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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns and The Invention of the Haggis By Clark McGinn

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

At the suggestion and permission of Johnny Rodger and Mitch Miller, editors of The Drouth (where the following article first appeared), we are delighted to have Clark McGinn back with us again.  A good friend and staunch supporter of Robert Burns Lives!, Clark is Managing Director of CHC Leasing (Ireland) Limited, a company that provides “unmatched helicopter services that enable customers to go further, do more, and come home safely”.

With him having already contributed many articles to our website, with an introduction by me on each one, I found myself wondering what I could say about Clark that has not already been said. The only new thing I could mention is that we both serve on the Business Board at Glasgow University’s Robert Burns Centre.  So I took an idea from Ian Duncan, Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and contacted Clark about using some of his website material in my introduction.  His clever and humorous reply was:


Dear Frank

Of course! And old friend like you can help himself to anything whether in the fridge or on the website!


Here, then, is a wee bit about Clark from

My life with Burns is truly a journey (and not the reality TV cliché!) in the last seven years travelling 166,000 miles (6.7 times round the globe) with 100 speeches in 26 different cities in 13 countries!  Each time has been a great occasion: from major Corporate Hospitality events in some of the most stunning locations in the world (like the Sydney Opera House!) to the prestigious Society of Scots Lawyers in London Burns Supper or The Burns Club of London: to Ayrshire Burns Clubs and private functions; across the US, the UK and Europe; audiences ranging from 50 to over 700 people have enjoyed my trademark style of combining humour, poetry, history and an ability to tailor a message from Burns and his work which touches that particular group of men and women in that particular evening’s audience – every speech I give is unique.

Can you imagine going around the globe 6.7 times speaking about Burns? With countless years yet to go, there is no telling how many more times Clark will circle our globe. If you check out his website mentioned above, you’ll be in for a real treat.  I say again in closing that one of my dreams is to have him speak at the Burns Club of Atlanta which has met the first Wednesday of each month since its inception in 1896 and in the Burns Cottage since 1911. 

Like Johnny Rodger said about Clark’s article, “it’s great stuff”.

Welcome home, Clark! (FRS: 8:15.12)

Robert Burns and The Invention of the Haggis
By Clark McGinn

Clark McGinn, the Burns globe-trotter

Cynics might well describe the Burns Supper ritual of addressing the haggis as the inedible praised by the incomprehensible, and, to be fair, it is a hard concept to explain.  I was travelling to New York to speak at a Burns Supper and when I arrived at the fearsome JFK Immigration Desk, the border officer stared at me and asked why I was seeking entry to the States. I nearly said ‘I am going to put on a skirt, stand in front of six hundred people and use the language of  eighteenth century Scotland to declaim a love poem to a sausage which I shall then eviscerate with a huge knife.’ In the end it seemed simpler to say that I was there on business.

The haggis as the subject of the poem and the object of the ceremony has a more profound significance at Burns Night than might be thought at first (or subsequent) glances. In the era of the very first Burns Suppers, the famed French gourmet Brillat-Saverin claimed: ‘dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es’,  so as we sit around the Burns Supper board this January tucking into our haggis-neeps-and-tatties, what  does our Bill o’Fare say about us?

The bon mot encapsulates a wider belief that a people can be characterised by its traditional diet, either as a reinforcement of pride or as a cheap xenophobic insult. Staple diets thus become elevated in the national consciousness, creating  for example, the ancient religious significance of rice and tea in Japan, or mere abuse – ‘krauts’ and ‘rostbifs’. Barthes asserted that ‘chips are the alimentary sign of Frenchness’ and extending that thought, ‘national dishes’ become metonyms,  as in de Gaulle’s famous summary of the problems of the Fifth Republic: ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? (This French/cheese identification being followed up in a different century and a much different genre by Groundskeeper Willie’s ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ gibe from The Simpsons). Naturally such national icons morph into poetic tropes such as the ‘caller oysters’ of Fergusson or, Burns’s ‘hamely fare’, which in Barthes’s coinage becomes the alimentary sign of Scottishness (in fact, in a recent essay Alex Tyrell et al call this effect  ‘alimentary nationalism’).

