Image via Unsplash by Annie Spratt
There’s a specific lie that I think every Scottish person tells at least once in their life, a phantom thread weaving its way through our collective psyche. When asked by non-Scots, usually wide-eyed Americans almost vibrating with earnestness, what the celebrated haggis actually is, we breathe deeply and begin. “A haggis is a small animal that lives in the Highlands of Scotland,” we say, pausing for effect. “It has one leg shorter than the other, and it runs round and round the hills all day, never changing direction.”
A haggis is, of course, not this animal at all. So why do we tell this lie? Maybe it’s impish Scottish humour, the wry smile and particular pleasure in winking “Aha, ah got ye!”. But I think it’s because we’re aware deep down, that the truth seems far more gross, twisted and weird.
I get it; despite being Scottish, I was disturbed by the concept of haggis for a long time. A boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with more offal is not a sophisticated dish - it’s not fragrant with delicate herbs or rich with cream, nor can it be delicately stacked on a plate like a minuscule architectural project. And yet, every 25th of January, Scots read poems to haggises (or haggisi?), stab them ceremoniously and devour them in honour of their national poet.
The whole charade of Burns Night once made me cringe. It confirmed every stereotype about backwards old Scotland; the poetry felt weird in my mouth, the tartan was embarrassing and the food was lumpy in shades of brown. There’s something in the Scottish DNA, I think, that makes us fold in on ourselves when it comes to our own traditions. In Trainspotting, when Renton screams “It’s shite being Scottish” into the wilderness, I can feel the country collectively shiver with quiet recognition.
How strange then, that I had to leave Scotland to find peace with it all. I feel the country’s pull every day now, like a tidal moon, hovering above my life in London. And so each year without fail, deep in the depths of January just a little after the infamous Blue Monday, my Scottish friends and I gather for Burns Night.
We usually meet at someone’s rented flat, where they have collected together every chair they have, from breakfast bar stools and sofas to swinging desk chairs and low stools. Drinks are poured, and we dissect our Christmases and Hogmanays with our respective families. It’s not an exclusive affair - boyfriends, girlfriends, flatmates and mates are all welcome to join us, as long as they don’t make any shite attempts at doing a Scottish accent.
Nobody plays the bagpipes, but someone will begrudgingly offer to address the haggis with Rabbie Burn’s words, reading from their phone first with shyness and then a growing intensity, until they stab the belly and pull out the steaming innards.
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
For non-meat eaters, like me, there is always a McSweeny’s Vegetarian Haggis on hand to eat with the neeps and tatties. It’s salty, heavy with beans and lentils, and the taste of black pepper pricks your tongue.
We eat off paper plates that flop under the heat. There’s no spectre of consumerism or expectation with this winter’s tradition. We don’t exchange gifts, make grand proclamations of monogamy or give thanks to any gods. In a sense, it feels far more ancient than all that - just food, drink, warmth and words.
Those who have stayed late enough, and have lost count of how many drams they’re partaken in, usually begin to slur “Ceilidh, come on, let’s have a ceilidh!”. And so, the menagerie of seating is pushed off to the side, someone fiddles with an AUX cable and searches Youtube for The Dashing White Sergeant, and the drunkest person nominates themself as caller. “And a one, two three, four, five, six, se-ven, eight!” they bellow, red blotches appearing on their cheeks. We spin around the too-small room for a few minutes, stomping with purpose, as if each step is carrying us along the road towards home.
And when that excitement is over, we stay up drinking whiskey from the bottle well into the night, until the glow from our little party is only light on in the whole block of flats. It is weird, aye, but this night is ours.