I get far more excited than I probably should when January 25th rolls around, but I also tell myself that I have more than ample reason to allow myself a little ridiculous excitement. If you’re anything like me, you love literature, and you love Scottish culture. These incredible forces combine to celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns, the unofficial national poet/hero of Scotland, who wrote (and collected) countless poems, ballads, letters, and songs in the Scottish dialect, preserving not only a literary record of his incredible perspective of the world, but also Scottish culture and heritage. You may or may not be acquainted with some of his work ― A Red Red Rose, Holy Willie’s Prayer, Green Grow the Rashes, Address to a Haggis, Scots Wha Hae ― but there are very few folks who aren’t familiar with what is probably his most famous contribution to the international community, the penning of Auld Lang Syne, sung at every New Year’s Eve the world over (and curiously, from what trusted sources tell me, at closing time in most stores in Japan).
As a poet-at-heart myself, Burns is an incredible inspiration, and I never tire of exploring the landscapes and characters of his literature, especially when it means learning a new Scottish phrase or two. I can’t say that I’ve been nearly as proliferous as he, literarily or otherwise ― he has an impressive record of wooing the lassies ― but one need not necessarily be to warrant indoctrination into his worldwide fan club.
To the meat of my post: I had the honor of attending my first traditional, Scottish Robert Burns Supper last week for an enviable price at The Auld Alliance, a (some might say THE) Scottish pub nestled snugly into the fourth arrondissement right here in Paris. Yet again, I am overwhelmed by the opportunities this incredible city offers, and when an event inspired by my own cultural roots manifests, you better believe that I’ll be there! For some background, Ol’ Rabbie piqued my poetic interests just over a year ago, when I was still in my undergraduate studies and involved with our university’s Literary Society, so I took it upon myself to attempt to host a Burns Supper: it was an admirable effort, but after finally having experienced a truly traditional interpretation, I find myself rather humbled at my earlier attempt. Now, though, I’ve got the experience to properly organize another such celebration, should the future decree it!
So on to the celebration!
The Auld Alliance isn’t a massive venue, but it is certainly large enough to host a sizeable crowd of thirsty Scots, and there were more than a handful in attendance. It’s a cozy place with Scottish memorabilia all about, as you might expect.
Naturally, they began with drinks ― I helped myself to some cider ― and there was much chatting, introduction, and most importantly, bagpipes! (I’ll apologize for the quality of most of the following videos: the lighting was very dim, so none of my recordings are particularly visible. But the important thing is usually the audio!)
Once the gathering was underway, our hosts welcomed everyone and began the ceremony. It began, as does every proper Burns Supper, with the poet’s “Selkirk Grace,” performed by a young, kilted fellow (Andrew, according to the program):
Some hae meat, and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Following the grace was, naturally, the first course: a Scottish smoked salmon salad, which I was too eager to devour before I snapped any photos of it. You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the generous portion of smoked salmon, honey-mustard-drizzled lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and two hefty slices of toast (with a slice of lemon) were a wonderful precursor to the main course that would follow. I did, however, manage to take a few shots that capture the dinner’s ambiance (and, for good measure, a sample of myself dressed in some of my best attire):
After a bit more socializing, our salad plates were clean, which means that we were ready for the main course! But we could not quite yet be served the famous, traditional Scottish dish ― not before the official procession of the haggis took place. In true Scottish fashion, the large and luscious pudding was paraded in on a silver platter, accompanied by a glass of whiskey and preceded by the pipes.
After the march, a proper breaking of the haggis’ skin warranted Burns’ most mouthwatering poem, “To a Haggis,” or the “Address to the Haggis,” delivered by another young fellow (Simon, it would appear). This is an absolutely central part of the traditional Burns Supper, and usually the most well-received, since it means that the most filling portion of the evening will shortly be digesting.
However, our hosts threw us a curveball! After the initial procession, while they were dividing up the first haggis in the kitchen, another pudding was marched into the crowd (I snuck in a couple photos earlier), bagpipes and all, since there was a surprise second address: still to the haggis, but this time in French. We are, after all, in Paris, and it’s only fair to pay homage to the long history of friendship between the Scottish and the French. And so Monsieur Didier Louis, French military man and supporter of the Scottish nation, delivered a very animated, heartfelt Address in his native language:
Later in the evening, when chowing was underway, Monsieur Louis also treated us to a very modern, very unorthodox interpretation of the address. This one, however, he kept brief:
Only after those initial, magnificent deliveries could we enjoy the eagerly anticipated course: haggis, neeps & tatties ― that’s haggis, turnips, and mashed potatoes, quite the savory trio. These, served along with ample portions of whiskey: traditionally, a spot of the strong stuff is poured over the haggis itself, some might say to improve the flavor, though it’s not as bad as the world seems to make it out to be. I, for one (a recovering vegetarian, mind you) found it to be quite delicious! It had a lovely, spiced flavor, heavy on the pepper side, which always makes for a winner in my book. Having not eaten meat for some number of years now, the rare instance where I found such a morsel in my mouth (or even the smell alone of cooking meats) left a terrible memory on my tongue, but for some reason the haggis was rather at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps because it is composed of lamb as opposed to red meats like beef or pork, and furthermore because it doesn’t generally include the muscley, fibrous portion of the animal that is most commonly marketed and consumed.
