“But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or, like the snow-fall in the river,
A moment white, then melts forever.”
Robert Burns - Tam O’Shanter, 1791
No self-respecting lowland Scot, even those without fervent patriotic zeal such as myself, can let Burns Night, 25 January, pass without a celebration of our national bard. Of course, Burns is a towering cultural icon and a defining figure of Scottish identity who is celebrated not just in Scotland but also among the Scottish Diaspora worldwide.
A celebration on Burns birthday of course involves haggis and all the trimmings. Given that this post is subject to relevant but significant cultural and poetic digression, and I am supposed to be writing a food-centric blog, please feel free cut to the chase of the recipe for Haggis en croute below. The dessert of chocolate, bramble and whisky tart with bramble ripple ice cream will follow in the next post.
Contributions of the bard
Despite an early death aged 37, Burns produced a large and consistent output of work of over 600 poems and songs. He was rather sentimentally called the ’Heaven-taught ploughman’ as knowledge of his work gained acclaim, notably in Edinburgh during The Scottish Enlightenment.
More’s the pity he was perhaps misunderstood as it is not for the sentimental works that Burns should best be remembered but for his capacity to write with spontaneity, humour and sincerity across a large diversity of subjects . These included inequalities of class and gender, poverty, patriotism, republicanism and occasionally his commentary on the ways of the Scottish Kirk and Calvinism, which were so powerful and influential at that time.
“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”
Robert Burns – The Rights of Women, 1792
A lifetime of Burns
Despite enjoying thought-provoking poetry, I am not prone to the poetic and leave literary flourishes to others more eloquent in that respect than me. Still, Burns for me endures as one of the few poets whose works I still pick up and read on occasion. Unlike music, which still resonates with me as powerfully as it did when I was an adolescent, my voracity for poetry has dissipated.
I now rarely read my preferred more contemporary Scottish poets; Norman MacCaig, William MacIllvany and Edwin Morgan. I no longer ponder on great works by Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Walt Whitman or even Raymond Carver and all I admire of his ‘dirty realism’. I somewhat circumspectly will not postulate as to why this is that case, but it has as much to with time as inclination – and space in my brain.
As a lowland Scot, I don’t think I am particularly unusual in the fact that Burns poetry and song has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, we sung his songs at school, read his poems regularly. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was not confined to Hogmanay, but sung to signify the end of many a celebration. As time has moved along, and I became involved in playing traditional music, rarely would a song session take place without the rendition of a Burns song and no instrumental gathering would see an end without a tune to which one of his songs was composed.
My own favourite song and indeed one of Burns most venerated must be “Is There for Honest Poverty“, perhaps better known as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That“, certain to have been seditious in its day (and hence was first published anonymously) is an expression of egalitarian ideas of society. Sheena Wellington fittingly sung this liberalist anthem at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and stole to the show from the politicians.
Is There for Honest Poverty (A Man’s A Man For A’ That), (1795)
Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A price can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
Of course, Burns is also full of satire, humour and he wrote plenty songs about the virtues (or otherwise) of imbibing whisky and carousing. One thing I have noticed and that does make me smile about Burns is his apparent penchant for peppering his prose with numerous descriptive references to vomit, often in very different contexts. In ’A Winter Night’, Burns chronicles the impact of a winter storm on exposed wildlife (st. 2: bocked = vomit):
When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r;
When Phoebus gies a short-liv’d glow’r,
Far south the lift,
Dim-dark’ning thro’ the flaky show’r,
Or whirling drift:
Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi’ snawy wreeths upchoked,
Or thro’ the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.
There is another such reference in the most celebratory poem for Burns Night ‘Address to a Haggis‘: ‘Or fricassee wad mak her spew’. Aside from Burns making me think of the many ways to describe vomit in the Scot’s vernacular, other thought-provoking poems and songs from his works are worthy of a mention.
My highlights include the satirical ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, an attack on the hypocrisy of the Calvinist Kirk based on the true story of a Kirk elder Willie Fisher of Mauchline, Ayrshire. The song ‘Ca the Yowes to the Knowes’ lends itself nicely to accompaniment and creative musical arrangements for fiddle and cello. No Burns Night would be complete without ‘Tam O’Shanter’, Burns only example of narrative poetry filled with pathos, humour, horror and eloquence in equal measure.
