Tag Archives: Scotland

Great Scot! What You Should Know about Robbie Burns

People all over the world celebrate Robbie Burns Day today. Burns wrote an ode to a mouse (which I blogged homage a few years ago) and an address to a haggis, but what is the source of the man’s immortal appeal? According to a BBC documentary, “Robert Burns achieved more with his poetry than any writer since Shakespeare.” In celebration of his 258th birthday, let’s consider some questions about the freedom-loving Scottish bard.

Robbie Burns, the greatest Scotsman of all time

Robbie Burns, the greatest Scotsman of all time

  1. Is Robert Burns the greatest Scot of all time? Yes, according to a 2009 survey of STV viewers. Not bad, considering he was up against the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Andrew Carnegie, Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir William Wallace, Annie Lennox and Sir Sean Connery.
  2. What language did Burns use? Burns said of English, “I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue.” Scots, his native tongue, is not “funny-sounding English;” it is a language that developed alongside and eventually separately from English.
  3. Didn’t he play for the Chicago Blackhawks? Yes, yes he did.
  4. With a name like Burns, was he a destructive force? Well let’s see. A few days after his birth, Jan. 25, 1759, a storm tears apart his home. Next thing you know, the composer Handel dies. A few months later, General Wolfe dies on the Plains of Abraham. Less than 20 years after that, the American Revolution. Then the French are storming the Bastille and heads are rolling. But look what happens when Burns dies in 1796, whaddaya know, suddenly the Americans and the Ottoman Empire are shaking hands over the Treaty of Tripoli, and everybody calms down.
  5. What did he wear under his kilt? Burns was forever kiltless, because during his lifetime it was illegal to wear a kilt! You know Robbie Burns would have supported Idle No More!
  6. What’s taking so long for Gerard Butler to get his Robert Burns movie made? Well, come on; they just made a movie about Robbie Burns in 1930. Isn’t it a bit soon to be making another one?
  7. This guy’s good. Where can I see him in Toronto? There’s a statue of “the Ploughman Poet” on the east side of Allan Gardens. If you see people in kilts reading poetry around that area today, that’s where the statue is.

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Half-Irish Blues

I grew up believing I was Scottish (which is a bit daft because I was born and raised in Canada, as were both sides of my family for three generations) but when I was 30-something (probably years of age) my maternal grandmother was ranting about my Irish heritage. What does this have to do with me? “Didn’t anyone ever tell you, Evan? The ancestors of both of your grandmothers were from Ireland.”

Proud to Be Irish, flag

Suddenly a deep dark family secret came to light: I was not simply, as I’d always been told, a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on oats and whisky in the northern part of the island of Britain, I was every bit as much a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on potatoes and whiskey in the northern part of the island of Ireland! In an instant, my self-image was tossed in a raging wind of uncertainty!

In my bewilderment and rage, I went ’round the pub and drowned my sorrows in beer after beer. At closing time, as the bartender was rolling me out the door he said, “What are you, Irish?” And suddenly I understood. I’m a double Celt half-breed.

irish yoga

Now, instead of being woefully ignorant of Scottish Gaelic, my burden is doubled by my ignorance of Irish Gaelic. I’ll have to fill my sporran with potatoes. And it won’t be easy playing the bagpipes with one arm and the bodhrán with the other. Half the time I would otherwise have devoted to trying to comprehend Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis must henceforth be devoted to trying to fathom James Joyce’s Ulysses. And now my options seem to be limited in religious matters, much as in Canadian politics, to only two possibilities: the orange or the green. But what is presented as black and white is all grey to me.

Only sometimes can I distinguish whether an accent is Irish or Scottish, or whether a foxy redhead is a bonnie lassie or a pretty Colleen. And I’m less expert in matters of Mc and Mac than people have come to expect of me.

Fortunately, there is an easy way out of my dilemma. Based on my appearance, people often ask if I’m German. Since I speak more German than Gaelic anyway, henceforth, I should just reply, “Ja”.

Am I Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Whatever you consider yourself to be, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!

Please also read my brief and rather silly St Patrick’s Day article http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/March-2013/Seven-things-all-Torontonians-should-know-about-Ireland-for-St-Patricks-Day/

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Robbie Burns Haggis

Happy Burns Day to you!

Och, you look famished — hungry enough to eat a horse, or sheep entrails. Come, pull up a chair and have a wee nibble o’ haggis!

Fresh butcher-made haggis hot out of the oven

Haggis out of Focus (might've been the whisky), prepared by ethical butcher, cooked at home

Listen: (My Luve is Like a) Red Red Rose

Read: Got haggis? You should — it’s Robbie Burns Day (below)

Robert Burns was born Jan. 25, 1759. His birthday is celebrated all over the world. Best known for having written “To a Mouse” and “Auld Lang Syne,” he also wrote “Address to a Haggis,” an ode to Scotland’s notorious national dish. Burns called it the “great chieftain o’ the pudding race,” but if you find it hard to think of haggis as a delicacy, think of it as sheep recycling. In honour of Burns, let’s consider the haggis, which he immortalized with a “grace as lang’s my arm.”

They say those who love sausages wouldn’t want to know what goes into making them. That goes double for Scotland’s chieftain of sausages. How haggis is made is a simple question to answer: take a sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and anything tasty that might be stuck to them, mince them up with onions, oats and suet (or maybe sweat), fry it all up and sew it into the sheep’s stomach or intestine (whichever you find more appetizing). The next question is “why?” It is a way to enjoy and preserve those precious, tasty bits that might get you through a few cauld winter nichts.

Haggis, which basically means “hash” (or hacked up bits that no one would eat if they were identifiable), is not nearly as horrible as you might reasonably imagine it to be. Granted, before it’s cooked it starts off looking like road kill, but once it’s been hacked, minced, fried, stuffed, stitched, boiled and roasted, it comes out looking like, well, cooked road kill.

By the time it gets to your plate, haggis no longer looks like, um, anything in particular. In taste and texture it’s kind of like a spicy shepherd’s pie. As if that weren’t fancy enough, haggis is generally served with a side of tatties ’n’ neeps (a lovely pair, especially when they’re mashed together). That may sound a bit risqué, but it’s actually just vegetables: potatoes and turnips.

Once you’ve gone through all this trouble, don’t just sit in front of the telly and chow down. You have to dress up in your kilt, parade the haggis to the table marching in step with your household bagpiper and then recite the “Address to a Haggis” in your most obnoxious faux-Scottish accent and pretend you know what it means.

Then you pour a wee nip of whisky from the teapot and toast Burns, then toast the lassies. Repeat until the teapot runs dry.

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