Our early winter holiday bashes were over weeks ago. Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday don’t happen until next month.
We really need a playful, an extravagant celebration about now.
Conveniently, we have one.
Robert Burns, the poet of Scotland, was born on January 25. Okay. So, it was 1759.
His life was difficult but he was lively, a prolific poet and beloved by most of his countrymen and women. A few years after Burns’ untimely death at the age of 37, his friends began to gather, recite his poems, dance, eat, drink to commemorate his birthday.
In the 21st century, Burns’ birthday is celebrated by Scots and poetry lovers all over the world, from the British Isles to India and Japan. On the top of Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago.
Even here in the Berkshires.
Saturday afternoon, January 21, from 2 to 3:30, the Berkshire Highlanders pipe band of bagpipes and drums presents its fifth Celebration of Robert Burns with a free concert and homemade Scottish refreshments at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 East Street at the corner of Allen Street, in Pittsfield. Neither reservations nor tickets are required but the Highlanders will happily accept donations.
“Music, poetry, theatrics and haggis,” the Highlanders proclaim!
Haggis is the center of the loose traditions that have grown up as Burns Night. It is a savory minced fat and meat, grain and seasoning pudding or loaf stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, boiled, and eaten with rutabaga and potatoes/neaps and tatties. Very popular in and totally associated with Scotland, haggis is, actually, so old a recipe that it might date back to Homer’s Odyssey.
Wikipedia has a fun and extensive haggis entry.
Made of animal leftovers mixed with whole grains, haggis is both traditional and au courant nose-to-tail butchering. In Scotland and here in the U.S., haggis is made most often from a sheep but there are pork, beef, vegetarian and kosher versions as well.
Blood, heart, kidney, liver, lung (no lung in the U.S.), stomach, suet, oatmeal, barley, nutmeg and other spices, haggis is hauntingly delicious in the way a paté is.
Doreen Forney, Berkshire Highlanders pipe sergeant and their second in command said they will give a concert, then: “We will stab the haggis after we pipe it in. One of our drummers will declaim Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis.’
“After our part, we go into a little room behind the main hall for the food which the Highlanders make and bring for the concertgoers to eat. One woman is bringing a beef stew and a man is making his mother’s recipe for shortbread. Making the food is the hardest part,” she said.
“People get a chance to speak to us when everyone is eating. We are always looking for new members, pipers or drummers, and it’s a good time to talk about that. It’s a lot of fun and it’s usually over by 4:30,” Forney said.
Burns Night celebrations follow the same protocol everywhere, more or less. Lots of piping, singing, reading and declaiming of Burns songs and poems. Sometimes there is storytelling. Sometimes dancing. The suppers are supposed to be fun.
Most involve a lot of drinking of Scotch, stout, beer and ale and, always, eating haggis, neaps and tatties. Modern, elegant Burns Suppers might also serve quail eggs or smoked trout roe or venison or smoked duck or goose, all of them traditional Scottish foods.
The host welcomes the guests with “The Selkirk Grace.” The haggis is brought in.
A formal procession of kilt-clad celebrants, led by a bagpiper, carry the haggis into the party room on a silver tray decorated with greens. Piping in the haggis. Always done.
Someone honors the haggis by reading/declaiming Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” to it before stabbing it open with a sgian-dubh, pronounced skin-tuh, a special little decorative Scottish knife worn attached to the calf of the declaimer.
While the haggis, neaps and tatties are served, a communal flagon of Scotch gets passed so all the guests to share a sip.
The eating and drinking and singing and piping and poems continue.
And, kilt wearing is encouraged at Burns Night suppers. Guests often receive prizes or discounts for wearing a kilt.
The Berkshire Highlanders have their own tartan, their particular pattern and colors of right-angle crossed stripes, designed for them here by Bill Powers, one of their members, in the 1970s and registered in Scotland. Only Berkshire Highlanders are allowed to wear it.
“The Greylock tartan,” Forney said. “As in Mount Greylock.”
The Highlanders’ Robert Burns celebration will be an easy entry into a tradition. It takes place in daylight and is family friendly.
Here are some nearby Burns Night events arranged by date:
The Dorset Inn will host a Burns Night Five Course Scotch Paired Dinner on Thursday, January 26 at 6 p.m.
8 Church Street & Route 30, Dorset, Vermont (802) 867-5500
House smoked trout roe with whiskey sour cream & potato croutons paired with Glenkinchie 10 year;
Scotch quail eggs & fennel salad with salted hazelnut brittle & Dijon vinaigrette paired with Isle of Jura;
House smoked duck with spiced apple cranberry relish paired with Aberlour 12 year
Toast to the Haggis paired with Dalwhinnie 15 year;
Haggis with apple currant compote & rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes paired with Belhaven Scottish ale;
Drambuie fruit cake with Scotch ice cream & Drambuie caramel paired with /Drambuie.
Dinner is $65 per person plus tax and gratuity; $45 without alcohol. The inn offers an inclusive lodging package for $305 per couple for that night only. Call for reservations.
There will be a Burns dinner at Celtic Hall in Albany on Saturday, January 28 at 5:30 p.m.
430 New Karner Road, Albany, N.Y. (518) 250-5890
They promise song, traditional food, drink, music and dance, a performance by the Brigadoons.
The evening will start with drinks, individual pipers playing, a set from the Brigadoons. Next the haggis is piped in, “Address to a Haggis” and other Burns poems will be read. Dinner and more performances follow including Scottish dances. Dessert and coffee end the evening.
Tickets are $40 per person and $350 for a table of 10. Call for reservations.
There will be a Burns Night Supper at Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern at the Deerfield Inn on Saturday, January 28 at 5:30 p.m. (413) 772-3087 Deerfield, Mass.
There will be music, supper, poems and songs. Bagpiper Eric Goodchild will stab the haggis.
The inn encourages guests to wear and/or bring their kilts, ghillies, tartan scarf, plaid sash, sporran, sgian dubh,
Tickets are $65 per person; call or reserve online at www,brownpapertickets.com. They also have an overnight room rate for Burns Night attendees at (413) 774-5587 for reservations.
The Rhinecliff will host their seventh Robbie Burns Night on Friday, February 3. 6:30 p.m. to 12 a.m.
4 Grinnell Street, Rhinecliff, (845) 876-0590
The night includes the parade of the haggis and the serving of the haggis, a traditional Scottish menu of cock-a-leekie soup, Highland beef stew with neeps and tatties and lemon curd shortbread, more recitation of Burns’ poetry, storytelling, songs, whiskey toasts. bagpipes, storytelling and Neil Roberts in tartan kilt with sgian-dubh leading in the haggis. At the end, everybody joins in singing Auld Lang Syne.
$39.95 admission plus tax and gratuity; $29.95 bar seats available. The Rhinecliff is offering a special $149 discounted room rate for anyone who is attending the event; reservations are required.
Firefly Gastropub, 71 Church Street, Lenox, (413) 637-2700, www.fireflylenox.com, is working on their Burns Night celebration. Call or check their website for details to come.
Here’s the link for Stewart’s Scottish Market in Kearny, N.J., from which many people order quite delicious market-made haggis.
Or, you can purchase canned haggis from Brits ‘R’ U.S., 80 North Street, Pittsfield (413) 770-1608,