Robert Burns, the bard poet of Scotland , was born on January 25, 1759. He became the voice of Scotland with his poetry and song. In 1801, on the fifth anniversary of his death, nine men who knew him well gathered to have a memorial dinner in Robbie’s honor. There was ritual and remembrances, and a toast at the end.
Oh, and haggis. More on that later.
Thus began the tradition of the Burns Supper. Around January 25, people and organizations hold the traditional Burns Supper to remember Robert Burn’s legacy. And it is quite a party.
First, everyone gathers and chats, and checks out the whiskey selection. Many varieties are offered, from light Scotches to my favorite, the dark, peaty, malty ones.
Next is the call to the table by the host and the Selkirk Grace is recited:
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 soup course is then served. The Cullen-Skirk soup is traditionally served. It is a creamy fish and leek soup. Click here for the recipe.
The next part is my favorite–The Parade of the Haggis. A bagpiper leads the procession and “pipes in the haggis” to the guests. The chef follows the piper, and presents the haggis to each of the guests. The haggis is then placed on the table in front of the host, and a reciter will read the “Address to a Haggis”:
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s me arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ trissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind yer 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!
To see what this means in English, you can find the translation here.
Whiskey is offered to the chef, the reciter and the piper, and the host ceremoniously slices open the haggis with a dirk-a small dagger- but any sharp knife will do.
About haggis. This is a dish that was made in the fields by shepherds watching over their flocks. It was one of those meals that was born out of necessity. Haggis consists of sheep heart, liver and lungs, ground up, with oatmeal, onion or leek, spices, salt and some stock. It was encased into the sheep’s stomach and boiled or steamed. Before you get turned off by this, try it. It is quite delicious. I love it. Haggis is served with “neeps and tatties”-turnips and potatoes. You can find a contemporary haggis recipe here.
After the meal, it is time for songs and poems. And more whiskey. The host will deliver the Immortal Memory Address, which is a biographical telling about Robert Burns, and ends with a toast to the Bard.
Guests are invited to read from Burns’ poems and to perform songs, and this is great fun! Some folks have the Scottish brogue down, others, not so much. Again, more whiskey…
Next up is the Toast to the Lassies– a light-hearted lampoon of the shortcomings of women. But fear not, ladies, because next is the Reply From the Lassies– an opportunity to note the shortcomings of men. This is all done in fun and with great wit. You can read both the Address and Reply here.
And now for the reading of one of Burns’ most epic poems, “Tam O’Shanter”. It is a tale of drunkenness, debauchery, witches and ghosts. And the hero of the story is Tam’s horse, Maggie. You can read both the Scottish and English version here.
The evening progresses with more songs, poems and dancing. The host will then do some closing remarks, thanking the chef and the piper and all who attended and raising a toast or two or three.
The finale of the evening is for everyone to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. Nope, it’s not really a New Year’s Eve song. This is a song about friendship and the gladness of celebrating together. You can see the Scottish and English translation here.
Once Auld Lang Syne is sung, the evening is officially over.
If you would like to go to a Burns Supper, look for a Scottish Society in your area that may be hosting one. Or hold one yourself. It’s a bonnie auld tradition, full of fun and friends, with literature and drama.
Oh and whiskey…