Each year on 25 January, Scots around the world celebrate Burns Night, in commemoration of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. A traditional feature of the 'Burns Supper' is a steaming plate of Scotland's national dish, the haggis. But there is often some confusion (or lack of information!) about what haggis actually is - so here's my guide to what Burns himself described as the "Great chieftain o' the puddin-race".
Contrary to some humorous representations, the haggis is not in fact an animal native to Scotland. It suits the Scottish sense of humour for locals to tease visitors about going haggis-spotting in the Highlands, or hunting parties to catch this shy creature - and think what sport we would have if this were actually the case!
The traditional haggis recipe is sheep-based, using sheep's lungs, liver and and heart finely chopped or minced together with onion, oats, suet and a blend of spices and seasoning. Originally the ingredients were combined in the skin of the sheep's stomach, before being steamed or boiled, but in recent times this element of tradition has been superseded by the use of synthetic casings.
As described, it is understandable that haggis might sound a little unappetising (and indeed one of the great misconceptions about haggis focuses on its unpleasant-sounding ingredients) but its flavour is rich and spicy and incredibly tasty. Vegetarian options are commonly available, but food puritans (from a nation that also consumes deep-fried Mars bars....) cry foul at these unnatural gastronomic creations.
Haggis is traditionally served with 'neeps and tatties', which is mashed turnips/swede and mashed potatoes. Some people also produce a sauce (often whisky flavoured) or douse the haggis liberally with butter to create a moist and tasty dish. Haggis is increasingly offered in a variety of other forms, including deep-fried in balls, in pies, or sliced and fried or grilled as part of a traditional Scottish breakfast.
For a 'national dish' it may be surprising to learn that haggis's origins are not inherently Scottish. Similar recipes from the north of England date from the fifteenth-century, whilst a description of a meal sounding very similar to haggis is described even earlier, in Homer's Odyssey, from 800 years BC! Other suggestions are that the haggis made its way to Scotland via France or Scandinavia.
At a traditional Burns Supper, the haggis is brought into the dining room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and before it is served is toasted with Burns's Address to a Haggis, which celebrates its virtues before it is sliced open and distributed to guests. The address in full, in Burns's original Scots dialect, is as follows:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
Make of that what you will! And so haggis remains a popular part of Scots culture, regularly eaten throughout the year as well as on Burns Night.
In recent years the haggis has taken on another role, as a sporting icon. Haggis hurling began as a joke and is now practised relatively seriously - the current world record for hurling a haggis stands at 217 feet (66 metres)! One condition of the sport, as generally agreed, is that the haggis must remain intact and fit for eating after having been thrown...
Sadly, the composition of haggis - specifically the use of sheep's lungs in the recipe - has meant it is officially on the US government's food blacklist, and since 1971 has been illegal to sell or import a haggis to America. Quite what the millions of Scots Americans eat on Burns Night remains unclear!
If you're visiting Edinburgh, you'll find plenty of restaurants where you might wish to try haggis.
Explore the city with a private walking tour for some personal recommendations!
Every year in Scotland, events are held on and around the 25th January, to commemorate the life of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, born in Ayrshire in 1759.
Famed as the author of songs and poems including Ae Fond Kiss, Tam O'Shanter and To A Mouse, Burns also provided the lyric for what is sometimes considered Scotland's alternative national anthem, Auld Lang Syne:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?
'Burns Suppers', as these annual commemorative events are often called, feature recitals of some of Burns's most famous and popular works, including the ceremonial presentation of a haggis to dinner guests (served with 'neeps and tatties' - mashed turnips and/or swede and potatoes), as well as music and dancing.
The first Burns Supper was hosted in Edinburgh 1816, when "one hundred gentlemen dined as part of the first public celebration of the birthday of the poet Robert Burns". (An earlier celebration, in Greenock in 1802, had been held on the 29th January, wrongly believed to be Burns's date of birth before the true date was discovered the following year.)
One attendee at the celebration in Edinburgh that night in 1816 was Walter Scott, who proposed that a similar celebration should be held every three years - in fact Burns is now commemorated annually at events right across Scotland (and the world!).
Visitors to Edinburgh can explore Burns, his work and his history, at a variety of sites across the city:
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
Never met or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
For more information about Robert Burns, visit the Writers' Museum, in Lady Stair's Close off the Lawnmarket on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
This free museum is a fascinating resource for those interested in Burns and any of Scotland's other great literary figures, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott.
Explore more of Burns's Edinburgh with a private walking tour of the city!
Mel Gibson's kilts-and-claymores epic Braveheart is probably still the most iconic representation of Scotland on film, and nearly 30 years after its original release it has lost none of its appeal. The film's portrayal of thirteenth-century Highlanders has become a definitive cinematic portrait of Scottish people, customs, history and heritage.
Most people know now that historical liberties were taken in making the film, as indeed they had to be - historic reality is rarely as interesting or as neat as cinema audiences demand! - so here is a rough guide to the rights and wrongs of this modern classic.
For a start, the moniker 'the Brave Heart' originally belonged to Robert the Bruce, whose portrayal in the film is also regularly called into question. Bruce, in reality, was a powerful and heroic king, coming to the throne in 1306, the year after Wallace's death.
Bruce led the Scottish armies at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, winning a spectacular victory over the English, and was king at the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, formally enshrining the Scots' independence from England:
"... as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
After his death in 1329, Bruce's body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, whilst his heart was embalmed and carried into battle and on crusades as a symbol of Scots power, before being buried at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. This was the 'brave heart' of Scottish legend.
