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Burns Night

Burns Night, at its best, is a time to be hopeful, striking a balance between life's joys and sorrows. If Shakespeare's poetry scales the heights of poetic achievement, Robert Burns' poetry sweeps the broad rolling plain of common humanity, with all its triumphs and disasters. He writes about hope, courage and the joy of being alive in a world of terror, darkness and fear.

Burns' legacy:

Though he died in 1796 at the age of 37 in the direst poverty, his poetic genius articulated the rich and strange wonder of life in everything he wrote, from the fun of 'Tam O'Shanter' to the tender love song ‘A Red, Red Rose'.

Burns honoured the haggis with a poem, celebrating its sense and worth, which was about using the odds and ends (lungs, liver and heart) of the sheep, seasoned with onions and oatmeal stuffed into the stomach bag. He made the plea not to judge anything by appearances. He also, unwittingly, provided Scots with a strong national food image.

It stands for honest, hearty, wholesome, unsophisticated, comforting food.

For, in the haggis there is peasant virtue and strength, as well as images of slaughter. It stands for honest, hearty, wholesome, unsophisticated, comforting food. Burns chose it for its striking contrast with a French ‘fricassée' or 'ragoût' which he thought poor substitutes for such a worthy native dish.
Burns Night history

The first gatherings to celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns were held by a group of his friends on the anniversary of his death on 21 July. In the early 1800s the first Burns Clubs were set up with Burns Night celebrations the focus of their year.

By 1885 there were 51 clubs and a central organisation, The Burns Federation, was set up. Nowadays Burns Night is on 25 January, the anniversary of his birth, and is a time to link people of all colours, creeds and nations in a common bond of friendship.

The main event:

Today, the night varies from extremely formal - with a traditional running order - to a less formal and more impromptu event. For the most formal dinner there are men in kilts and women in evening dresses.

For a formal night, the ‘great chieftain o' the puddin'-race' is carried in on a large ashet (serving plate) by the chef, led by a piper and followed by a waiter carrying a tray with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. Chef and piper are poured a dram, while the haggis is ‘addressed' with a spirited recitation of Burns' famous ‘Address to the Haggis' and a dramatic slashing with a dirk, releasing wafts of haggis, ‘warm-reekin, rich!'.

The meal begins with 'Selkirk Grace', an old Scots grace often wrongly attributed to Burns but always recited at national celebrations: ‘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'.

After, there are formal toasts. First, ‘To Burns' Immortal Memory' (fairly serious), then ‘To The Lassies' (lighthearted and frequently irreverent) followed by a ‘Reply' (a suitably spirited defence), by one of the lassies. ‘Auld Lang Syne' signals the night's end.
The essential elements

Some would argue that this is a ‘true' Burns Night. But the truth is that there are many different permutations - including simple suppers at home with friends - which are no less meaningful.


Anyone can celebrate Burns Night, but there are some essential elements. The haggis, with neeps (yellow turnips) and tatties (potatoes) are a must. Yellow turnips are known in England as swedes and in the US as rutabaga. They are either boiled and mashed with butter and seasoning, or they may be mixed in equal quantities with boiled potatoes to make an Orkney clapshot.

The tatties, for a fluffy, buttery mash, should be old floury varieties with a high dry-matter content such as Kerr's Pink, Golden Wonder, British Queen, Edzell Blue, Shetland Black, Arran Victory, Dunbar Rover or Standard.

For emotional nostalgia a favourite Burns song or poem adds to the atmosphere. The toasting routine is essential at the formal event, but unplanned informal toasting, as the night deepens, encourages Burns-lovers to get to their feet and raise their glass (usually whisky) to something, Burns or otherwise, they really care about.
The Scots bill of fare

In Burns' time, Scots were poor northern Europeans, used to scrimping and saving. They were particularly good at warming, sustaining food made from scant resources such as broths, stovies, porridge, skirlie and clapshot. But poverty had its casualties.

Smoked salmon

For generations, an industrialised urban population was forced into a nutritionally deprived diet, from which it has still to recover. Also, in the past there was always the economic need to export the country's best primary produce: salmon, native breeds of beef and lamb, well-matured game, lobsters, oysters, berries, etc.

Now this native produce is celebrated much more at home and Burns Night is as good a time as any to enjoy it. Burns would have seen the sense and worth in that.

Put together a traditional Burns Night menu, with haggis at its heart, or celebrate with some of the best of Scotland's larder.
Burns Night recipes:


If you're making your own haggis, you'll have to start preparation a day in advance. For a variation on the Bashed neeps, you can make Orkney clapshot (which is often served with haggis). Mix the mashed seasoned swede with an equal quantity of mashed potato and beat well until smooth. This mixture can be put into a pie or gratin dish, thickly covered with grated cheddar cheese and baked in the oven, or under the grill, until browned.


Article courtesy of BBC food 

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