BEIRUT: Equipped with kilts and bagpipes, Beirut’s Scots turned out in high spirits to celebrate the 257th birthday of famed Scottish Poet Robert Burns Saturday night at the Phoenicia Hotel. Around 150 curious non-Scots joined the tartan-clad Caledonians to experience the revival of the Burns Night traditions and celebrations of Scottish culture in the Lebanese capital. “We want to resurrect the Lebanese-Caledonian Society, which goes back to the 1960s but stopped its activities due to the Civil War,” James Greene, Chieftain of the Caledonian Society in Lebanon, told The Daily Star. To illustrate his point, Greene pointed to a woman a couple tables away. “We were dancing at the 1968 Burns Night in Beirut.”
The woman in question, Patricia, is an American living in Lebanon. She confirmed Greene’s memory with a big smile, “The Scots’ celebrations today, like back then, are known for good fun and good dancing, even when you are not Scottish,” she said.
The dinner began with the clinking glasses of Bobby Burns cocktail (a whiskey-based drink named after the poet) and by a recital of Selkirk Grace, a premeal prayer attributed to Burns written in old Lallans, a dialect of low-land Scots.
Following the dinner and inaugurating poem was a generous tasting of eight fine Scottish single malts before the evening highlight. Halfway through the whiskey sampling, the Phoenicia’s Executive Chef Thomas Figovc entered the room and shouted “Haggis,” proudly carrying the Scottish national dish. The traditional fare of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with diced sheep’s liver, lungs, heart, oatmeal and onions is central to the celebration of Robert Burns. The room reacted with excitement, despite the delicacy being an acquired taste.
Haggis is central to Scottish culture and a key element in any Burns Night, so much so that the poet himself wrote an address to the haggis, which is said each year at his birthday. “I believe that Robert Burns must have observed how much time and dedication preparing the haggis takes and then decided to honor it with his words,” said Figovc, who cooked at least 5 test-runs in order to make the perfect dish.
Before everyone got to try the haggis, Burns’ traditional address to the meal was skillfully recited from memory, as tradition demands, by Sebastian Kracun, Greene’s co-resurrector of the Caledonian Society in Lebanon. After Burn’s poem, Kracun dug his bare hands into the dish in front of the cheering crowd, who then toasted the haggis.
With glasses filled with the last of the eight whiskeys raised, Sebastian called the throng to the dance floor. Here he took on the task of directing the enthusiastic crowd, which now filled the dance floor, to the cheery tunes of traditional Scottish ceilidh music until the early morning hours.
Revelry and reciting Burns was not the sole aim of the evening, the funds generated from the event are given to charity, Sebastian explained. For the last two years, the Solace Foundation was selected to receive the donation. “The money will be used to sponsor a project by Lebanese for Refugees to provide fuel to refugee families in the Bekaa Valley during the cold winter months,” Mona Ayoub from the Solace Foundation said.