A few days ago we looked at Churchill’s England united in its resistance, ultimately victorious, against the Nazi tyranny so aptly portrayed in this remarkable movie “Darkest Hour”. Today we turn our attention north of Hadrian’s Wall to the beautiful, romantic and ancient Kingdom of Scotland, a country that gave birth to its arguably greatest Poet: Robert Burns.
To an extraordinary degree, Robert Burns is THE POET OF SCOTLAND, a Scotland that—despite its union with England—remained for him and his readers a totally independent cultural, intellectual, social, and political entity. Undoubtedly, Burns will always be identified exclusively with Scotland, with its peculiar life and manners communicated to the outside world through its distinctive Scots language and fierce national pride. Scotland virtually drips from the lines of Burns’s poetry. He justly deserves that identification, for he not only wrote about Scottish life and manners but also sought his inspiration from Scotland—from his own Ayrshire neighbourhood, from its land and its people.
Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation!
Why the Scots voluntarily gave up their independence in 1707 to join an incorporating union with the English is one of the most hotly contested questions in Scottish history. The one thing historians can say with certainty was that the treaty was never popular and its passing was the cause of riots and protests the length and breadth of the country. This was to be expected, as petition after petition opposing union with England flooded the Scottish Parliament. In spite of the extent of the opposition, the treaty was signed and the documents were rushed south with a large military escort. Burns lamented this in his poem “Fareweel”, a farewell to Scotland, where even the country’s name was abolished for a more general and neutered “North Britain”. Parallels to Austria’s fate under the German occupation may be drawn with names like “Ostmark” or “Alpen- und Donau-Reichsgaue” replacing its ancient name:
“Fareweel to a' our Scottish fame, fareweel our ancient glory; fareweel ev'n to the Scottish name, sae fam'd in martial story. Now Sark rins over Solway sands, an' Tweed rins to the ocean, to mark where England's province stands - such a parcel of rogues in a nation! ….
O would, or I had seen the day that Treason thus could sell us, my auld grey head had lien in clay, wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace! But pith and power, till my last hour, I'll mak this declaration; we're bought and sold for English gold - such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal's stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead. According to the 2001 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique: “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”.
Although the name “hagws” or “hagese” was first recorded in England c. 1430, the dish is considered traditionally of Scottish origin, even THE NATIONAL DISH, as a result of Robert Burns' poem “Address to a Haggis” of 1787. Haggis is traditionally served with "neeps and tatties", (for the Non-Scots: Turnips or Swedes and Potatoes) boiled and mashed separately, and a dram (a glass of Scotch whisky), especially as the main course of a Burns Supper.
Everybody up and down the land will eat at least once a year in commemoration of the bard’s birthday the celebrated of all celebrated national dishes of Scotland: the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-Race”, the Haggis. Robert Burns wrote his famous ode the “Address to a Haggis“, which was excellently performed by our Board Member Colin Munro, a true master of his art! How fiercely he slashed the haggis!
In the absence of hard facts as to haggis' origins, popular folklore has provided some notions. One is that the dish originates from the days of the old Scottish cattle drovers. When the men left the Highlands to drive their cattle to market in Edinburgh the women would prepare rations for them to eat during the long journey down through the glens. They used the ingredients that were most readily available in their homes and conveniently packaged them in a sheep's stomach allowing for easy transportation during the journey. Other speculations have been based on Scottish slaughtering practices. When a chieftain or laird required an animal to be slaughtered for meat (whether sheep or cattle) the workmen were allowed to keep the offal as their share.
A joke sometimes maintained is that a haggis is a small Scottish animal with longer legs on one side, so that it can run around the steep hills of the Scottish highlands without falling over. According to one poll, 33 percent of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal. (I too believed this for a while in my early years in Scotland even though it sounded somewhat unbelievable but it was so convincingly put to me!)
Burns Night is a serious business not only in Scotland but also in Vienna where it is organised by the Robert Burns Society Austria. Many of their members, about 200, were dressed in their splendid kilts, the Caledonian Pipes and Drums Burgenland providing the stirring Scottish flair, and we listened to Robert Reinagl (Burgtheater) reading poems from Robert Burns, translated into Viennese by Dieter Berdel, musically accompanied by Peter Havlicek, contra guitar, und Nikolai Tunkowitsch, violine. Karl Menrad was the narrator taking us on the bard’s journey through Scotland. What an experience!
Once again the ABS was present in force, having joined the Burns Society now for the second time, occupying a long table in front of the stage. Like last year it felt strange though that we were again deprived of our President’s welcoming words but once more he was impressively attired in a kilt.
It was an evening of Scottish Food, drink, music and poetry in a grand atmosphere: a Burns Celebration with a different spin. Again, those of you who couldn’t make it, you missed a fascinating evening!
And finally, I leave you with a verse of a Burns poem “To a Louse”, recited also by our Colin Munro, which he titled “Robert Burns on the Brexit Blunder”:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, an' foolish notion: What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, an' ev'n devotion!”