Stephen Jardine: Burns and haggis gang thegither

Robert Burns. Picture: Greg Macvean
Robert Burns. Picture: Greg Macvean
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THERE are no Brecht breakfasts or Dostoyevsky dinners yet tomorrow millions around the world will hold a simple supper to celebrate the immortal memory of Robert Burns. So why does a poet who died two centuries ago still inspire a national feast?

The first commemorations of his life took place on the anniversary of his death in the late 18th century. By the start of the 19th century the memorial events had switched to the date of his birth and the haggis had taken a central role.

That was thanks to the fact that Burns elevated the humble dish to iconic status in his 1786 poem Address to a Haggis.

With jibes at more pretentious fare, it was intended to be an amusing tribute to our national character and our ability to make the most of our meagre resources.

The unintended consequence was to give haggis a worldwide profile that continues to this day.

It’s ironic that a country that exports vast quantities of lamb, beef and top quality seafood is best known internationally for a curious dish of oatmeal and offal but its unusual reputation is at the root of its fame.

Salmon on a plate rarely provokes extreme reactions but amongst those trying it for the first time, haggis can delight and disgust like no other dish.

Even those who turn away can’t deny the gratitude we owe to Burns. Aside from producing poetry that can still move us after two centuries, he put Scottish food on the world stage.

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Imagine what other countries would give to have a national dish known across the globe. What’s perhaps most surprising is that it has survived so many changes in what and how we eat but, far from being declining, the haggis goes from strength to strength.

Part of the reason for that must be its essential honesty. While other foods battle to cut salt, fat and calorie content but try to retain flavour, the haggis is what it has always been.

To me, it is irresistible but I couldn’t eat it every day. That said, how many of us will tuck in at the weekend and then wonder why don’t we eat it more often.

The answer is, we are. UK sales of haggis have steadily increased in recent years, rising from £6.4 million in 2007 to £8.7m just two years later.

Surprisingly, the increase is not just happening here. Haggis makers MacSween now send more than 50% of their stock south of the Border with Boisdale restaurants in London going through 3,000kg a year.

So, as we celebrate Burns’ life this weekend let us revel in the joy of our humble national dish. It may be served en croute or in fancy cannonballs with pickled turnip but the haggis remains what it has always been.

It may not look much but it’s what’s inside that matters. On that basis, it couldn’t be anything but Scottish.


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