I’ve had plenty of haggis suppers but never a Burns Supper, until this year. I mean, I have a good idea what goes on. There’s haggis, obviously, and whisky, loads of it. I expect there to be bagpipes and plenty of kilts. And I know there will be poetry. Poetry by Robert Burns. And songs by Robert Burns. I know about the songs because in Primary 3 one day, we were all marched into our classroom, walking under the “Fear God” sign that was painted above the door in gold letters. Possibly because that was the room in which our silver-haired spinster teacher, Miss Campbell, put the fear of God into us with her posh Morningside tongue and her leather belt, which had three tongues.
That morning we were told that the whole class had to take part in a “Burns Competition”. We were to sing a song called A Man’s A Man For A’ That, the gist of which was that we were all the same as one another and how much money you had didn’t matter two hoots, it didn’t make you better than anyone else (pay attention at the back, Donald Trump).
Miss Campbell told us a bit about Burns, making sure she left out all the interesting (naughty) bits. Then the whole class was made to sing, like an audition for the X Factor. Some people only got one line sung when she would bark “Enough . . . next!”
When it came to my turn, I got to sing the whole song, beginning to end. Everybody was looking at me. Apparently I had quite a nice voice because once the whole class had had their shot, Miss Campbell called me out. This time it wasn’t to get the belt. Instead she told me I was the winner and gave me a Burns certificate. It was the first thing I’d ever won in my short life so I’ve always had a wee soft spot for Rabbie.
So in ten days’ time, I’ll be attending my first ever Burns Supper at The Docker’s Club in Leith. The invitation came with a request: would I do the Toast to the Lassies? I said yes before I even knew what that was. It sounded great – drink and women. But now I know what it is, I’m a wee bit scared.
You see, what you have to do is praise women but at the same time take the pee out of them – and all the while, as you’re walking that wobbly tightrope, you need to weave in a few celebratory words about Rabbie Burns. The danger there is that Rabbie was a bit free and easy with the ladies. As far as we can tell, he looked like a cross between George Best and Elvis and for a humble ploughboy, he wore tight, expensive breeches. He wrote his first love poem aged 14 and that was just the start. He didn’t just like women. He LOVED them. The girls fell in front of him like skittles. Mainly on their backs. He fathered 13 bairns by five different women. Maybe not the best role model to praise in the presence of a dozen or so feisty Scots women.
Still, how hard can it be to take the pee out of women? Why do they go to the loo in pairs? How come an hour isn’t enough for them to get ready? When they’re clearly furious and you ask them what’s wrong, how come they spit out the word “nothing”? Yes, winding them up would be a doddle except for one thing: somebody has to give a Reply to my Toast To The Lassies. And this time, that somebody is my wife.
Maybe these little Leithers will never litter
Last year, Zsuzsa and I took the Leithers Don’t Litter Roadshow to Leith Academy and did a two-month project with the teenagers. This week, we spent the afternoon with 240 children from Leith Primary School. There wasn’t room in the hall for them all so we did our presentation three times, first with the tiny tots in P1 and P2, then the P3s and P4s and finally the “biggies”, P5-P7.
I’d forgotten how cute the tinies are. They barely come up to your kneecaps! We had our green-and-white Leithers Don’t Litter T-shirts on and as the kids came in I heard two wee boys saying “Look, Hibbies!”. For children just out of nursery school, the very youngest were the best behaved. They were bursting to talk every time we asked them a question but they still managed to put their hands up without shouting out.
I’ve been told by teachers that the secret of getting kids to be quiet in a classroom is to drop your voice almost to a whisper and if that still doesn’t work, just stop talking altogether until they settle. But at Leith Primary, they have a different routine that works a treat. When the noise level gets beyond acceptable, the teacher does a clapping sequence that comes from the football terracings – clap clap clap-clap clap. Immediately, the whole class does the same thing back. That’s them acknowledging that they need to shoosh. And shoosh they do.
The mums, dads, teachers and headteacher can be really proud of these children. They were polite, well turned-out, funny, bright and curious. They struggled to put into words exactly what the word “environment” meant but then so would plenty of adults (they kind of knew, though). I really believe we have a chance of breaking our bad litter habits when I see kids like this.
The bit of our presentation that got to them most was where we showed the terrible things litter does to animals and birds. There were loud gasps and “aws” of sympathy when they saw a hedgehog with its head stuck in a discarded tin of peaches. They learned how plastic litter from all over the world finds its way to Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean, where adult albatrosses mistake our disposable lighters and Irn-Bru bottle tops for food and feed them to their chicks – who then die a slow, agonising death. We posted pictures of our presentation up on Facebook and right away we’ve had invitations to talk at two more Leith primaries. We’re delighted to do that. Maybe if we get them young enough, Leithers Won’t Litter.
My pal Jimmy’s over and trout
Unless you’re a fisher or married to one, you probably never had any reason to go into Crafteye at the Ferry Road end of Inverleith Row.
Crafteye was the best fishing tackle shop in Edinburgh for one reason: the man who ran it, ex-bobby Jimmy McBride.
It was Jimmy who taught me how to tie my first trout fly, right there in his shop. If you hung around long enough, you’d get a cup of tea too. Sometimes a biscuit.
Jimmy was a Scottish International flyfishing champion. What he didn’t know about catching trout wasn’t worth knowing. But he’s finally shutting up shop. I’d like to thank him here for his kindness, his advice and his friendship. We’ll miss you, Jimmy.