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A Toast to Scotland's Enduring Rapscallion

Poet Robert Burns' birthday provides an opportunity to laud haggis, anesthetic and all other things Scottish.

January 30, 2002|SUSAN MORGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Robert Burns was sort of the Kurt Cobain of 18th century Scotland," said historian Arthur Herman. The author of the recent "How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything In It" spoke for a few minutes from his home in Washington, D.C., about Scotland's national poet on the eve of Burns Night, the annual celebration commemorating Burns' birth in 1759.

In Los Angeles, as it was throughout the world, Burns' birthday was celebrated over the weekend with the piping of the haggis, a parade of bagpipe players leading in bearers of the Scottish sausage. At the downtown Omni Hotel, Nicholson Pipes and Drums, a local bagpipe band, was fitted out top to toe in full Highland regalia, providing a rousing welcome to the 180 guests at the United Scottish Society's 30th annual Burns Night.

The eternal spirit of "Robbie" Burns continues to exhilarate the atmosphere of Burns nights everywhere. "Burns was a radical, a religious skeptic and a supporter of the French Revolution," Herman said of the writer best known in America for providing the lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne" to a traditional Scottish tune. The poet's "irregular lifestyle," Herman said, most likely contributed to Burns' early death at 37; he was a heavy drinker, an itinerant writer and womanizer (known for his "amatory fecklessness"), who enjoyed both great talent and cult status.

At the Omni, raucous conversation soared over the strains of a musical medley that segued spiritedly from "Scotland the Brave" to "Swannee."

"I always told my children that the Scottish invented the modern world," said Tom Reoch, responding to a question about the premise of Herman's book. "The roads we drive on are MacAdam; the tires of our cars were created by Dunlop. And when you have an accident, your life is going to be saved by Joseph Lister, who invented antiseptic [in Scotland], and James Simpson, who invented anesthetics."

For Scots-born Janet Ewing, who immigrated to Santa Monica in the 1970s and worked in the Bobby Burns chain of restaurants, being Scottish has always meant being knowledgeable. "When I was a wee girl," she remembered, "my father used to say, 'Oh, you've been here before!' He meant that we were born just knowing everything."

The band rounded its way through Scottish favorites and American military anthems. Jennifer Bedard, the group's tenor drummer, flourished her drumsticks into extraordinary airborne pirouettes, keeping time with diligent grace. "I'm half French and half Polish," she said later when asked her name. "No one in the band is Scottish," said Robert Hackney, the group's pipe major. "I'm from South Scotland--England."

Central to any traditional Burns supper is the ceremonial parade of kilted gentlemen and single piper, presenting Scotland's national dish. A Celtic cousin of the Cajun boudin, the haggis is a mighty sausage made of sheep innards, onions and great dashes of pepper. At the Omni, the haggis was prepared by the resident chef, Scottish-born Peter Dean. On Burns night, the poet's ode to the haggis, "chieftain of the pudding race," is recited and followed with a round of whisky toasts.

"This is the best haggis we've had at any of the dinners," declared Ben Ramage, who emigrated in 1968 from Leith, the port city of Edinburgh. "In California, they're always trying to dress up the haggis with palm trees and tropical fruit," he complained, admiring the resolute plainness of the dish.

Ramage, who is about to retire from the aerospace industry, seems an ideal person to comment on author Herman's portrait of Scottish inventiveness. "I knew that we invented the modern world. I've been trying to tell people that for years."

He's even clipped a review of the book from the London Times. "It appeared on a 'must read' list, so I passed it on to my daughter to post on the bulletin board of her school, St. Margaret's in San Juan Capistrano. Their team is the Tartans."

On an evening afloat with high-spirited entertainment ranging from performances of sword dancing to roast-style toast-making, an interlude of Burns airs sung by bass-baritone Harry Kawai brought an Edwardian drawing room atmosphere to the hotel banquet hall.

"The first time I went to Edinburgh, I looked up at the castle and felt, 'I have been here before,'" recalled Kawai, a native of Hawaii. Drawn to all things Scottish, Kawai returned to California, joined the United Scottish Society and began to transpose Burns' melodies--usually performed by a tenor--into his own range. "Otherwise, I'd have to stand on a chair to reach those notes," he joked, relishing his Caledonian repertoire and an expanded wardrobe that now includes 10 kilts. "I have [Scottish kilt maker] Hector Russell on my speed dial."

Scotland and the United States seem to be inextricably, albeit quietly, linked. During the five years Herman was researching his book, he traveled often to Scotland. "One morning at an Edinburgh bed-and-breakfast, the host said, 'You're American, aren't you?' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Did you know that there would never have been an American Revolution without the Scottish?'" Herman, of all people, did know this.

In his book, he points out that it was the Scots-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson who first pronounced the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," the idea Thomas Jefferson developed in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right--"the pursuit of happiness."

"I think there's an almost perverse national pride [among the Scots] in keeping things under wraps," observed Herman, the American academic born in Wisconsin, who has no claim to Scottish heritage. "It's the 'gotcha card': The Scots like to surprise you. And they always do."

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