The life and poetry of Robert Burns are celebrated across Scotland and in Scottish communities around the world on the anniversary of his birth with poetry, speeches, haggis, and plenty of whisky. Does that include Hong Kong?
If you’re not British, you might not know who Robert Burns is (unless you were an English major), but surely you’ve sung his most popular work on New Year’s Eve.
Burn’s (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) was the author of Auld Lang Syne, which is sung at the stroke of midnight at New Year’s Eve celebrations and parties around the world.
In a nutshell, Burns is to Scotland what Shakespeare is to England – the national bard.
The Character of His Nation
“If ever a poet understood the character of his nation, he was Robert Burns.
“The language he was most fluent in wasn’t so much Scots or English – it was the language of the heart. All too human in his personal life, he carried that humanity over onto the page.
“Nothing was too small or too large to escape his notice, from a mouse in the mud to God in his heavens. A poet for all seasons, Burns speaks to all, soul to soul.”
- From the Scottish Poetry Library.
Shortly after his death, associates and fans of Robert Burns starting having get-togethers on his birthday to celebrate his life and his works. The custom – known as Burns Night – quickly spread throughout the land.
Burns Night is usually celebrated with a Burns Supper, which traditionally includes potato wafers with smoked salon watercress, Haggis, clapshot, and whisky sauce. It is washed down with – not surprisingly – copious quantities of Scotch. For dessert, there is something called cranachan.
Haggis is a kind of sausage that is prepared in a sheep’s stomach. It consists of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs mixed with minced onion, oatmeal, suet (raw beef or lamb fat), spices, and salt.
Haggis is customarily served with mashed neeps and tatties, which are turnips, swedes, and potatoes.
I know what turnips and potatoes are, but I’m not sure about “swedes”. I take solace in the fact that it is spelt with a lower case “s”.
Unfit for Human Consumption?
Interestingly, haggis was banned in the United States in 1971 because the U.S. Department of Agriculture deemed it “unfit for human consumption”. At issue was the use of livestock lungs in the recipe.
As disgusting as the recipe for haggis might sound, it’s anyone’s guess what goes into hot dogs and sausages, and few people have a problem eating those.
When I was in primary school, my best buddy’s father had worked as a butcher, and he warned us against consuming ground meat that was “bright red”.
He said butchers added cow’s heart to the ground meat sold at supermarkets to make it look redder, which would appear “more appetizing” to housewives.
He said you were better off opting for ground beef that was brownish in colour rather than bright red. But I digress …
Address to the Haggis
A Burns Supper usually begins with a solemn ceremony. First, there is the recitation of the Selkirk Grace, preferably given in Scots.
The haggis is then brought solemnly into the room to the accompaniment of bagpipes – live if possible. Otherwise, a recorded version is played.
An “Address to the Haggis” and a “Toast to the Haggis” are then given. There might also be speeches and the recitation of poems penned by the bard.
Burns Night in Hong Kong
Burns night was celebrated early this year with a Ladies’ Night at Zetland Hall in the Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island.
The evening began with a champagne reception. After moving to the dining hall and taking our seats, there was a traditional haggis ceremony – with a live bagpipe accompaniment.
The haggis was served family style with mashed potatoes and what appeared to be mashed carrots. I assume those were the neeps and tatties.
I was passed a carafe of Scotch and encouraged to douse a generous amount of it on top of the concoction on my plate and then mix everything thoroughly together.
Presence of Mind
Fortunately, I had had the presence of mind NOT to remember exactly what haggis consisted of. I had read the recipe about 20 years earlier (when I first learned of the U.S. haggis ban), and then – happily – forgotten exactly what the ingredients were.
So I ate two generous servings of haggis, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The fact that I had already consumed a few glasses of wine might have helped.
A self-serve buffet followed the haggis, with an East-Meets-West menu of hot and cold dishes. The star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the roasted New Zealand Sirloin with Red Wine Sauce.
For dessert, I went back to the carving station and had another slice of sirloin, passing up the mango cheesecake, chocolate brownies, apple crumble, fruit, and assorted ice cream.
I must not have noticed the apple crumble … I ADORE apple crumble!
Following dinner, there was a welcoming speech and more toasts. The raffle prizes were drawn. And then it was time to kick up our heals to the tune of the Tom Cord Ceilidh Band.
I’m a big fan of Country and Western music, and I’ve always wondered where it originated. Now I think I know. The rousing rhythm was quite similar.
Despite the fact that most of the attendees were Scottish, married to a Scotsman, or had some sort of Scots association (they had studied in Scotland or done business there), very few of us actually knew any of the steps to the dances we were going to do.
Not to worry! We were walked (or should I say, talked?) through the steps by a member of the band.
“Ladies on the right, gents on the left. Take two steps forward, one step back …”
The rhythmic music would start, and it was almost impossible to sit still! Most of us were confused, but none of us cared. We were all having too much fun.
During a 15-minute interlude, we were serenaded by two very talented pipers. The band then returned, and the dancing continued until about midnight.
Not surprisingly, the evening ended with a rousing sing-along of Auld Lang Syne.
On the way home, a couple of us stopped at a British-style pub in the New Territories for a pint and fish and chips. It was an intoxicating, calorific, and fun-filled evening.
Distant Scottish Roots
About 4.8 million Americans self-identify themselves as having Scottish ancestry, accounting for 1.7% of the U.S. population. Another 4.3 million Americans self-identify as having Scots-Irish roots, with 9.2 million claiming “some kind of Scottish descent”.
I guess I would belong to the second category. My grandfather was born in Ireland, but he had a Scottish surname.
My grandfather emigrated to the United States during the great Irish Potato Famine (1845 – 1852), which saw the death of 1 million people and caused a mass emigration from Ireland to the United States and Canada.
This was an excellent opportunity for me to explore my distant Scottish roots.
And I feel honoured to have been invited to experience an authentic Burns Night with a traditional Burns Supper in Hong Kong.