There is one final song that is perhaps the most pertinent, given the time of year (i.e. the looming UK tax deadline) and was coincidentally the first Burns song I learned in entirety when I was a child, ‘The Deil’s Awa wi’ th’ Exciseman’. Burns was employed as a Gauger (exciseman) at the end of his short life, a profession the poem may indicate he was not entirely at ease with.
(Reference: The Canongate Burns – The Complete Works and Poems of Robert Burns).
A final word on Burns in Scots culture. I was listening to Radio Scotland this morning and therein some vox pops commenting on plans for celebrating Burns Night. The words haggis, whisky, fun and party came up each time, yet of 8 or so interviewees, only one person identified the evening with the work of Burns. On reflection, maybe I should consider myself as having a bit more cultural or patriotic zeal than I credit myself with - for better or worse….
To address the issue of Haggis
Over the years, I have attended many weird and wonderful Burns nights. Worthy of note was that we enjoyed with flatmates of The Man Named Sous when he studied at The Newark School of Violin Making. A verse each of ‘Address to a Haggis’ was recited by us two Scots and other of various nationalities from countries including Iceland, France, the US, Italy and England. We all struggled with the verses, most less so with the veggie haggis and hardly any of us at all with the whisky and music that followed.
Last year, there was a Burns Night dinner in our village hall, which was an interesting mix of cultures of Gaelic and Scots, with plenty Gaelic song, and Highland bagpipe tunes – even our local MSP, a Scot’s scholar himself recited Tam O’Shanter. Although, for me personally, reciting ‘Address to a Haggis’ in Gaelic was a bit incongruous. I imagine it must be like a native Gaelic speaker hearing Sorley MacLean in English, or reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez in anything but Spanish, if it is your first language. Nuances of the language are lost in translation.
This year, with the weather foul, we are not planning an excursion to the hall, but are having our own alternative Burns night. I must admit, I love haggis, but when it comes to delivery, each Burns night is pretty much a carbon copy of the last - a pile of haggis, a pile of neeps and a pile of mashed tatties. Not that I am suggesting a shift too far away from the traditional is required - just a bit of a twist.
Haggis en croute
I admit I did not make my own haggis. A proper haggis is made of sheep plucks (lungs, liver and heart – quite difficult to acquire here), oatmeal, fat, onion, salt and spices, all minced and mixed together and contained in a sheep’s stomach, ready for boiling. I noticed in The Guardian this week Nigel Slater admitted that despite a love of haggis, he has not made and does not intend to make his own. I can feel better about purchasing mine then!
The haggis was boiled and prepared en croute, first being rolled in Parma ham to prevent any fat leaching out into the pastry and making it soggy. Now, haggis with its spiciness and fattiness can be a bit indigestion inducing, so I thought I would ramp up the experience two-fold by adding that friend of dyspepsia – puff pastry. The haggis was formed into a sausage shape and rolled much like a beef Wellington.
Instead of plain and simple neeps accompaniment was neeps, parsnips and carrots mashed together with horseradish and garlic. The traditional mash with a bit of parsley was included.
1 top quality haggis (traditional or veggie – both work)
a sheet of puff pastry
4 slices of Parma ham
a packet of Rennies/Gaviscon
Oven temperature 180C (fan)
Boil the haggis for the alloted time, about 40 minutes for a medium haggis.
- Remove from the pan and allow to cool completely. Remove from the skin/stomach and form into a sausage shape.
- Roll out the puff pastry, place 4 slices of parma ham along it and place the haggis on top.
- Roll the pastry and ham around the haggis as you would for a beef Wellington.
- Seal the pastry with egg wash and place the edge underneath, tuck the ends under.
- Decorate appropriately (we chose a thistle), egg wash and place in the oven for 40 minutes. Slice and serve with mash and veg.
Enjoy wi’ a wee dram until ye are fu’ tae burstin’. Slàinte mhah, as they say round these parts and let Burns hae the last word….
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
Roberts Burns – Address to a Haggis, 1786