You may encounter a haggis tonight. This may be alarming for you, but I urge you to remain with your wits about you. The haggis has little to no ill will against you personally, and you honestly stand to incur more harm from your prolonged proximity to an active bagpiper. Because there will be bagpipe music. If you’re the presence of a haggis this particular evening, you are quite likely at a Burns Night Supper, and there are traditions to uphold. Backing up a sec, Burns Night Suppers are the annual celebration of the life and art of Scottish poet Robert Burns. The first one was held around his birthday in 1801 by his friends at his ancestral home, Burns Cottage. Burns, himself, had died in July 1796, but they were not about to let that get in the way of a good time.
Since then, Burns Suppers (sometimes called Robbie Burns Suppers) have become a treasured part of Scottish culture, celebrated by both modest and massive gatherings of his fans around the world on January 25 each year. A particular protocol, or as close as can be managed, is observed. starting with the piping in of the guests by either live bagpipers (see?) or recorded music.
After that comes the chairperson or host’s welcome to the group, followed by The Selkirk Grace, a prayer often attributed to Burns, but found in older sources. It reads:
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.
And then comes the haggis, the national dish of Scotland. While there are many versions of the dish—including vegetarian renditions—the most traditional method involves cooking and mincing “sheep’s pluck,” or liver, tongue, and heart, mixing them with oats, onions, herbs, and spices, stuffing them all into a sheep’s stomach, sewing or tying it shut, and boiling the whole mass for several hours. The result is a gloriously savory pudding that’s often served as part of a full Scottish breakfast, or alongside neeps and tatties (that’s turnips and potatoes) at a Burns Supper.
But haggis doesn’t just appear pre-plopped on a plate at the table—oh no, no, no! There is a ritual to observe. The full, unsliced haggis (OK, it’s actually prudent to prick the stomach a few times to release the pressure so guests are not sprayed by a geyser of hot organ meat) is placed on a silver tray and carried into the room accompanied by bagpipers (I wasn’t kidding), the chef, a bearer of whiskey, and the person who will deliver Burns’ Address to a Haggis. It reads in part:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.
Several more stanzas follow, each meatier than the last, and involving phrases like “gushing entrails” and then the haggis is raised, sliced, and shouted at—”To a haggis!”—before eating, drinking, oration, and revelry ensue. The night concludes with a rousing rendition of Burns’ beloved Auld Lang Syne and the guests disperse into the night, reeling from an onslaught of bagpipe music, with a belly full of haggis.