Lads & Lassies, Pipers & Poets

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...

January 25th marks the birth of Robert Burns. The Ploughman Poet. The Bard of Ayrshire. Scotland’s favorite son. Sadly, most people only admit knowledge of the catchy tune he penned that they drunkenly mumble along to come New Year’s Eve at midnight: Auld Land Syne.

He wrote poems and lyrics, collected and improved folk songs and fathered as many children with as many women who would have him. No wonder so many people claim him as their ancestor. The guy was a rogue—and a quick one too. He died at age thirty seven, making a remarkable attempt to populate half of Scotland.

Regardless, numerous individuals, whether of Scottish decent, whisky aficionados, or enthusiasts of poetry, annually plan to commemorate this man’s existence and accomplishments (both bardic and bedroom) with an evening of debauchery and boredom.

Scotish dirk

The whisky I love, but somewhere during the third hour of poetry, I’m looking to impale myself on the first dirk  I can slip from any man’s stocking. Consequently, I appreciate the whisky with more enthusiasm than I probably should. Of course, this is what everyone else is doing and why they believe they’re channeling Laurence Olivier.

A typical Burns Night, or Burns Supper, as it is both commonly known, used to be (and I’m sure remains in some stuffy circles) a “boys only” getup held on the anniversary of Rabbie’s birth. Gathering that Burns himself likely preferred the company of women and wouldn’t have missed the chance to gaze upon the legs of a lovely lassie, a few welcome mats have been placed at the feet of the fairer sex. It seems to have spiced up the evening for many a current soirée and is gaining popularity, as more women begin to view whisky as something more pleasurable than a root canal.

The supper components make or break any Burns celebration. More often than not, you’ll find most of the guests sleeping with their eyes open at the table, making frequent lavatory trips, or curled up in a fetal position in the cloak room, arms cradling a depleted Lagavulin bottle.

Assembling your own Burns supper should not be undertaken lightly; get it wrong and you will find attendees plotting your grisly death and funeral. One must consider the key factors needed: the proper guests, the right food, the liquor and the entertainment.

The guest list is crucial. Have a gathering of wallflowers or self-indulgent bores and your evening feels like watching the weekly defrag session of your computer: it will never end. That’s when I find myself making crosshatch paper cuts on the inside of my wrist with the edge of the menu in an effort to locate a vein that may end it all.

If you find the menu is reminiscent of something even Fido would shake his head at, do not blame it on the Scots. Just because these folk were once scrap cloth clad savages does not mean they couldn’t wield a torch with just enough finesse in order to perfectly caramelize the tops of their Crème Brule.

homemade haggis, scotland food stock photo


The main course, haggis, (aka sheep pluck), is a dish whose preparation and success requires deft skill in the kitchen. Try to find a large animal vet who moonlights as a Michelin rated chef to construct yours. Avoid the kind sold in a tin can.

The liquor is simple. Only the best. Famous Grouse need not apply.

When it comes to entertainment, if there isn’t a piper you might as well call it a nice little dinner party because without Mungo MacBugle blowing the cobwebs out your ears, it’s just going to be a slightly Celtic book club meeting with weird snacks.

The Scottish Piper - Victorian print vector art illustration

I have attended other peoples’ Burns Supper and I have thrown a couple of my own. Let me be honest. It is much easier to have a “babysitting emergency” in the midst of someone else’s grand Gaelic failure than in your own living room, among fifty hungry guests, who can clearly see your children alive and well, and currently working as unpaid wait staff.

My suggestions for you? Start small.

Gather your children, your parents and spouse—or anyone you trust not to blog about you the next day, and ask them to come to dinner prepared to recite a short poem, quote or bawdy limerick.

Check out a couple of the easier recipes offered by the BBC (click here).

Then head on over to the nearest (and reputable) liquor store and purchase yourself a good bottle of uisge bathea. Do not skimp and buy something that can double as mouthwash or battlefield disinfectant. If you’re new to whisky, look for a spirit that isn’t heavy with peat or smoke.

