There are many jokes about the Scots, kilts and Robbie Burns Night. Some say Burns Night, a tradition which began in the early 1800s, is an excuse to have a piss up and dress up in kilts.
But, nowadays, it’s really about poetry (and an excuse to throw on a kilt) and a country’s romance for the poet Robbie – or Rabbie – Burns who was born on the January 25, 1759 and died, prematurely, aged just 37 following dental surgery. He is regarded as Scotland’s national poet and was as famous for his intemperance and womanising as his poetry. In fact, it is said his drinking led to the decay in his health and exacerbated a heart problem that led to his eventual death.
In 1801, the first Burns Club was thought to have been formed and, since then, thousands have followed suit and exported all over the world, resulting in extravagant celebrations. At Blair Castle in Scotland, where the only private army in the United Kingdom is based, a ball is held and each guest is given a gold-plated quaich, a drinking vessel offered to guests with a welcome nip of whisky.
Burns Night is as much about Scottish nationalism (although the actual Scottish national Day is St Andrew’s Day on November 30) as is Australia Day on January 26. Like Australia Day, it involves sheep, specifically the chopped heart, lungs and liver (sheep’s “pluck”) which is mixed with oats, barley and spices, and encased in a sheep’s stomach; the haggis.
Melbourne-based chef Ray Capaldi from Hare & Grace, Melbourne, is celebrating Burns Night this year with his mum, who is over from Edinburgh where he was born. “It is a shame that the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ should be regarded by some with such a mixture of horror and humour,” he says. “The vision of sheep’s stomachs and other intestines seems to put some people off, but it has long been a traditional way of using up parts of the animal which otherwise might go to waste.”
There are many variations to the actual dinner eaten, usually an elaborate celebration carried out from Selkirk to Sydney Harbour.
It starts with the master of ceremonies reciting the Selkirk Grace, a thanksgiving that Robert Burns once gave at a dinner with the Earl of Selkirk. The meal starts with soup, either a cock-a-leekie soup (a chicken stock and leek soup traditionally served with prunes) or a Scotch broth made with mutton stock, turnips and pearl barley.
The Selkirk Grace
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
Capaldi starts with Stovies – a traditional mutton stew – followed by Haggis and then roast beef. The peak of the evening is when the Haggis enters, carried on a silver platter. A piper plays the bagpipes and Burns’ Address to the Haggis – his most famous poem – is recited. It begins, “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!”
The haggis is slashed open with a ceremonial knife, known as a Sgian-dubh (carried in the sock on the right leg), during which the line “His knife see Rustic-labour dight” is read, continuing “…wrenching its gushing entrails” (its insides bursting out). The sweet aromas of nutmeg and mace are revealed and the haggis’ spicy rich mince is a lot less challenging to eat than many offal dishes, with the help of neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (potatoes). Naturally, it is washed down with the water of life, Scotch whisky.
There are traditional desserts served such as Tipsy Laird, which is a whisky-laden trifle, or cranachan – a rich dessert of cream, raspberries, whisky and oats. Plus, there’s also cheese served with oat biscuits.
Robbie Burns’ appeal was his use of common language in his poetry. He was a poet of the people, with his poems stirring up the inbred sentiment of Scots in their own language as well as in English, which helped spread the popularity of the words of the pioneer of the romantic poetry movement. (Burns was also author of the poem and song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung at end of the night.)
Speeches celebrate Burns’ life and a toast of whisky is made to the poet. This is followed by a humorous toast to the lassies (women) responsible for preparing the feast, who are given an opportunity to make their own speeches before the highland dancing begins.