and I got a black eye that made heads turn to look in my direction for a week or two. Another time, my dance partner didn’t quite make contact with the person standing opposite him, and so he continued to spin, uncontrollably, until he hit the wall and dislocated his shoulder. Ouch! But believe me, the gain was, usually, well worth the pain. One infamous Friday night on Iona,  a few years later, I was dancing  Strip the Willow with my very best friend (whose family still live on the island, ) and without warning, just as  our arms were stretched out and we were leaning back and  swirling  in full circular flight , all the buttons of her new red checkered shirt just  popped off and  she exposed her beautiful bra clad chest to the entire village hall.

So this Jan 25th I may not easily be able to hit the high notes in life and dance my beloved Strip the Willow, as public gatherings are limited, and curfews will be still firmly imposed. I will try, however, to find a way to remember and to mark Robbie Burns Day as I definitely plan to indulge in the annual honouring of this well-loved Scottish figure. I am just not quite sure exactly how I will do it this year. Maybe, I will uncover my Tupperware container of frozen haggis leftovers that were stashed away last year in a dark and forgotten corner of the freezer and produce a plate of traditional Burns Night Fayre. I could also get out my Scottish music collection, dress up in my kilt, and persuade my partner to dance a little jig with me in front of the fire, loosened up perhaps, by a wee dram of rich Aberfeldy whisky. Alternatively, I may read some of Burn’s most inspiring poems out loud, as we sip our evening tea.

Or, I could just sit  peacefully and enjoy the many lovely memories of Burns Night  that dance around in my head, and know that in the coming years, I will Strip the Willow once more with the friends and loved ones that surround me.

 A Happy Robbie Burns Day to you all. 

Slangevar ! ( Gaelic word which is  used as a toast and means “ your good health “