Finally, toast with abandonment. The more frequently you do, the quicker everyone becomes pithy, handsome and hungry enough to eat sheep pluck.



Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).


19 thoughts on “Lads & Lassies, Pipers & Poets

  1. I confess that it’s the haggis that’s kept me from this arcane liturgy all these years. However, I would be tempted if the menu featured generous drams of assorted single malts moderated by occasional servings of Clootie pudding to sooth the gizzard.

  2. Burns night 1982, Liverpool, England. Haggis, single malts and Sir Sackier. Awesome combination. Memories fondly rekindled – nice article.

    • Hmmm … I imagine with this lethal combination, there is a story untold – and one blogworthy at that. Chances are, I could get myself a new malt for keeping it out of the public domain. You and I need to talk!

  3. Fantastic article, makes me long for the cold, not the dastardly 80 degree sunny Miami weather. What kind of draught of whisky tastes good in such a climate?

    • Whisky in warm weather is often a conundrum for many. I abide by the rule that spicy foods make you perspire, which then cools your body down. Looking at the culinary maps of the world, one often finds the hotter the climate, the spicier the food. Therefore, I find a malt that has a good kick to it – mainly black pepper and ginger notes. A couple of suggestions, Talisker, Aberlour, Caol Ila, Cragganmore and Oban. If you’re more of a bourbon fellow, Woodford Reserve is heavy on the Rye and therefore wonderfully spicy. I’ve got plenty more to suggest should you have trouble finding any of these.

  4. What a terrifically funny piece… having been forced to eat haggis on more than one occasion at the Scottish dinners celebrating Sir William Wallace, i was more than pleased to see it in a can.. great stuff you write… simply a terrific read.. Jay Miller

  5. Great piece.

    My eldest is attending university in Scotland, so I am developing a rookie’s appreciation for whisky, Burns, and haggis (in that order, with great distance between the ranking….).

    • I shall aspire to keep a steady stream of wit trickling in. As for the haggis, alas you’re right. I’ve had some that would gag a goat and others that bear the name, but share little else. Tonight, I’m going with the latter.

  6. and all along, I thought it was me who gave “Robert” a bad name. Morality aside, you have to admit, he lived one hell of a creative life in those 37 years. No “dress rehearsal” to the way he lived. One question…would it be blasphemous to enjoy the whisky with sweet Italian sausage in lieu of haggis?

  7. I have been at many a Burns night some of which I can even remember. There is a southern version of Haggis in the US – pig stomach filled with stuff. They both naturally taste better than they look – well they would need to would they not?

  8. As a veteran of a memorable month with my wife’s elderly aunt in Scotland(lodged us in her flat on Heriot Row, Edinburgh) where it seemed each her friends wanted to ‘introduce’ us to haggis. It was 1988 and my wife and I were ‘young marrieds,’ and it seemed everyone couldn’t do enough for us.

    A little appreciated fact of the Scots: they can be astonishingly social, at least in their later years. We stayed for a month and were invited out all but one evening(the youngest at each dinner by anywhere from twenty to fifty years), and were served haggis well…frequently. If Robert Burns was mentioned, I don’t remember it, but I do remember the spectacular hospitality, delicious unashamedly carnivore meals, and the best whiskey I ever hope to consume. Many brands I have never seen since.

    Now I have literary cover for my memories, and that’s delightful. Your blog freshened the memory of a sweet interlude in the early years of my marriage. Many thanks.

  9. We’ll hold our Burns Supper next Saturday, it will be the 8th! It’s for me the greatest night of the year! I must confess I enjoy more than Xmas! The Haggis, the ritual, the pipes (I am the regular player), my private collection of the best Single Malts, and of course all our friends, reading Burns’ poetry (well, translated in French in most cases)… Thank you Shelley for this great post!!

    • A bagpiper too? You are a Renaissance man of the highest order, Frederic! I’d give my left lung to attend your shindig. I’d understand precious little, but I’d appreciate the magnificence, undoubtedly. I’ll toast your good health on the night!

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