Those of you who are of a similar persuasion will know that tonight is Burns Night. For those of you of some other persuasion, Burns Night is the annual celebration of the birthday and life of Scotland’s favorite poet, Robert Burns. The celebratory feast includes a traditional fare—haggis (more, later), neeps (mashed turnips), and tatties (mashed potatoes)—and a litany of toasts and speeches that include such standards as the Selkirk Grace, Burns own “Address to the Haggis,” a Toast to the Lassies, the Reply to the Laddies, and eventually, the Toast to the Immortal Memory (to Burns, of course), all washed down by wee drams of Scotland’s most famous export, its “water of life,” better known the world over as whisky.
The meal begins with a hearty Scottish soup, a worthy preamble to the main event. Cue the haggis: that savory, delectable cannonball to the stomach that Burns lauded as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.” Haggis is made from sheep’s offal (bits of heart, lung, and liver), mixed with onion, suet, oatmeal, salt, and seasoning, all boiled together in a bag traditionally made from the animal’s stomach. I know that may not sound like gourmet food to you, but then I bet neither does sweetbreads, or, for that matter, scrapple. You like scrapple, don’t you? (Not you, Eggman.)
Haggis arrives at the table to the skirl of the pipes. That’s usually my job. I like it because the hours are few and the pay is good. It comes, courtesy of the host, not in coin of the realm, but in the form of yet another wee dram, drained from a quaish, the traditional shallow two-handled Scottish drinking cup. Leave it to the Scots to invent a two-handled cup; it’s both graceful and highly functional because it steadies the hand so nary a drop is ever spilled. Waste not, want not!
And the meal goes on and on, toast after toast. By the time dessert arrives (cranachan or perhaps tipsy laird), the mood is, well, jovial. Only after the last wee dram is sipped and savored, the host may call for a vote of thanks, and it’s then that the revelers will stand, link hands and arms, and join in singing Burns’ most beloved song, “Auld Land Syne.”
The first Burns Night was hosted by a handful of Burns friends and held, in memoriam, in 1801, just five years after the Bard’s death. The first two celebratory Burns Nights were actually held on January 29, but upon closer examination of the Ayrshire parish records, it was determined that Burns was actually born on the 25th, and subsequent celebrations observed that date. The Scottish Parliament considers Burns Night to be an important cultural heritage event. Some think this is because Burns was the first poet to write in Scots, one of the indigenous languages of Scotland, but I think it has as much to do with ensuring that Scotland’s consumption of whisky remains, well, let’s say world-class. No doubt, Burns himself would have approved. A modest man, he was nevertheless known for well, let’s say, his less than angelic behavior, an admirable trait apparently not lost on the lassies of Ayrshire.
So Slainte Mhath to all, and never may the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley!
I’ll be right back. Well, maybe the day after tomorrow…
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com