The Slovenia Times

Love of poetry marks Slovenian-Scottish friendship


After two years of a Covid-related hiatus, the Society of Slovenian-Scottish Friendship resumed its beloved tradition of hosting the Burns-Prešeren Evening. The event married poetry and music with food, showcasing Scotland's haggis and Slovenia's štruklji.

The 23rd Burns-Prešeren Evening, held in Ljubljana's Slon Hotel on 4 February, revolved around three traditional focal points, poetry, music and food, and their role in bringing together different cultures and nations.

When it comes to an evening dedicated to Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) and Slovenian poet France Prešeren (1800-1849), poetry is naturally at the heart of such an event, Matjaž Vidmar, lecturer in engineering management at the University of Edinburgh, said in his introduction speech.

Poems by both poets were recited with Prešeren's Zdravljica (A Toast) setting in motion a series of poetry interpretations in both English and Slovenian, and even Scottish Gaelic made an appearance. The two poets were both 'the sons of the Romantic revolution and poetry," Edvard Kobal, the president of the Society of Slovenian-Scottish Friendship, told guests, describing the two national bards as "the glue between Slovenians and Scots".

There were also musical performances as music "has an important place in the national history of both Scotland and Slovenia", Vidmar told the guests. Flower of Scotland was performed, and different national types of bagpipes presented.

What likely came as a bit of surprise to the guests was the titbit that bagpipes, Scotland's national instrument, were also a typical Slovenian folk instrument in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the First World War, the custom of playing them died out in Slovenian lands, but lately they have been reintroduced in local traditions, especially in the south-eastern region of Bela Krajina.

The food part of the event was a typical Burns supper, the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties. There was whisky to be had and the sound of bagpipes to be enjoyed to give the evening even more of a Scottish flair. Celebrating Slovenian-Scottish friendship, the dinner also included sirovi štruklji, a typical Slovenian dish, best translated into English as rolled cheese dumplings.

In his welcome address, Kobal noted that last year Slovenia elected Nataša Pirc Musar its first woman president.

"Her commitment to human rights, her sense of justice and fairness, and thus advocacy for every Slovenian citizen, and her mission in the international community of nations are a source of satisfaction, pride and hope for all of us," Kobal said as he proposed a toast to the president.

Ben Stride, second secretary at the British Embassy in Ljubljana, covering foreign and security policy there, then made a toast to King Charles III. On behalf of UK Ambassador to Slovenia Tiffany Sadler, he thanked the organisers and pointed out that the event was a celebration of links between the UK and Slovenia, and Scotland and Slovenia.

On behalf of the embassy, he thanked Slovenia for the support after the death of Elizabeth II last year and for the celebration of her life and reign. "We had so many people coming to the embassy to sign the book of condolence, and it was very much appreciated," he said as he noted that this marked the first time he did a toast on behalf of the king.

The guest of honour of the event was Howie Firth, a mathematical physicist and the director of Orkney International Science Festival.

Firth and Kobal go way back as the former was a mentor to the latter in the early 1990s efforts to develop a Slovenian model of a national science festival, reads a passage from the book Slovenia and Scotland, Partners in Communication of Science that was authored by the pair.

Both Kobal and Firth have played an important part in Slovenian-Scottish cooperation in the efforts to popularize science. In 2017, Kobal, who holds a PhD in chemical sciences, was awarded Slovenia's Medal of Merit for his contribution to the popularization of science, and Firth was awarded the British MBE in 2003 for his dedication to science popularization.

Firth delivered the Selkirk Grace at the event, a prayer that is traditionally said before the Burns Night supper. When haggis later made a grand entrance, he also recited Burns's Address to a Haggis.

Haggis features at the Burns-Prešeren Evening with Edvard Kobal (first from the left) and Howie Firth (third from the left) in attendance. Photo: Domen Pal

The event was further spiced up by a raffle and a ceremony during which Mari Varoga, who is one of the driving forces behind the organisation of the Burns-Prešeren Evening and a co-founder of the Society of Slovenian-Scottish Friendship, received the association's special recognition in the form of Robert Burns single malt whisky, and Firth was formally announced the honorary member of the society.

The 23rd Burns-Prešeren Evening was held under the auspices of several partners, including the Slovenian Science Foundation and Kobal, who was the first director of this science organisation and is currently the president of its board of trustees.

The event was attended, among others, by members of another binational friendship society, the Slovenia-Liechtenstein Friendship Association, and members of the order of knights of Saint George.

Among the things that lingered in mind after the evening was over were Firth's words inspired by another Scottish poet and author George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), who wrote in his final book about a tavern where poets could drink together.

"It was, he said, at the far end of the universe, a million light-years beyond the Milky Way, and in that inn, he said, there was no closing time and no need to pay for the drinks that flowed," Firth told the guests, adding that this tavern is filled with laughter that has no end.

"We really know so little about all levels of existence that there may be. And that tavern at the far end of the universe sounds so real that maybe it indeed does exist and maybe at this very moment, while we are sitting here, Prešeren and Burns are sitting together in that tavern, joyfully sharing stories and laughing at each other."


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