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Performing Tradition and Ethnicity at the Newfoundland St. Andrew’s Society Burns Supper

  • Joy Fraser

…plus d’informations

The Newfoundland St. Andrew’s Society Burns Supper, which takes place each January in the provincial capital of St. John’s, is one of hundreds of similar events held annually since the early 1800s, in Scotland and around the world. Their common purpose is to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns and “to honour the Scotland he represents” (Brown 1984: 138). [1] This calendar custom’s core elements include a meal of haggis and other Scottish fare; a series of speeches, toasts and recitations of Burns’s poetry; and performances of Scottish music and dance. January 2007 marked the 170th anniversary of the Burns Supper tradition in St. John’s, where the event first took place in 1837. [2] The Supper was held as usual in the ballroom of the local Royal Canadian Legion branch, with around 160 people in attendance (Mowbray 2007c).

The participants’ conceptualisations of tradition and ethnicity fundamentally inform and shape the celebration of the Burns Supper in St. John’s. Responses to an e-mail questionnaire I distributed to audience members at the 2007 Supper cite “carrying on the tradition” — or simply “tradition” — as a key motivating factor in the continuation of the event, thereby reifying and ascribing an inherent value to the concept. [3] For example, one respondent writes that the purpose of the Burns Supper is “to continue a Scottish tradition from our cultural history,” while another states more generally that “it is always important to carry on traditions, too many are lost.” A third audience member observes that “having an annual Burns Supper is a tradition which has taken place for over 200 years and I think as Scots we are proud to organize this.” Similarly, in an interview, the St. Andrew’s Society president, Graham Mowbray, comments that “we’re keeping a tradition alive, and I think that we all get a sense of value out of that… You [can’t] just throw traditions away” (2007c). The notion of maintaining tradition thus assumes the status of a moral responsibility or obligation, with Graham adding that “this thing started in 1837, and, boy, I don’t want to be the one who locks the door, and walks away from it” (Mowbray 2007c).

Those involved in the St. John’s Burns Supper also emphasise its role in “celebrating” and “promoting” Scottish “culture,” “heritage,” and “identity” in the city. Some questionnaire respondents comment that the event provides “an annual opportunity to bring expatriate Scots together,” to “express a sense of community and collective identity” and to “[celebrate] a cultural strand in our community.” Others mention that it is “a way for those from Scotland to keep the culture…alive” and to “retain the identity of the country of their birth,” thereby linking the notion of celebrating ethnicity to that of maintaining tradition. There is also a strong sense among the event’s organisers and participants that “the Scottish contribution to Newfoundland society is not adequately recognized,” especially when compared with those of the larger and more visible sections of the population claiming Irish and English descent (Trew 2005). [4] Viewed in this light, as organising committee member Jennifer Whitfield asserts, the Burns Supper plays a crucial role in “bringing the Scottish culture [and] heritage…to the forefront for the St. John’s community” and the province as a whole (2007; cf. Mowbray 2007c; Reid 2007). Similarly, questionnaire respondents comment on the opportunity the event offers to educate others about Scottish history, to increase local awareness of Scottish culture, and to emphasise “the contribution Scots have made in many fields.” It is also regarded as a chance for “non Scots… to have [an] … involvement in things Scottish.”

