Sunday, January 28, 2007


It was an act of sheer insanity! My last free Saturday spent cooped up in a car on an eight-hour round trip into the rural heartland of Central California. In my kilt!

I have to ask... what in God's name were we thinking about? Well, I'll tell you. We were thinking about our roots, and our culture, and a man who expressed it all better than anyone else before or since - the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns.

Yes, we travelled three hundred miles through torrential rain to attend a Burns Supper!

How crazy is that?

Well, it was the strangest experience. The only time in America that I didn't feel conspicuous in a kilt. It was magic. One hundred and eighty people with claims to Scottish origin - some with such typically Scottish names as Gutierrez and Pazeian - turned out to pay their respects to the bard, to eat haggis, and have a good time.

There were kilts of all shapes and sizes - draped on men all shapes and sizes. There was a pipe band who marched and puffed and blew, exertion turning cheeks that typically Scottish skin hue of pink-verging-on puce. There were lassies who danced the Highland Fling around crossed swords on the floor. There was the piping in of the haggis, followed by a lively rendition of Burns's ode to that "chieftan o' the puddin' race", and the stabbing of the beast to release its "reeking" vapours.

It was very emotional, almost like being at home - until it was announced to the assembled that there were three REAL Scots in the room (moi, la Patronne and le Beau Frere) who had driven all the way from up Newport Beach. And we had to stand up - to thunderous applause - our faces turning rouge. And those happy Californians knew for certain that their ancestors truly were insane.

What would be even more true to say was that we received the warmest of all possible welcomes from the absolutely delightful folk of the Scottish Society of Central California in this cowboy town called Fresno

We ate prime rib, and mashed tatties, and neeps, and, of course, haggis - the best any of us had had since leaving Scotland. We listened to speaker after speaker. And then, the highlight of the night. Ed Miller. A Scotsman from Edinburgh, now living in Austin, Texas, who accompanied himself on guitar to sing the songs of home Not just songs written by Burns, but a whole spectrum of Scottish folk songs that brought long-forgotten words back to mind, and tears to the eye. There's nothing more maudlin' than a Scot a long way from home - "I'm no' awa' tae bide awa', I'll aye come back tae see ye."

He was, too, very funny, with that characteristic self-mocking Scottish wit, and a Burnsian belief in the common man. He told the story of the ceremony where he took American citizenship. There were, he said, only a handful of Europeans. By far the majority were Mexican. However, the three people chosen to say something were all English speakers, which he felt was not a true reflection of those who were there. He chose not to speak, but to sing. "A man's a man for a' that" - one of those seminal Burns songs that made him so popular amongst 20th century socialists. And to correct the imbalance, he sang the last verse in Spanish.

The spell was broken as we left the hall and ran through a downpour to find our dripping vehicle in the parking lot. When began the long drive back through the night, clouds bursting all around us, roads turning to rivers, and visibility reduced to a few metres...

...arriving back at Newport Beach at 2am to find that not a drop of rain had fallen.

And with the moon rising in a clear and starry sky, reflected in the still expanse of the Pacific Ocean, we had to wonder if somehow we had just stumbled back out of the mists of Brigadoon.

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