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Burns Night: A Real Life, Step by Step Guide to Food and Flower Arrangements

Updated on June 19, 2013
White roses were once symbols of rebellion. They were planted by those who sympathised with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stewarts against King George.
White roses were once symbols of rebellion. They were planted by those who sympathised with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stewarts against King George. | Source

Why Celebrate Burns Night

There are lots of reasons, most outlined in one of my other hubs. But there was also a personal reason for this celebration.

I noticed that the only times we all sit together round a table for any length of time, are when we have something to celebrate. Yet meals around the table seem to me to be the essence of family. I wanted to have more, so this year I decided to find something to celebrate each month. Being a Scot myself, though living in the USA, I picked Burns night as my celebration for January.

I have quite a few books filled with floral designs. They make the process look simple, so I decided to follow an idea in one of them and create a floral centerpiece for a small celebration we were having. I wanted everything to be just right, food, table setting and decoration, and they say if you want it done right, you should do it yourself.

Only my plans didn't work out. I had to change them and improvise, so for those of you who worry that doing your own flowers might be too much, here's a real life example of flower arranging, the process is described step by step, with pictures.

The Original Plan

When we decided to have a small Burns Night celebration at home, I was pleased. I could see the table setting and flowers in my head. The menu was simple. Here's what I planned.

A simple circular arrangement made using the rule of three I outlined here. The circle would be filled with wild flowers, herbs and ivy and accented with thistles and a roses. The center of the arrangement was to be three cylinder vases, each filled with water and a small berried branch, then topped with a floating candle.

For the menu, I planned soup, followed by haggis, neeps and tatties, then Cranachan for dessert.

Sounds simple, I know. But it wasn't.

What You Can Find at Amazon For Burn's Night

Caledonian Kitchen Haggis With Highland Beef, 14.5-Ounce Cans (Pack of 3)
Caledonian Kitchen Haggis With Highland Beef, 14.5-Ounce Cans (Pack of 3)

Yes, this is available through amazon prime, so you can get it on next day delivery. What's more, canned or not, it tastes good and is easy and quick to heat up in the microwave.


A Menu for Burn's Night

Everyone knows that you have to have haggis at a Burns Night celebration, and that was my first problem. In Scotland, even in England, you can find Haggis at your local butcher, or even at the food counter in M&S. Here in New Hampshire, haggis, understandably, is a little more rare. I went looking in the local shops but couldn't find one. When I asked, I got the same response as when I asked for Stilton Cheese. 'What's that.' Well, I should probably have anticipated that, but my motto is, in emergencies, there's Amazon Prime. When it turned out I really couldn't get a 'real' haggis, I ordered some haggis from amazon. In tins. Not ideal, I know. But much better than no haggis at all.

My second problem was the creation of the traditional starter soup, Cock-a-Leekie. To make cock-a-leekie soup you need ingredients, one of which is really good chicken stock. The morning I was due to make my soup my daughter used the stock for something else. It wasn't her fault, but it left me stuck and with no time to go out and get some more.The answer was to raid my store cupboard. I had some tinned salmon, so I put it into a blender with some seasoning, cream and a very small amount of mayonnaise. Our new starter, was salmon pate. Not very traditional, but Scotland is famous for its salmon, it would do.

My third problem was the recipe I had for Cranachan, which was to be our dessert. The recipe required extra thick double cream. I could find no trace of double cream in New Hampshire, in fact I still haven't found any in the USA. The solution was a complete change of dessert, instead of Cranachan we had Caledonian Cream, made from Cottage Cheese, Marmalade, Sugar and of course, Whisky.

The food hadn't gone as planned, but it was adequately Scottish, so I thought it would do.

The Centerpiece

Working 5 days before the event, I went to the local craft shop to buy a circle of floral foam. They had none. Everything they had was for silk or dried flowers. I decided to improvise. I went to the store to get the potatoes and other ingredients as well as herbs for my centerpiece. All they had were some sad, dry stalks of mint. I went to the florist and they had no thistles, and only two small springs of heather. I searched my cupboards high and low for the floating candles I am absolutely certain I have, but couldn't find them. I had no choice, I'd had to rethink the design.

But What Does It Mean?

Flower arranging is not regarded as high art. I'm not trying to suggest it should be. Most people want flowers around because they like them, because they're pretty, because they brighten the day. I love flowers, but when I arrange them, I like to add something, a little bit of meaning or symbolism. I'd planned thistles, white roses and heather because they are symbols of Scotland. Now I had to find something else.

Eventually I got my hands on three white roes, though these were a little too big for my design. I also managed to find some tartan ribbon. For the rest, it was really a question of what the florist had. Sitting among the other flowers I found some daisies, and realised these were ideal. Our meal was to celebrate the life of Robert Burns the poet, and one of his best known poems is 'To a Mountain Daisy.' Instead of the sweet smelling herbs I'd intended to use, I came home with seeded and spiral eucalyptus and a brick of oasis floral foam. It wasn't what I wanted, but it would have to do. Robert Burns was a farmer. My flowers were meant to be informal and irregular, a wild flower garden if you like, but without the candles for the center, I was still struggling.