My focus in this article is on two performances by local poets Christopher and Michael Pickard, invited speakers at the January 2007 event, whose contributions encode markedly different attitudes towards tradition and ethnicity to those which underpin the celebration of the Burns Supper as a whole. [5] Analysis of the Pickard brothers’ performances thus affords a valuable opportunity to investigate the tensions which result when competing perspectives confront each other in the context of an organised public event like the Burns Supper. I show how the brothers purposely set out to challenge the implicit norms governing displays of communicative competence at the event, arguing that their contributions represent what José Limón refers to as “temporary ideological breaks” (1983: 202) in its otherwise relatively smooth rhetorical surface. Like the performers of the Mexican-American Vanishing Hitchhiker legend variants analysed by Limón, the brothers effectively “‘took over’ the event and set out their own presence and expressive agenda” for the duration of their performances (1983: 202), setting into motion tensions between their own conceptualisations of tradition and ethnicity and those of most other participants in the Burns Supper. Their contributions can thus be interpreted as an instance of what Limón refers to as metafolkloric performance, in which “a full display of artistic competence comments upon another” — in this case, the Burns Supper itself as a performance event — by means of “the central performer’s ability to exploit event, role and genre” (1983: 205, 202). In closing, I reflect on some possible implications of the organisers’ increasing emphasis on entertainment, as exemplified by their decision to invite the Pickard brothers to perform at the 2007 event, for the future direction of the Burns Supper tradition in St. John’s.

“Bucking Tradition”: the Address to the Haggis

The brothers’ first contribution to the 2007 Burns Supper was the recitation of Burns’s poem “To a Haggis.” As Mary Ellen Cohane notes, this recitation has been “at the heart of the celebration” of the Burns Supper since its earliest days and has come to be surrounded by “a larger ritual” in which the haggis is “carried in by a cook in full [cook’s] regalia, preceded by a piper” and “addressed” with the words of Burns’s poem (1985: 25; see Figures 1-3). [6] In the brothers’ performance, Christopher recites the poem, prefacing his recitation with some introductory remarks about the dish. During this introduction, the performance departs significantly from its usual form — a single speaker — as he is interrupted in mid-sentence by a “protestor,” played by Michael, acting on the mistaken belief that the haggis about to be eaten by the assembled company is an animal which must be rescued from this “barbarous” fate. He storms into the hall carrying a handwritten placard reading “Save the Cuddly Haggis” and featuring a depiction of a small four-legged creature (see Figure 4). Introducing himself as a representative of “PETCA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Cuddly Animals,” he declares his intention to “protect this cuddly, beautiful Highland haggis, that has been taken from its home for so many years,” later accusing two members of the audience of owning “clandestine haggis farms.” [7] After a heated exchange, Christopher succeeds in persuading the protestor that the haggis is in fact “not an animal” but “a pudding,” and he is invited to stay and join the meal, only to be ejected when it transpires that he is unable to afford the $40 ticket price. [8]

Figure 1

The haggis is piped into the hall at the start of the ceremony and out again at the end.

The haggis is piped into the hall at the start of the ceremony and out again at the end.

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Figure 2

Christopher Pickard “addresses” the haggis with the words of Burns’s poem, with the hat and scroll from his role as town crier for the City of St. John’s.

Christopher Pickard “addresses” the haggis with the words of Burns’s poem, with the hat and scroll from his role as town crier for the City of St. John’s.

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As a narrative centred around an outsider figure who suffers from “confusion” and “misdirection” (Pickard and Pickard 2007c), this performance appears to celebrate the esoteric knowledge of those present by “making a game of the ignorance of outsiders” (Brown 1987: 36). The mock protest is a performed version of the widely known Scottish tall tale which depicts the haggis as a living creature inhabiting the country’s mountainsides. However, this performance takes the negative form of a refutation or debunking of the tale, designed to expose the gullibility of one who believes that the creature is real. [9] In the same way that, as Carolyn Brown writes, the tall tale “delineates an ‘in’ group and challenges the listener to prove himself clever or dull… through his response to the tale” (1987: 38), the protestor is challenged and found wanting.

He also violates norms governing expected behaviour at the Burns Supper. As Christopher informs him: “you’re… creating a scene here that we don’t really need”; “we have a ceremony that’s about to take place.” As Pauline Greenhill writes of folk poetry, then, the brothers’ performance directs criticism and ridicule towards an outsider figure who lacks the “basic cultural knowledge” of those present and, as a result, “behaves with humorous inappropriateness” (1989: 82-83). Thus it can be interpreted as a celebration of participants’ in-group knowledge of both the haggis itself as a symbol of Scottish ethnicity and its role in the Burns Supper (Cohane 1985: 25-26).

