• No True Scotsman: Searching for Robert Burns in the Middle of Florida

    Rudi Zygadlo Attempts to Address the Haggis at a Sarasota Country Club

    From the fourth floor condo on Longboat Key, the sea panorama gives the illusion that were on a cruise ship. This morning the Gulf of Mexico is a silver green, fizzing with scintillas underneath the rising sun. A pelican dive bombs into the fizz. Walking onto the balcony a white beach is revealed and with it the “snowbirds” opening parasols, cracking cans of La Croix, and settling in for another daybreak spectacle. These northern retirees are my cohabitants in this hulking white high rise.

    Back across the Atlantic, Scotland has taken a battering from Storm Jocelyn. I text my neighbor there, asking him to empty the buckets beneath our leaky skylight (again) and check for dislodged slates. There’s been a gas leak in the building. When I moved back to Glasgow during the pandemic, not least for economic reasons, it bemused my London friends, but I pledged that with the money saved, I’d spend every other winter somewhere warm; become a snowbird. January in Florida does come at a cost, though. I’ll be missing the best of all feast days, Burns Supper.

    It wasn’t until I moved abroad in my early twenties that I realized I loved haggis. Of Americas’s culinary crimes, the banning of this Scottish delicacy is her most egregious. (It has been illegal to use sheep lung here since 1971.) It’s a shame really, because, as my Bostonian partner often laments, Americans would love haggis. What’s not to love?

    A spicy, salty, moist, umami-rich, meaty stodge only improved by a whiskey-infused cream. Offal or no offal, maybe all is not lost. I scan the becapped white septuagenarians below for signs of the Scottish diaspora, for the ruddy cheeks of a boozy ploughman, and, feeling something akin to patriotism, take to the internet.

    It’s a pretty big deal so let this be an advertisement: No literary figure has a festival day celebrated so widely, by so many, as Robert Burns. An estimated 9.5 million people pay homage to the Scottish bard every January 25th, with 2,500 large-scale events recorded worldwide by the University of Glasgow in 2021. Relatively speaking, Bloomsday (June 16) and Shakespeare Day (April 23) are minnows. 

    From South Korea to Peru to Tanzania, participants address the haggis, toast the lassies and the laddies, grapple with Tam o’ Shanter and bellow Auld Lang Syne with malt-fumed abandon. Admittedly I’ve never actually gone to an official shindig in the UK and I’m not exactly sure who does go—perhaps the Masons?—but I’ll always eat haggis, read a poem, and drink whisky on the night. The wonderfully ironic possibility of attending my first Burns Supper event in the Sunshine State is too good to resist.

    It doesn’t take long to find one, a supper hosted by the St. Andrew Society of Sarasota, at the most Floridian of venues imaginable: The Palm Aire Country Club. Perfect. I write them an email, outlining my Scottish credentials—I grew up five miles from Burns’ home, Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries. I omit the fact that I have no Scottish ancestry and hope they’re not confused by my Slavic surname. 

    A number of members have died since last year. Ron the Chaplain will not be addressing the Haggis because of knee surgery.

    Hours later I receive a response (in comic sans) extending a warm welcome from the Society and containing a reservation and menu options for myself and my plus-one. The email boasts that following a trifle, the poet’s 4th Great-Grand-Nephew will provide an “Immortal Memory” with a toast “to Rabbie.” Sarasota, I will learn—which explains why it has a St. Andrew’s Society—was settled by Scots in the 1880s when the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company of Edinburgh bought 60,000 acres of land and advertised it to emigrants as a fertile, sunny paradise.

    The 25th arrives, I pop on a suit, and we leave for Sarasota, which like all the local trips we’ve made, involves traversing a succession of golf courses. Traffic is bad and we are running late. My partner spots a bald eagle, the first of our trip, perched on top of a Wendy’s. Traffic standstill fuels my nervous anticipation. I entertain absurd fantasies of being greeted as a guest of honor, being piped in as the real McCoy from Dumfries, neighbor of Burns! Or, on the other hand, being ratted out as an Englishman (mom’s side) and a lefty. They’ll apprehend me at the door.

    Not so fast, Zygadlo. We know who your working for.
    But Burns was a radical, I retort.
    Scram Sassenach!

