Music to make Burns Night go with a swing
Burns night in England is about eating, drinking, the poetry of Robert Burns himself and Ceilidhing going late into the night. But this was not necessarily the format in Scotland, or at least it wasn't 30 years ago when I lived there, though I think it may has changed now. I live near to the golf club in a little town up on the hills between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I was known as a fiddle player, but I remember a Scottish friend of mine saying that they would never dream of having a ceilidh at a Burns night, Burns night was about his poetry and drinking, not about his music.
Fortunately for us musicians this is not the case in England or Wales, nor in many parts of modern day Scotland. The ceilidh, the ceilidh band with its caller, and the dancers are an essential part of every Burns night now. But Burns Nights vary tremendously in character dependent on who is putting them on, and the establishment that it is held in.
Burns nights get held in Village halls, golf clubs, military messes, just about any establishment that has enough space and good food and drink. Golf clubs tend to have good Burns night, as golfers always seem to be searching for excuses to have a good meal, a good drink and a party.
Villages and communities often organise a Burns night in the local Village Hall. Hotels will also arrange events, providing accommodation to everyone can have a good drink and dance into the night without worrying about breathalyzers.
In England, these tend to be quite general events, where the band will not be a specialist, but will have plenty of Scottish repertoire and play the more straightforward Scottish music, the caller will teach the well-known and simpler dances such as Gay Gordons, strip the Willow, dashing white sergeant. There will be typically a few people in kilts, but the occasions tend to be quite informal and relaxed affairs.
Much more formal are the Military Burns nights, held in an Officers Mess. Guests will be in formal dress, the fine athletic figures of the soldiers complementing the kilts and sporrans, and the ladies in formal dress and tartan sash. These can be absolutely splendid affairs, where the band will normally play much more complicated music such as strathspeys, but the dances will normally still be relatively simple, unless the regiment has Scottish connections where the dancing can become quite technical.
The ultimate from the musical and dance point of view is when a Burns night is for a Scottish Dance Society or a group of expatriates Scotts. Here the band have got to play precisely in style and the caller needs to know dances such as the reel of the 51st and the eightsome reel just as starters. Here are some specialist Scottish bands.
There's also difference between East Coast and west Coast Scottish events. East Coast tends to be very precise dancing and music that is expected. Sometimes it can be difficult, because guests will each have their own very strong idea of has the dance should be done and how the music should be played. In reality there are many styles of playing and versions of the dances that are quite acceptable, and it may be a matter of where the person learnt the dance, what part of Scotland they came from, but the discussions and disagreements can sometimes get quite heated. I recall many years ago playing for a Burns night at a government research establishment. There were three dance teams who gave demonstration dances that we played for. This was not the general sort of dancing that anybody can do with a caller, they were dances that needed years of practice and learning. Magnificent stuff.
When it came to the general dancing, although most of the guests were in Scottish regalia, very few of them knew the strathspeys and other complex dances the dance teams had demonstrated. The caller suggested that we reverted to much simpler dancers, and even to the kind of dances that are shared between the Scots and the northern English. Here is a band who play a mixture of Scottish and other nationality music, but can put on a very Scottish event if you wish, and here is a band who play just Scottish music, if you are wanted a dedicated Scottish band. Two of the dance dreams took umbrage at this, said it wasn't right on a Burns night, and got into their coaches and left. Needless to say the 300 remaining guests had a wonderful time and that's really what a Burns night is all about.
West Coast Scottish Burns nights tend to be much more relaxed affairs. Glasgow for example has a very strong Irish influence, and less of the militaristic and rigorously correct east Coast Scottish temperament. Enjoyment tends to be foremost, the Music Has to Be Wild and exciting, and the food and drink must be superb. If that is the case, everyone is Happy.
Talking of food on Burns night, and this is something that is dear to the heart of most musicians and bands, is the food at military events of any kind. There is a strong tradition of curries in the army, and some of the best curries I've ever tasted have been at military events, but on Burns night it's the haggis, neeps and tatties that prevail. Properly cooked haggis can be magnificent. The trick is not to let any water into the haggis during the cooking process, so that it is dry and spicy. A good drop of whisky is also an essential part of the night!
Although for many Burns nights the band stops playing at midnight ,some events don't start until after midnight and continue until 3 or 4 am. Great at the time, but it takes days to get over after the event!