PLANNING a Burns Night dinner? If you’re serving haggis, you may want to honor the traditional Scottish dish with a rendition of one of Robert Burns’ most famous and performed poems, Address to a Haggis.
Usually recited by the dinner host, the tongue-in-cheek speech has been a long-established focal point at Burns Supper, an evening celebrating the literary legend’s birthday: January 25, 1759.
After the haggis is brought to the table (a Spotify bagpipe playlist will do in a pinch), Burns’ words are recited over the plate as it is opened and served to guests.
Some say that it is advisable to make a small incision in the side of the haggis before it “opens” properly on the table; stories have been told of guests being scalded by flying content during rousing recitals.
Others say this is part of the fun.
What is the story of a Speech to a Haggis?
The speech was composed in the year 1786, shortly after the poet arrived in the capital of Scotland. There are two stories linked at the beginning of the poem, one more romantic than the other.
The first version alleges that he had been invited to dinner at the home of a merchant friend, Andrew Bruce, and composed the poem to amuse the wealthy host and his guests.
The second, and slightly more charming, version is that he composed the poem on the spur of the moment while visiting the home of his cabinetmaker friend, John Morrison, in a fit of inspiration triggered by the sight of the luxurious meat pudding.
In the 18th century, haggis was not a very commonly enjoyed meal, but rather reserved as an item of extravagance and occasion. Based on Burns’s political persuasion, it has been speculated that the tribute to him was ironic in its praise of him, mocking the upper classes who might revere him as a luxury item.
Although the true origin of the poem is debated, it was one of Burns’s first poems to be published in the Edinburgh newspaper, The Caledonian Mercury, on December 20, 1786.
A quick video search for an “Address for the Haggis” returns hundreds of results, ranging from an “Address for the Haggis Kids,” recitals on kitchen tables and in dingy restaurants, to a bagpiper in full regalia, serving dish at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The high-society lifestyle magazine Tatler recently published an article titled “Where to Go for the Best Burns Night Dinner in London” – it’s clear that the Haggis Address can and should be held in high places and low places.
As thousands of Addresses to the Haggis continue to appear around the world, it is inevitable that each will have a character of its own, something the Bard himself would surely have approved of.
Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns, in full
Just for your honest son’s face,
Big boss of the dessert race!
Above them and you take your place,
Pain, calluses or thairm:
Well are you wordy o’a grace
As lang is my arm.
You fill the moaning ditch there,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin helps repair a windmill
In the moment of need,
While through your pores the dew distills
Like an amber bead.
His knife sees the light of rustic work,
And cut you off with a game of sleight of hand
Ditching your guts that sprout bright,
like a ditch;
And then, oh what a glorious sight,
It sucks hot, rich!
So, horn for horn, they stretch out and fight:
Deil takes the last one! in them they drive,
Until their well-inflated kites create
they bend like drums;
So old Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre your French ragout?
Or smelled that a sow was rotting,
Or taco fricassee make her puke
Wi’ perfect trickster,
Look down with a mocking and contemptuous sight
In sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see it in his trash,
As irresponsible as a withered rash,
the shank of his spindle, a whip of guid;
Its snow a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field on the run,
Oh, how improper!
But look at the rustic, fed on haggis,
The trembling ground echoes his footsteps.
Clap on your snow walie a leaf,
He will make you whistle;
And legs and arms, and sned heads,
Like taps or ‘thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, what makes humanity your concern,
And hand them out your bill o’ fare,
Ancient Scotland wants no donation items
That jaups a luggies;
But if you want his prayer of thanks
Give him a haggis!
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.