The Scottish Ball And Burns Night Supper

Simon Green

Text by Simon Green, photos by Katya Rasina

“Dare to be honest and fear no labour,” declared the illustrious Scottish poet, Robert Burns. These words greeted us on the pamphlet dished out to us (excuse the pun) upon entering the grand dining room for the esteemed Annual Burns Supper, together with the order of events and mouth-watering menu. The Moet Chandon reception began in earnest at 18.30 on the second floor of the imposing Lotte Hotel in Smolenskaya, and even at that stage I wondered if I would last until the midnight Auld Land Syne rendition, being that 12-year-old single malt McCallan whisky was already being circulated as a Moet ‘chaser.’ Even Premier division, hardened drinkers, your scribe included in that definition, would be hard pushed to survive intact!

Around 150-180 people were in attendance for this upmarket soiree, and as my guest and I circulated I couldn’t help but notice an absolute plethora of tall people both male and female. I’m a humble 1.75 meters, which while certainly not tall, certainly couldn’t be described as small by any stretch of imagination; but many of the men, in full, glorious regalia and black ties, towered over me. As if that wasn’t bad enough, at least 30% of the ladies present, resplendent in gorgeous and glamorous outfits that today’s high society demands, were over six feet tall- enough to start giving me an inferiority complex. A terrific drum-roll and bagpipes starting up interrupted my reverie, and we were treated to an 8 strong band marching into proceedings with great ceremony and pomposity. They had been specially flown in from Scotland for this unique occasion, and what a joy to behold. For many Russians present, this was their first introduction to such a wonderfully traditional performance, and cameras were clicking away at the rate of a Kalashnikov, and videos being made to send to family and friends, effectively stating to them in no uncertain terms, ‘we were here!’ The decibels produced belied the number of people playing, and even as I write this the day after, my ears are still ringing to their melodious offerings.

We were then ushered into the aforementioned dining room, decked out in ritzy glitzy fashion, as was the rather regal staircase up to the second floor which still bore witness to the New Year’s Eve party held there.Our places having been found, we were greeted by plates with lavish helpings of smoked salmon, then Luke Conner kicked proceedings off, followed by the Rev Canon Malcolm Rogers, Chaplain of St. Andrews church which was rather appropriate, saying grace enabling us all to tuck in to the first of a 6 course epicurean dinner. Between the first and second course which was a delectable mushroom soup, a Scottish dance teacher managed to coerce a few volunteers, as well as involuntary, on to the dance floor to learn such dances as the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant, to much mirth from those of us who remained glued to our seats during the selection process. The teacher’s boundless energy and enthusiasm managed to transfer to the unwitting apprentices on the floor and a high old time ensued.

After a couple of dances, it was time for the traditional Haggis ceremony which the band leader performed with aplomb and versatility, followed by the dance instructor who did the same but in Russian. He had a powerful voice and must have done some acting in his time, as his performance was every bit as good as his predecessor; I couldn’t help but ponder how on earth they managed to translate this beautifully crafted poetry into Russian. The Haggis was then transferred on to plates and distributed to all and sundry. I have to confess that this is not my favourite dish in the world, but Luke sitting next to me offered to eat mine as well- I didn’t need a second invitation! Interestingly I observed some Russians eating it, and it was obviously the first time they were exposed to this sort of delicacy. The man sitting opposite me looked at it a bit suspiciously, sniffed at it several times, and still rather unsure, eventually put some into his mouth accompanied by a slight grimace. I could see he was weighing up in his mind whether to give up the ghost after one mouthful, or plough on gamefully as protocol dictates- protocol won and I silently congratulated him on his victory. There followed a loyal toast to our gracious Queen by HM Ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, and we were then treated to some exquisite venison with ‘al dente’ vegetables. We had a couple of vegetarians at our table and the maître ‘D’ had no hesitation in rustling up a couple of suitable dishes for them to enjoy. Impressive service, which went hand in hand with the lovely waitress, Olga, who catered to our every need- in my case frequent replenishing of wine, as is my wont. She was tipped royally by myself and others for her impeccable effort which was indicative of the Lotte’s reputation for great service.

After yet more dancing, there followed a toast to the Lassies and Laddies present and a couple of impressive speeches. The Laddies speech was done by the American husband of our Deputy Chief of Mission, the redoubtable Lindsay Skoll. He advised us on some do’s and don’ts of how to behave with wives. This was answered in emphatic fashion by Lindsay, with a speech of wit, wisdom and humour that brought the house down. It’s rare nowadays to hear such a brilliant speech, but she had it in spades with anecdotes about the foibles, why’s and wherefores of married life and how to survive being with a formidable Lassie! Auld Land Syne brought the official curtain down on this superb evening, but by then I was speeding homewards with pleasant memories to cherish for a long time hence, not least that the charity raffle had realized in excess of 350,000 roubles for the Taganka Children’s Fund to assist orphaned children in their difficult lives.