The Structure

I'd wanted a ring with something higher in the middle. I decided to create my own superstructure. I started with a dish and an earthenware goblet. I used iglu dots to fasten the goblet to the center of the shallow dish as shown in the picture.

The goblet glued to the center of the dish with removable glue dots.
The goblet glued to the center of the dish with removable glue dots. | Source

The Foundation

Without my ring of foam I needed another foundation for the arrangement, so I cut a foam brick into smaller bricks roughly the same size, but not quite, in order to give me a more informal 'feel'. They were each at slightly different heights. Then these were wedged into the shallow dish.

Floral foam filled the shallow dish.
Floral foam filled the shallow dish. | Source

The Most Important Thing About Using Floral Foam

Many flowers wilt very quickly when taken out of water. You never have time to do flowers on the day of an event, so you need to sure they will still be looking good in a days time. The only way to do that is to make sure they have lots of water.

Soak the floral foam properly before you use it. Don't take shortcuts, don't force the foam under the water. Float it on water and let it absorb as much as it can. It doesn't take that long and if you rush the process, it could mean disaster.

This morning I had breakfast with the arrangement still in the center of the table. It looks just as fresh as it was on the day I made it, largely because the foam is still wet.

Floral foam in the process of being covered with moss.
Floral foam in the process of being covered with moss. | Source

Getting the 'Wild' Look

To get the look of a wild garden, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and cover the floral foam with moss. I bought two different colors of moss from my local craft store, and a box of greening pins which I used to attached the moss to the foam. I covered all the foam, and tucked moss in around the foam wherever possible.

Then it was time to fill around the moss using greenery. This can take quite a while if you work sprig by sprig, so I clipped small pieces and made them into bunches then wired them to small wooden floral picks.

Small green wooden picks are useful, you can wire several stems together just the way you want them, and then add to your arrangement.
Small green wooden picks are useful, you can wire several stems together just the way you want them, and then add to your arrangement. | Source
Spiral Eucalyptus in a small bunch wire to a pick for insertion in the foam
Spiral Eucalyptus in a small bunch wire to a pick for insertion in the foam | Source
Loops of tartan ribbon, wired to a floral pick.
Loops of tartan ribbon, wired to a floral pick. | Source

Using floral picks turned out to be particularly useful with the heather. Heather is supplied on single stems which are rather likes feather plumes. When you pull them apart to get small pieces to add to the arrangement, the smaller sprigs can fall apart, and can have very weak stems. Bunching them together allows you to arrange them on a small scale and then to wire the tender stems to sturdy wood, making it easier to push them into the oasis and make sure they get the water they need.

In addition to picks of spiral and seeded eucalyptus, I made picks from heather and from loops of tartan ribbon.

Ribbon has rather fallen out of favor in modern arrangements, with decorative wire taking its place. I like wire, and enjoy using it, but since I wanted this arrangement to have a Scottish theme, as well as a rustic appearance, I thought ribbon was more appropriate than wire. I would always use wire or ribbon to add an unusual color to a bouquet, as I'd prefer, for example, turquoise wire or ribbon to the revolting sight of sprayed or dyed fresh flowers.

The 'wild' look, beginning to take shape.
The 'wild' look, beginning to take shape. | Source

The next step was to add the daisies. To ensure that the 'wild' look is maintained, the stems were cut at different heights and some were added to the foam facing the 'wrong' way.

Then the ribbon loops were added, and the three white roses were gathered just below the flower and tied together with some more of the tartan ribbon. Then the rose stems were cut very short and the tiny posy was added to the goblet in the center of the dish.

The final arrangement on the dinner table. The table was dressed with a tartan table cover and full length white tablecloth.
The final arrangement on the dinner table. The table was dressed with a tartan table cover and full length white tablecloth. | Source

Dressing the Table

Lenox Nouveau Plaid Napkin Rings, Set of 4
Lenox Nouveau Plaid Napkin Rings, Set of 4

Tartan is the ideal for your table linens, but there is such a thing as too much tartan. If you prefer the look of crisp white table linen, why not use these napkin rings to add just a touch of Scotland to your table.


What I Learned From All This

There was a time in my life when serving food from a tin on a special occasion would have been embarrassing. That time has passed. The source of the food is not what's important. What matters is the company, and whether the food tasted good. It did.

With regard to the flowers, I learned to adapt and go with the flow. The finished arrangement didn't resemble the arrangement I planned, but it was attractive and appropriate to the event.

The roses I used were too large - spray roses would have been much better. I will bear this in mind for the future, but I know I'll always be restricted by what I can find.

The flowers are still in excellent condition five days after I arranged them. Next time I will work ahead, be sure I have the supplies I need, and arrange the flowers even further in advance, in order to have more time on the day of the event.

It was fun to do. I was surprised at the amount of china I own, so I aim to create a 'wardrobe' of table toppers and table cloths so we can sit down to a lovely table a little more often. We eat breakfast together at the table every day, but a three course meal around the table is becoming a rare thing. Maybe that's something I can change by adding a little 'celebration'.


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