In the lifetime of Burns, Haggis was only considered as one of the national dishes of Scotland (with the singed Sheep’s Head the highest culinary archetype, and tripe and black puddings also deemed characteristic) and it was certainly not a staple food. In fact it was seen as a rather odd, and slightly risible, dish both by writers at home (read Dunbar’s ‘Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy’ or his ‘Merchants of Edinburgh’) and by those abroad. Rabelais makes a sly dig in listing Pantagruel’s extraordinary library and including a fictitious volume of Scottish cookery called ‘De modo faciendo boudonis’ by Principal John Mair (Major) of Glasgow. With sheep’s livers and stomach bags being relatively scarce commodities, the haggis would neither be ubiquitous nor diurnal fare, yet it held a place in the cultural description of Scotland’s cuisine. As one of the characters in Smollett’s 1771 novel ‘The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker’ reports: ‘the Scots, in general, are attached to [haggice] with a sort of national fondness.’

So what’s the price of a haggis supper then? Burns was very well aware of the sentiment of national pride when he wrote his ‘To A Haggis’ and it was the recognition of that sentiment by Reverend Hamilton Paul, the creator of the Burns Supper, that permitted this poem to become a key – and increasingly ritualistic – element of the popular celebration of Scotland’s National Poet (and, hence of Scotland’s national identity). Over time, the haggis therefore displaced the roast sheep’s head at the great dinings-in of Scots magistrates, at keynote St Andrew’s dinners through the Diaspora and at the Mess of the Scottish regiments. This was partly through the butchers’ ingenuity in developing other casings to supplement the real stomachs, thus increasing the availability of the dish, but essentially the growth in popularity was due to Burns’s poem.  The Montreal Saint Andreans were serving haggis as a self-consciously Scottish dish in November 1807 at their Annual Feast (‘A roasted sirloin and plum pudding oppose/A sheep's head, minc'd collops, fat haggis and brose’) while it also featured at a Hallowe’en party in London that same year (‘And grant that we ay may have grace/To look a haggis in the face/Wi’ thankfu hearts whene’er we dine/An’ a’ the praises shall be thine.) Its ascent to unchallenged supremacy was hastened when it featured at the grandest of the banquets Sir Walter Scott orchestrated for George IV during his 1822 Edinburgh jaunt,  while it achieved manifesto status from ‘Meg Dodds’ in her 1826 cookery manual:

It has been remarked, that every country is celebrated for some culinary preparation, and that all national dishes are good ... Accordingly, the Spanish olio, the Italian macaroni, the French ragout, the Turkish pillau, and the Scotch haggis, differing essentially as they do, are, nevertheless, all equally good after their kind, though here we give precedence to the ‘Great Chieftain of the Pudding Race.’

And as with so many Scottish traditions, it received the ultimate warrant as part of the Victorian adoption of Balmorality. Queen Victoria was introduced to haggis at Blair Atholl and gave it her Royal approval: ‘There were several Scotch dishes, two soups and the celebrated ‘Haggis’, which I tried last night, and really liked very much.’

To paraphrase Budgell’s much-quoted suicide note, that which Walter Scott had served, and Queen Victoria enjoyed, cannot be wrong.  The haggis had now become the formal national dish of Scotland not because of taste or ubiquity, but primarily because, of its symbolism in Burns’s verse.  As the nationalist writer and cook F Marian McNeill summed it up in the early Twentieth Century:

The choice of the haggis as the supreme national dish of Scotland is very fitting.  It is a testimony to the national gift of making the most of small means […] it is a thoroughly democratic dish, equally available and equally honoured in castle, farm and croft.

When it came to the composition of his poem on the haggis, as is often the case, Burns was influenced by Robert Fergusson whose ‘Address to the Principal and Professors of the University of St. Andrew's on their Superb Treat to Dr. Samuel Johnson’ used the haggis as the opening salvo in teasing the well-rehearsed anti-Scottish views of that English writer:

Imprimis, then, a haggis fat,
Wed tottl'd in a seything pat,
Wi' spice and ingans weel ca'd thro',
Had help'd to stuff the stirrah's mow,
An' plac'd itsell in truncher clean
Before the gilpy's glowrin een.

It is this mock-heroic tone that is important, as it distances itself from other food celebrations such as Fergusson’s ‘Caller Oysters’ or the opening of Drummond of Hawthornden’s ‘Poemo-Middinia’ or even Burns’s Augustan description of the cottar’s family’s simple repast. Burns alights on the haggis as being peculiarly (in both senses of the word) Scottish and this tone allows him licence to explore the philosophy of nationalism where the integrity of the ancient simple life is the heroic core of Scottishness which can only be weakened by the immigration of philosophical, culinary or political thought. He takes an unusual recipe and elevates it, transforming haggis from an occasional meal into a staple dish embodying his view of Scots life and virtues. Burns is writing this Address with a wider view, just as it is plain that ‘To A Mouse’ is not merely about the mouse, so it would be naive to assume that ‘To a Haggis’ is simple paean to the Scots kitchen.

