Here are a few of the dishes you may be invited to eat at a Burns Supper: Cock-a-leekie soup. Bashed neeps. Champit tatties. Tatties and neeps. Clapshot. Tyspy laird. Het kail. Caller fish. Het joints. Ither orra eattocks. And, of course, gusty kickshaws.
But these are just filler. The piece de resistance is the haggis, also known as “haggis, warm-reekin’ rich.”
Let’s deal with the haggis right away. It’s an animal’s insides, the “pluck,” that is the liver, heart and lungs, stuffed into its stomach. If that makes you think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, you aren’t too far off track. The Scottish cult of haggis, according to my sources, takes the least appealing parts of an animal (usually a sheep, sometimes a pig) and turns them into a cause for celebration. My sources, by the way, include James Kinsley, compiler of one edition of The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns; Catherine Brown, cook and author of A Year in a Scots Kitchen; Robert Louis Stevenson, author of, among other works, Some Aspects of Robert Burns; and Clarissa Dickson-Wright, of the television program “Two Fat Ladies.” At any rate, you should know that haggis, which can be as palatable as pâté, comes in healthy, oatmeal-laden versions, and there are also vegetarian haggises, which are various concoctions masquerading as guts—usually just onions tarted up with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Who was Robert Burns? Well, Robert Burns lived in the Scotland of the late 18th century and came from a rustic background, though his fame as poet, talker, letter-writer, lover, and (in Stevenson’s words) “the only man who wore his hair tied in the parish,” moved him into the more cultivated circles, the “houses of a better sort.”
It seems that haggis veneration, codified in Burns’ poem, “Address To A Haggis,” (Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/ Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!...) must be satire of the finer variety—that is, a mocking tribute to something that is also deeply, intimately loved. For Burns and for the many fervent Scottish societies that have kept his words and memory alive the world over, “the haggis,” as it’s called, has to do with an ethnic identity that celebrates (in James Kingsley’s words, in Vol. 3 of his edition of The Poems And Songs of Robert Burns) “peasant virtue and strength, expressed in harsh, violent diction and images of slaughter.”
Perhaps the closest purely Montanan equivalent is the annual Testicle Festival held near here, at which the balls of would-be bulls are cooked and consumed, along with massive quantities of beer. But no—there’s a restraint and etiquette and a more generalized sense of honor in the haggis ritual that seems lacking with regards to Rocky Mountain oysters. While a typical Burns Supper is awash in whiskey, the imbibing of such is as specified and sanctified as a holy Mass (if this were all Irish). And it was really the idea—nay, the ideal—of Fellow Folk, rather than any actual, rough-and-tumble, hoary fraternization that the rather delicate Burns, who “suffered like a fine lady from sleeplessness and vapours,” ascribed to.
Speaking of the ladies, it should be noted that, while idealization characterized his pursuits in this realm, Burns practiced it in a practical way.
“A leading trait throughout his whole career was his desire to be in love,” wrote Stevenson. “[Burns] was all his life on a voyage of discovery, but it does not appear conclusively that he ever touched the happy isle.”
This “voyage” was more probably a high lope, as Burns gallivanted about his beloved countryside wooing and procreating and searching for lassies with hair like the links o’ gowd, cheeks like lilies dipt in wine, and bosoms as the driven snaw—“twa drifted heaps sae fair to see.” In this regard, the enthusiastic participants of the Testicle Festival are once again brought to mind.
Whatever its underlying ethos, a Burns Supper is a ritualistic affair. Established only a few years after Burns’ death 200 years ago, it is an annual celebration of the poet and the heritage he represents. There is an order to the events. There’s the Piping in the Haggis; the Address to the Haggis; and the Selkirk Grace (which would be fine to teach your children, if they could understand a word of it). There’s the Toast to the Lasses and there’s The Reply from the Lasses, ideally, a saucy rejoinder. There are sometimes readings of Burns’ poetry, and perhaps a communal reading of one of the better-known poems. I once attended a lovely Burns supper in the home of a real Scotsman from Scotland at which we performed a round-robin reading of “Tam O’Shanter.” Finally, there’s the Address to the Immortal Memory, and then the crossing of arms and singing of Auld Lang Syne,” which every American knows by tune, and not one can sing the text throughout.
I still have my invitation to the one Burns Supper of my experience. At the bottom there is a poem, as follows:
There’s naethin’ like the honest nappy! Whaur’ll ye e’er see men sae happy, Or women sonsie, saft, an sappy, ‘Tween morn an’ morn, As them wha like to taste the drappie In glass or horn.
Haggis is not mentioned in either that poem or the proclamation that followed—Scots Wha hae!—but I think it is implied.
The Missoula Scottish Heritage Society sponsors the Burns Supper at the Doubletree Hotel on Saturday, Jan. 29, starting at 6 p.m. Tickets $30 at Rockin Rudy’s, Caffe Dolce, and Worden’s Market.