January 26, 2009

Burns Night

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 3:50 pm

Yesterday was officially Burns Night, but as Sunday is an awkward evening for overindulgence, we marked the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns’s birth with a supper on Friday instead.

I have never quite understood why the Oxford college where I work is such an ardent supporter of the night dedicated to the great Scottish Poet, but it is, and every year we celebrate it faithfully by dressing up in black tie and eating and drinking a great deal too much. 

Friday, after we had drunk a bit in the Senior Common Room, beginning as we meant to go on, we were summoned to the Hall where the students were already seated and waiting.  A gavel was banged and everyone stood for the grace.  This (as I have mentioned before) is usually two Latin words uttered by the Principal or, in her absence, the Senior Fellow, but on Burns Night we have instead the Selkirk Grace, recited in a gentle Scottish accent by one of the world’s leading experts in wildlife conservation.  His day job involves saving the British water vole and other endangered species, but on Burns Night, dressed in his kilt, he is the poet’s voice:

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

Moments later we were served with cock-a-leekie soup and a wee dram of 15 year old single malt whiskey. 

When that was cleared away the undergraduates began to shuffle and there were sounds of chairs scraping the floor as they turned to greet the piper, preceding the haggis.  My office overlooks the College gardens and I had been listening to the drone of distant bagpipes all week — the playing fields on the edge of the River Cherwell were considered the only suitable place for tonight’s musician to practice such cacaphony.

The piper led the haggis in a triumphant circuit of the dining room until the platter was finally placed before our wildlife guy, who each year supplies himself with a dagger, dramatically pulled from his kilt.  The BBC website instructions on how to host a Burns Supper are very particular on the protocol at this point:

Warning: it is wise to have a small cut made in the haggis skin before it is piped in. Instances are recorded of top table guests being scalded by flying pieces of haggis when enthusiastic reciters omitted this precaution! Alternatively, the distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded in some quarters as a part of the fun…

The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!, which the guests greet with rapturous applause.

When our haggis was delivered to the table the chefs and piper stood by as our Fellow spoke:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch , tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy 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 sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’ , rich!

Then, horn for horn , they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive ,
Bethankit ! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner ,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash ,
His spindle shank , a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit ;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed ,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle ;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned ,
Like taps o’ thrissle .

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies ;
But , if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

If you would like to hear the poem out loud, here it is.) 

Our amateur Fellow really does it with great enthusiasm, especially the warm — reekin, rich! And the haggis was duly piereced.

I’m a bit of a fan of haggis, though I admit it sounds quite disgusting.  I tried it tentatively, a newspaper wrapped lump of gristle, grease and offal served up in a chippy in Oban more than thirty years ago when I first visited Scotland on holiday with my mother. She and I are both adventurous eaters so we bravely ordered that traditional feast on a night when it was optional (it is required on 25 January). 

I’m not sure my mother has tried again, but I can assure you that the version we get in College really is warm — reekin, rich!  And I was hungry enough to echo what I take to be, more or less, the translation of that last line of Burns’s address to the night’s pudding: Give us here our haggis!

There were, of course, neeps (=turnips) and tatties (=potatoes), and more drams of whiskey, and lots of gravy, which the Scots at table objected to — traditionally no gravy with haggis, apparently (but I, for one, like my offal well drown-ed).

Later, with another bang of the gavel we adjourned for coffee and yet more whiskey and poetry.  And everyone talked about just how long it had been since you didn’t need Latin to get a medical degree at Oxford, and the very best way to study physics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma, moral hazard, Tuscan holidays, World War I, quilting, flute playing, and whether Obama was really President when he signed those first executive orders.

It’s a life.


  1. I’d rather celebrate Robbie Burns’ birth with haggis and poetry recitations than watch an evening of American Idol while scarfing down a Big Mac.

    I envy you a great many things.

    Comment by Jan — January 26, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  2. The First Husband and I belong to a Royal yacht club, so we go through the Burns Night rigmarole every year, too, although I fail to see the connection between Rabbie and either yachting or royalty. Fortunately, attendance is optional, so we bowed out this year. The eclectic array of post-prandial topics you covered would seem to indicate that Oxford academics have a strong tolerance for whiskey …

    Comment by Tessa — January 26, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  3. I remember a lot of things about that trip, but not the haggis. I wish I could remember what it was like. But the evening sounds like great fun.

    Comment by Old Woman — January 26, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  4. Sounds like a night of pomp and circumstance and I’m not talking about a piece of music here. I’m sort of with Jan, except that I hate to dress up.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — January 26, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

  5. I had never heard of this before until I read Thistle’s post earlier this week. It was great to learn more about it. Thanks. Sounds like great fun! Except for the haggis part. ewww

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — January 28, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  6. Nothing quite like the drone of tradition, especially when the conversation shows that while tradition carries on, some changes do take place.

    Comment by Laura — January 30, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  7. I am in a little bit o’ heaven right now.

    Comment by Middle-Aged-Woman — January 31, 2009 @ 9:19 am

  8. I’m Scottish, although my ancestors were POWs shipped to the Colonies by Cromwell in 1651. Still, I enjoy hearing about Burn’s Night and would love to try haggis. I wonder if it might go well with the Korean sauerkraut called kim chi. 😉 I followed you home from John’s Welsh lodgings, only to discover that I “know” your mother, from her journal. Heheheh, small world, isn’t it?

    Hugs from the Far Side of the world, ~ Sil

    Comment by ~ Sil in Corea — February 6, 2009 @ 10:58 am

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