Monday, January 28, 2008

Highland Games in Fresno

A Lament for The Games At Coombs Ranch

For William S. McLeod Jr.

For years, I well remember, in the middle of September
When the Californian summer lingers like an endless song,
Near that central valley city, where the grape vines look so pretty
And the broad San Joaquin River ambles silently along.

Where fields rise above the banks and great oaks grow in ranks,
And the grass is green and flat beneath their shade,
At a ranch called “River Bend” owned by Dennes Coombs, a friend,
Great schemes to hold a Highland Games were laid.

Well, Dennes Coombs and Truman Campbell, round that ranch they took a ramble
With Ms. Dunklee and Bill McLeod in tow,
And it was agreed together that right there in clement weather
They’d host a Games to which the folk might go.

Looking back they got it right, for this very bonnie site
With its lawns all sheltered by the tall tree groves,
Proved to be a prime location, where without hesitation
Stout hearted Scots folk came with friends in droves.

Vendors came one day early to avoid the hurley-burley,
And set up their pavilions and their stands.
With all kinds of things for sale, ghillie brogues and coats of mail,
China crocks and books and Celtic wedding bands.

First thing the trucks appear with the athletes and their gear
And weights and cabers lashed up to their hitches
Through the day they’d show their form of Scottish stealth and brawn
Sending awesome weights a hurtling down the pitches.

You could buy your tartan kilt, or a sword with basket hilt,
Or a Kitchener pith helmet like a Sahib,
Or a jacket and a bonnet, with you family crest upon it
To make your first foray in Highland garb.

Then came the pipes and drums, and they filled the air with thrums,
Their music stirred the blood within the vein.
Marches, jigs, Strathspeys and reels, had us kicking up our heels
As they paraded down the field and back again.

The clans folk also came, of the blood and of the name
Who raised their tents beside the glen in rows,
Men sported badge and kilt, and wore bonnets at a tilt
And the lassies had their hair in tartan bows.

The children they would play in the river through the day,
Where the shallow water rippled by the weirs,
Catching tiddlers and frogs or making dams with rock and logs
While the lilting skirl of bagpipes filled their ears.

At noon when colors advance and we all would get the chance
To cross our hearts and pledge our promise true,
Star Spangled Banner we’d chorus and the Flowers Of The Forest,
And we’d tear up with emotion at the view.

For the ranks of Highland Men were parading through the glen
In their tartans with their banners flying high.
And the pipes and drums played loudly and the gazing crowd stood proudly,
With the sparkling glint of tears in every eye.

But one day Dennes lost his ranch and it was said we’d lost the chance
To hold our Highland Games some made remark,
But hats off to Fresno City who rose up for us in pity
And let us have the games in Roeder Park

They still tell this tale today, with longing hearts they say,
That the story teller keeps it in his quiver,
And the legend lingers on in our hearts and minds and song,
When the Games were held at Coombs Ranch by the river.

Neil Stewart McLeod

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stabbing Haggis

The art of redefining the contour of fine silver trays is one that is more particularly Scottish than, perhaps, any other nationalities. A reputation that the great halls of silversmiths in London and Sheffield are prone to envy. Whether this skill blossomed from an innate sense of impecunity, or from the natural latent genius for which we are so proud, is left to conjecture. But the fact clearly remains that more pierced silver is to be found in Scotland, and in Scottish enclaves than any where else in the world. Why you might ask has this unusual specialization developed? Well the answer lies in the frequency with which the haggis is slain in late January each year.

Scotland is famous of course for her two principal exports, its brains, and the antidote, whisky. It is the fortification with the latter in preparation for the "Address To A Haggis", that is, in all likelihood, responsible for the abundance of perforated chargers. Armed with dirks, it is not uncommon for exuberance to foreshadow good judgment in the lavish swing that plunges the blade into the warm and reeking bladder, which yields sweetly allowing the tip to score and skewer the entire table display through to the richly varnished table boards beneath. If the knife can be retrieved, the tray will need treatment with planishing hammers and silver solder before the buffing wheels on the lathes can retrieve its former luster.

Nor should you doubt any part of this report, for every word of it is as true as the light of day. Examination of old copies of the 'Daily Breeze' from 1988 will reveal an account of a similar occurrence, when, before the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, Tom Girvin, that well known radio personality, had difficulty removing his dirk from the haggis for exactly the same reason. Years later Tom's offer to have the tray repaired was declined in favor of its value as a memento of that valiant stab.

No you might say, this cannot be the case, such a fabrication, such whimsy is more than is creditable. Yet I can tell you with no exaggeration, that in 1997 I stood right beside Joseph McClure Swindle, who, suitably reinforced with fifteen year old Talisker, slew the haggis at the Castaways one Burns Night. Joseph spouted forth,

"His knife see rustic labour dight,
An' cut ye up we ready slight,"...

and as he did so, he rammed his huge dirk down through the haggis tray and all. Paul Dimond, the British Consul General, and his lady Carolyn, were there to witness the thrust, as were the gathered members and friends of the Los Angeles Burns Club. The stage was set, and what a night it was. Later, after the loyal toasts, the "Immortal Memory of Robert Burns" was given by Ann Dwyer who, to our amazement transformed herself into Ann, the serving maid at 'The Globe Inn'. Her performance transfixed us, as she related "from personal experience" her encounter with the poet who used to frequent the inn. Richard Nathan, the editor of “Mad Dogs” where this story was previously reported, gave the toast to the lassies, in a highly controversial parallel between Shakespeare and Burns' view of the fairer sex. Ah! but the answer probably lies right there, that it is in an attempt to impress the "lassies O", that we get into these predicaments of masculine excessiveness in the first place.

If you live in the Los Angeles area you can see the Haggis slain in true style at Lawry’s Tam O’ Shanter Restaurant, on Los Feliz Boulevard, on January 22nd, 23rd and 24th when I shall be performing the ceremony six times each night, and cutting up Chef Ivan’s excellent Haggis. There will be piping from Harry Farrar, Highland Dancing and saucy ladies singing Burns’ songs.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Slaying the Haggis

“Fair fa your honest sonsie face,
Great chieftain of the puddin’ race”

Here we go it is Burns Season.
Every year, one month exactly after Jesus’ birthday, on January 25th Scots and Scotiaphiles around the world celebrate the birth of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. They do so with a fervency that will rival even the Russian’s love for their poets, and with good reason. Robert Burns leaves us with a legacy of over six hundred songs and poems that epitomize the most sensitive heartfelt wrenchings of the common man, and contain what is arguably the greatest satire and story telling ever penned in the English or the Ayrshire language.

We are slaying the haggis again. The Haggis Slayer, the dirk I have used for over twenty five years to cut open the haggis will be put into action twenty times this season alone. I believe it will have been used to “slay” one hundred and eighty five haggi or what ever the word may be to pluralize haggis. This must be some sort of record.

Last night at the Athenaeum Club, that august edifice at the California Institute of Technology, the Haggis was slain and “Tam O’ Shanter”, the Burns story of the wild ride on a stormy night, was recited in its totality. The venue was elegant the wine excellent and the haggis remarkable. Kevin their chef has developed his art to the point where I can confidently say he is giving the renowned Chef Ivan of Lawry’s “Tam O’ Shanter Restaurant” a run for his money. It was good, very good, and served with bashed neeps and tatties. Hats off to Kevin.