letters from nairobi


St. Andrew’s Ball

On Saturday evening, I was one of several hundreds guests who attended The Caledonian Society of Kenya’s annual St. Andrew’s Ball. The international Society defines itself as “a patriotic and non-political society, founded in 1907 to promote the study and celebration of all things Scottish,” and the Ball was a black-tie affair that showcased traditional Scottish dance, served haggis, and included quite a few “wee drams” of whisky.

If you’ve watched the first season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, you may have an idea of what the event was like. The fifth episode, “Nights in Ballygran,” features a formal Irish St. Patrick’s Day gala dinner:

Switch out the Irish sashes for Scottish family crests and leprechaun dancers for The Caledonian Ceilidh Band, but keep the kilts, and you have a pretty good idea of the extravagant event.

Some of the highlights of the evening:

I unfortunately couldn’t capture a photo of the haggis ceremony and don’t believe I can do it justice in words. Picture a procession of Kenyan chefs marching up to a head table of seated “Office Bearers” while the melody of a bagpipe echoes through a reception hall and the audience claps in unison. They place their offerings on the white tablecloth – a silver-plated mountain of haggis, two whisky bottles held aloft in a cross. The chieftain stands, thanks the chefs, and begins to recite Robert Burns’ interminable “Address to a Haggis” (excerpt: “His knife see rustic Labour dight/An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight/Trenching your gushing entrails bright/Like onie ditch;/And then, O what a glorious sight/Warm-reeking, rich!”). At the conclusion of the eight stanzas, the chieftain raises a glinting butcher knife and impales the object of affection, toasts a few more “wee drams,” and stands solemnly as the skewered meat is paraded out, held aloft to the sound of bagpipes and rhythmic clapping.

I told you I didn’t think I could accurately do justice to the ceremony.

The menu:

As hard as we tried, my fellow diners and I were unable to decipher most of the dishes. As it turned out, “breist o Chookie stappit wi a Bourach o Med Veg served on Drappit Scones wi Beans and Madeira Bree forbye” was some type of fowl over bread, covered in gravy. Below is the “Haggis wi’ Bashed Neeps an’ Champit Tatties” (get your mind out of the gutter – it’s haggis with a pureed root vegetable (rutabaga?) and mashed potatoes):

From what I was told, the highly acclaimed haggis was quite tasty.

The spread:

One of the best parts of the meal was the home-brewed “Atholl Brose,” which, as it turns out, is made of whisky, double cream, honey, eggs, and oatmeal. It tasted like creamy egg nog and was a hit with the lassies at our table:

There were many speeches, and lots of dancing (but, unfortunately, dim lighting):

Around midnight, after toasting to “The Pious Memory of St. Andrew And the Glorious Dead,” finishing off the bottle of Atholl Brose, and declining the chance to try and learn complicated reel dances through osmosis, we said goodbye and took a taxi back to Westlands.

I was told that the Ball is one in a series and that many upper crust Kenyans make a habit of attending them in succession.

In November, I raised my glass to Elizabeth, Queen of Scots. Who’s next?

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2 Comments so far
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This sounds like a truly magical night; send some Atholl Brose for the lassies back home 🙂

Comment by Liza Avruch

[…] has to offer, regardless of the specifics. Life in Nairobi is more than giraffe sightings and Caledonian balls – much more – and it would undermine the intent of this blog to ignore the aspects of life that […]

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