Robert Burns, or Robbie or even Rabbie Burns, is known as Scotland's National Bard and one might argue that he is Scotland's most famous Scot (although William Wallace may disagree - and no, Mel Gibson is not from Scotland).
Every year on the 25th of January we celebrate everything Robbie Burns. The haggis will be piped in and subsequently slashed with a knife with great grandeur; Scotch will be imbibed; Burns poems will be recited; there will be music and dance and you can bet your neeps and tatties that "Auld Lang Syne" will be sung at the end of the night.
I've grown up going to my fair share of these celebrated suppers; from events in local Legions, dance halls, and even the living rooms of the overzealous Burns enthusiast. Robbie has been a part of my life since I can remember.
Now, as much as I've been ensconced in this tradition, I know there are people who have left these nights scratching their heads wondering what the heck was being said during the toasts and still wondering what haggis actually is. Never fear, I'm here to help.
Classic scenario: you find your seat at this event and on your plate sits the evening's menu. You instantly regret not eating that lasagna before you left. What is in haggis (you've heard the rumours)? Neeps and tatties? Cock-a-leekie soup? Relax. No need to regret not eating before you got there.
Neeps and tatties are just mashed potatoes and turnips and cock-a-leekie soup is chicken broth with leeks and barley. Traditionally prunes are also an ingredient but in my long history of these suppers, I have yet to see one floating in my soup.
Haggis...well, the rumours might be true on that one. It's a traditional dish made of the heart, liver and lungs of either a sheep or a lamb. You combine these with oats, suet and other herbs and spices and then it's cooked in a casing traditionally made of the animal's stomach. Therefore you can think of haggis as one gigantic sausage! You're welcome.
Toasts and addresses are pretty standard at Burns nights. They are usually spoken in an unfamiliar language because they are written in Scottish dialect.
Didn't take Scottish dialect in school? No problem. The Selkirk Grace (recited before supper) is being thankful for the food that you have on that night. The address to the haggis is a funny ode to, well, the haggis, which is about to be sliced open for all to see (hence the sword or knife being waved around while it's recited). You are now in the loop.
After all of the reciting and eating, you're feeling a bit thirsty. It wouldn't be a proper Burns night without Scotch whiskey. Or is that whisky? What is the difference between the two? The answer is that there is absolutely no difference except for one vowel. The Scots (and Canadians) spell it whisky while the Irish and Americans spell it whiskey. You can now order your dram confidently now that you know the truth.
As you sit back and sip on the tasty dram and watch the evening's entertainment of pipe bands, highland dancing, singing and step dancing, you start to wonder why this guy is being celebrated. Sure, he wrote some poems and one was the unofficial national anthem for the country before "Scotland the Brave" came along, but why this guy?
Why a literary figure? How very boring. Oh, how wrong you are!
Did you know that Robbie Burns was quite the ladies man? Robbie should be thankful that he didn't grow up in the age we're in now of "TMZ," "Entertainment Tonight," the Internet. The affairs and the many children out of wedlock - Oh, the scandal!
He may have been great with the written word but not so much when it came to true everlasting love.
If you do end up eating before you go; end up having no idea what is being said during the addresses; or being thoroughly confounded why a poet deserves so much attention, do know this: the evening in the Scottish world is one that is a great fundraiser for pipe bands, highland dancers and the Scottish organizations in your local community.
Yes, haggis may not be appetizing or palatable to everyone but in the words of Burns, know this: "For auld lang syne, my dear/For auld lang syne,/We'll take a cup o'kindness yet/For auld lang syne!"