Tonight, the 25th January, is Burns Night here in Scotland and is an event which is celebrated by Scots across the globe. If you have never been fortunate enough to attend a proper Scottish Burns Supper, I would urge you to find where one is being held and give it a go! It is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience!
Burns Suppers have been part of Scottish culture for about 200 years as a means of commemorating Scotland’s best loved bard, Rabbie Burns. And when Burns immortalised haggis in verse he created a central link that is maintained to this day.
The ritual was started by close friends of Burns a few years after his death in 1796 as a tribute to his memory. The basic format for the evening has remained unchanged since that time and begins when the chairman invites the company to receive the haggis.
THE FORMAT FOR A BURNS SUPPER:
Chairperson’s opening address
A few welcoming words start the evening and the meal commences with the Selkirk Grace. The company are asked to stand to receive the haggis. A piper then leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table, while the guests accompany them with a slow handclap. The chairman or invited guest then recites Burns’ famous poem To A Haggis, with great enthusiasm. When he reaches the line ‘an cut you up wi’ ready slight’, he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife. It’s customary for the company to applaud the speaker then stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.
The company will then dine. A typical Bill o’ Fare would be:
Haggis warm reeking, rich wi’ Champit Tatties,
Tyspy Laird (sherry trifle)
A Tassie o’ Coffee
The Immortal Memory
One of the central features of the evening. An invited guest is asked to give a short speech on Burns. There are many different types of Immortal Memory speeches, from light-hearted to literary, but the aim is the same – to outline the greatness and relevance of the poet today.
Toast To The Lasses
The main speech is followed by a more light-hearted address to the women in the audience. Originally this was a thank you to the ladies for preparing the food and a time to toast the ‘lasses’ in Burns’ life. The tone should be witty, but never offensive, and should always end on a conciliatory note.
The turn of the lasses to detail men’s foibles. Again, should be humorous but not insulting.
Poem and Songs
Once the speeches are complete the evening continues with songs and poems. These should be a good variety to fully show the different moods of Burns muse. Favourites for recitations are Tam O’Shanter, Address to the Unco Guid, To A Mouse and Holy Willie’s Prayer. The evening will culminate with the company standing, linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne to conclude the programme.
Haggis remains popular with expatriate Scots in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, owing to the strong influence of Scottish culture, especially for Burns Suppers. It can easily be made in any country, but is sometimes imported from Scotland.
Since 1971 however it has been illegal to import haggis into the US from the UK due to a ban on food containing sheep lung, which constitutes 10 to 15% of the traditional recipe. The situation was further complicated in 1989 when all UK beef and lamb was banned from importation to the US due to the BSE crisis. In 2010 a spokeswoman for the US Department of Agriculture stated that they were reviewing the ban on beef and lamb products, but the ban on food containing sheep lung will remain in force.[
This will hopefully help explain to the uninitiated reading this that haggis is something you eat – a fiction sometimes maintained is that a haggis is a small Scottish animal with legs on one side longer than those on the other, so that it can run around the steep hills of the Scottish Highlands without falling over. According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal!
Need I say any more?