It is Monday, 25 January, and the weather is not the greatest in Edinburgh, Scotland: it is all one grey air, the colour of the houses running out to the sky, and becoming one with it. And yet, one can feel a vague excitement around town. Today, in Scotland (in fact, all around the U.K.) people are celebrating the 257th anniversary of a rather special poet—Robert Burns, the national Scottish bard. In a few hours’ time, these will be congregating around a wine- and whisky-infused meal of haggis, neeps & tatties (the latter Scottish terms for swede and potatoes), traditionally introduced by a music of bagpipes, and potentially followed by a cranachan (a Scottish pudding made of oats, raspberries, honey, whiskey and cream—there are some variants to this). According to the legend (or better the official Scotland website), the tradition of Burns Night (or Burns Supper) originated in 1801 when some of Burns’ acquaintances and appraisers of his poetry met to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his death, and decided to meet again to celebrate his birthday on 25 January. Suddenly, more and more started organizing Burns’ Suppers over the years (even Sir Walter Scott organized one in 1815), and Burns Night became a real social and cultural phenomenon, spreading well beyond the Scottish border.
So why do we eat precisely haggis to celebrate Burns Night? It is correct to suppose that in order to celebrate one’s birthday it is only fair that one should pick that person’s favourite dish, and we have reason to believe that Burns might have been partial to haggis—for its taste, but also because of its political, nationalistic connotations. In 1786, Burns wrote a poem, ‘Address to a Haggis’, in Scots, celebrating it as the ‘great chieftain of the sausage race!’. Haggis is (our vegetarian and vegan friends should stop reading here) a sort of sausage made with oatmeal, sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart, spices and beef fat, and is generally associated with Scotland, although variants of it were said to be found in Greece, France, and England. To celebrate the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth at the Literary Kitchen, not only have we prepared haggis, but we have also interviewed Dr Vivien Williams, from Glasgow University, where she works for the project ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ to produce a multi-volume edition of the Works of Robert Burns, on the significance of “haggis” for Burns.
- Why does Burns decide to write a poem on haggis? What is the significance of haggis to him?
Haggis can be found easily and cheaply in pretty much all Scottish supermarkets and butchers’ shops today, but it was considered to be a luxury food in Robert Burns’ time. One wouldn’t have it every day: it was a dish for celebrations, and special events. It was very much a Scottish dish, but not everyone could afford it. It is therefore entirely possible that we should interpret Burns’ poem not so much as an ‘ode’ to this speciality of Scottish cuisine, but as an ironic take on those who would revere it!
- Why does Burns mention other cuisines in ‘Address to a Haggis’?
Robert Burns does sometimes use a critical contrast between Scottish and foreign traditions as a literary topos in his poems and songs. One occasion is that of the song ‘A Fiddler in the North’, also known as ‘Amang the Trees’. In this work Burns contrasts at the “foreign squeels”, “capon craws an’ queer ‘ha ha’s’” of Italian castrati, so popular on British stages at the time, with the true, authentic sounds of ‘Caledon’ who played ‘pibroch, sang, strathspey, or reels’. The same thing happens in Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’. The “French ragout”, “olio”, and “fricassee” in his poem symbolise refined food – and yet none who eat them would ever look down on haggis “wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view”.
- Can you tell us a little bit about the connection between haggis and the bagpipe for Burns/in Scotland?
As emerges from the two poems mentioned above, Robert Burns himself attributed national value to bagpipes and haggis alike – respectively the sound, and the flavour of Scotland.
Today Burns Suppers aren’t Burns Suppers without haggis and a bagpipe. And of course the ‘presence’ of Robert Burns! which is conveyed through the ‘Address to a Haggis’, and the Immortal Memory speech. Haggis, with its neeps and tatties, is the Scottish national dish; bagpipes are the Scottish national instrument: what better way to celebrate the Scottish national poet?
Recipe: How to Cook Haggis, and Make “Neeps & Tatties” plus a Whiskey Sauce
1 haggis (in Scotland, you can buy it at the butcher’s, in most supermarkets and tourist shops—for this blog post, I preferred getting it from a local Edinburgh butcher suggested by our lovely friend Natalie; this was about 500gr and enough for two people)
1 swede (neeps)
5 medium-sized potatoes
Salt & Pepper
100ml double cream
- Most haggis packages will tell you how to cook it, but I followed again Natalie and her husband’s recommendations to cook it in the oven in a water bath, and it turned out quite well! Prick the packaging with forks before putting it into the oven or it might explode (note, that happened to me…). Place haggis in a tray with about 2cm of water and cook in oven for 180°C for 50 minutes.
- Boil swede and potatoes in two separate pans, in salted water.
- Drain swede, add butter and make mash with masher – season with salt and pepper.
- Drain potatoes, add butter and repeat procedure as with swede, add a little milk too if you like your mashed potatoes to be super creamy.
- When haggis is ready, take out of its packaging and it is ready to serve!
- If you have a whiskey bottle flying around (it has to be Scottish of course!), then you can make a nice whiskey sauce to go with haggis: now, in order to make this you have to set the whiskey on fire, so I will report recipe as I have seen it being made by our friend Gašper, but I didn’t make this myself as I (Nico, as you’ll know) am one of the clumsiest people on the planet and was scared to death I would set my kitchen on fire.
- Place about 100ml whiskey in a small saucepan and set fire to it with a match. This will make sure the sauce is not too bitter (as the alcohol will burn out). Wait until the flames die out, or put the lid back on the saucepan after about 30 seconds to stop the burning process. Then add cream, salt and peper, and stir with a whisk until the sauce thickens, and is ready to go on your haggis, neeps and tatties