Robbie Burns’ Night is on January 25th and this year the festivities have a special significance, since this is the year that Scotland gets to vote for independence in a September 18th referendum.
Robbie Burns’ Night is an evening devoted to celebrating the life and work of Scotland’s national poet and it is a very big deal to Scots. Burns (1759 – 1796) was born into rural poverty — the son of a tenant farmer — and became a prolific poet who wrote about everyday life using a Scottish vernacular in his poems, a dialect that was already under threat from English in his own lifetime. Language forms an important part of national identity and, with a maiden name of Stewart, I do recall instances in my own childhood when the occasional relative from Scotland would arrive for a visit and I would struggle with the language barrier, the Scottish dialect almost totally incomprehensible to someone speaking the Canadian dialect.
Burns died at the age of 37 leaving behind a body of work that “recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief, in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration” according to the Poetry Foundation website. Probably his best known work is Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year’s Eve anthem. Other famous poems include Scots Wha Hae, Tam O’Shanter and (my favourite) Ode to a Mouse. In 2009, Burns was voted the “greatest Scot” chosen by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV.
It’s not surprising that Burns’s birthday is celebrated widely in Hamilton, a city built from Scottish immigrants and surrounded with Scottish sounding towns such as Ancaster, Caledonia and Dundas. The celebrations can include dancing, singing, music (oh yes, the bagpipes) and, of course a special dinner. The evening unfolds with a certain pre-ordained program:
After welcoming the guests and seating them at the table, the hose usually says a special grace called the Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
Some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
The first course of the meal is usually a soup course, either Scotch broth, potato soup or Cock-a-Leekie. This is followed by the entrance of the haggis, which is usually presented on a platter to the screeching of bagpipes. The haggis is a sort of sausage made from a sheep’s heart liver and lungs mixed with suet, spices and oatmeal, all tied into a sheep’s stomach. (I’ve heard it called Scottish paté.) A good haggis, apparently, is spicy, satisfying and cheap. It can be eaten pretty well any which way, including fried for breakfast and at some fast food places in Scotland, deep fried with chips. But traditionally, the haggis slashed with a dirk (or cut in two with a knife) and the innards are served on plates. It is usually accompanied by “tattie and neeps”, that is, mashed potatoes and turnips. The dinner continues with various poems, speeches and toasts (lots of Scotch whisky, of course) and dessert, cheese and coffee. It often ends with a second “grace”:
We thank Thee for these mercies, Lord
Sae far beyond our merits.
Noo, waiter lads, clear aff the plates,
An’ fetch us in the spirits.
A Burns’ Night can be experienced in Hamilton at:
Michelangelo’s Banquet Centre, 155 Upper Ottawa St. on Wednesday, January 22nd at 6:30 p.m. $25. 905/383-3422
MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, 116 MacNab S. S, on Friday, January 24th at 6:30 p.m. Dinner, music and entertainment. $20 per person advance sales. 905/529-6896.
The Church of the Resurrection (Anglican), 435 Mohawk Road West, on Friday, January 25th at 6 p.m. $20 for music, dinner, beer and wine bar and Scotch tasting. 905/389-1942.
If you wish to make your own dinner, haggis is available from
Opie’s Quality Meats at Concession and East 24th, 905/383-3422 and McVicar’s Butchers and Baker, 184 Highway 8, Stoney Creek, 905/662-1550.
If you want to make your own haggis, I wish you the best of luck. Here is a You Tube video with Gordon Ramsay and Hardeep Singh Kohli to provide inspiration. (Sorry about the language — it is Gordon Ramsay.)
And here’s a recipe for Cock-a-Leekie soup, my favourite part of the feast:
from The Food Network
7 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
2 cups chopped leeks (white parts only)
10 pitted prunes
2 tbsp pearl barley
salt and pepper
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tbsp butter, softened
1 tbsp water
1) Place the chicken in a stockpot, add the broth and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. cover, reduce the heat and simmer gently until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes.
2) Season with salt and pepper.
3) Remove the chicken from the broth and let it cool.
4) Add the leeks, prunes and barley to the hot broth. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
5) Meanwhile, bone the chicken and cut the meat into cubes. Set aside.
6) In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and work into the dry ingredients until the texture resembles coarse sand. Add the water and mix well. Season with salt and pepper.
7) Shape about 10 ml/2 tbsp of the dough into small balls. Add the cubed chicken. Drop the dumplings into the simmering broth Cover and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. You should have about 10 dumplings. Adjust the seasoning.