    The Palm Aire is, it turns out, a golf clubhouse and when we arrive (almost an hour late) there is a bagpiper piping outside, with all the paraphernalia: kilt, sporran, socks, aslant balmoral hat. The reception desk is flanked by life-sized cutouts of a vaguely 18th-century looking man and woman. I suspect the hunk is a still from the TV series Outlander but I reserve judgement. 

    Name-tagged and table-numbered, we are ushered into the dining hall, where, with an average age of 75, it seems every man is fully kilted, and every lady is wearing a tartan sash. My partner is the only person of color in the room. We skulk at the edges for a bit, trade our drink tickets for Macallans, and locate our table, which does in fact feature a man in a reassuringly nondescript suit. Maybe this is the lowest tier table, for persons of least importance, the genealogically dubious. The host takes to the mic. 

    We pledge allegiance to the flag and then there are some formalities. A number of members have died since last year. Ron the Chaplain will not be addressing the Haggis because of knee surgery. Society presidents and Clan Commanders are individually welcomed, guests of honor. We clap and my neck grows hot and prickly with imposter syndrome. The nomenclature is immediately going over my head. 

    On the way in, a map of Scotland showed the territories of clans. Gordon, Douglas, Fleming, Hamilton… The region my parents live is marked Grierson. Of course my name tag says Zygadlo so when, to break the ice, a lady across from me asks what clan I am, I find myself replying that my mother’s maiden name is Grierson. A ludicrous panic lie, but it doesn’t elicit further inquiry. “I was born five miles from Ellisland farm,” I say, attempting to steady the ship and establish my close connection to the bard. Nothing. “Have you ever been to Scotland?” I try. “We went on a cruise in 2021,” she says. “They didn’t let us off in Edinburgh because of the festival.” 

    There are more Scots in America alone than in Scotland. The diaspora is by definition Scottish, whilst not everyone living in Scotland would self identify as such.

    My partner has started talking to the kid on her left, the only kid in the room, about alligators and Universal Studios. I don’t know what to do. If I don’t get the chat ball rolling soon, the door might close. “Hi Dick,” I say, extending a hand to the guy in the suit next to me. He’s from Texas and worked in petrochemicals before retiring here in his early seventies. I think I have the measure of the man, but, after I tell him I’m a musician, he’s suddenly asking if I’ve read David Byrne’s book. I’m totally blindsided. The Rest is Noise? I ask. “No, that’s Alex Ross,” he says. 

    Christ, how embarrassing, he’s trumped me on mid naughties coffee table books; I’m prejudiced and I’ve been schooled. Now he’s talking about AI and how the internet used to be good for discovering things but now it’s become algorithmic and close-looped. We discuss John Adams operas until it is time to Parade the Haggis. 

    Nothing silences a room like bagpipe drone. A squad of kilts led by a Sgt-at-Arms enters, followed by the piper. An old fellow with a John Bolton mustache is wielding an enormous two-handed sword which I worry is going to topple him. The haggis, or whatever legal substitution it is, is placed on a pedestal. The address begins. 

    Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
    Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
    Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
    Painch, tripe, or thairm:

    The speaker acquits himself fairly well with the pronunciation but blanks on a few lines, blood rushing to his face. When the cue to cut the puddin’ comes…

    His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
    An cut you up wi ready slicht—

    I half expect Bolton to attack the thing with his claymore but instead the addresser produces a little knife and frantically stabs at it. 

    Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
    Like onie ditch;
    And then, O what a glorious sight,
    Warm-reekin, rich! 

    Our glasses are “charged” with whisky and the haggis is served. It was made, we are told, by a man improbably named Butcher. Nominative determinacy may be, but it is the driest, most tasteless haggis I’ve ever had. Clearly lacking in contraband offal.

    The “Immortal Memory,” a speech to celebrate the legacy of Burns that dates back to the very first supper, in 1801, is indeed delivered by the promised great-grand-nephew, one of some 900 living descendants. For twenty mins he gives a potted history of Burns’ life—economic tribulations, brief literary stardom,  social rebelliousness, love of local dialect as much as local women—and I’m surprised to find I’m familiar with the plot points. I must have absorbed them by osmosis. He finishes the story right at the point where Burns moves to Dumfries and becomes an exciseman, an official responsible for collecting tax and policing smuggling, which was at its historic peak in the late 18th century in Britain.