Figure 3

The participants in the ceremony toast the haggis with whisky (L-R: Ean Parsons, piper, Jennifer Whitfield, haggis bearer, Christopher Pickard, Michael Pickard).

The participants in the ceremony toast the haggis with whisky (L-R: Ean Parsons, piper, Jennifer Whitfield, haggis bearer, Christopher Pickard, Michael Pickard).

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Figure 4

Christopher and the “protestor.”

Christopher and the “protestor.”

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On closer inspection, however, perhaps rather than “approach[ing]… rift and disjunction by attempting to minimize it or to draw the individuals involved together on common appropriate ground,” as in the case of the folk poetry analysed by Greenhill (1989: 72), the performance works by purposely emphasising the disjunction created by the protestor’s intrusion. This process can be seen especially clearly in the argument between Christopher and the protestor, which centres around the two characters’ conflicting attitudes towards tradition. During their exchange, Christopher informs the protestor that the haggis ceremony is “a time-honoured, traditional event” and the latter responds that “just the very fact that you’ve been doing this for as long as you’ve been doing it, does not make it right!”

This argument dramatises the tension between the significance attributed to maintaining tradition by the majority of participants in the Burns Supper, and the playful irreverence towards tradition expressed by the brothers themselves during an interview I conducted with them shortly after the event. Although they state that their respect for the Burns Supper meant that there were aspects of the event that they “didn’t want to… mess around with,” they emphasise the fact that “we are known to buck… tradition and… do our own thing” (Pickard and Pickard 2007c). They describe how, in planning their contributions, they purposely set out to create “something different” from what they characterise as the “conservative” and non-“performance”-based approach “typically” adopted by other speakers. As Michael explains: “I wouldn’t say that we’re iconoclasts, but we’re certainly trying to be a little irreverent sometimes, which is precisely why [we] didn’t just… do some kind of speech. We wanted to do something a little different without… being thrown out on our ear” (2007c).

Thus rather than “fit[ting] canons of appropriateness in form [and] content,” as Greenhill writes of folk poetry, the brothers’ performance purposely pushes the boundaries of folk notions of “situational appropriateness” operating in the context of the Burns Supper (Greenhill 1989: 158, 107). Just as, at the narrative level, the protestor “reverses or inverts expected, reasonable behaviour” at the Supper, so the brothers purposely invert the “expected performative traditions” of the event by framing their contribution explicitly as theatre, thereby creating a parallel disjunction at the level of performance (Greenhill 1988: 186). [10]

Thus Michael recalls with pleasure St. Andrew’s Society president Graham Mowbray’s apparent “concern” with regard to their plans for the event. He states that while “I don’t think we scared him per se,” “we didn’t get the scripts approved or anything like that…. And when… we arrived and we had a couple of props, he was looking at me very strangely, saying, ‘What’s that for?’” [11] Michael also comments on the performance’s effectiveness in subverting the expectations of the audience, observing that “they thought it was going to be all pomp and circumstance… and then suddenly, this thing happens. Which was the plan, so that was good” (Pickard and Pickard 2007c). In Richard Bauman’s terms, then, the brothers “[use] the structured, conventional performance system” of the Burns Supper “as a base on which a range of communicative transformations can be wrought,” employing this system “in a novel, creative… way to fashion a new kind of performance” which manipulates their audience’s “conventional expectations and associations” (1975: 301).

