To paraphrase Laurie Colwin, the world divides unequally between those who love haggis (not too many) and those who loathe and fear it (most). Tomorrow is Robert Burns’s birthday, aka Burns Night, which is to say, probably the zenith of the haggis-eating year. Whether this strikes dread or delight into your hearts, I cannot say.
Burns—aka the Ploughman Poet, aka Robden of Solway Firth, aka the Bard of Ayrshire—was a poet, folklorist, lyricist, radical, bon vivant, womanizer, and, during his lifetime, certainly the greatest promoter of Scottish history and culture. Sir Walter Scott (no slouch himself in the mythologizing department) met the poet as a teenager in Edinburgh and later recalled,
His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents … I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.
The first Burns Supper was held in June 1802, not many years after the poet’s death at age thirty-seven. But, perhaps on the thinking that haggis and whiskey are best enjoyed in frigid weather, the celebration has for some time now been held on January 25. The traditional Burns Supper contains a number of prescribed steps, including the Selkirk Grace (allegedly penned by Burns for the Earl of Selkirk), a Toast to the Lassies, a Toast to the Laddies, speeches, “Auld Lang Syne,” and muckle, muckle piping.
As we all know, we Americans love celebrating our heritage, no matter how distant such connections may be. Sometime in the early nineteenth century some of my grandfather’s relatives came over from Skye, and family lore has it that this branch of the tree is responsible both for a persistent strain of manic depression and the fact that occasionally someone has sort of reddish hair. (I think at some point my brother, whose middle name is MacKinnon, had a tartan tie, too, from one of the Scottish stores full of cashmere and kilts.) And that’s good enough for me! I don’t go in for throwing trees and wearing sporrans or anything, and the reels look really hard, but I’m a sucker for bagpipes. The spot where I enjoy my annual haggis (a pub in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village) does a somewhat abbreviated version of things, but of course the haggis is piped in, borne by a brae kilted lad, and the “Address to a Haggis” is recited in stentorian tones. I might wear a tam o’shanter. And just in memory of my heritage, take an Abilify at the table, washed down with Glenlivet.
This poem was published in an Edinburgh periodical, the Caledonian Mercury, on December 20, 1786.
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my 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
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 feckless as 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 mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your 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!