Thoughts on Burns Night: Haggis, Scotch, and Authenticity

The cottage leaves the palace far behind
– “Cotter’s Saturday Night”, l. 168

Every January 25th unknown numbers of people around the world, for largely unknown reasons, gather to celebrate something called “Burns Night”. Usually these celebrations involve the drinking of Scotch whisky, the eating of something called “haggis” and (sometimes) the reciting of a brief bit of poetry about the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race” in the 18th Century Scots dialect of English, pronounced with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. The whole thing is usually great fun, which is likely the reason the traditions continues: there simply aren’t that many actual Scottish, poetry-loving haggis-eaters in this world and I suspect the vast majority of celebrants know little about haggis, Scotch whisky, Scotland, or the rakish farmer-poet from Alloway, Robert Burns. Certainly few are able to call to mind even a single line of Burns’ verse apart, perhaps, from “Auld land syne . . .”.

Here are a few more lines:

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
– “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose”, ll. 5-12.

Robert Burns, the man whose “Imortal Memory” tradition has us toast on his Night, was born a tenant farmer in 1759 in the village of Alloway in the Western Lowlands of Scotland. His father was a bit of a self-taught polymath and made great effort to support his family and to educate his children, with greater success in the latter endeavour. Robert was schooled, both at home and more formally, in Latin, French, and English literature. This learning helped him little in escaping the back-breaking and fairly hopeless life of the tenant farmer, but it certainly provided him with forms and fodder for his poetry. Many of his most accessible pieces are love poems written in the early years of a short life. Burns spent a great deal of time, it seems, trying to convince servant girls, barmaids, and female farm workers to be his muses and lovers. At least three of his illegitimate children – not counting the four children his future wife, Jean Armour, bore him out of wedlock – are the product of his “encounters” with such “muses”. A modern sensibility can’t help but be disturbed by the power dynamic of Burns’ first reproductive success, in 1785, involving Elizabeth Paton, a servant girl in his mother’s household. Was this what we would call love? Or was it rape, one of uncountable #MeToo moments of history?

By whatever name, these “seductions” soon became a pattern of Burns’ life. In November 1788, a few years after his encounter with Elizabeth Paton, after Burns found himself sexually shut out by a lady who struck his fancy, her servant, Jenny Claw, perhaps unsurprisingly, in due course, bore Burns a son in November, 1788. In March of the same year, Jean Armour, still not married, had borne Burns twins again. The children sadly did not outlive the month. At this point, Burns had just eight more years to live and was to father six more (known) children, five by Jean Armour and one by a Dumfries barmaid, Ana Park, in 1891. The last child, a son, was born four days after his father’s death in July of 1796.

Burns was clearly, if not selflessly, devoted to sex. He was also devoted to drink and to good, simple, hearty food. But Burns also made desperate attempts to continue to make a living as a farmer, a habit which remained with him even after his poems brought him success in Edinburgh. His first volume of poems, descriptively titled “Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, caught the eye of an Edinburgh publisher who brought out an edition in the big city in April of 1787 and paid Burns quite handsomely. Burns was, for a time, the toast of the town, hobnobbing with the gentlemen and ladies and ladies’ maids particularly. He abandoned plans to emigrate to a new life in Jamaica, apparently thinking Scotland had become more hopeful for him. In time, however, he alienated many of his new friends with his common man republican sympathies, first for the American Revolution, and later for the revolution in France. He turned from city life, bought a new farm and continued to write. But this farm failed too, as had so many for his family. He moved to Dumfries, fathered a last child, joined a volunteer military unit in 1795, apparently to prove his loyalty to the Crown, and died a year later at the age of 37.

Some blamed drink. Some blamed the hard labour of his life. He had declined a position at a newspaper in London. He had declined a candidacy for the Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University. He had, quite simply, declined.

Is it this fairly melancholy life that we celebrate on Burns Night? An old mentor of mine, Dr. R. J. S. Grant, wrote a study of Burns titled “The Laughter of Love”. But where is this laughter? Where this love? In this life? Perhaps Burns tells us himself what to celebrate in his “Epistle to James Smith”, a letter in verse to his good friend and companion in drink and the seduction of the women of Mauchline:

Some rhyme a neibor’s name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.

