This guest post is by Dr Kasia Boddy. If you enjoy reading it, try Kasia’s wonderful history of the geranium or her social history of boxing.

No one is quite sure when Robert Burns first uttered his ‘Address to a Haggis‘ (given here with a translation for Sassenachs). Some claim he extemporised during Sunday lunch at the cabinet maker John Morrison’s house in Mauchline in Ayrshire; others that he wrote it specially for smarter dinner on Edinburgh’s Castlehill, hosted by a merchant friend called Andrew Bruce. In any case, ‘To a Haggis’ was the first of Burns’s poems to be published in an Edinburgh paper, the Caledonian Mercury, on the 20th December 1786.

The origins of haggis itself are even more obscure. ‘Hagese’ is mentioned in a fifteenth-century poem from Lancashire, and a recipe from 1615 talks about ‘Haggas or Haggus’. Clarissa Dickinson Wright, who has written a whole book on the subject, claims Scandinavian influence (the Old Norse haggw; the Old Icelandic hoggva). Others suggest it was a gift of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, thus hachis. Everyone, it seemed, like that mix of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, combined with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices and (traditionally) encased in the animal’s stomach. But party food it wasn’t and to offer the haggis an ode was a fine joke. Burns may have been making fun of the tendency of ‘Auld Scotland’ to romanticise and over-praise its native products. That’s perhaps why the haggis is personified as a great Highland (Jacobite?) chieftan.  But he also seems to be suggesting that we shouldn’t ‘look down’ on humble things. Why couldn’t a poet offer an address to offal or, to recall some other Burns poems, to mice or lice? (Not that the images of the haggis’s ‘hurdies’ (or buttocks), or the whiskey-like ‘amber’ liquid that is distilled through its ‘pores’, are all that heroic, never mind appetising.)

The first Burns Supper was held on July 21,1801 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of poet’s death. The company were, like Burns himself, largely Freemasons and the event was such a success that it was decided to establish an annual gathering  – on his birthday, 25th January.  Numerous clubs and societies were formed throughout the nineteenth century and in 1885, the Burns Foundation was established ‘to strengthen and consolidate’ their links ‘by universal affiliation’. It’s still going strong.

Scottish poets have struggled to escape the shadow of Burns or, more particularly, what the socialist internationalist Hugh MacDiarmid termed ‘Scottish Nationalism and the Burns Cult’. For MacDiarmid, Burns clubs and suppers epitomised the kind of kitsch that held Scotland hostage in a Brigadoon-like neverland of tartan provincialism. For MacDiarmid Burns should have been celebrated for creating poetry out of working-class Scots dialect but instead he’d become an inspiration to ‘maudlin sentimentalism and cheap jocosity’. In his 1925 masterpiece, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, MacDiarmid evokes a Burns supper and concludes wryly that ‘ten to wan the piper is a cockney’.  Eighty years later, Edwin Morgan, reminding his readers that ‘all art is in one sense illusion’, pointed out that ‘You can’t smoke Magritte’s pipe. You can’t eat Burns’s haggis, even though it’s “Warm-reekin, rich!”’

But invented or not, benign or not, the tradition of a Burns birthday party is more popular than ever. Instead like a haggis rolling down a hill – if you don’t believe me, check out  –  the supper has evolved and adapted to new times and places. Vancouver’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy Festival celebrates Burns Night and the Chinese New Year in the form of haggis and shrimp won ton (coming next year at Fitzwilliam?) while Scottish-Slovenian fellowship flourishes in dinners celebrating Burns alongside France Prešeren.

If a ‘sonsie’ haggis remains ‘worthy o’ a grace’, so too does Burns, an eighteenth-century radical whose internationalism entailed much more than fusion cuisine. He wrote hundreds of poems and songs, and alongside the handful of well-known comic and love poems can be found biting satires and visionary political verses.

So when you next have a wee dram, think of Burns writing enthusiastically of the American revolution –

See gathering thousands, while I sing
A broken chain exulting bring
And dash it in a tyrant’s face.

(‘Ode [for General Washington’s Birthday]’, 1794)

– or of Martin Luther King talking in 1966 of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ – a line from Burns’s dirge ‘Man was made to mourn’, reprised by Barack Obama in 2008. Or think of the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, touring Britain and Ireland in 1846, to promote the abolitionist cause and to secure funds to purchase his freedom. An ‘enthusiastic admirer’ of Burns, Douglass visited the poet’s birthplace in Alloway, near Ayr, and later, back in America, addressed the poet’s ‘Immortal Memory’ at a Burns Supper in Rochester, NY. ‘If any think me out of place on this occasion,’ he declared, ‘I beg the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that”’.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

(‘For A’ That’, 1795)

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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