The Scottish poet Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, which means that the anniversary celebrations this month will deafen Canadians from coast to coast. There are, after all, reputedly more statues in Canada to Burns than to any other figure. And every year hundreds of thousands of whisky- lovers from St. John’s to Victoria become temporary Scots to celebrate the man and his work at thousands of noisy Burns Suppers across the land.
As a literary Scot, I offer a public service here and now – a translation of what the heck the person at a Burns Supper who “addresses” the haggis is actually saying!
First, a word about the background. Every Burns Supper centres around his famous poem,“ The Address to a Haggis”. The haggis is marched into the dining room and “addressed” in Burns’ words before being served.
In the Ayrshire countryside where “the Ploughman Poet” lived and worked, meals were very basic, usually featuring oatmeal, herring, turnips, kale and potatoes. Meat was rare, so even the sausage-like haggis – “a peasant dish compounded of meat left-overs, oatmeal, spices and offal all pouched in a sheep’s stomach” as one scholar described it – was a special treat.
Tradition has it that Burns wrote an early version of his tongue-in-cheek poem in praise of the haggis as a surprise for a group of Ayrshire friends who expected the usual mumbled grace before the meal. Later, when he was an acclaimed poet visiting Edinburgh in 1786, he wrote the expanded version that audiences around the world know today.
Or hear today.
The big problem is that when the ceremonial haggis is borne into the room today amid scenes of napkin-waving enthusiasm and is then loudly addressed in Burns’ words, most of the diners don’t have a clue about what is being said.
It will be clear to them that a basically simple event (“Here’s the haggis. Looks good. Let’s cut it up and eat it.”) is being transformed as a joke into a mock-epic ceremony of pretended deep significance.
But the language might as well be Swahili: words like sonsie, painch, thairm, hurdies, dight, kytes, rive, sconner, nieve and jaups, among many others, are a mystery.Even worse, many of the familiar words that seem to point a way through the fog of misunderstanding – puddin’, wordy, hums, rash, nit, flood and taps among them – have totally unexpected meanings.
As a service to my Canadian fellow-citizens, to demystify the event, I offer my own translation. It has, as they say, met with some approval, with Margaret Atwood kindly calling it “brilliant” (modest cough).I make no claim that it is definitive, since many of the lines offer alternative versions that also make sense. But I can claim some expertise. Born in Kilmarnock, I grew up among farming folk in Ayrshire, and in my youth the old farmers for whom I worked in the hayfields still spoke in very much the same way as the poet. This was so much “Burns Country” that in the Stewarton kirkyard his uncle lies buried near my great-grandparents.
Later, at St. Andrew’s University, I studied Burns, and put my local knowledge to good use to win the Sloan Prize for composition in the old Scots tongue.
And I am, heaven knows, a veteran of many Burns suppers, starting in my long-ago student days, and continuing through many speeches at events in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and even as an import back to Scotland.
No doubt other suggested translations will occur to knowledgeable readers. It goes without saying that the 1% who do understand the poem consider themselves to be the only living authority on its meaning.
With proper humility, then, I offer up the following to allow attentive readers to astound their table companions with their learning.
|Address to a Haggis
by Robert Burns
|Translation by Douglas Gibson
|Verse 1: The Haggis is Greeted
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place
Painch, tripe or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
|Greetings and good luck to your honest,
Great chieftain of the intestine-based race of foods!
You rank above all other dishes coming from
The paunch, tripe or guts;
You truly deserve a grace
As long as my arm.
|Verse 2: Tribute is Paid to its External
Dimensions and Attractions
The groaning trencher there ye fill
Your hurdies like a distant hill
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores
the dews distil
Like amber bead.
|You fill this platter that groans beneath your weight,
Your hips swell like a distant hill,
A skewer on that scale would help to mend a
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
To form amber-coloured beads of moisture.
|Verse 3: The Personification of Rustic Labour Slices the Haggis
His knife see rustic
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
|Watch as rustic Labour wipes his knife,
And cuts you up with easy skill,
Digging a great trench in your bright
Just like a ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Steaming, warm, with good rich smells!