Following a chain of thought started by Nicholas D Smith on Smollett’s satirical use of food and menu in a political and nationalist sense, we can see that Burns was clearly influenced by Smollett’s approach. Lewis Knapp flagged Smollett’s ‘strong love of the virtues of country life as opposed to the socially corrupting luxury and affluence of urban existence’ as a ‘personal motif’. We know Burns enjoyed Smollett’s and years later, Burns even presented a copy of Humphrey Clinker to the Dumfries burgh library novels, so  it is interesting to focus on how this became a motif for Burns, too.

I believe we can this trope as a clear influence in the composition of The Address to the Haggis. In Humphrey Clinker, there is a scene where the squire’s party meet the grotesquely nouveax Baynard family, where they experience an awful dinner:

At dinner, the lady maintained the same ungracious indifference, never speaking but in whispers to her aunt; and as to the repast, it was made up of a parcel of kickshaws, contrived by a French cook, without one substantial article adapted to the satisfaction of an English appetite. The pottage was little better than bread soaked in dishwashings, lukewarm. The ragouts looked as if they had been once eaten and half digested: the fricassees were involved in a nasty yellow poultice; and the rotis were scorched and stinking, for the honour of the fumet.

Here we clearly have all the elements contained in verse 5 of the Address: from the 'sneerin’ scornful view’ of Mrs Baynard to the ‘stinking/skinking’ soup and ‘spew’ed up ‘ragouts’ or ‘fricassees’ and beloved of the ‘French’ cook. Clearly, the menu reflects badly on the host, and is insufficient to sustain the true virtue of the native son nutritionally or politically. Within the mock heroic form, Burns’s sentimental strength can be discerned.  This was a poem which called out to be performed.

Like so much of the history of Burns, there are conflicting stories of the genesis of the recited poem but each account places Burns in a performative context of dining with friends and reciting his poem over a meal of haggis.  Even if many discount the scope of Richmond’s story of what Mary Ellen Brown calls ‘the proto-celebration’, where Burns reputedly dined at a Haggis Club in Craigie Kirkdyke in 1785, the competing claims of Andrew Bruce (in Edinburgh) or John Morrisson (in Mauchline) effectively tell the same story of the poet being served haggis as a cheap supper and apparently extemporaneously giving thanks in verse.

Given that the verse form calls out for performance, it is no surprise that the haggis has been a central element of the Burns Supper from the very first when Hamilton Paul paired it as chef d’oeuvre with a dressed sheep’s head on the cottage table in Alloway in 1801. On that occasion, the reverend poet and renowned bon viveur recited ‘The Address to the Haggis’ capturing both the feeling of a simple family meal and a celebrating a mock-heroic view of Scotland, while recreating an episode from the Poet’s life for the community to witness and to share.

The circular links between Burns, the haggis and an ideal of Scotland provided a perfect synecdoche for Hamilton Paul and one which was apparently immediately adopted as a part of the Supper ritual in subsequent Alloway dinners and which rippled out as the Burns Supper spontaneously burgeoned through Scotland and across the globe. There is no record of the bill of fare at the early Greenock Burns Club meetings but Paisley Burns Club records its third event (on 29 January 1807) in the following terms:

A company of nearly a hundred respectable gentlemen assembled in the hall of the Saracen’s Head Inn to celebrate the birth of their favourite bard. The company sat down to an excellent supper where the ‘Great Chieftain of the Pudding Race’ was not forgotten nor unhonoured.

Granting the haggis ‘honours’ was still far from universal: when John Duncan of Glasgow visited the New York St Andrews dinner in 1818 (where Burns’s Memory was toasted and his poems recited) he reported that:

the cook had tried on one occasion to manufacture a haggis, but the appetites of the Americo-Scotsmen, had become too refined to relish such fare ... I heard in another quarter that into the said haggis a few raisins had been introduced, as an American improvement; but this I could hardly think possible.

