***January 25 is the anniversary of the birth of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns (25 January 1759 - 21 July 1796.) Every year, on or about the 25th, Scottish societies around the world celebrate with a Burns Night. The exact makeup of the night may vary, but certain elements are essential. To be a true Burns night, you must have a haggis, and a reading of Burn's poem celebrating this "chieftain o' the pudding race." Oh, and of course, whiskey is required!
Robert Louis Stevenson said: "The mark of a Scot of all classes [is that] he ... remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation."
I'm a proud descendant of the auld soil, from my maternal grandmother's side. My great-grandfather, John Dallas, emigrated from Scotland to the Scottish settlement in eastern Ohio. There, he met and married his first cousin, Jennie Dallas, a first generation American. I never met either of them, but have heard stories about them. Grandma Jennie lived to be 95 years old, and outlived Grandpa John, despite being 17 years older than he was. Apparently, she was a tough old lady and very strict, especially when it came to honoring the Sabbath day. My mother remembers Grandpa John dangling her on his knee, singing her Scottish nonsense songs.
Ever since I learned my family's history, and especially since I visited the village of Cawdor where my great-grandfather and his family lived, I have felt close to my Scottish heritage, and what better way to celebrate than to attend a Burns Night supper. This year, my uncle scored some tickets from a friend, and invited us to join them at the Caledonian Society event.
[Caledonia is the Latin name for Scotland. It dates from the days of the Roman invasion into Britannia, when the northern territory was inhabited by the Picts, a wild race of barbarians who painted themselves blue and fought naked against the Romans.]
The entry hall was decorated with flags of the various clans, and most people wore a bit of their family's colors. The truly dedicated men donned the full Scottish rig, including, of course, a kilt.
This gentleman relaxed the rules, being authentic below and contemporary above the waist.
But, most men followed the strict attire of a Scotsman, dressed to the nines.
The "man purse" in front is called a sporran. Since kilts don't have pockets, you need a bag like this to carry your wallet, keys, or other personal possessions. Everyday sporrans are made of leather, like the one below.
Dress sporrans are only suitable for special occasions. Traditionally, horsehair sporrans, like the one below, are worn with regimental attire or by pipers.
This sporran was the most unique of the evening. It is, in fact, an actual lynx. I was a bit disturbed by this one, especially when I saw it in use. The head is folded over the neck opening. Apparently, a sporran made of an animal pelt may be worn for any occasion.
I asked the owner of this sporran about its origin. He assured me the lynx lived a long and full life, with a wife and many children, and in the end, was happy to lay down his life for the cause. I wasn't convinced. I don't think I would want a sporran like this one.
However, I was tempted by this T-shirt:
20 year Scotch: $68.99
Pub Crawling: $154.36
16 oz Clan Kilt: $650.00
Airfare to Glasgow: $1390.00
Invading England - Priceless!"
A Burns night supper usually opens with the Selkirk Grace:
- Some hae meat and canna eat,
- And some wad eat that want it;
- But we hae meat, and we can eat,
- Sae let the Lord be thankit.
The meal may include neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), cock-a-leekie soup (chicken stock with leeks and potatoes), or other Scottish food. Every dinner is different, but the one essential course is the haggis. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish. There are many recipes, but the main ingredients include various organ meats, called "pluck" (heart, liver, lungs) mixed with pin oats, onions, suet and various spices. The mixture is minced and stuffed into a sheep's stomach, then boiled for three hours. Yum, yum - just like Mamma used to make!
(I didn't get a photo of the actual haggis that night, so I had to borrow these from the web.)
Much pomp and circumstance attends the presentation of the haggis. A piper leads the procession, followed by the haggis borne on a silver platter. One man carries the knife which will be used to cut the haggis, another crossed whiskey bottles, and another bears a sword. Just watch this video (sorry, it's a bit shaky. I was overwhelmed with emotion!)
After the haggis is piped in and admired, a reading of Burns' great work, "Ode to a Haggis" preceeds the opening of the pudding with a ceremonial knife. The poem is long and generally incomprehensible. At authentic Burns' dinners, they find the man with the thickest brogue to recite it, so that no one has a clue as to what is being said. The first verse goes like this:
"Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm."
The standard English translation:
"Fair full your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm."
I will spare you the other seven stanzas. At the conclusion of the recitation, the haggis is sliced open, the worshippers raise their whiskey glasses in a toast, proclaiming "To the haggis!" and the most fool-hearty ones partake of the delicacy on crackers, a bit like pate.
As much fun as this is, I suspect that Burns Night is a bit like Saint Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo, a much bigger deal in the US than in its native land. They do still make and serve haggis in Scotland - I have had it there a couple of times - but I think it is more for the tourists than the locals.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't feed you the folklore about hunting haggis. The story goes, these indigenous creatures are threatened in their native Highlands. You see, the haggis is not a bright creature, and is being hunted into extinction. One major problem is that their legs are longer on one side of their body than on the other, so that a haggis must stand on a hillside. As they graze 'round the mountains, they continually climb uphill. Thus, to hunt one, all you need to do is chase it to the summit, whereupon they are quite easy to capture. If you want to help Save Haggis In Trouble, you can click on this link.
And, if you believe that, I have some scales from Nessie I would be willing to sell you.