Burns night: supper, poetry and an ode to a haggis

As a Scot – and an Ayrshire Scot at that – Robert Burns and his poetry have always been important to me and I’ll be raising a glass to his ‘immortal memory’ tonight as Scots the world over celebrate Burns night.

The unofficial national bard of Scotland (and voted the greatest ever Scot in a TV poll), Burns was by far the most important poet to write in the Scots dialect. He took the language of 18th Century Scottish rural workers and fashioned it into a poetry that  has endured. A national newspaper today includes him in a series of the great British poets of the Romantic age.

Burns wrote all sorts of poetry and song from the politically charged  ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’ or ‘For A That’ to tender love songs like ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ or ‘A Red Red Rose’.

Probably his best known song (though he adapted it from an earlier traditional one)  is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which sees in the new year wherever one or more Scots gather. Some of the words may be strange to an English ear but the message is clear and universal:
And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,

And gie’s a hand o thine,

And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne

Many people are familiar with this song from New Years Eve, but how many know what it actually means:

And here’s my hand, my trusty friend, 

And give me your hand too,

And we will take an excellent good-will drink

For the days of long ago. 

With a few friends I had an early stab at celebrating the man and his work with a Burns supper at the weekend. Though we lacked a piper, the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties was duly served washed down with a fine malt whisky. Incidentally the same newspaper has tackled the thorny problem of just what constitutes a neep.

And of course the haggis was welcomed to the table with a rendition (in my somewhat rusty Scottish dialect) of Burns ode (listen here) to that great Scottish culinary treat, the 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 wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Or as I found myself explaining, in English translation:

All hail your honest rounded face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race;
Above them all you take your place,
Beef, tripe, or lamb:
You’re worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.