|Verse 4: An Imagined Group of Diners
Demolishes the Haggis
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive,
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld guidman, maist like to rive
|Then, wielding their horn spoons they dig in,
Stretching and competing,
Every man for himself, on they drive,
Till in due course all of their
Are stretched tight as drums;
Then the master of the house, the one most likely to burst,
Stammers the usual grace after meat, “God be thanked!”
|Verse 5: Effete French Dishes Are Disparaged
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow
Or fricassee wad mak her spew,
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
|Is it possible that anyone- over his French“ragout”,
Or his “olio” stew that would bloat even a sow,
Or his” fricassee” that would make her vomit,
In total disgust –
Could look down in a sneering, scornful way
On such a dinner as this haggis?
|Verse 6: Those Who Eat Effete French Dishes Are Disparaged
Poor devil! See him owre his trash
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash
O how unfit!
|Poor devil! Just look at him eating his trashy fare,
As feeble as a withered reed,
His skinny leg, thin as the end of a whip,
His dainty fist small as a hazelnut;
How unfit he is to play a dashing part
In battles at sea or on the land!
|Verse 7: By Contrast, Tribute is Paid to the Formidable Nature of Haggis-Fed Men
But mark the rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
|But consider the haggis-fed man from the country,
The very earth trembles beneath his heavy tread,
Put a blade into his mighty fist,
And he’ll make it whistle to good effect,
Shearing off opponents’ legs and arms, and heads
As easily as cutting off thistle tops.
|Verse 8: The Gods Are Invoked To Keep
Scotland Supplied with Haggis
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ pray’r
Gie her a Haggis!
|You Powers who look after mankind,
And distribute food among them,
Old Scotland wants no watery dishes
That splash around in their bowls;
But, if you want her prayers of gratitude,
Give her a Haggis!
Address to a Haggis : The colour commentary
In the old days Burns extremists in Scotland would greet the entry of the haggis by standing on their chairs, putting their right foot on the table, drinking a dram of whisky, then tossing the empty glass back over their shoulders to the floor.
This is no longer advised. Because this is a mock epic, however, the person addressing the haggis tends to adopt a properly exaggerated tone, full of dramatic gestures.
Hurdies, translated here as hips, can also mean buttocks. Pin can mean hip-bone, but some believe that Burns was also making a pun on the virile nature of the jutting skewer. A mill would of course, contain the largest piece of machinery known to the poet’s audience.
The reference to His knife allows the orator to brandish the knife to great effect, before the actual moment of slicing. One hero in my presence turned in mid-brandish to lunge at the attendant chef who was standing respectfully beside him, and proceeded to impale his white chef ‘s hat. It is very important that this move be rehearsed with the chef.
A knowledgeable orator will pronounce dight, slight, bright and sight as licht, bricht,and sicht – as in “braw bricht moonlicht nicht”.
“Deil tak the hindmost” – devil take the hindmost – i.e. the slowest, has entered the general language. As has the parallel proverb based on spooning from a common dish: “ He who sups with the devil will need a long spoon”.
Note that sow rhymes with ragout and spew. If you wonder where hog-calling competitors of the U.S. got their “sooo-eee” call, look no further. The Scots (and the Scotch-Irish settlers from Ulster) who poured into the Appalachians to settle the American West originated the call when out on their homesteads in search of their sows, using the equivalent of “piggy, piggy”.
The orator usually lets himself/ herself go at this point, since the whole verse is ideally delivered through a sneer, with “Poor devil” properly pronounced “ puir deeil”, which goes well with a sneer.
Frequently a sturdy attendant is singled out as the rustic, haggis-fed, and his manly frame indicated , his shoulders clapped resoundingly, and so on. Equally effective is to single out a small, frail, bespectacled, undeniably urban figure for this role, preferably a blushing lawyer or accountant.
The final line, “Gie her a Haggis!”, is usually delivered as a climax ,with all the company joining in. Frequently this is followed by everyone drinking a toast of whisky. Or simply drinking more whisky, showing that they have grasped the essence of the event.