An auld tale of Scotland on Robert Burns Night
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne! – Robert Burns (1759-1796)
A box in the basement. A brittle album, faded images tucked behind cellophane, a flood of feeling. As my husband hustled up some tea, I remembered my own auld lang syne and a very personal connection to the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
The photos were of my first-ever solo trip abroad, a trip to Scotland that, like a scene from Masterpiece Theatre, began on a train speeding north from London.
The journey really began a year earlier, in a Winnipeg high school library. Hiding out there one day to avoid some social drama, I got bored and actually picked up a book. The cover had caught my eye: a grainy black-and-white photo of the Loch Ness monster–or was it? Scotland looked a mysterious, enchanted place. Already a huge Bay City Rollers fan, it didn’t take much to push me over the edge. I left the library with a new obsession: to get to Scotland and see Loch Ness for myself.
Cut past prom and a winter waitressing to the following April, when I could get the cheapest stand-by air ticket possible. Cut to a Freedom of Scotland Second Class Rover pass and the train speeding north. On board: wide-eyed eighteen-year-old me, with no credit card, no cellphone, no computer, no reservations.
I arrived in Inverness, Scottish Highlands, at 10 p.m. in pouring rain. When my turn at the taxi queue came, I tossed in my vinyl suitcase and asked the driver to take me to a hotel. As we sped off into the night, I noticed–too late–there was no meter. I was in an unmarked gypsy cab headed away from city lights. The driver looked Norman Bates-ish, with strange distorting lenses tinted a therapeutic purple. Too tired to worry, I worked on deciphering his cheerful but almost unintelligible brogue. We pulled in at a secluded hostelry and ran under dripping trees to rattle its locked door. This had to be the coolest place to hang out on Saturday night. Though light seeped from around the window shades, the building reverberated with music and wild party sounds that drowned our pounding.
Back down the mountain we beetled, to a gothic-looking B&B beside a real-live castle. Mrs. Catherine Ross of Ramasaig House, 16 Ness Bank (her card still in my little blue album) was awake, welcomed me warmly and gave me a room in the attic.
Next morning, stuffing on a big Scottish breakfast, I learned the bus to Loch Ness didn’t run on Sundays. I set out to hike the eight miles, in suede wedge heels. Eight miles in the Highlands is not the same as eight miles on the Canadian prairies, I found. Before I’d made a mile, a lovely older couple stopped and offered me a lift, promising to pick me up on their way back past Loch Ness.
Loch Ness! Mist over water dark with peat, like black glass. A surface for scrying. Easy to imagine something lurking. I clambered down to the shore and perched on a rock. In the mist and loneliness something seemed to appear first at the corner of one eye, then the other. Soon my heart was pounding. My bladder was also bursting, my throat parched. I’d neglected to pack water or anything else remotely useful in my purse. I glanced up at the road just in time to see my ‘ride’ peering over the bank a distance away, then zooming off in their car. I flailed frantically, then tripped over a severed cow’s head. I’d have to hike back.
No shops, no water, no washroom. Each time I eyed a potentially useful bush and stepped off the road, I was met by farm dogs who sped down the hills, barking raveningly. I trudged in my wedge heels, almost crying with joy when I rounded a bend and saw a gas station. Hours later, Inverness appeared in the gloaming. I dumped the destroyed shoes in a ditch and covered the rest of the distance to Ramasaig House in my bare feet.
Mrs. Ross ushered me into the parlour where members of the Scottish Ballet were gracefully lolling fireside, telling ghost stories in the flickering light. Mrs. Ross served tea and told the most bloodcurdling tales of all. Back in my attic room after midnight, I distracted myself with an Anne Rice vampire novel and nervously contemplated an ancient, looming wardrobe. The wardrobe’s burnished doors looked exactly like two coffins standing side by side, on end. At about 3 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore, crept out of bed and tore open the doors. My heart nearly exploded when a wire hanger caught on the knob sprang into my face with a loud whang.
The next few days I roamed wherever the next train took me. Cards tucked in the album remind me of other formidable Scotswomen–Mrs. Laggan of Alma Road, Fort William, and Mrs. Low of Monkton Road, Prestwick–who offered both ‘a cup o’ kindness’ and welcome advice at their immaculate B&Bs. In Edinburgh I photographed a school for the deaf, thinking it was the castle. In Glasgow, inspired by Glaswegian street style, I spent my last funds in cool shops and had to fly home a week early.
So what does all this have to do with Robert Burns, Scotland’s great romantic poet and cultural icon? A press release landing in my inbox last week reminded me of a very personal connection. Lesley is a Scottish name (no, my parents aren’t Scottish) meaning ‘from the grey fort’. Doing the dishes one winter night, the radio playing on the kitchen counter, I joked with my mother that there were dozens of songs for Mary, Alice, Sherry, Sweet Caroline, even Walk Away Renee, but not a single one about a Lesley. A few days later, she gleefully handed me a clipping from the Winnipeg Free Press. In honor of Robert Burns Night, they had published part of Burns’ poem Saw Ye Bonnie Lesley (1792):
O saw ye bonnie Lesley,
As she gaed o’er the Border?
She’s gane, like Alexander,
To spread her conquests farther.
To see her is to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is,
And never made anither!
It’s time I gaed o’er the Border again.
The life and poetry of ‘ploughman poet’ Robert Burns (1759-1796) is celebrated in Scotland and around the world each year on January 25. Celebrations at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, Ayr, include a Haggis Hurling Competition.
Scotland.org has loads of information on Robert Burns, tips on how to celebrate Burns Night, even a free Robbie Burns app for iPhone and Android.
Here’s a shortlist of what you’ll need:
- Robert Burns poems to read and recite. Start right now with Scotland.org’s interactive Recite-a-Burns: use your webcam to record your version of “A Red, Red Rose” and share on worldwide video gallery.
- Scotch whisky. Scotland produces 2,500 varieties of whisky so pairing combinations are endless. It’s up to you to decide what goes best with haggis.
- Haggis (get from Scottish butcher or source a vegetarian version), neeps and tatties are essential. Cock-a-leekie soup and bramble pie are nice add-ons.
- Kilt up! A bit of tartan or a full Bonnie Prince Charlie, it’s up to you. With casual and fashion kilts showing up in recent fashion weeks, why not wear a kilt year ’round?