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Robert Burns Lives!
What Burns Means to Me by James Macsween, Director, Macsweens of Edinburgh


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: [email protected]

MacSween HaggisRobert Burns made haggis the National Dish of Scotland in 1786 when he published “Address To A Haggis”, a dish you either love or dislike. I fall in the former category – I love good haggis! I now want to introduce you to James Macsween who makes a living selling haggis and is known all over Scotland as “the king of haggis”. He and his sister Jo operate Macsween of Edinburgh, the business started by their grandfather, making them third-generation haggis makers. To hear James Macsween present the “Address To A Haggis” at a Burns Night Supper would be a royal treat. Unfortunately, you can’t buy his haggis here in the States (the “food police” will not allow you to do so), but when you are in Scotland, you can find it almost everywhere. If I told you it was good, that would not be good enough! The Macsween recipe is as well protected as that famous American icon, Coca-Cola.

In a New York Times article by Warren Hoge, he quotes Macsween as saying that “people have the wrong concept of what haggis is until they try it because all they’ve heard is that it is full of guts, it’s full of brains, they just pick up these tales. We have a phrase, ‘He who tastes knows’.”, And, I might add, when you think of haggis in Scotland, the name synonymous with it is Macsween of Edinburgh.

One regret I had on a recent trip to Scotland with my family was not finding time to meet with Mr. Macsween, even though we talked over the phone in Edinburgh and swapped a couple of emails. Certainly my loss. Next time I’m there, meeting with Macsween and having some haggis will be high on my list! His company’s website states “Macsween of Edinburgh is approached every year by people wishing to organize their own tributes. As guardians of Scotland's national dish, nothing gives us more pleasure than to share our ideas about arranging a Burns Supper. We want you all to enjoy the whole experience of fine poetry, fine humour, fine discourse and, of course, fine haggis.” I love that phrase - “guardians of Scotland’s national dish”! I have a pretty good idea that their father and grandfather would be very proud of the way these two haggis makers are taking care of their great family tradition.

Recently on this website I have had several prominent Scots discuss “What Burns Mean To Me”. Among them are Ken Simpson, Gerry Carruthurs, David Purdie, Billy Kay, Ross Roy, and singer Eddi Reader. It is an honor to have James Macsween share his thoughts with our readers as he did earlier on Scotsman.com.

What Burns Means to Me
By James Macsween, Director
Macsweens of Edinburgh.

From a young age, Burns spoke to me as no other poet did. The first time I had to learn Burns, aged about ten, was for a school project in which we had to learn a verse of To a Haggis. I ended up learning the whole poem. I never took to other poets like I took to Burns. Dulce et Decorum Est was just schoolwork; Shakespeare went right past me. I took to Burns because he used such simple images, which stuck in my mind. For instance, the simple honesty of To A Mouse.

On a business level I have been indebted to Burns all my life, of course. He's my bread and butter. I don't know of another poem written about a simple food product that's celebrated to such a huge extent. It's amazing that it is now tradition to formally address a Haggis before eating it, especially when you consider that part of why he wrote it was to take the mick out of the Edinburgh snobs who were up themselves on French cuisine at the time. Burns was saying: "Hang on you lot, there's nothing wrong wi' a simple Haggis."

I'm indebted to Burns in other ways, too. Having learned many of his poems while growing up, some of them became quite useful to me, especially when wooing women. When I was courting my future wife I used to recite Burns to her, for instance A Red, Red Rose… It melted her heart!

The other thing I love about Burns is his humble background. At Burns suppers we don't all come together to celebrate a political figure or a member of royalty, but a simple poet.

I recently read Catherine Carswell's biography of Burns and was touched by the revelation that upon arriving in Edinburgh and being catapulted into the high life, he became very embarrassed by his hands, scarred from so many years of ploughing. He would stand with his hands behind his back at every opportunity in order to hide them. Ironically, one reason people loved him so much was precisely because of his humble roots.

I'm also tremendously proud of the worldwide influence that Burns has had, even if people don't realise it. For instance, everyone knows Auld Lang Syne, but they may well not know that it's written by this simple fellow from Ayr.

The final thing about Burns that's important to me is his use of the Scots dialect. It worries me that we as a nation are using fewer and fewer Scots words. I have a two-year-old son and I worry that he'll grow up not knowing any Scots dialect. By learning Burns you also learn a lot of Scots dialect and I think that's important. I only hope that my boy will grow up to enjoy Burns as much as my father did and as much as I have done. (FRS: 7.14.09)


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