Today is the day. Not for the rest of your life, but the day that Scottish people, wherever they may be, celebrate the birth of the Ploughman Poet and national bard, Robert Burns.
Burns entered this world on Jan. 25, 1759, in a small cottage in the village of Alloway near the southwest coast of Scotland. He was the first of seven children born to his tenant farmer parents.
Burns is a cultural icon and hero to anybody with Scottish blood. He didn’t lead an army against an English king in a Braveheart kind of way. Burns’ appeal was to the heart and soul of the working man who struggled with the land to survive.
Today, Burns’ image may be romanticized a little, to the point of becoming a cult hero. His image is that of a poor farmer turned poet. He wrote in his native Scottish dialect, often about such topics as love, social and political commentary — and drinking. His work appealed in both style and topic to his fellow countrymen. He also wrote in standard English and his works have influenced other writers.
Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase, “the best laid schemes of mice and men, go aft awry,” from the Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” If you have sung “Auld Lang syne,” you have sung a Burns’ song.
On this evening in various places around the world, people who claim Scottish heritage gather for a celebration of Burns’ life in a ritual known as a Burns’ Supper.
The evening starts with the Selkirk Grace, attributed to Burns: “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.”
Following grace, a bagpiper plays a stirring piece of Scottish music while a Haggis on a silver platter is ceremoniously paraded around the room.
As the bagpipe music ends, the Haggis is soberly presented in the front of the room where a previous selected person, graced with oratory skills, recites from memory Burns’ “Address to a Haggis.”
When the address gets to the verse, “His knife see rustic Labour dight, An cut you up wi ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; and then what glorious sight,” the person reciting the address stabs the Haggis with a large knife. The Haggis then bursts open and spills its contents, much like the poem describes.
The evening proceeds with several toasts, singing of Burns’ songs, readings of Burns’ poems, and a traditionally long speech honoring the immortal memory of Burns.
The people also dine on Haggis with neeps and tatties.
Haggis consists of the ground up, unsavory parts of the inside of a sheep, including the heart, liver, and lungs mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion and pepper. The ingredients are then stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach, tied shut, and boiled. Once cooked, Haggis has a consistency of chorizo sausage. It is served on top of a mixture of mashed turnips and potatoes (tatties). The neeps, or turnip, of Scottish culinary character, is not the white turnip that is prominent in the USA, but a variant known as yellow turnip, Swede or rutabaga.
If you’re going to eat Haggis, rest assured that in the United States, the federal government has determined that lungs are not food, so your Haggis will not have any ground sheep lungs.
If your preparing a Burns Supper tonight, don’t leave out the mashed neeps; the flavor of the neeps combines with the Haggis to make the meal edible. Or should I say, palatable?
The whole Burns evening is a celebration of Scottish culture. Being a Scotsman myself — my great-great-great-great grandfather was born 10 years after Burns on the east coast of Scotland, opposite from Burns’ birthplace — I would enjoy a rousing Burns Supper. But since I’m Scottish, I find it hard to part with the $40 required to purchase a ticket to the Burns Supper in Salt lake City that I found on Google.
Instead, tonight I will dine on a slow cooker pot roast and forgo the drinking, singing and revelry. Perhaps I’ll read some Burns poetry before I go to bed.
I used to decry the lack of public recognition for Burns Day in the United States. It shows up on very few calendars. It lacks a corresponding Monday day off work. When I talk about Burns and my Scottish heritage, my children respond with, “Dad’s gone crazy, again.”
However, I let my angst over Burns Day subside after learning that Congress established April 6 as National Tartan Day in 1998 in commemoration of the signing of the Scottish Declaration of Independence on April 6, 1320.
The American Declaration of Independence was modeled after the Scottish Declaration of Independence, with over half of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence being of Scottish descent.
Have you noticed the big celebrations with lots of media coverage for National Tartan Day? That’s what I thought. I’ll stick with my quiet observance of Burns, without the Haggis, piper, and boring speeches.