Friday, January 29, 2010


Poetry, Haggis and Uisge Beatha

…a welcome way to enjoy the traditions of Scotland and escape the winter blues.
The celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s National Poet always seems to come at such an appropriate time for a party. The end of January can be so dark and dreary and the holidays seem to have been months ago. The annual observation of the anniversary of the birth of the Bard of Ayr (25 January 1759) is a welcome way to enjoy the traditions of Scotland and escape the deep winter blues.

…many people are probably familiar with his work, even if they don’t know it.
It doesn’t require the celebrants to be Scottish or even to be a fan of Burns’ poetry, even though many people are probably familiar with his work, even if they don’t know it. Burns’ poetry is studied in literature classes, of course but many of his themes are part of popular culture. Virtually anyone who has noted a New Year’s celebration has undoubtedly heard the classic Burn’s version of the song Auld Lang Syne (roughly meaning “old times past.”) Although not many know the lyrics to the whole thing, we all are familiar with the first few words, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…?”

… a poet and lyricist who wrote in the Scots dialect.
Other well known poems include A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s A Man for A’ That, Tam o’Shanter, and To A Mouse. John Steinbeck took the title of his 1937 work, Of Mice and Men from a line in the 2nd to last stanza in To A Mouse. As well as being a poet and lyricist who wrote in the Scots dialect, Burns was also dedicated to collecting and preserving Scottish folk songs, fairy tales and legends.

… rollicking good party.
The custom of commemorating Burns’ birthday dates from the year 1802 and has evolved into a fairly standard format although different groups tend to develop their distinct interpretations. My first encounter with this rollicking good party came about 20 years ago when I was teaching cooking at Tennessee’s Maryville College. Founded in 1819 by a Presbyterian minister, Maryville College is one of the 50 oldest colleges in the US and continues to maintain a keen interest in its Scottish roots.

… ordinary people and their everyday lives.
Maryville College was racially integrated from the earliest days and conferred the first college degree to a female in the state of Tennessee. Facts that would undoubtedly pleased the socially progressive Robert Burns very much, as Burns was a man of the people that hated slavery and loved liberty. Indeed it was ordinary people and their everyday lives that Burns sought to describe in his poetry, albeit with a rather satirical style.

... the idea of celebrating Robert Burns.
At that time, the head of the Non Credit Department at the college, Ms. Lew Rudisill (being of a Scottish lineage herself) introduced me to the idea of celebrating Robert Burns at a festival sponsored by Maryville College. For a number of years we not only enjoyed the Burns Night Supper, but also conducted a series of cooking classes exploring the recipes and dishes that would ultimately be served at the dinner.

… it becomes very important to pace ones self.

In the last couple of decades I’ve always noted the Bard’s birthday, sometimes with grand occasions, sometimes with just a “wee toast.” Actually “toasting” is an essential element of a Burns Supper, as there can easily be half dozen toasts or more. As each toast requires the raising of a glass, it becomes very important to pace ones self. A formal Burns Night celebration can feature poetry reading, music, dancing, singing, toasts, speeches and the dinner itself. The meal can include 3 or 4 courses and usually includes the ceremonial introduction of the Haggis. For many, this is the high point of the affair.

… some might say infamous.
Haggis is one of the most famous (some might say infamous) traditional foods of Scotland. In one of his poems, To A Haggis, that is read before serving the Haggis. He calls the dish “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” This Scottish specialty consists of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with minced organ meats, oats, onions, spices which is then steamed for several hours. Although Haggis can now be legally imported from Scotland, I have always prepared a simplified “skinless or bagless” version that satisfies tradition and that Americans seem more willing to sample.

A printed program is often provided helping to keep the poetry, toasts and the “wee drams” more or less in order. Decorations can feature heather, thistles and plaid designs.


Knoxville, Tennessee

Presented by


Ancestral Home: Lowlands of Scotland

Symbol: Sprigs of Bay Laurel

Motto: Virtus Semper Viridis “Virtue is always flourishing”

After the host welcomes the guests, the Selkirk Grace (attributed to Burns) is offered and an appetizer is served with the first glass of spirits.

The Selkirk Grace

Some hae meat and cannot eat.

Some cannot eat that want it.

But we hae meat and we can eat.

Sae let the Lord be thankit.

Next the participants observe the toasts and begin enjoying the meal.

The Traditional Toasts

The Loyalty Toast

The Immortal Memory

To the Lasses

Response: To the Laddies

To A Haggis

Vote of Thanks

Auld Lang Syne

... the centerpiece of the celebration.
It is the activity surrounding the Haggis that provides the most dramatic moments of the evening. The lights are dimmed; a bagpiper playing rousing music begins to lead the procession to the main table, followed by the chef carrying the centerpiece of the celebration, a warm Haggis surrounded by mounds of Tatties (potatoes) and Neeps (rutabagas) garnished with herbs and doused and set aflame with scotch whisky! As the flames dye down, the poem, To A Haggis is read and a dignitary makes two slashes in the Haggis representing the Cross of St. Andrew and at last, the delicacy is served.

… known in Scotland as a Tipsy Laird.
At our most recent Burns Supper we choose to follow the Haggis with Cock-a-Leekie Soup, Figgy Scones and Butterscotch flavored butter, even though the order could have easily been reversed. Our dessert was an apple flavored variation on a Trifle, known in Scotland as a Tipsy Laird. This is simply layers of cubed cake, stewed apples with apple brandy, pastry cream and a dollop of whipped cream.

Scots are the people and Scotch is the liquor.
To finish the feast we served a small wedge of Stilton, Shortbread and a bit of Assam Tea or Port. You should have been there! Next year, check out your local Scottish society or organize your own event. The sons and daughters of Scotland know how to throw a party! Just for the record; Scots are the people and Scotch is the liquor.

Bill O’ Fare
Home Cured Salmon (Gravlax)
Rye Waffles
Bagless Haggis, (Warm, Reeking and Rich)
Wi’ Champit Tatties and Bashed Neeps
Cock-a-Leekie Soup
Figgy Scones
Butterscotch Butter
Apple Tipsy Laird
Uisge Beatha
(Scots Gaelic for Aqua Vita or Water of Life, that is to say, SCOTCH WHISKY)
Assam Tea
Cordials and Port
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
…We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet, for Auld Lang Syne!”