Saturday, 30 January 2016

Address To The Haggis

I am from England and I speak English, the language of the land where I was born and have lived all of my life. Yet, last Saturday night, I witnessed a tradition that I have never seen before, in a language that I struggled to understand, yet was actually English.

What’s more bizarre are the circumstances. The orator was reciting a poem to a big plate upon which nestled a haggis. The aforementioned Scottish dish had been brought in accompanied by a piper wearing full Scottish regalia and wrestling what looked like a tartan octopus, which made a noise like a cat being strangled.

The man carrying the haggis was accompanied by another rather sinister man holding two very sharp and disturbing knives. The orator spoke these words:

If you didn't understand him, here are the first four verses of what he said:

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 worthy 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 slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie 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;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit' hums.

Is it easier to understand written down? For me neither.
After the address, we all applauded and the sassenachs amongst us (a sassenach being an Englishman) asked each other what exactly had been said.

This was my first ever Burn’s Supper, a formal dinner celebrating the birthday of Scotland’s finest poet, Robert Burns, a man held in such high esteem by our Scottish brethren that every year, Scots the length and breadth of the country eat traditional Scottish fare (or “fayre”) and recite the great man’s poems in big booming voices.

If you have never heard of Robert Burns you will almost certainly have heard of, arguably, his most famous work, which is sung as the bells chime to bring in the New Year – Auld Lang Syne. He was born on 25th January 1759 and died at the tender age of 37 in 1796. Our Scottish brethren have been celebrating his birthday since the early 19th century.

The poem above is called Address To A Haggis and was written by Burns in 1786 and is traditionally read out during each and every Burns Supper.

Such was the bonhomie that the Scottish organisers of the event allowed lots of sassenachs to attend and appreciate the great man’s poetry. The dinner consisted of traditional Scottish dishes, starting with:

Cock-a-leekie soup

before moving on to:

Traditional haggis neeps and tatties

I can almost hear you asking: What on earth are “neeps” and “tatties”?

“Neeps” are turnips and “tatties” are mashed potatoes.

Dessert was cranachan, a traditional Scottish sweet made of raspberries, whipped cream, honey and oatmeal, all with a dash of whiskey.

It was a great meal and only the second time I had eaten haggis, a dish made up of sheep’s offal, mixed with oatmeal and suet, before being stitched up into a sheep’s stomach and boiled for a couple of hours.

It sounds disgusting but actually, with the neeps and tatties it is very nice.

After dinner, and a couple of humorous speeches, including more lines of poetry from Burns, we were encouraged to dance in a two hour ceilidh during which an instructor showed us a whole bunch of traditional Gaelic dances and we then proceeded to make fools of ourselves attempting to master them.

This involved one of two things:

(1) Mrs PM and I dancing around together, attempting to recall the instructions but ultimately colliding with other similarly inept dancing couples in a melee of laughter and humiliation.

(2) Dancing with just about every woman at the ball, either swinging them around or being swung around, resulting in more collisions in a melee of laughter and humiliation.

“Hi I’m Dave,” I said as I linked arms with each strange woman.

“Hi, I’m WOOOAAAHHHH!!!” she replied as we were both spun around and released before meeting our next partner.

This is how it should be done/

ceilidh is a great way to meet new people. Even if you are the shyest person in the room, who wouldn't normally say boo to a goose, you can't help but have fun and talk to random strangers as you are hurled around the dance floor.
Personally, we had a bloody great time.

At the end of the evening, we had made new friends, semi-mastered some of the dances and done more exercise in an evening than we probably had in a week.

I would like to thank a long dead Scottish poet for a great evening.

Here's to you, Rabbie Burns! Long may your poems remain, my auld Scottish friend.

I'm just sorry that I don’t understand a bloody word of them.


Grace said...

Oh I envy you that experience! I've been mad in love with Scotland and all things Scots since I was a wee bairn...and one of the regrets of my life is that I will never get to see the place in person. (I grant you that they are a wee bit hard to understand - we gave up on watching tv shows based in Scotland, or "Geordie" land. I just found an English to Geordie translator funny.)

joeh said...

Sounds like a great time.

I've never had haggis. I do have Cock-a-leekie fairly often.

River said...

Well, they can hail the haggis as much as they like, but I don't think I'll ever try eating any. I'll take the tatties and neeps though, I don't mind those.
I'm picturing you being swung around the dance floor by a few brawny Scotswomen.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Grace,

Geordie is a language itself and coincidentally, I've just come back from a visit to Newcastle. I had my Google Translate app at the ready.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Joeh,

You should try haggis; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

Most of the women were English to be honest (though still brawny).




Mrs PM said...

I have to say Mr PM was brilliant at the ceilidh coz HD could remember all the moves! It was hilarious! BTW haggis is banned in the US because it contains sheep lung. Nice. Still tastes gorgeous though. Nearly as nice as black pudding

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi dearest,

I had no idea haggis was banned in America.

Well you learn something new every day.