When Burns Night goes wrong (and goes vegan)

January 25, 2019 6:59 am Published by 2 Comments

Wailing bagpipes, men without trousers, a meal based around scalding hot sheep’s innards and Scottish poetry: what could possibly go wrong with a Burns Night supper?

What could go wrong with a Burns Night supper?

Image: Kim Traynor


When Burns Night goes right

Burns Night is a night to celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns – the de facto national poet of Scotland, famous for poems such as To a Mouse and Address to a Haggis. It’s an institution firmly established in Scots communities around the globe.

There are a number of classic ingredients for a successful Burns night:

Bagpipes: ideally, to pipe your guests in to dinner (and later, the haggis)

A traditional Grace: by Burns (of course):

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it,

But we hae meat and we can eat,

And sae the Lord be thankit

Traditional food: haggis is the Sean Connery of the feast. Made from a tasty selection of offal, oatmeal and spices (vegetarian versions are available!), it’s generally piped and clapped to the table, then solemnly addressed in rhyme (written by….Burns), viciously disembowelled and toasted with whisky.

Guests can also expect to tuck into Cock-a-Leekie soup and, along with the haggis itself, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). You might get a clootie dumpling (fruit cake boiled in a cloth) or cranachan (cream, oatmeal, honey, raspberries and more whisky) for pudding, perhaps followed by a Scottish cheeseboard.

Entertainment: there’ll be speeches, recitations of Burns’ poems and songs, toasts, addresses and tributes. Auld Lang Syne is sung at the end, so that everyone knows it’s time to get their coats.

Sounds straightforward? We take a look at just a few occasions on which Burns Night hasn’t quite gone as planned….

When Burns Night goes wrong

The wrong night

Burns Night is celebrated on or around January 25th each year.  If you’re planning to propose to your Scottish girlfriend, in a quiet and intimate style, it’s as well not to earmark that particular date in your diary, as a friend of a friend did. (They’re still together, though, some 25 years on.)

The wrong food

Image: HLRon

Twitter is aghast every Burns Night, when various restaurants – mostly English – try to get in on the act and miss the mark. #thisisnotaburnssupper is always worth a look, as Scots react with outrage to suggestions of scallop stir-fries, lobster with brandy sauce and ‘ham on a chopping board’ for their dinner that night.

The wrong speaker

You might be Scottish, but are you up to the job?

Two years ago, our very English friends hosted a supper. I was asked to do an immortal memory [speech celebrating Burns] for it. Total smoosh, I thought. No-one knows anything. I’ll throw in some quotes of Burns songs to show his lyricism. I can just read them aloud.

So we turn up, me in kilt. There’s also someone else in a kilt. And, he’s Scottish. Turns out he’s our friends’ new neighbour. And he is an opera singer, a professional opera singer. Who does Burns nights. And suppers, too. I quietly scratch the songs section of my speech.

The wrong meaning of the word Burns

After exuberantly addressing the haggis, it’s customary to slit it open and spill its ‘entrails’. Some hosts like to go one step further, pulling the innards out enthusiastically with their bare hands.

‘A haggis that’s just come out of the oven is quite unbelievably hot’, remarked one such host, still heavily bandaged (mentally), several years later.

When Burns Night goes so wrong it goes right

There are, of course, times when something goes so wrong that it actually goes right…. A student at St Andrews in the 1990s explains:

Our kitchen was no more than a cooker and a tiny sink in a closet, so we knew we would have to take turns cooking, and each would be responsible for one of the main ingredients of the classic haggis feast. Each of us thought we were the person to get the haggis, which meant that somehow, we ended up with 32 pound weight of the stuff.

Without a freezer (though in St Andrews in January it’s debatable whether you need one), they did ‘the only thing they could’ – and something of which the Bard himself would no doubt be proud. They invited everyone they could think of.

What ended up happening was the most interesting, memorable, eclectic party we ever threw. Rockers in leather jackets were laughing and drinking with Etonians. American heiresses were getting to know kids on grants by reading aloud the awful poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. People who would never normally talk to each other were actively, surprisingly enjoying themselves together. It was the best party we ever had at that flat, and yes, the haggis was all eaten up. It was a Burns Night miracle.

When Burns Night goes vegan

And what about when you deliberately get Burns Night ‘wrong’? Burns was famously fond of animals – after all, his ode ‘To a Mouse’ apologises for disturbing this ‘fellow-mortal’ by accidentally overturning her nest. Many would argue that there’s no need to harm animals in celebrating his memory.

If you want to make sure that no haggises at all are injured in the enjoyment of your night, you’ll need to diverge from the traditional route altogether, and put on a proper vegan supper. And that’s easy. Here’s how to adapt the elements above:

  • Vegan bagpipes: widely available. Still make the same sound.
  • Vegan kilts: make sure you’re wearing a non-wool variety (the same goes for your sporran).
  • Vegan whisky: like other distilled spirits, it’s actually hard to find a whisky that isn’t.
  • Vegan cock-a-leekie: make a potato and leek version – you’ll need our prunes for the finishing touch.
  • Vegan haggis: easy to track down nowadays and preferred by many non-vegans too, who simply can’t take the heavy meat of the traditional haggis.
  • Vegan neeps and tatties: completely vegan anyway, but make them beautifully creamy with some non-dairy cream.
  • Vegan clootie dumpling: make this with our plant-based suet, a non-dairy milk of your choice and the correct amount of our egg substitute.
  • Vegan cranachan: delicious made with dairy-free cream.

The last word goes to Burns

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley

True. But it needn’t all be grief and pain. An alternative Burns Night – or even one that goes slightly wrong – can still give more than its fair share of promis’d joy.

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This post was written by Yzanne


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