Great Chieftain o' the puddin'-race

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow is Burns Night - but before you grab a haggis and a bottle of single malt, spare a thought for Burnsians. Robert Burns's poetry has stood the test of time, but keeping his name alive owes a lot to the tradition of formal celebrations, as Jennifer Rodger discovered.

The majestic sound of bagpipes introduces a frugal dish - and so begins Burns Supper. The tradition originated in 1780, when Robert Burns founded the Bachelors' Debating Club in Tarbolton for any "cheerful, honest-hearted lad, who if he has a friend that is true and a mistress that is kind, and as much wealth as genteely to make both ends meet - is just as happy as this world can make him". After Burns's death, a cult quickly grew, and suppers were held based on the lively ethos of the Bachelors' Club.

When Burns died, 50,000 people lined the streets of Dumfries to watch his funeral cortege go by. Since then more than 2,000 editions of his poems and songs have been published. His popularity shows no signs of waning; last year "A Red, Red Rose" was chosen as the nation's third favourite poem.

The first official Burns club was established in 1801; there are now 400 world-wide, and more than half a million Burns Suppers are held every year.

Burns's biographer, Hugh Douglas, warns in his Burns Supper Companion, "... when to start [planning]. If you are reading this on 26 January, then it is not a minute too soon." The sheer number of clubs means that the Burns season can last until February. David Smith, honorary secretary of the Burns Federation, began plans a year ago for the Burns Howff Club Supper at the Globe Inn, Dumfries. This year's speaker of the Immortal Memory toast, the Scottish Secretary of State Donald Dewar, was asked to attend five years ago. The affair is held in Robert Burns's favourite "howff", or watering-hole. The supper is traditional; the haggis is piped in, a recitation of "To A Haggis" is made, then the "Immortal Memory" and toasts to the Lassies are spoken.

The Glasgow Thistle Hotel holds half a dozen major Burns Suppers in January. "The most important thing is to put on a good show of warm hospitality," says Tim Hunt, the manager. "Burns was a poet for mankind; he wanted us all to be brothers."

The largest Burns Supper in the world was held on 17 January this year, for 1,000 people. The International Burns Supper organisation has taken Burns to Russia, America and England. "Burns was a Communist, a man who believed in the brotherhood of man," says Mr Campbell, the honorary president. "His poetry may have been incomprehensible in Russian, but they knew the sentiment."

The only cloud on the horizon is that subsequent generations may find Burns's language impenetrable. The Burns Federation is already taking steps to avoid such a disaster. One such initiative is West Sound's trophy for Young Burnsian of the Year. This year there were 165,000 entries.

At West Sound's Supper, the former Beirut hostage Tom Sutherland spoke the "Immortal Memory". Describing the solace Burns's poems gave him during his imprisonment, Sutherland said: "On and on the memories came, so many hours did Burns fill my mind and heart and bring the company of past suppers and friends, that I made it through to the next day."

Ingredients for a Burns Supper

Haggis (Safeway has a special offer, Hall's haggis, 454g, 99p; for non- meat eaters, Savacentre offers MacKintosh's vegetarian haggis, 454g, at 99p). Chapit tatties (mashed potato); mashed neeps (swede); whisky, and, of course, Burns's poetry. Hugh Douglas's Burns Supper Companion (Johnnie Walker/ Alloway Publishing, Ayr) includes important poems.

Order of service

A piper plays as the main guests enter in procession, and the Selkirk Grace is said: "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 by thankit."

The haggis is carried in, preceded by the piper. The chef is offered a glass of whisky, and at this point the "Ode To A Haggis" is read: "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 wordy of a grace/ As lang's my arm." Then the meal begins.

Toasts at the supper

The "Immortal Memory", a toast to the works or life of Burns, usually lasts 20-30 minutes. Hugh Douglas writes: "If the speaker succeeds then he will have inspired his audience to try to rediscover their true selves, to think more kindly about their fellow men ..." The Lasses, O: a toast to the ladies. The Lasses: the ladies reply.

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