The brothers’ performance can thus be read as a parody of the haggis ceremony as it is typically performed at the Burns Supper. Peter Narváez defines folk parody as “an artistic form of communication… built upon a pre-existing aesthetic structure,” in which “the content or meaning of the initial structure is substantively but not substantially altered” (1977: 33). In the case of humorous folk parody, such forms “imitate to an extent but then exhibit sharp contrasts with original models, the incongruities of which evoke laughter.” According to Narváez, humorous folk parodies operate “by maintaining an original structure with the addition of an element of comic surprise which functions as a critical comment on the initial folklore item” (1977: 33) — in this case, the haggis ceremony and the wider tradition of the Burns Supper itself. The brothers’ decision to frame their performance in this way reflects their own playful tendency towards “bucking tradition,” creating a tension in relation to the importance attached to maintaining tradition by most other participants in the event.

Performing Scottishness: the Toast to the Lassies

The brothers’ second contribution to the 2007 Burns Supper was the Toast to the Lassies, one in the series of speeches which comprises the second half of the evening. As Nancy Marshall notes, this is usually “a witty speech about the female sex” which typically incorporates “a few nudges and sly digs about their idiosyncrasies and foibles” (1992: 57). [12] The brothers’ rendition, which bears relatively little resemblance to this description, takes the form of a conversation between Michael and a Scottish character called Hamish, played by Christopher, who has recently immigrated to St. John’s from Fife in Scotland (see Figure 5). The performance concerns the latter’s humorously misguided attempts to find a partner in Newfoundland. Hamish’s misinterpretation of a personal ad in a local newspaper prompts him to compose a poem in response, based on his mistaken assumption that the author of the ad is a “bonny lass” from the Scottish Highlands. As he recites each verse of his poem, Michael, armed with a copy of the ad, reveals the true meanings of the local references it contains, deriding Hamish for his misinterpretations (see Table 1, columns 1-2).

This time, it is the Burns Supper participants’ local knowledge as residents of St. John’s which affords them a sense of superiority over Hamish as the ignorant outsider. The audience members’ recognition and appreciation of the unwitting double meanings in Hamish’s poem, which directly result from his own lack of insider knowledge, appears to put them in a position of authority and control over him (cf. Cornwell and Hobbs 1991: 207). Moreover, taking his imagined romance as a metaphor for Hamish’s relationship with his adopted community, we can see that, throughout the performance, he remains excluded from any fulfilling interaction with the in-group. His hopes of finding a partner in St. John’s are exposed as “all a big dream and fantasy” and he is accused of “imposing your own views of what you want from your homeland country of Scotland” upon the object of his desire, a practice which is characterised as “confused,” “deluded” and “pathetic.” Those markers of his Scottishness which signal his outsider status are similarly regarded as problematic. He is advised that his accent is “really thick” and that he “should… try to bring it down a few notches” so that “[people will] understand better.” His “taste for single malt scotch” is identified as a key reason for his lack of success with local women and he is even told that “nobody… likes” his “tartan vest.”

It is noteworthy, in the context of an event whose main purpose is to celebrate Scottish ethnicity, that it is the Scottish character who is represented here as the ignorant outsider. The brothers’ overtly sexualised portrayal of Hamish — as seen, for example, in the several instances of sexual innuendo in his poem (see Table 1, column 3) — further reinforces his outsider status, reflecting the common tendency to project sexual desire onto the ethnic other (see Lott 1993; McClary 1992; Neal 1999). [13] The othering of Scottishness literally enacted by the brothers’ performance reflects their ambivalent attitude towards their own ethnic identity as “second-generation Scots,” as expressed during our interview. Although their Scottish mother and English father are frequent attendees of the Burns Supper in St. John’s, the brothers themselves are relative newcomers to the Burns Supper tradition, the 2007 event being only the second occasion on which they had been present.

