Last week, as I was mulling the approach of Burns Night, wondering whether to add a haggis to the food shop, up popped an email from National Trust for Scotland, entitled, ‘who was Robert Burns?’. It was then that I realised I really didn’t know that much about Burns, or the night dedicated to him.
So I had a read.
And, 262 years after Burns was born, here is the result! This week’s post is in two parts; some thoughts for the mind and then some recipes for the stomach.
Some thoughts for the mind
- What is Burns Night?
The main things people outside Scotland usually know about Burns Night are that it takes place in January, relates to Scottish poet Robert Burns, and that a poem is read out over a haggis. I’m ashamed to say that’s about as much as I knew too.
Burns Night is an annual toast and celebration to Scotland’s National Bard, cherished and famous around the world for his poetry and music, which of course includes the New Year classic Auld Lang Syne (Good Old Times).
Burns is about as close to the heart of Scottish culture as it’s possible to be – as is the supper that celebrates him. Burns suppers have been taking place at Scottish dinner tables on and around 25th January for over 200 years.
2. A Burns Supper
Although I’m sure different Scots have their different ways of celebrating (there are over 130 Scottish whisky distilleries to choose from, for a start), there is a certain order to Burns Supper proceedings.
For a few pointers, I turned to the excellent book How to Celebrate Burns Night.
Full disclaimer, the book was written by my ex-boss, proud Scotsman Daniel Bee. Daniel has hosted many legendary Burns Suppers in Edinburgh, London and L.A. over the years, raising lots of money for charity in the process, so he knows his neeps from his tatties.
Order of events:
- Piping in the guests
- Formal welcome
- The Selkirk Grace prayer, attributed to Burns
- Piping in the haggis (bagpipes optional)
- A reading of Burns’s Address to the Haggis and a whisky toast to the haggis
- Dinner, which could include Cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) soup followed by the essential dish of haggis, neeps and tatties* and a Scottish dessert which could be raspberry cranachan or Tipsy Laird whisky trifle. All washed down with drams of whisky.
- After dinner entertainment – performances of Burns’s songs, including A Red, Red Rose, To a Mouse, Ae Fond Kiss.
- The Immortal memory address – a keynote speech written by the speaker, tailored to the audience. It could be entirely about Burns, mull over the issues of the day (we’ve a fair few at the moment) or focus on jokes and anecdotes. What is essential is that Robert Burns and some of his works must get a mention, and afterwards the speaker must conclude with a toast ‘To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!’
- A toast to the lassies – traditionally this was a humorous address to the women present who would likely have been in the kitchen cooking the haggis, and over the years has become a chance to praise the role of women in the world today. Concluding with the raising of glasses ‘To the Lassies!’
- Reply to the toast to the lassies – from the lassies in question (whether in thanks, jest or revenge)
- Closing words from the master of ceremonies
- Joining hands for Auld Lang Syne
* neeps means turnips, but what is known in Scotland as a turnip is known in England as a swede. It’s the one that’s orange inside. Tatties = potatoes.
3. Who was Robert Burns?
To understand why Burns has achieved such a legendary status in Scotland, I recommend reading or listening to any of his poems and songs. (I would say my favourites so far are A Red, Red Rose, Ay Waukin, O and To Daunton Me).
He didn’t just write beautifully and with passion, he wrote in Scots rather than English, keeping alive a minority language for generations to come.
And his story is one of humble beginnings, an overnight rise to fame and an untimely death, all of which adds to the impact of his work and legacy.
Burns was born in 1759 into a farming family, his father having built the cottage they lived in, in Alloway next to Ayr and near Glasgow. Though his parents weren’t well off, they insisted he be educated well.
In 1784, after Burns’s father died, he and his brother Gilbert tried to keep the farm going, but they were never keen on farming as a way of life (Burns was more interested in poetry, nature, women and drink, not necessarily in that order), and the farm suffered financial losses.
Tangled love affairs, ripped up marriage contracts, attempts to move to the Caribbean and an illegitimate child. All this before the publication in 1786 of Burns’s first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which turned him into a superstar at 27. It included the poem To a Mouse which is often read on Burns Night.
Subsequently settling down and marrying Jean Armour (good surname), Burns moved with her to Dumfries, where he worked on many more famous works, as well as on building up a big brood of children.
In 1796, in the prime of his career, he died of a rheumatic heart condition at the age of just 37. His last child, Maxwell, was born on the day of his funeral.
Robert Burns left behind hundreds of poems,songs and tunes that have inspired a nation as well as countless famous poets, and his most famous song Auld Lang Syne is sung the world over at New Year, and on Burns Night.
4. So how did Burns Night actually come about?
Five years after Burns’s death and still grieving, nine of his friends met in July 1801 at the family cottage in Alloway. They toasted his life, read some of his work and sang his songs over a moreish menu of haggis and sheep’s head.
The Greenock Ayrshire Society took the idea and formally started Burns Suppers, and in subsequent years the celebration caught on more widely, especially after novelist Sir Walter Scott hosted a big literary Burns Supper in Edinburgh in 1815.
5. Get yer facts straucht
- I’m calling him Robert Burns, but lots of Scots call him Rabbie Burns.
- You can visit the family cottage, now called Burns Cottage, which is part of the birthplace museum run by National Trust for Scotland.
- The year after Burns’s nine friends met, they decided to meet on his birthday instead, except they got the date wrong (his own friends!) and met on 29th January. In 1803 they sorted themselves out and met on the date of his actual birthday, 25th January.
- Burns had to have enjoyed haggis to write Address to a Haggis in 1786, but he likely wanted to read it over dinner at a friend’s house in Edinburgh, where he’d recently moved. There is a more romantic idea that he wrote the poem on the fly, after enjoying a particularly tasty haggis one night. Read both the Scottish and English version of it here.
- Many of those celebrating their own at-home Burns Nights this year will already have held them, as it’s popular to use the weekend when Burns Night falls on an early weekday. Then again, each day is like the next at the moment so why not celebrate on a Monday?!
Some recipes for the stomach
For those of you who eat meat but haven’t tried haggis – I highly recommend it! Veggie and vegan-friendly haggis is everywhere too, I had some in a pub in the Hebrides that had a great taste and texture.
The picture above is how we tend to think of haggis, and it’s actually quite misleading; these are in their casing, which you don’t eat. I won’t deny I felt a little trepidation opening up mine today, not sure how it would appear, but it was a bit like crumbly mince.
Below are some recipe ideas that I hope will convince you to give haggis or veggie haggis a go!
Haggis croquettes with an apple and mustard sauce
I bought a haggis expressly to give these a go, spotting the recipe in a December issue of the Waitrose newspaper. I made my breadcrumbs using a mix of white bread and some sourdough made a few days ago – adds a bit more bite to the coating I think. I also replaced the English mustard with Dijon mustard. The croquettes are quite filling, but the tangy sauce balances beautifully with them.
My first taste of haggis was in September when I tried these delicious haggis pakoras, in the Isles Inn pub in Portree on the Hebridean island of Skye.
With any leftover haggis I’m hoping to recreate them, with this recipe. (Though I’ll cheat and use shop bought sauces).
All the haggis
The haggis I bought came from the award-winning Scottish butcher Simon Howie’s brand, you can find out more about their products here.
Better known, and with lots of awards too, haggis-makers Macsween prove haggis’s versatility as an ingredient, with a great recipe section on their website, using both haggis and veggie haggis.
I’ll give Burns the last word:
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!