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British Billy celebrates Burns Night

British Billy this week explains some of the traditions surrounding the Scottish celebration of Burns Night. Robert Burns is regarded as the national poet of Scotland,and his birth is remembered each year with the Burns Night supper on Jan. 25, which includes the eating of haggis. Feel free to send Billy any questions you have about life in the U.K., and when he isn’t sleeping or hunting, he’ll try and put a few thoughts together to help you out.

British Billy this week explains some of the traditions surrounding the Scottish celebration of Burns Night. Robert Burns is regarded as the national poet of Scotland,and his birth is remembered each year with the Burns Night supper on Jan. 25, which includes the eating of haggis. Feel free to send Billy any questions you have about life in the U.K., and when he isn’t sleeping or hunting, he’ll try and put a few thoughts together to help you out.

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- A little adventure is good for the soul, in my opinion. Live a little, push the boundaries, and move out of your comfort zone. Eat haggis.

Haggis, probably the most traditional of Scottish dishes, can be eaten at any time, but is central to the Burns Night Supper.

Burns Night is celebrated every year on Jan. 25, the birthday of the 18th century Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Burns Night 2012 is the 253rd anniversary of the poet's birth. The Burns Supper is an institution of Scottish life -- a night to celebrate the life and works of the national bard.

Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner. If the gathering is a large formal one, there is a great deal of ceremony involved. When the guests are seated for the banquet, a bagpiper pipes in the haggis, and places it on the head table. Then the master of ceremonies stands up to address the haggis, reciting Burns' "Address to the Haggis" before cutting it with a Scottish dagger, a 'skean dhu', which is still worn with traditional Highland dress.

Here's the first verse of Burns' "Address to a Haggis". There are seven more. Of course, it is in Scottish dialect, so you will need to imagine a Scotsman reading it:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie (cheerful) face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon (above) them a' ye tak your place,
Painch (paunch), tripe, or thairm (guts):
Weel are ye wordy ( worthy) o' a grace
As lang's my airm.

The haggis is then passed around and eaten by the guests. Dinner is normally followed by readings from Burns' works, and the singing of Scottish songs. There are also a number of speeches by guests, all of which must have a Burns theme. The speeches include some aspect of his life or an examination of the causes he championed. While all this is going on, copious quantities of whisky are drunk to encourage the speakers, and good speakers are cheered loudly.

Haggis is a very old Scottish dish, which combines meats, spices and oatmeal to create a very rich, unusual, but none the less delicious feast. Its factual and historic description is sometimes off-putting to people who haven't tried it. Fortunately, modern techniques in the preparation and presentation make it an acceptable delicacy to almost everyone's palate.

In previous times, haggis was prepared by taking the liver, lungs and heart of a sheep or pig, and boiling them. The meats were mixed with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. The mixture was then stuffed into a properly cleaned and prepared sheep's stomach, which was finally sewn up and then boiled.

Modern haggis is not so stomach wrenching. The best meats are selected, (including tripe and offal), and prepared with finest oatmeal and spice, but served in a synthetic skin, which is representative of the old technique. It has a higher quality of content than your average "sausage", and is apparently very healthy. Nowadays there are even vegetarian versions made from the finest Scottish produce and a wide variety of recipes, which include haggis lasagne and haggis-stuffed chicken breasts.

So why is Robert Burns so honoured and celebrated? In his lifetime, although his poetry was greatly loved, he made little money from it. Hailing from a poor background and farming stock, Burns managed to capture the spirit of the Scottish countryside and its people in his works. His poetry honours the dignity and hopes of ordinary Scots, and he penned songs and ballads, some of which could be saucy and ribald, whilst others would bring tears to the driest eye.

My personal favourite is Burns' poem, "To a Mouse", of course. Once again, call upon your imaginary Scotsman as you read:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I shall be joining with our household and all my forest friends on Burns Night to honour the bard himself, and if you go and buy your haggis now, you can join us.