Despite stating that they perceive the Supper as “part of our culture,” and expressing a desire for it to become “part of our routine culture” (emphasis added), they admit that other priorities have always tended to take precedence over their attendance at the event. As Christopher comments: “of course, life catches up with you, and then you hear a week before, ‘Oh, the Burns Supper’s coming,’ and you just don’t have time for that” (Pickard and Pickard 2007c). Their position thus seems to be similar to that of the Mexican-American tellers of the intercultural jests studied by Américo Parédes, whose performances “express [their] cultural ambivalence towards their ethnicity” (Limón 1983: 193; see Parédes 1968: 113-114). This attitude contrasts markedly with the significance attributed to ethnicity by most other participants in the Burns Supper. [14]

The resulting tension is heightened by the fact that the brothers’ performance of Scottishness works in large part by satirising precisely those conceptualisations of Scottish ethnicity which underpin the celebration of the Burns Supper in St. John’s itself. Firstly, it satirises the tendency among the diaspora to create selective and romanticised constructions of the homeland. Again taking Hamish’s imagined romance as a metaphor for ethnicity, this time for his relationship with his homeland, we can see that the remembered Scotland represented by his ideal woman is an incongruous combination of a Highland idyll of heather-covered mountains, populated by “bonny lasses” in “tartan dresses” still living under the clan system, and of the blissful Sunday afternoons he imagines, later in his poem, spent strolling along the beach at St. Andrews in his native Fife (see Table 1, column 1). In other words, as one audience member puts it, it is “a celebration of a few things that may be associated with Scotland… but if anything it is a Romantic ideal of Scottishness with… only a limited connection to the realities of modern Scotland.” Significantly, however, this audience member refers not to Hamish’s idealised memories of his homeland but to the representation of Scottishness encoded in the Burns Supper as it exists in present-day St. John’s. Her observation thus neatly demonstrates how Hamish’s practice of “imposing your own views of what you want from your homeland” can equally be applied to the selective usage of contested icons of Scottishness in the context of the Burns Supper itself.

Figure 5

Michael and “Hamish.”

Michael and “Hamish.”

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The brothers’ portrayal of Hamish himself reinforces this argument. His use of Scottish dialect and penchant for “versifying” (Brown 1984: 130), his “tartan vest” and allusions to his kilt and “fancy sporran,” and his taste for those other iconic Scottish foodstuffs, the deep-fried Mars Bar and Edinburgh rock (hard candy), are all humorously exaggerated versions of the three key signifiers of Scottishness encoded in the Burns Supper: language, costume and foodways (e.g., see Table 1, column 3). [15] Questionnaire responses indicate that in the context of the Supper, signifiers such as “bagpipes, dancers, haggis, accents [and] kilts” are largely accepted unproblematically as authentic representations of Scottishness, a fact which can be attributed to a process that Wayne Fife terms semantic slippage. According to Fife, semantic slippage enables “time and/or space to collapse” so that “what is taken to be the ‘original’ meaning of an object” or concept — in this case, the meaning of Scottishness itself — “collapses into the contemporary meaning of an object or enactment,” thereby justifying the latter’s authenticity (2004: 63-64).

In Hamish’s case, in contrast, these same signifiers are exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, signalling that the brothers’ caricature of Scottishness is not to be taken “too seriously” by rendering the process of semantic slippage “too obviously and visibly ‘wrong’” (Fife 2004: 64; cf. Cohane 1985: 27). Fife identifies objects or enactments that operate in this way as postmodern forms which are “not… about the modernist project of authenticity but rather about poking fun at the idea that such ‘authenticity’ is possible” (2004: 65). A similar case can be made about the attitude towards Scottish ethnicity encoded in the brothers’ performance.

This interpretation accords with a revealing exchange which took place during our interview, when Christopher expresses his desire to own a kilt which he could wear to attend future Burns Suppers, but adds that “I’m looking at other expenses that I think are probably bigger priorities right now.” At this point, Michael interrupts him to suggest that he should sell his “burqa,” his “kimono” and his “Peruvian poncho” that he keeps in his “tickle trunk” in order to raise enough money to buy himself a kilt (Pickard and Pickard 2007c). This exchange encapsulates the distinctly postmodern conceptualisation of ethnicities as playful “costumes” that can be dressed up in and changed out of at will, which clearly manifests itself in the brothers’ playfully stereotypical performance of Scottishness in the Toast to the Lassies. Such a conceptualisation sits uneasily, however, alongside the significance accorded to ethnicity by most other participants in the Burns Supper, and their acceptance of the contested symbols it incorporates as authentic representations of Scottish identity.