    Burns is seemingly full of contradictions. One the one hand, a great egalitarian and leveller, punching up at the aristocracy and the clergy—You see that fellow called ‘a lord’, Who struts, and stares, and all that? Though hundreds worship at his word, He is but a dolt for all that—but on the other, working for the Crown as an exciseman. He was poised to leave for Jamaica to run a plantation when the first edition of Poems chiefly in The Scottish Dialect was published, and yet one of his great admirers, Frederick Douglass, described him as “far more faultless than many who have come down to us in the pages of history as saints.”

    Perhaps his radicalism was only page-deep, but it is clear career options and chances of mobility were almost nil for a working class farmer with ever-increasing dependents (he fathered 12 children). I wonder how deep my radicalism runs, sunning it up in Florida at the in-laws empty condo for the winter. 

    Am I the Scot? I was born there, I have the accent… but a Polish name and English blood.

    My partner and I slink to the whisky table after a rendition of “Flower of Scotland.” While the man pours, I trot out my connection to Ellisland farm again. Not a flicker. “Where Tam O shanter was written,” I add. “Is that a fact,” he replies rhetorically, sliding forth two tumblers of the amber bead.

    As another fellow takes to the lectern, invoking the eternal spirit of the Scots, my interloper syndrome flares up. I think of friends from home, more qualified to be in this room, who look the part in their family tartan and coat of arms. Am I the Scot? I was born there, I have the accent… but a Polish name and English blood. 

    Or is it the clan commander in full regalia, with a southern drawl, who passed Scotland once in a cruise ship; is he the Scot? Does it matter? Who cares? Am I being flippant? Is flippancy Scottish? Notions of a Scottish identity certainly seem more important for the diaspora. Their number dwarves the Scottish population around 10 to 1. There are more Scots in America alone than in Scotland. The diaspora is by definition Scottish, whilst not everyone living in Scotland would self identify as such. I find myself caring less and less about this question—a mans a man for a’ that—but all the same my intruder paranoia is real. 

    Of course, everyone is very gracious and kind and my fears of being exposed are obviously melodramatic and unfounded. I recognize this sensation, one which results from having a love of adventure coupled with crippling self-doubt. One minute running into the ocean, the unknown, the next freaking out about rip tides. 

    Finally, “Auld Lang Syne.” I follow the room and do not offer Dick my hand at the cue And theres a hand, my trusty feire, And gies a hand othine, but for the last chorus the guitarist-singer lifts the energy, going a cappella and stamping the floor—almost rousing—before we disperse. 

    We bid Dick and co farewell and on the way out, my partner and I introduce ourselves to one of the organizers, a lady whose many titles include president of the World Federation of Burns. “I grew up near Ellisland farm,” I say weakly. My partner winces. “Aye,” the president nods. “You mentioned in your email.” She was born in Glasgow and moved to Liberia in the late 70s; at the age of 21 she hosted her first Burns Supper at the British consul in Monrovia. They flew in a piper for the occasion, an extravagance I suspect few British consuls could afford now. 

    The conversation moves to Monrovia generally as my partner has spent some time there, and it’s nice to be thinking about something other than Burns or Scotland. The president is delighted that we managed to make it despite the traffic, extends an invitation to Highland games this weekend in Tampa, but failing that, she hopes to see us next year. 

    An enjoyable Burns Supper, though I feel a little short changed on the supper aspect, and the poetry for that matter. I don’t want to wait a year to remedy the former. Forty-eight hours later we are back in Glasgow, shivering to death. The gas leak means we have no heating and the skylight needs immediate repair lest the whole thing gives way completely. It’s baltic. With no means of cooking we order in a belated, culturally appropriated local speciality of haggis pakoras. Let the Lord be Thankit! Delhi, next year?

    Rudi Zygadlo
    Rudi Zygadlo
    Rudi Zygadlo is a writer and musician based in Glasgow. By day, he writes about culture and scores podcasts for The Guardian. By night, he releases music under various guises, including Lully. Rudi has been learning to drive for 17 years and loves table tennis. Instagram: @rudizyga; Twitter: @rudizygadlo

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