Burns Night; 25th January - Address Yer Haggis!

Burns Night; 25th January – Address Yer Haggis!

By Robert Veitch

 Burns Night


Marian and her husband Bob welcomed me into their warm and delightful Horsham home, with a cup of tea and freshly baked shortbread. She told me that the Mid Sussex Caledonian Society began in 1926 in Cuckfield and the Society exists to promote Scottish culture and traditions. They have a variety of events throughout the year, the biggest of which is Burns Night. Being Scottish is not a condition of entry, Bob told me, and they have several English members within their ranks.

Marian may be in her first year as Society President, which she has enjoyed very much, but she is already looking forward to the Societies’ Burns Night in January. She explained that a Burns Supper takes place on Burns Night although the terms are interchangeable. She went on to say that a Burns Supper is held annually to remember Robert Burns’ birthday, the 25th January 1759. Robert Burns is best remembered as the national poet of Scotland and although he only lived for 37 years his birthday is now more widely celebrated in Scotland than St. Andrew’s Day. But it’s not only in Scotland that the occasion is observed, as these days’ Scottish societies and ex-pat communities celebrate it around the world.

HR_BurnsNight_shutterstock_89933092Around 80 society members come to the annual Supper each year. The very first Burns Club opened in Greenock in 1801, just five years after his death and the protocol instigated then, is still largely in use today.

When I asked Bob to outline what happens during a Burns Supper, he was only too keen to elaborate. Once the guests are assembled, the host for the evening will welcome them all and then say ‘The Selkirk Grace’ which is one of Burns’ poems. After the grace is complete the haggis is usually carried or ‘piped in’ to the sound of bagpipes. The head chef carries it to the top table and lays it before the host.

The host then performs another of Burns’ works ‘Address to a Haggis’. During this poem, when the line “An cut you up wi’ ready slight” is reached, the haggis is ceremoniously cut open. The haggis is then toasted with a glass of whisky before the guests sit down to dine. Haggis is made from oatmeal, sheep’s offal (heart, liver, kidney and lungs), onion, salt, and pepper. Traditionally a sheep’s stomach was used as the casing, but these days a synthetic casing, similar to a sausage casing is more likely.

The dinner menu will generally follow a Scottish theme: for example a Cock-a-leekie soup followed by a portion of Haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed turnip and potato) and then a dessert like Tipsy Laird to finish the meal.

burns1While the coffee is served the most important part of the evening takes place, it is entitled The Immortal Memory. A guest will stand to give a short speech outlining the poet’s talent and his relevance to the world today. It is a personal tribute highlighting why the memory of Robert Burns should remain immortal. The Immortal Memory is followed by the Toast to the Lassies, which is often light hearted and witty. It is always performed by one of the men and as Marian pointed out, the men should be careful as the women get the last word with their Reply to the Laddies which follows, and is usually a humorous riposte to the men.

Poems or songs by Burns follow the speeches and after that there is Scottish country dancing. Dances are normally structured in the form of jigs, reels and strathspeys and people dance in couples within a set. The music is provided by an accordion, drummer and a fiddler. Bob captivated me with the story of a dance called the ‘Reel of the 51st Division.’ It was devised by prisoners of war in World War II to keep their spirits up and to symbolise Scotland, particularly the Highland 51st Division in adversity.

burns2It’s key formation is the cross of St Andrew, which is part of the Division badge. The evening always ends with the singing of Burns’ best known work ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Marian pointed out that hands are not linked until the first line of the final verse, “And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!”

Bob was kind enough to show me a book of Robert Burns works. It’s interesting to see that he wrote letters in what we might call today the Queen’s English and yet most of his works were written in the Scottish vernacular of the time, in an effort to preserve the dialect and give the language a life beyond his own death.

Marian and Bob moved south more years ago than they care to remember and although their accents may have softened a little over time, just a few moments in their company will leave you in no doubt what they, and so many others, hold dear.

Address to a Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace

As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o need,

While thro your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic, Labour dight,

An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!

Address to a Haggis Translation

Fair and full is your  honest, jolly face,

Great chieftain of the sausage race!

Above them all you take your place,

Stomach, tripe, or intestines:

Well are you worthy of a grace

As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,

Your buttocks like a distant hill,

Your pin would help to mend a mill

In time of need,

While through your pores the dews distill

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour wipe,

And cut you up with ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like any ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm steaming, rich!

Mid Sussex Caledonian Society

For more details about the Mid Sussex Caledonian Society visit their website www.midsussexcaledoniansociety.org.uk