Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Immortal Memory

I was in the butchers this morning, searching for a haggis for tea tonight. Sadly there were none to be had in Crookes (though we did manage to hunt one down elsewhere in Sheffield, where they are bred in captivity rather than allowed to roam free as they do in Scotland. I know that's true because a Methodist minister told me, and they never tell lies!): in fact the butcher seemed unaware of the significance of today, as he said "You're the second person this morning to ask for one - I don't know why."

The reason, of course, is that today, 25th January, is the birthday of Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet, who will be commemorated across the world by expat Scots and others tonight with a traditional Burns Supper. I was first introduced to this fine feast when I was serving as minister in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, a town that seemed to have a relatively large Scots presence. We met for our celebrations one year in the Parish rooms (the Methodist Hall, where most of us belonged, couldn't be used due to their rules on the consumption of alcohol.) and shared Scotch Broth, followed by Haggis, neeps & tatties. All of this was liberally washed down with a selection of Scotland's finest export, single malt whisky (hence we couldn't use the Chapel). Pudding consisted of a delightful concoction know as 'Flummery', which was made of whisky, oats, whisky, cream and whisky.

Scotland may be unique in celebrating their national bard in such a big way. But then Burns was a unique figure, with an equally unique repertoire among his poems. Very few poets wrote about a louse on the head of a fine lady in church, giving us the lines: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ to see oursels as ithers see us." Not many evoked that "wee, sleeket, cowran, timrous beastie" the mouse in such warm words. And I don't know of any national poet who eulogised a sausage in quite the way Burns did.
"Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face
Great Chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm.
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm."
I honestly can't see Shakespeare being quite so lyrical about Roast Beef & Yorkshire Pud, or Dylan Thomas speaking so highly of the Leek. Yet these words in praise of the haggis will be recited with full emotion this night, as the sgian-dubh is thrust into the steaming sausage. Oh that we English could be so passionate about our food!

Burns' work will live on, and tonight , as I tuck in to my Haggis, neaps & tatties (and later enjoy a wee dram - I do have a meeting tonight) I will remember him, his words (and his philandering) with a warm smile as I toast 'The Immortal Memory!'