Scotland has produced some of the finest wordsmiths ever to live – from modern cult heroes like Irvine Welsh, to science fiction geniuses like Iain Banks, to giants of literature like Walter Scott. But even in this crowded field, one name stands above all others: Robert Burns.
A farmer’s son, Burns quickly spurned the family trade in favour of poetry – his true calling. His work was so popular among scots that they saw fit to commemorate it every year after his death in 1796, in a celebration known as ‘Burn’s Night’ – which takes place on his birthday, January 25th.
Burn’s night celebrations come in the form of a traditional supper, which can be as informal or formal as the attendees like. The principle dish of the supper is that most Scottish of all dishes – a Haggis. Just before the meal, there is invariably a reading of Burn’s famous poem about this unique dish, ‘Ode to Haggis’.
Afterwards follows the carving and distribution of the haggis itself, which is done with as much ceremony as possible. Bagpipe music should accompany the meal being brought to the table, and the person reading the poem should do so while the haggis is being carved, ideally, the orator and the carver should be the same person. This way, the knife can be sharpened on the line ‘His knife see rustic Labour dicht’, and the haggis can be distributed on the line ‘An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht.’
If you’re thinking of hosting your own Burn’s night, then you’ll need to ask your butcher especially for a haggis (particularly if you’re outside of Scotland). Ensure that you do so with plenty of time to spare, in order to avoid disappointment. There are plenty of haggis recipes online, and almost all come with ‘neeps and tatties’.
During the evening, there should be a few more readings from poems by Burns, before the evening concludes with a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
As for drinks, there are few more unmistakably Scottish than scotch whiskey – and so it’s this drink that fills the glasses on Burn’s night. The drink is made even more appropriate when one considers that Burns himself praised the drink, with the line: “O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!”
Contrary to popular practice outside of Scotland, scotch can be drunk with friends, and as part of a meal. Drink it neat, and match it to the contents of your plate. If you’re eating cheese, go for something smokey. If you’ve got stronger flavours on the plate, like mature cheese and smoked fish, go for something peaty. Puddings and cakes will need something full-bodied in order to match the flavour, while lighter foods, like seafood, will need something accordingly delicate.
If you’re drinking scotch neat, then you might want to water it down slightly – this can, perverse as it may sound, improve the taste of the scotch. Alternatively, you might keep a separate glass of water to hand so that you might cleanse your palette after each sip.