‘Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae the Lord be thankit!’
It’s January 25th, the night that no haggis is safe! Lock up your neeps and tatties, and hide the good whisky. The hungry hordes are on the way!
In my family, Burns Night has always been an annual tradition, with my Nan hosting the festivities and always inviting a few new (and unsuspecting) guests each year. Now that she’s gone, I host my own Burns Nights, and always stick to her menu of a cullen skink starter, haggis, neeps and tatties, and cranachan for dessert. Never having been to a Burns Night outside my family, I’ve always suspected that we might do things a bit differently to everyone else, but then that’s part of the appeal: as long as you include a few essential components, every host will have their own twist on the rest of the night.
The elements that can’t be forgotten, in my book, are the piping in of the haggis – although, as nobody I know has any bagpipes, we tend to use whatever musical instrument is closest to hand, including the tin whistle, violin and, perhaps most successfully, the harmonica. The Address to a Haggis has to be delivered by the host, who will stab it as theatrically as they can when they reach the line ‘His knife see rustic labour dight / An cut you up wi ready slight,’ and ideally a spewing out of the haggis’ delicious-smelling ‘gushing entrails bright’ sees an end to any misgivings the guests had about trying their first haggis. (Little side note – if you haven’t ever had haggis before, go and buy one immediately: it’s the one thing that makes me seriously question my commitment to vegetarianism).
In my house, we then tend to relax a bit while everyone gets their teeth into the haggis, but at the arrival of the seriously creamy, very alcoholic cranachan (lots of oats, lots and lots of whisky, lots of cream, with a few raspberries interlaced), some unsuspecting guest will usually be asked to honour Rabbie Burns by reading a poem. Ideally somebody English is chosen so that the attempt to read fluent Scots has maximum effect. My favourite surprise poem to launch on guests is ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, but ‘To A Mouse’ does the trick as well: by the time they get to the line ‘To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld!’, all social boundaries tend to have broken down and everyone’s the best of friends.
After that, it’s just a case of more whisky, more whisky and more whisky still, until the wee hours see everyone singing and dancing arm-in-arm around (and occasionally on) the kitchen table.