If you’re Scottish of either the home-grown or diaspora ilk, you surely know that January 25 is the birthday of Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland. Born on that day in the village of Alloway in Ayrshire in 1759, Rabbie (as he was known) was a pioneer of the Romantic movement in poetry. Many of his verses and songs were written in the Scots dialect which made his work accessible to many who don’t think much of any poetry written in English. He was the poetic voice of Everyman in Scotland, a scoundrel, a lover, a romantic who found poetry in the most common of things. One of his poems—Ode To a Louse—was written about a wee mite working its way into the hair of a woman seated in front of him in church.
To this day, Scots revere, extol, and on his birthday, celebrate Rabbie Burns. This year, my wee wife and I, along with two other dear friends of Scottish descent, decided to host our own version of a Burns Supper, a feast of Scottish traditional fare that includes neeps (mashed rutabaga), tatties (mashed potatoes), and, of course, haggis, every true Scots’ favorite dish. Oh, and one other thing: malt whisky, spelled without an “e” in Scotland and always served neat.
Haggis has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. Burns called it “the chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.” It’s made with minced lamb, oats, and all matter of seasoned innards, all wrapped and boiled in a sheep’s bladder. It tastes much better than it sounds. In Scotland, a haggis always includes bits of lung, but that’s not allowed over here so kidney is used instead. I can’t tell the difference. Our haggis was prepared out in Wisconsin by a company called Scottish Gourmet—no, that’s not an oxymoron—and shipped to us packed in ice. We purchased two versions: five pounds of traditional haggis and two pounds of a “royal” version made with venison and whisky. All we had to do was steam to reheat.
A Burns Supper is more than just dinner. There is great ceremony to accompany the repast. There is the Selkirk Grace (attributed to Burns), The Address to the Haggis, the humorous Toast to the Immortal Memory, and last but not least a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne, perhaps Burns’ most famous song. The highlight of the show comes when the haggis is brought to the host on a silver salver, piped in by yours truly, fairly compensated with a deep dram of whisky served in a quaich, a two-handled chalice which in my case has been handed down over many generations.
After dinner, the fun really begins. There is often dancing but, alas, we were pinched for space. We were expecting around forty people at our supper, but the final head count was (I think) fifty-two. Everyone had been asked to contribute a bottle of malt whisky which if unconsumed could be retrieved at the end of the night. I saw lots of bottles arriving but only a few departing.
It was a wonderful affair, more than worthy of a poet well known for his tendency to excess. Everyone, kilted Scots and Sassenachs alike, got into the spirt of the evening—or should I say the spirits of the evening. People not generally known for erudition and eloquence began speaking in a Highland brogue, trilling their “r”s and using lilting grammatical formulations that have not been heard on this continent for over two hundred years.
At the end of the evening, we (the hosts) looked at each other and said, “What have we done?” Apparently, we created a monster, a haggis-loving monster that now needs repeating next year and every year thereafter. We might cull the guest list, but I have a feeling we’ll end up enlarging it; as one happy guest said in departing, “Looks like you’re going to need a bigger boat!”
I’m awa’ but dinna fasch: I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home 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