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Address to a Haggis

Perhaps if Burns had written his poems in standard English, we wouldn’t be eating Haggis and reciting this poem every January 25th to honor him. This poem is one of the highlights of Burns Supper, and requires a large haggis to be present – to be ‘addressed’, slit open, and smelled for the full theatrical flavor of the poem. Burns wrote the poem during his first visit to Edinburgh in November 1786. A mere 27 years old, this amorous Scot was a new father of twins to Jane Armour and a daughter from his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton all in the past year. Catapulted from the life of a small tenant farmer to the equivalent of a rock star from his first book of poems in July 1876 – titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – published in the sleepy town of Kilmarnock. A single printing of 612 copies had sold out in less than a month.

Why? First, England had conquered Scotland at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, banning the kilt, bagpipes, and ever since had been imposing the King’s English as the language of Scotland. Stripped of their Scottish identity, Burns, like many others, wanted to keep Old Scots alive, and his little book of 44 poems was the first in many years to be published in Old Scots. Adding to the appeal, Burns had used many of the stories from the oral story telling tradition as the core of his poems. When read in Old Scots, these poems were almost like having your grandparents speaking to you. The appeal was tremendous, his celebrity almost instantaneous, and he was lured to Edinburgh within months to be feted and honored by the posh society of Edinburgh in their fancy Georgian homes in the New Town. Often asked to say a grace or open a meal, he shunned religion and often compared the rich and the poor, or contrasted man and animals (or insects) in his poems. Both poems, To a Mouse and To a Louse, were in the Kilmarnock edition.

In the Address to the Haggis, Burns compares the food of the rich and the poor when presented with a meal that included a haggis at a local pub named Dowie’s just off the Royal Mile with friends on November 29, 1786. The meal was during his first month in the bustling city, and his head was probably spinning with all he had seen and learned from the rich, pompous city folk. Haggis was a food Burns would have eaten before, as the ‘pluck’ of the sheep would be what the farmer had left after selling a sheep at market to pay the rent. Cooked up with some oatmeal and spices, the food was nutritious and filling. “The rustic Haggis fed’, as Burns would call himself, would never ‘look down wi sneering, scornfu view on sic a dinner’. The rich with a ‘fricassee wad mak her spew’ would have ‘spindle shanks’ (skinny legs) in comparison to the ‘weel-swall’d kytes’(swollen bellies) of the haggis fed. Burns, as he does in many poems, was spreading his democratic theme that the poor man is as good, if not better fed, than the rich man.

Perhaps the most credit goes to Sir Walter Scott, who met Burns as a young man, and was also intent that Scotland should keep its own identity. In 1815, at the first national celebration of Burns with many of Edinburgh’s literary names in attendance including Scott, haggis was served after a rendition of this poem. While Burns celebrations date back to 1806, Scott wanted to make haggis a Scottish national dish. Pairing the poem with the meal was the key to keeping haggis, Scottish heritage and Burns memory alive. Today, no Burns Supper would be complete without this poem.

See Andrew Hamilton, our haggis man, reciting this famous poem here.