Which brings us to what I’m sure has been a burning question for some of you: what, exactly, is a haggis? Before divulging the information, enjoy your unspoiled vision of the wonder:
Now, on to the harsh but very logical truth: so as not to be wasteful, the highlanders modified an old Greek/Roman tradition of salvaging the leftover, unused organs of stock animals after butchering, in particular the heart, lungs, and occasionally kidneys or other assorted bits and pieces (though notably not the intestines). These organs are placed into the cleaned stomach of the sheep, usually after having been minced and often after pre-cooking, along with oats, spices, and sometimes varying other filler ingredients. If you’d like a good laugh, here’s a fun and educational bit from a Scottish Heritage society back in the States (this one’s not my video):
As the burly fellow in the video mentions, the haggis is akin to black pudding (black sausage, or in French, boudin noir) which relies on pig’s blood for its main proteinous ingredient and substitutes barley for oats. Where were we?
Ah yes! The main course. As we chowed down, our hosts shared with us another central axis of the celebration: The Immortal Memory, a personalized tribute to Rabbie Burns and the incredible impressions he has left upon the world. This part sees the most change from supper to supper, as it is truly up to the dinner’s host to decide how best to immortalize the Scottish Bard, and we received (as you might imagine) a humorous, but very informative, historical lesson. Sadly, I was worried that too much video would quickly fill my camera’s memory, so this is one that I did not record. It was one of the longer ones, too. I did, however, capture the piper’s version of Robert the Bruce’s March: if I understand correctly, it is also the tune to Burns’ “Scots Wha Hae,” a poem inspired by Robert Bruce’s address to his army before the battle of Bannockburn against the English (Bruce is arguably THE national hero of Scotland who led his people on their march toward freedom from the English crown). Curiously, I am told that the French military used to play this tune during final inspections of the troops, and may continue to do so today. Again, can’t beat that old-time friendship and cultural exchange!
After the haggis became nothing more than an immortal memory itself, we continued to dessert, an Apple Crumble with Custard (more of a crème anglaise, really) followed by what I have a sneaking suspicion is a bit of French tradition leaking into the celebration: the cheese and biscuit platter, with plenty of fruits and wine to fill out whatever portions of our bellies may have miraculously been left empty. Amid all of the wonderful conversation, I only snapped the dessert:
Finally, we witnessed the deliveries of the “Toast to the Lassies” and its counterpart, the “Reply to a Toast to the Lassies,” the former given by young laddie Murdo, the latter by the likewise youthful Mhairi. The first of the two was, as appears to be traditional, a light-hearted (and perhaps somewhat vulgar) address to “the lovely dears” of whom Burns so fondly wrote. The reply was fun in its own right, and considerably more informative concerning the historical aspect of Burns’ influence, and among the videos here it will certainly be the most educational (and one of the more poetic, I might add). It appears that I didn’t actually record the “Toast to the Lassies” itself in the first video, but at any rate I snagged the humorous bit at its introduction:
And here’s the reply:
Needless to say, I had an absolute blast! Once again I find myself counting the very many blessings I have here in Paris. I even managed to make it to a second Burns gathering at another Scottish pub, The Highlander, but there was no wonderful ceremony nor traditional celebration. Regardless, I was more than content to soak up the atmosphere (and a couple of Guinnesses), and doubly happy to find that the haggis was free for those wearing kilts – which, as should now be well-established, is every day of my blessed life. I’d like to wrap up the dinner portion with one of my favorite photos of the evening, because how can a photo with five kilts in it not be your favorite?
If you’d like a little more information about Burns, the following video from the official “About Scotland” organization gives an elementary introduction, but at their website here you’ll find even more resources about the man and the celebration.
Furthermore, if you’re in the neighborhood and interested in visiting the popular Scottish watering hole, you can check out the Auld Alliance website for additional information. It’s a cozy place, even more so with a friendly crowd of Burns enthusiasts, but whether or not it happens to be January 25, I highly recommend the visit. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about this particularly splendid adventure of mine as much as I enjoyed living it, and for those among you who may not have been aware of ol’ Rabbie, well… my work here is done 😉