What You Eat: Ode to a Haggis


Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Bard.

In anticipation of the Little Patuxent Review‘s Food Issue launch tomorrow, January 24, several members of the LPR community have shared stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we’re preparing a brunch, whipping up pesto or, as in the case of my own entry, connecting the past to the present, the tastes of our most formative and transformative foods walk back into our own narrative histories. On poetry editor Laura Shovan’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can participate in each experience. Should you have a story to share involving food, please leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that the table is set, my story:

Auld Lang Syne.” We’ve all sung it annually as the clock strikes midnight and the old year fades into the new. Our New Year’s anthem is actually a poem by Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, set to the tune of a traditional Scottish folk song. It became popular to sing on New Year’s Eve because Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians orchestra broadcast it live for 33 years from New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. Few people realize that Scots across the globe also gather each January  25 to celebrate Burns’s birthday in a unique way.

Steeped in ceremony, and often a wee dram o’whiskey, the Burns Supper follows a long-standing blueprint, whether the dinner is formal or informal, public or private. There’s always haggis – which, like hot dogs, tastes great, but includes ingredients it’s better not to fully understand – mashed neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), complimented by rousing bagpipe music and recitations of Burns’s poetry. The evening of merriment is intended to foster a deep love for a homeland many have never seen.

It’s a bit unusual to commemorate the life of a poet with such pomp, especially one born in 1759. The reason that Burns remains an enduring figure to the Scots has much to do with timing. He was born 13 years after the crushing defeat of the Scots by the British at the Battle of Culloden, when Scottish nationalism was at a low point. As punishment for attempting to restore Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne, Scots were forbidden from wearing their tartans and the kilt, in an attempt to break centuries-old clan affiliations.

Burns, fiercely nationalistic, wrote about a national Scottish identity using a Scots dialect. Because he wasn’t of the aristocracy, his poems spoke to the common man using universal themes.  He wrote about a variety of topics, among them love, a toothache, a wayward pastor, and a mouse. During his lifetime, he was beloved. In 1801, just five years after his death, the annual Burns Supper tradition began.

Burns Supper, 2009. Photo courtesy of Leah Gillespie.

Burns Supper, 2009. Photo courtesy of Leah Gillespie.

After having attended several formal Burns Suppers, I held my first informal event at home in 2003. It was a modest affair with only five attendees, including my then quite young sons. My most recent supper included fifteen guests, including several from Scotland, a bagpiper and poetry recitations. While the menu didn’t change much over the years, we added a few more candles, increased the readings, and certainly relaxed into the whole process. Children are included and encouraged to participate in our homegrown affair.

Organized Burns Suppers are more for the grown-ups, with the St. Andrews Society leading the way in formality. Richard Anderson, a member of Baltimore’s St. Andrews Society, describes their event. “We’re all in formal dress, with men in kilts and the women in evening gowns. There are pipes playing, poetry readings, highland dancing, and the formal toasts. Because we now allow women to attend our event, we have a ‘Toast to the Lassies’ and a ‘Reply from the Lassies,’ both of which are pretty ribald.” The event follows a prescribed order and is led by a chairman.

At my event, guests clustered around the dining room table, which was heaped with platters of mashed neeps and tatties, a variety cheeses, and a tureen of Cock-a-leekie Soup. Candles flickered, casting everything and everyone in flattering shadow.

In the next room, my father-in-law filled his bagpipes with air. At the first squawk, we heard chairs scudding across the floor as everyone stood. He played “Scotland the Brave” and marched into the dining room. I followed him, carrying aloft the haggis on a platter. Someone recited “To a Haggis,” while raising a dagger (also known as a sharp kitchen knife) before thrusting it deep into haggis, releasing its innards: “what a glorious sight, warm-reekin’, rich!

After, one of the children led us in the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and cannot eat.
Some cannot eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

We filled our plates and then our bellies as we took our fill of stories about the raw, wild beauty that is Scotland. We planned hikes in the misty Highlands or recalled ghost tales about Edinburgh Castle. Children clamored to hear about the Loch Ness monster or a recitation of “To a Mouse.”

Over Ecclefechan Tart, we listened to additional recitations before our evening sing-a-long to some of Robert Burns’s songs set to bagpipes. Our favorites were “For A’ That and A’ That,” in which Burns compares the rich and poor, reaffirming the humanity of the hardworking, poor man, and “Scots Wha Hae.

My friend, Glasgow native Kenneth Lockie, turned reflective when asked about the longevity of Burns’ popularity and the traditional Suppers. “We’re not just products of our times, but products of all the times gone past. We just forget that.”

I think Kenneth’s right. For Auld Lang Syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand of yours!
And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will
For long, long ago.

 Simple Cock-a-leekie Soup

  • 4 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 ½ lbs chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into bite sized pieces
  • 6-12 dried prunes, chopped, soaked overnight (optional)
  • ½ cup barley
  • 1 cube chicken bouillon
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ cup sliced leeks, cleaned well

Add all ingredients, except leeks, to a Dutch oven. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add leeks. Bring back to a boil; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until barley is soft. Remove bay leaf. Serve.

Makes 7 servings of 1 cup each.

Download Debby’s Simple Cock-a-leekie Soup recipe.

3 thoughts on “What You Eat: Ode to a Haggis

  1. clarinda harriss

    Wonderful piece–and a very handy recipe, too. Daughter of a Scot (who named me after Robert Burns’ girlfriend(s) Clarinda (the main Clarinda of the poems was actually named Agatha), I learned to really like haggis during trips to Scotland; but bear in mind that I speak as one who also loves morcilla (blood sausage which I learned to love in Argentina). Thank you for all the factual info and esp. for the “grace,” which my father always recited whenever a situation calling for saying grace presented itself. Thank you!


    1. Debby Rippey

      Verses to Clarinda (1788)

      Fair Empress of the Poet’s soul,
      And Queen of Poetesses;
      Clarinda, take this little boon,
      This humble pair of glasses:

      And fill them up with generous juice,
      As generous as your mind;
      And pledge them to the generous toast,
      “The whole of human kind!”

      “To those who love us!” second fill;
      But not to those whom we love;
      Lest we love those who love not us-
      A third-“To thee and me, Love!”

      Thank you for your kind words. Our family loves the “Selkirk Grace” enough for everyday use. Lang may yer lum reek!


    2. Debby Rippey

      I received this lovely comment and wanted to post it. Sorry, Alan, for the Gravatar issue (maybe we ought to rename it “gravitating”?).

      Nice piece on Bobby Burns! — one of my all-time favorite poets — and the
      suppers thereof. But why didn’t you close with his dialectical “right
      guid-willie waught” in place of the English translation?

      I can still hear my old college poetry professor drumming it into our
      post-teenage heads that Burns was at his best when he composed in Scots
      dialect — but merely second-rate when he wrote in English.

      And btw, thanks for not getting graphic about the ingredients of haggis —
      I already know way more about that than anyone could possibly want to!

      Posted by:
      ALan Z. Forman
      Managing Editor


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