Tag Archives: haggis

Great chieftain o’ the pudding race

Last Saturday I invited 11 of my closest friends to squish themselves (literally) into my little Brixton flat to celebrate Burns night with me. For those who don’t know, it’s the night when Scots celebrate the birthday of our nation’s poet by eating haggis with neeps and tatties, drinking whisky, reading poems, listening to bagpipes and giving speeches.

If you do it properly, someone will stand up and give the Immortal Memory – about the life of Rabbie Burns and what he means to them. At my Burns night Emmissima did a fantastic job of this although it was all a bit blurry for me at this point thanks to the lovely whisky toasts to the haggis (see photo of the huge mama haggis below – thanks to The Chef).

But I thought I’d say a little bit about what Burns night means to me now. I know little about Burns other than he liked a dram and loved the ladies, and wrote one of my favourite love poems – A Red Red Rose  and other poems that I love including A Man’s A Man For A’ That and Ae Fond Kiss. He also wrote the brilliant Address To A Haggis where he argues that Scottish food is the best in the world, and certainly better than that French rubbish (we did invent the deep fried Mars bar after all). And then To A Mouse which has the famous line “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men, Gang aft agley” (a well-planned event is likely to fuck up entirely). He also wrote Auld Lang Syne , sang drunkenly at Hogmanay and at the end of Scottish ceilidhs (Scots only really know 1/4 of the words but like the bit at the end where you all rush to the middle, trampling on kilts and toes on the way) and Scots Wha Hae, a call to arms for the men of William Wallace against the English.

The haggis – looks a bit…special I know

So why do I do Burns night every year – even when I’ve been living abroad? Well it means many things to me. Firstly, I bloody love haggis, neeps and tatties. Haggis is spicy and offaly and oaty and delicious. It’s a rare treat. And I love my annual whisky-drinking fest. I love sharing Scottish traditions with friends of different nationalities and seeing initial squeamishness turn into moreishness and surprise at how nice haggis is. I also love bagpipe music and tartan and Scottish country dancing all that jazz. I really enjoyed the London Ceilidh Club’s Burns nights in the past too.

But more than all that, it reminds me of my roots, my childhood. I am British, yes, but I am first and foremost a proud Scot. When the train pulls into Edinburgh and I get that first glimpse of the Castle lit up on its crags, I get a warm rush of emotion that tells me one thing – I’m home. It is pretty special growing up in Scotland – teenage years spent at ceilidhs, kissing boys in kilts who spun you round so fast in the Strip The Willow that your head spun, flasks of whisky in their sporran. Watching Scotland play rugby at Murrayfield and the singing that followed in the streets of the Grassmarket. Trips to the stunning scenery of the Highlands and Islands, to Skye, Orkney, Mull; and to the rolling heather-covered hills of the Borders. Eating fresh crab and lobster caught that day. Rain and midgies and sheep, endless sheep. Brides walking down the aisle to the sound of Highland Cathedral on the bagpipes. People who are trusting and friendly and funny as hell. Walks up Arthurs Seat and pub lunches on the Royal Mile. My family and how much I love them – my mum taking me to Scottish country dancing lessons and being a beacon to midgies and crying when she had to cook a lobster; my sister teaching me all I needed to know about how to be cool and having the most changeable accent I’ve even known; my father singing me to sleep with the Skye Boat Song; the whole family by the banks of the Water of Leith in Stockbridge singing Follow The Cornet and drinking Irn Bru and Prosecco.

Of course this is all nostaligic guff really. Like most Scottish expats, I see my hometown through the rose-tinted glasses that distance gives you. My childhood wasn’t all Donald Where’s Your Troosers and dancing a jig. Scottish holidays were often cold and rainy, we discovered London trends about 3 years too late (we only got McDonalds in the late 80s – my parents asked where the cutlery was), and it can be, dare I say it, introspective at times. That’s maybe why I don’t live there right now, although I may one day. And that’s maybe why many expats – in Sydney, London and the US – celebrate Burns night, wear kilts at weddings, and have “Bagpipe Magic” Cds. We are nostalgic for our home, love the music and the dancing and feel Scottish to our cores, more so sometimes than those who still live there, but we’ve chosen to live somewhere else. I’m happy with having the best of both worlds so long as I still get to cheer on Scotland at the rugby, do Burns night once a year, and dance the Gay Gordons at every Scottish wedding I go to. At the moment, that’s enough for me.

