By Nury Vittachi
An Asian meets a haggis on the streets of Scotland
Walking the dark streets of Edinburgh late at night I had a terrifying experience. A crazed-looking gang jumped out of the shadows right into my path.
Before I could escape, they did what street gangs in the capital of Scotland usually do: yes, they committed a random act of entertainment right there in front of me.
Lucky for me, they did not do experimental theatre, which I find marginally less enticing then amateur penis reduction surgery, but an extract of Shakespeare, which I rather enjoyed.
Thousands of people from Asia and elsewhere travel to Edinburgh every August, when it turns into a mad city of entertainment. Plays, dances and comedies erupt on every corner. Actors perform in cars. Shows are staged on balconies, rooftops, doorways and even up trees. Groups have been known to do their shows in toilets, and sometimes toilets are exactly the right place for them. (To be honest, I didn’t like the sound of this, so I made a large number of extra toilet visits before arrival.)
Performers who had flown into the city ranged from famous Hollywood actors to obscure speakers from obscure parts of the world (i.e., me).
Audiences ranged from a thousand-strong mob of bespectacled intellectuals to a small pile of whiskey-stained clothes which may or may not have contained a human being.
But there so many of us needing audiences, that we weren’t fussy. Indeed, there was sometimes so much heckling that we ended up jealous of the people who performed to the pile of clothes. At least they didn’t interrupt.
Edinburgh is quite shocking in its own right. The first thing you see upon stepping out of the railway station is a man wearing a skirt tormenting an animal. (Warning: The skirt must be referred to as a kilt. Scots are legally allowed to beat to death any tourist who refers to it as a skirt or dress.)
Why do Scottish men prefer skirts to trousers? A famous actor, Kenneth Williams, explained that the kilt was ideal for Scotsmen, because they liked to travel. “The kilt is the perfect garment for the two main activities of Scotsmen abroad: fornication and diarrhoea.”
The animal being tormented is actually a “musical” (I use that word advisedly) instrument called a “haggis”. You simultaneously blow into it and squeeze it. It emits an extremely long, sad, mournful note. Oh, hang on, that may have come from the audience, who were showing their appreciation by running rapidly in the opposite direction.
True Scots start each day by eating a bowl of wallpaper paste they call porridge (or “sporran” in the local language). All Scotsmen are called Jimmy, except the country’s founder, who was Robert the Burns, or Mel Gibson. The story goes that Robert/ Mel’s pet spider gave the country its motto, which is, “If at first you don’t succeed, do unto others.”
On my second night in Scotland, a group of Asians arrived and started playing Chinese instruments in the middle of the city. The haunting cry of the erhu and the evocative twang of the Chinese zither were so atmospheric that a huge crowd gathered. Even the man playing the haggis stopped to listen.
It made me realize that how important it is for communities to experience culture from other communities. Anyone want to share my bowl of sporran?