The best laid plans often go awry is a translation of a line from a Robert Burns¹ poem To A Mouse², a poem where he upturns a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field. We usually just abbreviate it to ‘the best-laid plans’, and people just know what we mean. Helpful, isn’t it? Essentially it means that it doesn’t matter how well thought out a plan might be, something may still go wrong with it.
The poem also lent its famous line to the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice And Men, but that’s another story.
So, dear old Rabbie Burns, much loved in Scotland for his beautiful songs and poems: A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’Shanter, Auld Lang Syne (yes, that one – you’ll know the tune, especially if you are in Japan) To A Haggis. Indeed, they love him so much, up there, that the country still has a national day of celebration on his birthday. Which is super…BUT… even better, after he died, his friends decided to have a jolly supper to remember him, and this is now such a popular event that now plenty of non-Scots, who often have therefore NO idea what any of the poems are about, get terribly excited towards the end of January every year, and throw big parties and ceilidh³ in his honour.
A Burns’ Night supper has strict traditions:
Piping In the Guests – a bagpiper plays, whilst people try to make polite conversation over the noise. Bagpipes are extraordinarily loud, so this is not easy. People say “Ooh!” and “Wonderful!” but secretly they hate the bagpipes and want the piper to stop. The piper, however, can charge 6 times the amount they usually charge, because it’s Burns’ Night, and so they don’t care what anybody thinks.
Host’s Welcome and the Selkirk Grace – some claim that Burns also wrote this, but it seems more likely that he just read it at a dinner at the Earl of Selkirk’s house. It goes like this:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit
The Soup Course – usually Scotch Broth or sometimes a Cullen Skink (a smoked haddock soup)
Piping in and addressing the haggis – this is the Big Ceremonial bit. The haggis is brought in on a silver platter, draped in tartan, and accompanied by the bagpipes, and a proud and slightly harassed looking (and possibly drunk) chef. The host then reads the very famous address ‘To A Haggis‘. It’s quite long, and only the Scots know what it is all about, but it is very dramatic; it also involves pouring a lot of whisky and getting out a big knife to stab the haggis. So even the non-Scots can enjoy this bit.
Main course – you then eat the haggis, with some neeps and tatties (mashed turnip and potatoes) and a whisky sauce
Dessert – traditionally a cloutie, a fruity boiled pudding, but sometimes your host is more generous and will give you a cranachan instead – whisky cream, toasted oats and raspberries, layered up and actually completely delicious.
Toasts – where the serious drinking begins.
- The Immortal Memory – you raise a glass to Robert Burns himself, because it is only polite, and you drink
- Address to the Lassies (the ladies) – traditionally, this was a ‘thanks for doing the cooking, ladies’ sort of speech, but now can be a little more topical and witty, and you all drink.
- Reply to the Laddies (the lads, the men) – this can be a simple answer to the speech that’s just gone, and you drink.
- Bit of a singsong (of Burns’ songs) – and you can all drink
A bit more drinking and a lot of dancing.
It is tremendous fun, and you will have a dreadful headache and sore feet the next day. But you DO have to eat the haggis.
The Haggis itself is a strange beast, and some grinning Scots will have you believe it is a wild creature (Click here for more). They will tell you long stories about how you can hunt this particular little beast, and they will talk for hours about where it lives and how difficult it is to catch. But don’t, DON’T believe a word of it.
Unless….unless it is better than thinking about what a haggis actually is. Because it is sheep insides, that’s what. Sheep heart, lungs, kidneys, that sort of thing, with oatmeal and spices, and bound together like a thick sausage inside a sheep’s stomach.
It sounds horrible…but, dammit, it’s actually quite good.
A friend of ours, from South Africa, was initially horrified when she first came across it, but then got together with a Real Live Scot and was persuaded to try it (along with some whisky, no doubt, and a good bit of dancing). But try it she did… and she loved it, to the point that she made her own version of the whisky sauce to go with the haggis – and this, Sash, is delicious.
SASHA’S HAGGIS AND WHISKY SAUCE
- One large haggis (about 1,5kg) or 3 packs – Macsween is a good brand
- 50g butter
- 1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 200ml whiskey
- 1 litre good beef stock
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) redcurrant jelly
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Cook the haggis according to the instructions on the packet
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add the onion, then reduce the heat and cook slowly for 15 minutes until dark brown.
- Increase the heat again and add the whisky. Allow to bubble vigorously, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes until it is has almost all evaporated
- Add the stock and jelly to the pan, bring to the boil and leave to simmer for 30 mins, or until about reduced by about 2/3, and the sauce is thick and glossy
- Strain the sauce through a sieve
- Serve the haggis at the table, with the gravy alongside
1 – You can learn much more about dear Rabbie (Robert) here.
2 Excerpt from To A Mouse (1786) …
“But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain: [in showing that planning ahead doesn’t always work]
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men [the best laid plans of mice and men]
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, [and leave us nothing but grief and pain]
For promised joy.”
3 ceilidh– a traditional Celtic dance. Lots of tartan, kilts and bagpipes. Dancing in the round. That sort of thing. Tremendous fun.
(C) 2017 Kayte & Nicer Kate – authors assert moral rights