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Burns Matters

That’s the problem with Burns having a ‘’night’ (on 25th January): once it is over, I imagine that pretty much everyone south of the border (between England and Scotland) forgets about Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet and lyricist, and no one partakes of haggis until the next Burns Night comes around.

For the past few years, I have been called upon to read Burns’s poem Address to a Haggis at our family’s Burns Night supper. I read only the first and final verses rather than subject the family to the whole poem, given the impenetrable language of the piece. Despite the difficult language, it is always a pleasure to be asked to address the haggis in the traditional manner.

Burns Night was particularly special for me this year. In the morning, I was invited on to Danny Kelly’s BBC Radio WM morning show, during which a haggis was piped into the studio. My appearance on the show gave me an opportunity to talk about Burns and haggis, as well as read one of his other poems. I also squeezed in a mention of New Street Authors, the writers group to which I belong. (Thanks to the wonderful Helen, who writes sparkling thrillers as A. A. Abbott, who set up the gig.)

In the evening, I read a short autobiographical piece at the Burns Night event at the Gunmakers Arms in Birmingham. (Again, thanks to Helen for inviting me to read, “Being as how you are Scottish.”)

Burns’s friends held the first supper on the fifth anniversary of his death on 21 July 1801. Merchants who were born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns, founded the first and still extant Burns Club in Greenock in the same year. They held the club’s first Burns supper in 1802 on what was thought to be his birthday, 29 January. In 1803, they discovered that the Ayr parish records had noted that his date of birth was actually 25 January 1759. Since then, suppers have been held on or about 25 January the world over.

South of the border, haggis is probably only eaten on Burns Night. It occurs to me that Danny may not have partaken if he knew what goes into haggis. A traditional haggis comprises sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices (thyme, cloves, mace, and pepper and salt) mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and boiled.

In Scotland, haggis is more of an everyday food. At my granny’s, during childhood holidays, we had fried slices of haggis for breakfast: delicious with a fried egg on top.

Other uses of haggis include deep-fried haggis (and chips), haggis burger, and haggis pakora. These delicacies are, apparently, available in some fast-food outlets in parts of Scotland. I haven’t tried any of these, something that I hope to put right on my next visit to Scotland.

Evidence is inconclusive as the exact origins of Haggis. It probably dates back to the early 15th century in the north of England and south of Scotland. In essence, a haggis is a kind of sausage: a working person’s dish, which uses the cheap cuts of a sheep, well … more like the leftovers, really. Part of Address to a Haggis is – in translation – in praise to the chief of the sausage clan and is a celebration of a working man’s bill of fair.

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