by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
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.
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
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."
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.
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)