While haggis is not featured in the 1819 public Burns dinner in Edinburgh which is described by John Gibson Lockhart in ‘Peter’s Letters to His Kinsfolk’ it looks as if the absence of the dish from particularly large, public banquets was due not only to its inedible reputation, but to the prosaic fact that commercial chefs were unused to cooking it (hence, the unappetising dish looking like boiled bagpipes served before Galt and the Duke of York in London in 1818.) Paisley records in 1815 having two large haggises thanks to the ‘secretary having furnished the receipt from Ayrshire’ and in the Ayrshire homeland, by 1826,  Dalry Burns Club’s founders had envisioned it as a necessary – perhaps canonical is a better word - constituent of the first of their anniversary feasts:

This year in Montgomerie's, it first shall take place,
Where drink of the best, will be got
With a haggis and bannocks the table to grace
And a slice from the hip of a stot.

What is more evident from Ballantine’s 1859 compendium of centenary Burns Suppers is the growing presence of haggis on about one in eight menus (albeit probably understated as journalists would typically arrive after the meal to report the speeches)  although, there remained many who wondered why, including the chairman of the venerable Boston Burns Club, who in his thanks, flagged the haggis ruefully apologising that ‘I must confess that my own admiration for the national literature of Scotland does not extend to the national cookery.’

Whether you found the haggis tasty or not, the ritual of parading and addressing the haggis developed from this for as the haggis started to replace the sheep’s head at Saint Andrew’s tide, it was treated to the etiquette of ‘parading’ the chief dish of the meal, where as with the much older Boars Head Feast at Queen’s College Oxford, the principal platter was ceremonially introduced to the company of diners with formality (borne by a chef often head-high) and music (typically the bagpipes) then followed by the recitation of the Address and a recessional. The army was a key medium both of formalising this procedure and disseminating it. This cross-fertilised with the Burns clubs and independent dinners who started to adopt the St Andrews processional as part of the Burns Supper such that both St Andrews and Burns Nights would have essentially the same haggis ritual performed at their respective feasts by the end of the Nineteenth century.

While many early reports in Scotland allude to the haggis being ‘honoured’ it is unclear whether that is more than having the poem recited over it at a convenient juncture in the evening’s proceedings. The earliest definitive record of a more extensive, formalised haggis ceremony comes from New York in 1854. As the home of one of the most ancient Saint Andrew’s Societies (founded in 1756) and with records of a Burns Dinner as early as 1825, the New York Times reported its 1890 dinner and the origins of the dramatic centrepiece of the evening:

The central feature of the feast was reached when the piper escorted a procession of six waiters, each carrying aloft a genuine Scotch haggis. As ‘the great chieftains’ or haggises were borne up and down the aisles, the bagpiper discoursed the old tune ‘Bannocks o’ Barley’ the Scotsmen cheered until their throats were sore , and the guests of other nationalities enjoyed the scene … Piper William Cleland led the procession as he has done for 36 years.

While there is no 1854 report in the New York Times, it records that Cleland played in the haggis to be addressed at the Burns Club in 1858. And this was not a unique occurrence, as recorded in Milwaukee in 1859 which again shows the good-natured humour surrounding the ritual:

One of the characteristic demonstrations of the evening was the introduction of the ‘Haggis’ and the delivered by Mr Robert Menzies, of Burns’s famous Address to that national dish of Scotland. This was rendered with fine effect, eliciting peals of laughter from the whole company.

Within a few years, we have the first evidence that this ritual had crossed back into Scotland in time for that Centenary Year of 1859 where there are three descriptions of a ceremonial procession of the haggis honoured by a theatrical address: in Ardrossan (an old Burns Club), at Walkerburn (a town dinner) and with the Masons of Melrose (in a Lodge celebration). The Masons give the most detail in their report:

Brother William Scott entered, bearing a real scotch haggis, and recited to the company Burns’s graphic poem on the same subject. The ‘great chieftain of the pudding race’ was then thoroughly dissected, and its contents partaken of by the brotherhood with great relish.

And with formality and the increased availability of haggis this became an integral part of the annual memorial allowing the development of the ceremony from Paul’s simple recitation to the modern piping in of the haggis. Regardless of those who found the taste of the dish unappealing, its symbolism was now firmly agreed upon and as haggis became more available commercially, and then its central place on the Bill o’Fare and its coup de theâtre became ubiquitous.

The Address To The Haggis isn’t just a funny turn at the Supper, but a deliberately chosen element which characteristically captures a key element of Burns’s message. Hamilton Paul would have been aware of the tales about the genesis of the poem and he adopted the remembrance of an episode in the Burns story in his ritual for the Burns Supper, thus maintaining the commemorative theme but adding the wider homage to Scotland a theme or undercurrent which passed round the world and is still consciously, unconsciously or sometimes self-consciously paraded at every Burns Supper in his memory.

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