Most of us pass the bleak latter weeks of January without a thought for the 18th century Scottish poet Robert (or, as the Scots prefer, Rabbie) Burns. For those who celebrate Burns night—Scots, mostly—this is inconceivable. Since a few of the poet’s friends held the inaugural supper in memoriam a few years after Burns’ death, what has been known as the Burns dinner is notable for readings of the poet (who has given us, among other things, Auld Lang Syne), the eating of haggis (which in its traditional form is boiled in a sheep’s stomach), neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) and the (often prodigious) drinking of Scotch. “I’m from Northern Ireland, where there’s a very strong Scots influence and where Burns is almost as revered as he is across the narrow stretch of water that separates Antrim from Argyll,” the poet Paul Muldoon wrote in an email. “The tradition of the Burns dinner is one that allows us to cherish poetry, of course, but also haggis and neeps as well as Scotch whiskey. The big danger with the last of these is that one might wake the following morning feeling as if one had oneself been boiled in a sheep’s stomach.”
Last Thursday, the Scottish Government put on a Burns dinner at Highlands, a self-described “contemporary Scottish gastropub” in the West Village. Diners were provided with three glasses of Glenfiddich scotch—12 year, 15 year, 18 year—the “spiciness, complexity and maturity” of which were described with considerable passion by a Glenfiddich “ambassador”, a tall, affable man who said he was from a part of Scotland whose name sounded suspiciously like Milwaukee. (Or maybe he was describing the wide reach of Burns dinners internationally—there was a lot of ambient noise.)
The haggis, a pillow of meat roughly the size and shape of an American football, arrived on a silver platter with great pomp and circumstance, trailed by a bagpipe player in full tartan regalia. At the time-honored point in his reading of Burns’ “Address to a Haggis”—“And cut you up with ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright”—Scottish Affairs Attaché Darren Burgess stabbed the fleshy concoction with a vehemence that suggested personal spite, perhaps an early indication that he would be ordering Highland’s vegetarian version. (The actual reason for his haggis abstinence turned out to be practical—he was pacing himself: “I’ll easily do five Burns dinners in the next week or so,” he said. January 25, Burns’ birthday, will find him at the 200-person Saint Andrews Society Burns dinner in D.C.. “I’ll eat their haggis.”)
Haggis, a medley of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onions oats and spices, is the gefilte fish of the Burns dinner, both in its appearance on the plate–somewhere between Fancy Feast cat food and cardboard left curbside in the rain–and its status in the culture. Perhaps noticing the way in which, after several gamey bites, I was tentatively nudging the meat blob with my fork, John Booth, head of marketing and corporate communications for the Scottish Government’s communications and ministerial support division, leaned in to explain that, you know, it’s not like Scottish people eat haggis every day. It’s actually not possible to obtain a fully authentic haggis in America, due to FDA strictures about the ruminant parts of animals, and restaurants do the best they can. (Highlands gets theirs from a purveyor in New Jersey.)
Conversation turned from the relative virtues of American whiskey and Scottish scotch to rents in Edinburgh (steep!). Absent, in large part, was discussion of Burns himself, in the form of what is traditionally known as the Immortal Memory, a speech that considers some aspect of Burns’ life—his womanizing, say, (he had either 12 or 14 children, depending on how you count), or his time in Edinburgh. For his audience of Burns newbies, Mr. Booth gave a truncated Immortal Memory, in the form of a lesser-known passage from Burns, his “Ode to George Washington on his Birthday.” “I’m here in a kilt reciting Burns things that unite Scotland and America,” Mr. Booth reflected. (Exhibit A: Differences with the English.) In fact, it was fairly timely: Scotland has a referendum for independence coming up in September.
The Immortal Memory may in fact have a limited lifespan. For the past 19 years Alan Bain, president of the Scottish American Foundation in New York, has been putting on an annual Burns dinner at a private club in Manhattan. It started out as a modest affair but has since swelled to some 200 attendees. Despite his reverence for Burns—“He had an innate understanding of the common man and what values were important,” he told me—he, too, has largely jettisoned the Immortal Memory in favor of a musical evening: toasts in Burns’ verse are sung, rather than spoken. “We discovered that with an American audience, the Immortal Memory was too cerebral,” he said. Nevertheless, his own most memorable Burns dinner, back in the early days of his event, involved the Immortal Memory combined with a bit of overindulgence. The Reverend Barry Shepherd from First Presbyterian Church had just begun delivering his talk on Burns. “He was very eloquent. And all of a sudden there was this ghastly crash. A friend and club member had fallen off his chair drunk and had to be removed from the room. The Reverend picked up his Immortal Memory, and the evening ends. I was worried, but a guest came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Goddammit that’s just the Burns Night I like, people falling off their chairs.’”