The star that rules my luckless lot,
Has fated me the russet coat,
An’ damn’d my fortune to the groat;
But, in requit,
Has blest me with a random-shot
O’countra wit.
– ll. 25-36

Burns says clearly here that whatever other reasons he may have for writing verse – he certainly wrote his share of political pieces – always the prime driver of his work is fun. He is quite clear that his fortune in life has been meagre, but there’s that random-shot of country wit he’s been granted, and he is determined to use it. Burns seems never to have had much ambition beyond ploughing a straight furrow, getting enough to eat and drink, satisfying his lust, and, most of all, writing verse.

Then farewell hopes of laurel-boughs,
To garland my poetic brows!
Henceforth I’ll rove where busy ploughs
Are whistlin’ thrang,
An’ teach the lanely heights an’ howes
My rustic sang.

I’ll wander on, wi’ tentless heed
How never-halting moments speed,
Till fate shall snap the brittle thread;
Then, all unknown,
I’ll lay me with th’ inglorious dead
Forgot and gone!
– ll. 49-60

Perhaps the only ambition he ever satisfied in life was this quest for fun. And, although he claimed not to want it, he achieved a remarkably wide, if somehow shallow, fame in death. His goals in life were simple:

While ye are pleas’d to keep me hale,
I’ll sit down o’er my scanty meal,
Be’t water-brose or muslin-kail,
Wi’ cheerfu’ face,
As lang’s the Muses dinna fail
To say the grace.
– ll. 139-145

It is in his poetry, not his melancholy life, that Burns finds for himself and passes to us the fun he seeks in simple things, in food and drink and human companionship. It is here, in the poetry, that Dr. Grant hears “The Laughter of Love”. The memory of joy preserved and transmitted in his verse is the truly Immortal Memory that is toasted at any Burns Dinner worth its Salt:

On January 25th each year we drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of the poet of the laughter of love and for one brief, shining moment we are one with our dear ones, one with our fellow men and women, one with the little mouse with whom we share a common destiny and mortality.
– R.J.S. Grant, The Laughter of Love: A Study of Robert Burns, p. 168

This unity is surely the hope gestured to at Burns Night Dinners, but what does the obscure national dish of a small country have to do with sharing “a common destiny and mortality” with the people of the world?

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
– “To a Haggis”, ll.1-2

Much wailing and face-pulling can be heard and seen at any mention of haggis-eating. This rather ordinary food product has acquired, due, I suspect, to a great deal of manly-Fear-Factor-inflation of the gross-out possibilities of organ-meats-I-have-eaten-in-my-life when good buddies get together – this haggis has acquired a bit of a reputation for being inedible or, at the very least, somehow disgusting. But consider: a principle ingredient is onion, one of the most common vegetables in almost any national cuisine. Another is minced liver, considered a delicacy under the name “paté”. Perhaps haggis needs a French accent to be acceptable to food snobs. Oatmeal goes into the beast as well, that common, warming breakfast staple. Perhaps heart is not so common in the North American diet as it once was, but a wonderful, flavourful muscle nonetheless, and one that any steak-lover would be foolish to ignore. It’s all stuffed into some bit of an animal’s digestive tract (traditionally the stomach, they say) exactly as the finest sausages are stuffed.

“But”, you shout, still anxious for the gross-out, “what about the lungs?!”

Yes, much is made, particularly by the Scottish National Chamber of Commerce and such protectors of all things Scottish, that haggis must contain the lungs – the lights as they’re also known – of the animal. Well, I have news for all living Scots at home and abroad: a dead Scot says you’re wrong. On page 160 of F. Marion McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Recipes, published in 1929, in a “Traditional Cottage Recipe” for haggis, we read “A little lean mutton may be substituted for the lights.” To further destroy the tyranny of modern haggis convention, Ms. McNeill also suggests on the very same page that haggis may be made in a jar, or in a pan “like a stew”. Haggis is beginning to look a lot like that paté after all. To be honest, when I am asked about haggis (as, odd to say, I often am) I ask back “do you like paté?” If their face scrunches up and they say “no” I tell them “you won’t like haggis”. But if their face brightens and they say “yes” I’ll say with confidence, “give it a try.”

