IT CAME as the very best sort of surprise. An invitation from a neighbour to join her for dinner and meet some new faces.
It sounded the perfect way in which to wind down after another busy week.
What I hadn’t expected was an introduction of another kind – to one of the high points of the year for a neighbouring culture, one that has long lived on my doorstep.
Now it might seem that the familiarity of living next door, so to speak, to Scots, the Welsh and the Irish would have rubbed off.
That I might be more versed in the ways of those who have shared the British Isles for centuries.
But, hands up, I’m as ignorant of the formalities of some of the big nights in other people’s annual celebrations as I am casual about those in my own.
You won’t see me pining, for example, if I don’t go out partying until dawn on New Year’s Eve, though I still feel slightly concerned if the first person to set foot in my house at New Year is anything other than dark-haired.
First-footing is a tradition inherited from maternal grandparents who, it seemed to me, had more than their share of superstitions.
I’ve managed to ignore most of the others which ranged from not putting up umbrellas in the house – even to dry them – covering mirrors and putting away cutlery during thunderstorms and leaving doors open to let the lightening out. Obsessive, I know.
Some of my family are rooted in the mists of northern England, some in the darker days of French history and only one person, as far as I could tell, had a passing connection with Scotland.
My paternal grandmother was born in the north-east but grew up at Abbotsford where her uncle worked on the estate of Sir Walter Scott, one of the heroes of Scottish literature.
But her history has only filtered down to me through the memories of others and so you won’t be surprised to hear that the etiquette of honouring Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, was definitely beyond my ken.
Not wanting to let the side down, I paid close attention to this living history lesson. Our hostess, Fiona, had clearly done lots of culinary research and preparation and brought in reinforcements in the Scottish culture department to back up her own powerful instincts. Cue Joyce.
Together they made my first Burn’s Night celebration a memorable one.
The food was so good it would have made the hardiest of Scottish exiles weep for home and the rituals were undertaken with loving care.
Our meal began with the Selkirk Grace which even to my untutored ear made perfect sense:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit.
We saw off the cock a leekie soup in quick time before the evening’s main talking point – haggis was served with what else but ‘bashit neeps an champit tatties.’
The haggis, my first, was greeted with due ceremony. Joyce produced the silver dagger and our hostess matched it with poetry as she stabbed open the haggis spilling its contents with the words: “Trenching your gushing entrails bright.”
And don’t dare call me a drama queen just because that’s the bit I remember best. Well, you would wouldn’t you?
Out came a dinky, two handled silver dish or cup, the traditional Quaich (pronounced, I think, quake) with which to toast or even douse, your haggis in whisky.
Thanks to the wit and wisdom of the Scottish contingent, the culture of a neighbour was celebrated in fine style.
And it proved what I’ve always thought, that with a little understanding, friendships can be forged whatever your roots.