Stephen Jardine: Burns Night showcases Scottish hospitality to the world

The haggis is piped into a Burns Supper, an international celebration that puts Scottish hospitality on the map.
The haggis is piped into a Burns Supper, an international celebration that puts Scottish hospitality on the map.
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In theory, it should never work. Just a month after Christmas most of us are still feeling a bit abstemious when it comes to food and drink. So the idea of sitting down to another feast based around a sheep’s stomach and copious amounts of whisky should be a non-starter.

In other countries it would take a Presidential decree and special forces going door-to-door to force people to eat heart, liver, lungs and stomach on a cold, dark midweek winter’s night. Here in Scotland, we just need the merest mention of a long dead ploughman turned poet to send us scurrying for the haggis, neeps and tatties.

Written down on the page, Burns Night sounds like a ridiculous concoction but the truth is, it has never been more popular. When his friends gathered to remember Burns on the 5th anniversary of his death with a simple supper, they could never have imagined the worldwide phenomena it has become today.

This Wednesday celebration suppers will take place from Sydney to Moscow, Beijing to New York and in places far more remote and inhospitable. But perhaps the real change to has been here at home.

Not so long ago Scottish Burns Suppers were male dominated affairs and strictly for hairy, hard drinking afficianados. Now they are perhaps our most democratic and egalitarian celebration. This weekend, haggis is on the shelf of every supermarket, Wetherspoons are celebrating Burns Week and Golden Wonder have launched haggis flavoured crisps.

In Liverpool, the local paper lists the six best places on Merseyside to celebrate Scotland’s national poet, the Loch Fyne restaurant chain is serving Prosecco and Irn Bru cocktails in all their establishments in England and even Barrhead Water Works is holding a Burns celebration tomorrow around an open fire from 3pm.

So how has a long deceased philandering poet become such a runaway hit? The timing helps. The New Year diet may still have a long way to go but a month after Christmas, the Burns Supper is a happy reminder that good food, drink and celebration are never that far away. At the dark start of another year, one night of indulgence is allowed for everyone. Then there is the food and drink.

Not so long ago, whisky was an old man’s drink and haggis was an embarrassing national secret. Now our national drink is fashionable again and our national dish is recognised as a great source of iron and fibre with no artificial colours or flavourings.

There is also a pride in what it represents. A greater sense of national awareness has undoubtedly produced an enhanced regard for the pillars of what makes Scotland special. Burns Night is a remarkable institution which showcases us to the world as hospitable, generous people who love to eat and drink. Other nations would love to have what we have but it is ours.

That alone is not enough. What makes the Burns Supper the worldwide success story it is today is it’s remarkable adaptability. From an Islamic Burns Supper with Halal haggis at Edinburgh University tomorrow night to LGBT artists celebrating at the ever growing Big Burns Supper festival in Dumfries, the legacy of the Bard is constantly being reinvented for new audiences.

Even the haggis itself has moved with the times. It now comes in vegetarian, Moroccan spiced and wild boar varieties as well as special packs to be microwaved for a quick and tasty meal any time of the year.If recent years have been good for the Burns Supper, the best may be yet to come. America is rumoured to be about to scrap a 50-year ban on haggis imports. Exporters say the potential for expansion for haggis producers would be colossal.