Drams and Dirks and Groaning Trenchers – Burns Night 101

**Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787: 2 years before the French Revolution and 11 years after the United States of America won its independence from England. This is one of the best known likenesses of Rabbie Burns and hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Burns Night is a timely evening to beat the Northern Hemisphere January blues, when every UK day starts as dark as night and the sun sets at a depressing 4.30pm. Celebrated on 25 January, Burns Night is a particularly special time for Scots, when they remember the birthday of their esteemed poet and fellow countryman, Robert or ‘Rabbie’ Burns (1759-1796).

A traditional Burns Night event will kick off with a few wee drams (small measures) of something toasty like a good single malt whisky, which serves both to warm the extremities and to lubricate the tonsils of those bold enough to recite some lines of fine Scottish literature for their friends, often from the works of Burns himself. Then, moving to the table, the Selkirk Grace may be said before the starter is served.

In Scots:

“Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.”

English translation:

“Some have meat and cannot eat, Some cannot eat that want it; But we have meat and we can eat, So let the Lord be thankit.”

Next, if you happen to know someone who deafened the neighbourhood with bagpipe practice sessions whilst growing up, you would hopefully forget past pain and ask them nicely to attend your Burns Night Supper to pipe in the haggis to one of those famed kilt-swinging tunes, like Brose and Butter. If you don’t happen to have such a friend, you can always book a piper for the night (although I’d recommend doing so well in advance as this is one of the busiest nights of a pro-piper’s year). Where a piper is either unavailable or unattainable, you could always play a CD of a good solo piper. If you choose the latter, I would definitely advise avoiding recordings where guitars and/or brass bands are involved. It won’t provide the same sort of atmosphere.

As the piper plays, the chef will carry the haggis with great reverence to the table, where it is set before the host/ess on a plate called The Groaning Trencher. Then the guest with the greatest penchant for dramatics and vocal cords loosened by a quick few drams will speak to the haggis with Burns’ poem, aptly named ‘Address To A Haggis’.

The mere mention of haggis is enough to make many a grown man squirm, once they understand that it consists of a sheep’s stomach bag, stuffed with the sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, which have been blended with onions, suet, oatmeal and stock. In spite of sounding like a murder scene, it’s really rather tasty, although there is a growing demand for vegetarian versions containing kidney beans, lentils, nuts and vegetables in place of the bodily remains of a former sheep and somehow, I don’t think it’s only vegetarians who might opt for the vege version; the thought of eating a literal stomach full of offal could be understandably off-putting, even to a hardy carnivore.

The usual way to serve a haggis is with neeps and tatties, which to all the non-Scots among my readers translates as mashed turnips or swede (the neeps) and mashed potatoes (the tatties).

Prior to serving, the haggis is ceremonially sliced open with a lethal-looking knife called a dirk, as the piper, chef and performer of the Address receive a thank you dram of good Scottish whisky. Some people pour a little whisky onto their serving of haggis to add to the flavour whilst purists steer clear of such practices, preferring to keep their haggis and whisky quite separate and unadulterated. Either way, the haggis forms the focus of the event that is Burns’ Night.

As whisky and ale flows and wallflowers find the (Dutch) courage to stand up and sing or recite a wee bit of Burns, the evening will progress in a warm haze, and perhaps some fun will be had as the group takes to the floor for some group dancing, known by those from north of Hadrian’s Wall as ‘reeling’ which, after a few exhausting rounds of the room, you will be. And so it is that Burns Night is celebrated to a greater or lesser degree in Scotland and wherever in the world the Scots have dispersed. To illustrate the importance of Burns Night, according to recent analysis of the Burns Economy, there are currently around 10,000 Burns Night Suppers held internationally, a statistic which I personally consider to be conservative. In any case that means that come Tuesday of next week, all over the world there will be many, many thousands of sore heads.

To prepare us for the possibilities of this year’s Burns Night, earlier this week a group of Qypers was invited to a Burns event at Salt Bar in London’s Marble Arch, courtesy of Talisker single malt whiskies. It was a fascinating evening, with excellent whiskies, food, experts and calligraphy. My next post will tell you how it all went, so tune in for more Burns Night fun, including how to get the most out of your dram and mouth-watering suggestions for matching whisky with food.

In the meantime:

  • There are eight stanzas to Burns’ ‘Address To A Haggis’ and it takes some working out if you’re not accustomed to reading Scots, so here’s a link to a truly comprehensive Burns site, where the hard words have a multi-lingual glossary attached to them – just click on the troublesome word, which is highlighted, to find its meaning. http://www.robertburns.org/works/147.shtml)
  • Did you know that Rabbie Burns wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which so many of us, Scots and non-Scots alike, sing on New Year’s Eve?
  • Did you know that Rabbie Burns died of a heart condition at the age of 37? His youngest son, Maxwell, was born that same day.
  • In 2009 an STV survey of the public found Rabbie Burns to be The Greatest Scot.  Well done, Rabbie! Now, that’s what I call cause for celebration.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. planetross says:

    Happy Rabbie Burns Day!

    My nephew has cooked a few haggis for my sister and family in the past: he worked at a butcher shop more or less.
    It’s one of the few things on my list of “Must Eat” list that hasn’t been scratched off yet.


  2. Razzbuffnik says:

    I have to admit that although a Burns night sounds good, I just can’t bring myself to eat any offal. Kuckily, I’d have nae problem we a wee little dram or two of whiskey!


    1. epicurienne says:

      Razz – seeing some Planet Ross potential in this, Offal isn’t always AWFUL. But I admit it’s not my bag, either. The vegetarian haggises made by Macsweens are pretty good, though! And the whole ceremony around the haggis is really good fun. AND you can even have whisky ON your haggis!


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