Braveheart's screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation...) was obliged to use artistic licence in creating the backstory to Wallace's history, as little formal historical records exist of William Wallace before the 1290s.
The reality is that the real Wallace is only known from the time when he began leading the rebellion against English force - as an historical figure only the last seven or eight years of his life are a matter of record. It is possible that his father was a minor nobleman in the Scots court, and that Wallace may have been knighted before the infamous victory in the battle of Stirling Bridge, rather than after it, as shown in the film. The truth is, historians just don't know!
It is also highly unlikely that Wallace ever met - or conceived a child with - Princess Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, as she would have been just around five years old at the time the film is set, and didn't arrive in Britain until years after Wallace's death....
The accuracy of the battles in Braveheart is worth noting. Wallace's armies did beat the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge - the precise geography of the battleground isn't shown (and the tactically important bridge is missing entirely) but the defeated English army was certainly several times the number of the Scots'.
The battle of Falkirk is a different story, however. Wallace and his men did lose here, but not because of any betrayal by Bruce, or through any specific 'dirty tricks' by the English - it's likely that the skill of the Welsh (not Irish) longbowmen (archers) was simply too great for the Scots to fight effectively. The sacking of the city of York, as shown in the film, is pure fantasy on the part of the filmmakers.
Various other inaccuracies are widely discussed, including the wearing of tartan kilts by the Scots, which would not have been commonplace until several centuries later, when Walter Scott created the style for George IV in 1822, and the imposed law of 'primae noctis', which sets up Wallace's initial rage towards the English rulers in the film was never used by Edward Longshanks, or any other ruler in Britain.
Wallace was hanged, drawn (having his stomach cut open and intestines removed, whilst he was alive) and quartered (his body cut into pieces and distributed across the country) as shown in the film. If anything, his death would have been more brutal and savage than shown - it is unlikely he would have had any such strength as that required to make his final cry of 'Freedom!' before the executioner's axe fell.
Regardless of all its flaws and inaccuracies, the film stands as a powerful and entertaining Hollywood epic.
Visitors to Edinburgh can find statues of both Wallace and Bruce at the gates of Edinburgh Castle, installed in 1929.
It is said that it was from discovering this statue of his namesake whilst visiting Scotland in the 1980s that writer Randall Wallace was inspired to research William Wallace's life, which later led to the screenplay of Braveheart.
(Similar statues also grace the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.)
It is worth noting that in life, neither Wallace nor Bruce is ever believed to have visited Edinburgh Castle itself - Edinburgh only became designated as the capital of Scotland long after both of their deaths, in 1437....
Explore more of the Edinburgh's real history with a private walking tour!
Of all the attractions in Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street is the one that I find myself recommending most often to visitors, and to locals too!
Part of the National Museums of Scotland umbrella group (which includes the National War Museum within Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian, and the National Museum of Rural Life in South Lanarkshire) the National Museum was formed by the amalgamation of the former Royal Scottish Museum, constructed between 1861 and 1888, and the Museum of Scotland, a modern wing which opened in 1998.
The National Museum underwent a significant three-year renovation to modernise and improve its facilities and exhibition spaces, reopening to the public in 2011, and is today the most visited attraction in the whole of Scotland.
Part of the museum's appeal (and value) is its free admission to the main collections and exhibitions, with additional charges for special exhibitions held throughout the year. But for the cost of absolutely nothing, you can access an array of world-class displays on a variety of subjects, from the history of Scotland and its people, to the world's wildlife, and even origins of the Earth and the universe itself. Children will be engaged by a variety of hands-on exhibits to entertain, educate and inspire them, and adults can wander through the maze-like buildings to find interesting and unusual exhibits at every turn.
Architecturally the two buildings are as fascinating as each other, depending on your preference for the clean lines and open spaces of the Victorian exhibition hall or the curved staircases and sandstone geometry of the modern wing. It is easy to lose track of your location in the rooms and spaces, so do pick up a free map on your way in to help you navigate the exhibits more easily.
Regular guided tours lead you around some highlights of the museum, and there is a programme of events each month to engage and inspire visitors - check at the visitor services desk on arrival whether there is an event that you can join today.
Things you shouldn't miss:
Find your way to the open rooftop terrace for panoramic 360-degree views around the city - a great location to get some choice photographs of your visit on a good weather day.
Catch the mechanical wonder that is the Museum's 10-metre high Millennium Clock, complete with animated figures, dancing skeletons and all manner of curious and intricate carvings. The five-minute 'performance' takes place on the hour, every hour through the day.
The Natural World gallery displays preserved animals from all around the world, including a swimming hippo and a giraffe sticking its tongue out, as well as the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex - sure to be a hit with the kids!
The Kingdom of the Scots exhibition in the modern wing features treasures of Scotland dating back to pre-history, including neolithic carvings, Edinburgh's original guillotine, and a crucifix believed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Dolly the Sheep! The world's first genetically cloned mammal, created by scientists from Edinburgh's Rosslyn Institute, is preserved in all her mundane majesty in the Science and Technology galleries.
Plus the Museum has a cafe and a brasserie to cater for your dining requirements during your visit.
So whether you are taking shelter from the worst of the Scottish weather, or spending an afternoon exploring for hidden gems, you'll find something to interest you at the National Museum of Scotland, and given that it's a free entry attraction if you run out of time during your afternoon, or have a spare hour before catching your flight home, it's an ideal place to revisit again and again and again!
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