Burns night is the 25 January but I see no reason why you can’t eat haggis any old day of the week. In case you fancy doing it formally, I did a “proper” post on how to do a Burns night here – I’d love to know how you get on.

Guide to holding a Burns’ supper in London (25th January)

On or around 25 January, we Scots celebrate the birthday of our nation’s favourite poet, Robbie Burns by getting really drunk reading poems, eating haggis and drinking whisky with our friends – lots of fun and my annual dabble in whisky drinking (watch for “sare heeds” the next day). 

For those who don’t know, haggis is a delicious, spicy meal made with mutton (don’t ask where exactly), spices and oatmeal, served in the sheep’s stomach.  Don’t be squeamish – if you like offal/sausages, you’ll love haggis.  We eat it with neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes).  It should look a bit like the plate below and is DELICIOUS (honestly – I have served it to many dubious non-Scots who’ve loved it).  McSween’s is the best type of haggis to buy – in London they sell it in Selfridges, health food shops and most butchers – here’s a list of stockists.  They also do veggie versions which are very nice too.

Men normally wear kilts (and look very good – avoid handstands) and women can wear a tartan sash

Traditionally, the guests mingle and then the host will invite them to the table and make a traditional grace (the Selkirk Grace) .  Then, if you want to follow the traditional pomp, a piper will pipe in the haggis in a formal procession, with the haggis carried behind by the chef (you).  If you’re in a one-bed flat in Brixton then you can possibly do without the piping/procession but maybe get some bagpipe music on.  It’s Scottish tradition that the chef and piper then have a whisky toast (any excuse).   

Then, the person with the most Scottish accent at the table (my tradition) will read the Address to a Haggis , an ode to how nice haggis is and a little dig at the French, he!  When the poem says “His knife see rustic Labour dight, An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight” that’s the cue for the chef to slice the haggis open in a ceremonial stylee.  The poem then goes on to say “Trenching your gushing entrails bright..” at which point the meat should spill over – yum. 

Everyone then eats, laughs and drinks a lot of whisky.  You should try to buy a good Scottish whisky –  El G is a bit of a whisky fan and has kindly given me the info below (also check out this great whisky blog):

– for the uninitiated, a smooth “lowland” single malt such as Auchentoshan’s Triple Wood is the best place to start.  A dram that even the most ardent non whisky drinker could grow to love.

– If you are already partial to the odd drop, then try the Highland Park 18 years old“Toffee sweetness with a full smoky after taste”, apparently. The Highland Park distillery is the most northerly distillery in the UK, based on the beautiful island of Orkney (and well worth a visit if you make it that far north). 

– El G’s final suggestion is for the expert or the brave whisky drinker. The Laphroig Quarter Cask is a “beast of a dram“. Hailing from the home of strong peaty flavours, the Island of Islay, it epitomises the uber-smoky characteristics associated with this part of Scotland. Be careful though, it packs a punch and is best served with a splash of water to open up the flavours and save you from a very warm gullet. 

After that, if you’re a traditionalist, a speaker will deliver the Immortal Memory address which is a consideration of the life and art of Rabbie Burns followed by yet another toast; a Toast to the Lassies where one of the blokes gently mocks the women there followed by another toast; and then the Reply from the Lassies where the women slag off the men back, followed by more toasts.  All in good humour (Burns was definitely a ladies’ man).  Its good to read some of Burns’ poems – I love A Man’s A Man For ‘A That and A Red, Red Rose but there’s also great elogies to booze and women, and you can end with Auld Lang Syne.

If you want a traditional Scottish dessert, try Cranachan (recipe here) – really simple with cream, raspberries and oatmeal, and of course more whisky (phew).  Put in glasses and keep in the fridge until your guests are ready.

Finally, make sure you end the night with 2 pints of water and an aspirin (not tradition but necessary – 25 January is a Monday…), and finally, thanks to H & S for inviting us to their Burns’ supper for the second year in a row 🙂