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody 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 make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
– “To a Haggis”, ll. 25-42

While Burns’ Address “To a Haggis” is great fun and a bit of a hype-machine itself, the dish described is no mystery. It is exactly what Burns says it is: a hearty, filling, satisfying, rich, and flavourful dish fit for the taste of a hard working rustic. It isn’t meant for those who want their “authentic”, vegan, freegan, gluten-friendly (although haggis usually is that), organic, hipster, fashionable fricassees and French ragouts. Haggis is for quelling hunger, and that is why Burns praises haggis, the “Great chieftain o’the pudding race”, as “honest” in the first line of his poem. Haggis is not, and should not be, pretentious. It is rustic food, food made with what is on hand in an 18th Century Scottish farmer’s simple home, authentic with no need to be labelled such.

This life, sae far’s I understand,
Is a’ enchanted fairy-land,
Where Pleasure is the magic-wand,
That, wielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand,
Dance by fu’ light.
– “To James Smith”, ll. 67-72

And consider Scotch Whisky, “O thou, my Muse!” as Burns names it in the invocation of “Scotch Drink”. Today, Scotch Whisky, even of the most inferior blended sort, is a premium product. A fairly fine bottle can easily cost a day’s labour at minimum wage, and it wouldn’t be hard to drop two days’ wages for something only a little better. In Burns’ day, in contrast, Scotch Whisky was the labourer’s drink, “the poor man’s wine” (“Scotch Drink”, l. 40). Compare Canada today, where a more than decent wine can be had on sale at Superstore for less than an hour’s labour. When Burns celebrates Scotch Drink in the poem of that name, he is celebrating the home-grown, common people’s, inexpensive, consoling tipple at the end of the working day. “Scotch Drink” and the “Address to a Haggis” are nothing other than celebrations of what would today be termed Food Security, By Local, and the One Hundred Mile Diet.

For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast

Is ta’en awa!

“Scotch drink”, ll.113-114

After the Scottish nationalist rebelion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie had been brutally crushed at Cullodden, the English Crown rewarded families who had remained loyal with gifts such as charters of excise tax exemptions. On the basis of such a loyalty exemption, the Forbes family dominated the Whisky industry for over a century from their distilleries at Farintosh. But in time the Crown recinded the Forbes’ charter. When Burns laments “Thee, Ferintosh, O sadly lost!” he is not lamenting the closure of a distillery that made his favourite, authentic, small batch three-hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch. He is lamenting, rather, the loss of a large scale distillery that produced copious quantities of affordable (cheap) hooch that flooded the Highlands and the Lowlands and helped to keep the labouring classes happy for at least a century. Ferintosh was the common man’s drink, a dozen levels below Johnnie Walker Red Label, sort of the two-four of Lucky Lager of the day.

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’ . . .
– “Scotch Drink”, ll. 109-12

Take the haggis of Burns’ day, with neeps and tatties if you wish, add his affordable Ferintosh whisky, and compare these to the great pomp and formal ceremony of one of the umpteeen Burns Night Dinners at fancy hotels around the world each January. Would the Burns we have seen, the Burns of the common people, the Burns who turned down a job in London and a University position to return to the rural plough – would this Burns, “our Rabbie”, be comfortable at that fancy hotel, do you think? Perhaps briefly, but he would soon be in the kitchen, harassing the waitresses, sharing a box lunch with the dishwasher, and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of his drunken lungs!

Burns was a respecter of neither pretension nor of authority. He was of rustic stock and never lost his love for the simple things of a working man’s life. If you want to celebrate Burns Night in the true spirit of Burns, don’t seek out haggis or Scotch whisky (unless they’re the sorts of food and drink the ordinary working people would eat and drink where you live) and don’t read 18th century Scottish verse if you only read it once a year and don’t understand it anyway. In my town a true Burns Night would probably involve something like beer and pizza with friends and family with whatever music brings you and your dear ones together. Maybe even something about the old sod by Spirit of the West.

If you are at a Burns Dinner this January 25th, or any January 25th, please take a moment to read “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, and raise a glass of something affordable to a poet of the common people, a poet devoted to fun above all else, and stuff your face with comfort food, whatever that may be in your country, with your family and friends.

Wave that magic-wand of pleasure he mentioned to his friend James Smith, and have fun in the fairy-land of life!

We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And tho’ the puny wound appear,
Short while it grieves.
– “To James Smith”

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3 comments on “Thoughts on Burns Night: Haggis, Scotch, and Authenticity

  1. And if you have the chance, listen to Jean Redpath sing “Wantonness For Ever Mair” (or any other Burns poem set to music) for a true pleasure. Even better with a little dram of Islay malt.

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