Tradition, Ethnicity and the Newfoundland St. Andrew’s Society Burns Supper

My analysis has shown how focusing on two performances in which unspoken communicative rules are broken can help to illuminate wider issues relating to tradition and ethnicity at play within the discourse of the Newfoundland St. Andrew’s Society Burns Supper. Both performances appear to celebrate the esoteric knowledge of those present — in their dual status as Burns Supper attendees and Newfoundlanders — by “making a game of the ignorance of outsiders” (Brown 1987: 36). A closer reading, however, reveals how they set into motion tensions between the conceptualisations of tradition and ethnicity held by the event’s organisers and participants, and those of the Pickard brothers themselves.

The St. Andrew’s Society’s decision to invite “two young comedians,” as one committee member describes them, to speak at its 2007 event reflects a gradual process of “informalisation” undergone by the Burns Supper in St. John’s in recent years (Whitfield 2007; Mowbray 2007c). In fact, this process was adopted as an unofficial policy by the event’s organising committee around fifteen years ago, partly in an attempt to reverse a declining trend in attendance figures. As president Graham Mowbray recalls, the committee found itself urgently faced with the issue of “how [to]… maintain all that tradition, all the good stuff,” while at the same time introducing changes that would help to “bring in new people, younger people” and thereby “drive the ticket sales up” (2007c). Thus, although many participants continue to wear kilts and other tartan dress, the Supper is no longer advertised as a black tie event. The number of speeches and toasts featured as part of the event has been decreased, together with the permitted length of the speeches themselves, and the choice of speakers is no longer made exclusively from the upper stratum of local society. Changes such as these are mirrored in the evolution of many other Burns Suppers both in Scotland and elsewhere.

Such developments reflect an increasing emphasis on entertainment which is encapsulated in Graham’s description of the present-day Burns Supper in St. John’s. As he states:

It’s the equivalent of dinner theatre…. And although there’s a tremendous history which we can talk about… now, for us to get people coming, and therefore for us to keep the tradition alive, we have to entertain them, we have to keep them moving along. You can’t have them there … at twelve-thirty at night, with someone continuing just to give you another detail in Robert Burns’s life.

Mowbray 2007c

This observation indicates a significant shift in the conceptualisation of tradition on the part of the event’s organisers, towards a view in which traditions must adapt to survive, and in which “carrying on the tradition” becomes the justification for increasing informalisation and popularisation. This new emphasis on entertainment suggests that performances such as the Pickard brothers’ may well become more of the norm in future years, perhaps effecting a lasting shift in the “structured, conventional performance system” itself (Bauman 1975: 301). The implications of such a development for the public celebration of ethnicity among diaspora communities like the Scots in St. John’s are well deserving of further study.

As Andriy Nahachewsky writes, conceiving of ethnicity as “a constructed part of reality, a learned aspect of identity and behavior at least as much as an inherited one,” enables scholars to explore how “perceived ethnic boundaries remain critically relevant for the existence of specific ethnic groups, while the objective cultural content can and does change” (2002: 175). Analysis of the evolving Burns Supper tradition in St. John’s illustrates how participants’ conceptualisations of tradition and ethnicity have adapted to accommodate changing cultural circumstances and tastes, as reflected, for example, in the adoption of an increasingly entertainment-centred, theatrical performance mode. However, such processes of change do not always proceed uncontested, but may be characterised by tensions between competing perspectives, values and aesthetics. As this study has shown, focusing on these tensions and their expression within the discourse of an event like the Burns Supper in St. John’s can offer key insights into the complex meanings of tradition and ethnicity among groups such as the Newfoundland St. Andrew’s Society.

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