At this time of year I become strangely attached to the memory of my paternal grandfather.
AT THIS time of year I become strangely attached to the memory of my paternal grandfather. Why? Because William Thomas Townley McHarg, as his name suggests, was a Scot, and last night was Burns Night, and without a genuine Scottish connection it would be that much more difficult to persuade friends to come over and eat haggis. I have a more immediate Scottish connection in the shape of a husband from Argyle, but since he cares little for tradition and less for poetry, he is a dead loss where Burns suppers are concerned.
On the other hand he's rather more tolerant of haggis than I am, having been regularly force-fed it at his Scottish boarding school. One year he even suggested that instead of buying the usual ready-made McSweens variety, I should make it myself. I eventually came across a recipe in an 18th-century cookbook called Receipts From A Scots Kitchen, but having read it through several times (it covered five pages, with diagrams), I decided that my culinary skills weren't quite up to the task.
The main stumbling block, as far as I remember, was getting hold of a sheep's pluck with windpipe attached to the lining. This, advised the author, was the traditional way of cooking the haggis mixture, which, as I'm sure you probably know, consists largely of the finely minced entrails of said sheep plus oatmeal, seasoning and spices, but minus pluck lining and windpipe.
The idea was to stuff everything into the lining, which in the diagram looked a bit like a shoe bag, then sew up the top and plunge it into a pan of boiling water and let it simmer gently with the windpipe hanging over the edge of the pan, thereby allowing the foul and pestilential vapours within the pluck to escape. I am not by nature overly squeamish when it comes to gutting snipe or gralloching rabbits, but I balked at the prospect of all those fetid vapours being released into my kitchen and inhaled by my family. The recommended cooking time was a day and a half, ample opportunity to catch some virulent form of ovine disorder.
So why, you are doubtless wondering, do I bother with Burns Night if I'm not crazy about haggis or cullin skink or bashed neeps or even clootie dumplings. Because if you are a mongrel like me, sprung from the respected loins of one Scottish, one Welsh, one Burmese and one Shan grandparent, you cling tenaciously to anything that smacks of roots, or, in this case, root vegetables.
It's so easy to become an adopted Scot – a kilt, a dram, a couple of references to sleekit beasties, and away you go. On second thoughts, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me in the wilderness would be even easier, but sadly I have no Persian connections apart from a brief stint as a cub reporter on the Tehran Journal.
My jaded friend on the Glasgow Herald assures me he'll do anything, go anywhere – yes, even Dundee – to avoid attending a Burns supper. This, I am happy to say, is a minority opinion.
Murdo Morrison, the marketing convenor of the Robert Burns World Federation, based in Kilmarnock, the poet's birthplace, says that Burns societies are very much on the increase, while the poet himself is still the third most-translated author in the world, after the Bible and Shakespeare. Last year Mr Morrison was guest of honour at a Burns banquet in Houston, Texas, where, I am reliably informed, the local telephone directory contains a number of MacHorse listings. Even by American standards it was an extravagant occasion, with 860 people in every conceivable shade of tartan sitting down to dinner in a ballroom the size of an airport and the haggis, only marginally smaller than a 747, guarded by kilted giants complete with Balmoral bonnets and drawn swords.
I asked Mr Morrison if he ever includes jokes in his Burns speeches. Certainly, he said, Burns was a funny man, and he proceeded to quote several verses to demonstrate this, which I shall spare you. A Scottish friend says the following usually goes down well. Man goes into library. "Robert Burns, the complete works,'' he says. "You want the sauna next door,'' says the librarian.Reuse content