Hailing from south of the border I’d never experienced Burns Night until I became a diplomatic wife. In many respects, the enthusiastic marking of the date in the diplomatic calendar shouldn’t be a surprise given the relatively high ratio of Scots in the foreign office. How authentic my two subsequent evenings have been is debatable, but they certainly couldn’t have been more different, or indeed, further away from Scotland.
For the uninitiated, Burns Night is a celebration of the birthday of 18th Century Scottish poet Robert (aka Rabbie) Burns, an earthy fellow and prolific scribe. He’s most well-known for penning Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year’s greeting.
Typically his birthday celebrations will feature the three ‘P’s – poetry, pipes, and pudding. The focal point to any celebration is the address to the haggis, haggis been a unique culinary entity comprising sheep organs and entrails mixed with seasoning, onions, and oats and cooked in a sheep’s stomach.
Pakistan was a grand black tie affair, hosted of all places in a car park. The High Commission in Islamabad routinely, and with some ingenuity, transforms one floor of the 1960s-styled concrete staff car park into a banquet area. The support pillars are wrapped in material, along with the exhaust-stained walls, carpets and tables are laid, and the place dressed in twinkly lights for the occasion at hand. It was a whirl of people, many kilts, much whisky, and as a result dancing, and an exuberant toast – complete with plenty of guttural sounds – to the haggis.
Olde Scottish, much like olde English, is largely incomprehensible to the modern ear. In some respects, this is probably a good thing in this case, at least for the uninitiated, because to understand the address would surely deter even the steeliest of stomach from sampling the dish. There is a point at which the host slashes into the haggis, and Burns thunders forth:
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Anything that mentions warm smelling entrails can’t be good, but it transpires that haggis is like another curious British culinary institution – Marmite spread – in that people appear to either love it or hate it on first taste.
DC was a quirky insight into US customs regulations, disruptive weather, and condo rules. It was a relatively muted, small, but a lot more personal affair. The condo rules prohibited the playing of pipes, so no bagpipers to welcome the guests or indeed the haggis. More disturbing, the haggis was almost a no-show, which frankly would stop any Burns Night celebration in its tracks. You might as well pack up and go home before the evening has even started if the star guest isn’t going to make an appearance.
The caterers had bravely opted to make the haggis, but soon fell foul of US legislation banning the import of sheep lungs. Bad weather on the west coast then stopped the supply of several other vital ingredients, sealing the fate of the home-made haggis. There was then a swift search for a haggis already present on US soil (the Scots will not export haggis, and presumably, the US customs would bill haggis an illegal immigrant). One was sourced, it was Fedexed, it arrived late afternoon, and was duly simmered to perfection in time for the guests’ arrival.
The star dish was ceremoniously carried out, the non-native Scottish caterers not realising that it shouldn’t have been unfurled in the kitchen, and the host did a grand job of thrusting his kitchen knife into the entrails while reciting the address. The American guests were bemused, good-humoured, and willing participants in sampling the haggis. One child, concerned about her father’s wellbeing after they Googled haggis, supplied him with her Dr Who sonic screwdriver for protection. He seemed to survive unharmed, but how many actually enjoyed the “amber bead” seeping through its “pores” is another matter.