When Robert Burns bought a mare, he called her Jenny Geddes, in honour of the stool-casting Edinburgh virago. He described his horse as his ‘Pegasean Pride’ in his poem ‘Epistle To Hugh Parker’, and, in a letter to James Smith dated June 30th 1787, as ‘…one of the Rosinante family,’ (Rosinante was Don Quixote’s mount). Burns is the polar opposite of Edmund Spenser in my personal pantheon of heroes. I started off hating him, viewing him, as Jeremy Paxman once described him, as the ‘King of Sentimental Doggerel’, what with his pony-tail, free-masonry and philandering (…an estimated thirteen children by four different women) – all shortbread and tartan - but the more I read, the more I liked him. Robert (never, ever Rabbie. He did call himself variously Robin, Rab, Rab Mossgiel, Rab the Rhymer, Robert and in his formal letters he often signed them Robt. All that Rabbie nonsense is one of the reasons I didn’t like him – I was so pleased to discover it is a modern affectation); Robert Burns was born into poverty in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1759.
What little education he had was largely from his father, and much of his youth was spent as a farm labourer, which later led to the sentimentalising Edinburgh literati to describe him as a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, but Burns was pragmatic about the prospects of fame and fortune–
“' When proud fortune's ebbing tide recedes,' you will bear me witness, that when my bubble of fame was at the highest, I stood unintoxicated with the inebriating cup in my hand, looking forward with rueful resolve.”
(Letter to Mrs Dunlop, January 15th 1787).
'When proud fortune's ebbing tide recedes,' is a quotation from William Shenstone’s Elegy VII (He Describes His Vision to an Acquaintance); Shenstone was one of the earliest influences on Burns’s poetry, and remained one of his favourites throughout his life; he was also, by the way, the first person to use the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in writing,
“I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money”.
Shenstone 1741 in Works Vol. 3 (1791) Let. xxii.
|Shenstone - Works Vol 3 (1791) Letter xxii|
Floccinaucinihilipilification is the longest, non-technical word in English (it is one letter longer than antidisestablishmentarianism) and means – ‘the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant, of having no value or being worthless.’
One of Burns’s best known works, due in part to its being recited at every Burns Night Supper worldwide, is To a Haggis.
“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face.Great chieftain 0' the puddin-race!Aboon them a' ye tak your place, - painch, tripe, or thairm:Weel are ye wordy o' a grace - as lang's my arm."
The Scots comedian Fred MacAulay told the story on QI that a friend of his had the poem translated into German for a Burns Night Supper there, and when the poem was translated back, the line ‘Great Chieftain of the Pudding Race’ was rendered as ‘Mighty Führer of the sausage people!’
The first recorded recipe in English for Haggis comes from Lancashire and not, as you may expect, Scotland. From about 1430, the Liber Cure Cocorum is written in Middle English in the dialect of North-West Lancashire, and the recipes are presented in verse form (possibly as a mnemonic device, to help the cook remember them). The recipe for Hagese (Haggis) reads: -
The heart of sheep, the kidneys you take,Through the bowel naught you shall forsake,In the turbulence made, and boiled well,Hack all together with good parsley,Hyssop, savory, you shall take then,And suet of sheep take in, I teach,With powder of pepper and eggs [a] good quantity,And seethe it well and serve it then,Look it is salted for good men.In winter time when herbs been good,Take powder of them I know indeed,As savory, mint and thyme, quite good,Hyssop and sage I know by the Rood.
A slightly later (c.1450) recipe reads: -
xxv. Hagws of a schepe.—Take þe Roppis with þe talour, & parboyle hem; þan hakke hem smal; grynd pepir, & Safroun, & brede, & Ʒolkys of Eyroun, & Raw kreme or swete Mylke: do al to-gederys, & do in þe grete wombe of þe Schepe, þat is, the mawe; & þan seþe hym an serue forth ynne.Haggis of a sheep. Take the ropes [intestines] and the tallow [fat, suet] and parboil then, then hack [chop] them small; grind pepper and saffron and bread and yolks of eggs and raw cream or sweet milk: do all together, and do [put] in the great womb of the sheep, that is the maw [stomach] and then seeth [boil] them and serve forth at once.
|Hagws of a schepe c. 1450|
A pudding made from the pluck (heart, liver and lungs) of an animal was nothing new however. The Romans made them from the innards of pigs, although the pluck was finely minced and mixed with fruit before being stuffed into the intestines.
|Homer Odyssey Book XX|
In Book XX of the Odyssey, Homer describes Odysseus as being in a tumultuous state like a ‘… paunch filled with fat and blood, ready to be cooked quickly, he rolled hither and thither.’ Which may be haggis or may be black pudding.