Miles Kington: A poem that is best enjoyed blootered

'The idea of haggises mooning like lowland hills is actually quite a striking image'
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The Independent Online

Tonight is Burns Night, and all over the world people will be piping in the haggis, and, as the sound of the pipes dies away amid the customary dying gurgle and clatter of drones, someone will get up and declaim Burns's poem "Ode to a Haggis":-

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.

I have a problem here. I understand that Burns is the national poet of Scotland. I can sense the great stomping flow of his verse. I have even been present at Burns Night suppers when the haggis has been piped in and hairy people in kilts have delivered Burns's poem prior to the disembowelling of the dish of the day. And I have thrilled to the tribal savagery of the occasion. What I can't do is actually enjoy the stuff myself. (The poetry, I mean. The haggis itself is fine. I like haggis, except when it is deep fried in batter, which it quite often is in Scottish fish and chip shops, and people wonder why Scots fall over dead younger than other people...)

It's always difficult to enjoy a British poet when his verse is foreign to you and has to be barnacled in marginal notes, as it is in my Penguin edition. "Sonsie", I am told by the first note, means "jolly". It doesn't say what "fa'" means, but I expect it means "fall". "Aboon" presumably means "above". "Painch" is "paunch", the notes tell me, and "thairm" is "small guts". "Wordy" does not mean "wordy" at all, but "worthy". So if we Anglicise it a bit, we get:

Fair fall your honest jolly face

Great chieftain of the pudding race!

Above them all you take your place

Paunch, tripe or guts:

You're worthy of a long, long grace

Till we go nuts.

The last two lines are not an accurate version, but I had to think of a word that rhymed with "guts", and, anyway, the last two lines are the only ones that make sense. The more I look through this poem to a haggis, the more I realise that it does not mean anything. Take the next verse:

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.

The notes helpfully inform us that "hurdies" are "buttocks". The idea of haggises mooning like lowland hills is actually quite a striking image, though Burns should really have made up his mind about whether what haggis presents us with is a sonsie face (verse one) or a sonsie pair of buttocks. There is a difference.

But what is all this "pin" business? What is the pin possessed by a haggis that is big enough and strong enough to mend a mill? I have never seen a haggis that was fastened by a pin of any kind. And what is this amber bead? I have seen haggises sweating after an hour in the oven, but the dew never came out any colour like amber. Grey, if anything.

I could go through the whole poem verse by verse, raising doubts about it, but that wouldn't give me any time to look at Burns's other well-known ditty, "Auld Lang Syne". The notes tell me that "auld lang syne" means "old long ago". So the first verse, in English, goes something like this:

Should old acquaintance be forgotten

And never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgotten

For the sake of old long ago!

I can see roughly what the first two lines mean – "Should we forget old friends and never think of them?" No problem there. However, what on earth do the second two lines mean? "Should we forget old friends for the sake of old long ago!" It's not even a question – it's an exclamation. When the lines of party-goers cross hands and join arms at midnight on New Year's Eve, and they all belt out those lines, what on earth do they think they mean? The clue is in the fact, I suppose, that this song is only sung at midnight when everyone is blootered and too drunk to listen to what they sing. And the "Ode to a Haggis" is only uttered when people are downing malt whisky and half-deafened by the retreating piper.

Well, if Burns's poetry is only to be read while drunk, I must in all fairness get down a bottle of whisky and have another bash at my Penguin anthology of Burns while sozzled into a state of poetry. See you by and by.

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