So said the guy renting me the kilt.
As mentioned, I’ve been in Edinburgh, Scotland for the week, thanks to Mike Clouser over at the Edinburgh-Stanford Link. It’s really been a blast. I gave three separate talks (one on market research, one on economics and business models and one on the history of Techdirt) and then we had a Techdirt Greenhouse over at a local incubator, the Alba Innovation Centre (which is a bit tricky to get to apparently). The students have all been fantastic, generating lots of interesting discussions. The local entrepreneurs I’ve met with have been great as well. While there’s definitely some concern from folks about entrepreneurship in Scotland, there does seem to be a fair amount of energy and buzz around.
However, following in Mark’s footsteps, given the opportunity to wear a kilt, I couldn’t refuse. Timing-wise, it was fantastic. January 25th is Robert Burns Night, or more accurately, a Rabbie Burns Supper. It’s difficult to find something to compare it to in the US, but possibly a mix of July 4th and Thanksgiving. It involves celebrating the Scots “national bard,” Robert Burns, who lived in the 18th century. I’d imagine, for most Americans, all they know of Burns is the song Auld Lang Syne, which people sing on New Years and, it turns out, to close out a Burns Supper.
The kilt is surprisingly complex, though, honestly, it may have been the shoes and socks part that were the most complex. You wear special shoes with excessively long laces, and you have to twist them and then tie them around your calf in a rather specific manner. You also wear a dagger stuck in the socks (you know, just in case the British attack). The kilt itself is quite warm, though walking through Edinburgh on a cold, windy, rainy night still isn’t recommend. You definitely feel the breeze on your knees.
The supper itself is a traditional Scottish dinner of haggis, champit tatties and bashed neeps. People often seem to joke about haggis as a Scottish delicacy, but most of the folks we spoke to admitted that you really only eat it at a Burns dinner, and some of the folks at the table also admitted that they really had been scared to eat haggis for many years. It actually was quite good. Very peppery, but tasty. We actually went to two separate Burns Suppers. Clouser had implied to me that these were strictly black-tie affairs — you either wore a tux or a kilt. It turned out that this was a slight exaggeration. Or, rather, a fantastic exaggeration. In fact, the first Burns event we went to was at the university, and was the “International Post-Graduate Students” Burns Night. That meant that they were all foreign students, most of whom had never been to a Burns Night… and many of whom came dressed as, well, students. Jeans and sweaters were pretty common. We were a bit out of place in our kilts, but it was fine.
Then we moved on to the second, much more traditional Burns Supper. One of Clouser’s old frat brothers is married to a woman who is a member of the local Conservative Party and recently ran for office here. So they got us tickets to the local Conservative Party Burns Supper. Amusingly, everyone we mentioned this to either winced or audibly expressed their dislike for the Conservatives/Tories. Apparently, they’re not particularly popular around these parts. Either way, we showed up, and were still one of only a few folks in kilts. People were a lot more dressed up, but mostly suits, rather than kilts. There were a few kilts, but I think the number of Americans wearing kilts (3) tied the number of Scottish people wearing kilts. Even the former Edinburgh city council member sitting next to me told me he’d never worn a kilt. One of the Scottish entrepreneurs I’d met also told me he’d never worn a kilt.
And, true to what Mark mentioned when he wore a kilt, if you walk through Edinburgh in a kilt, people will ask to get their picture taken with you. Clouser and I were standing outside our hotel in the kilts, waiting for a cab when a group of Irish girls asked if they could get their photos taken with us. At first they thought we were doormen for the hotel. Then they realized we were Americans, but, of course, still wanted a photo.
The actual dinner was a blast. The address to a Haggis was fantastic, done by someone who clearly takes the role of entertaining the guests seriously. This same gent later did an impressively theatrical recitation of Burns’ version of John Barleycorn, pausing to drink a rather large glass of whiskey at each mention of Barleycorn’s name (with one extra at the line “And drank it round and round”). How he was still standing at the end of the night, I have no clue. The other addresses, both the “to the lassies” and “to the laddies” were quite amusing as well. As one of the links above describes, both toasts are “witty, but never offensive, and should always end on a concilliatory note.”
All in all, quite an experience. Prash came up from London, and we dragged him along. He had no idea what he was getting into (he chose not to wear a kilt). Prash and I ended up at one table (Clouser got shipped off to another), and we had a very interesting dinner conversation, about a bunch of different topics from Edinburgh to local politics to India (Prash had just returned from a trip there, and the couple sitting next to us had honeymooned there). All in all… lots of fun. And now I need to go find Prash (staying in a hotel across the street) and figure out how we can try that Scottish delicacy, the deep-fried Mars Bar, as suggested by Mark as well.