Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

About Burns’s ‘To a Haggis’

This Burns Night, here are some of the things that interest our researchers about Burns’s famous poem, ‘To a Haggis’.

Inspiration and Publishing History – Gerard Lee McKeever

As is often the case with Burns, multiple stories are attached to the origins of ‘To a Haggis’, leaving us to conjecture at the threshold of myth and reality. The established traditions locate the poem as a piece of occasional verse inspired by a dinner attended by Burns. One claims that the dinner was hosted by John Morrison, a friend of Burns’s in Mauchline, with the poet extemporising the final stanza of the work. Alternatively, James Hogg places the dinner at the home of a merchant named Andrew Bruce at the beginning of Burns’s sojourn in Edinburgh, with the poem composed ‘when a haggis one day made part of the dinner’ (Hogg & Motherwell, 151). The piece feels designed for public oration, nicely described by Henley and Henderson in their Centenary edition as a ‘spirited extravaganza’, notwithstanding its severe, (mock-)chauvinist undertone.

The poem quickly appeared in print in the Caledonian Mercury for 19th December 1786, and then again in the Scots Magazine in January 1787. Subsequently, ‘To a Haggis’ was part of the tranche of new pieces added to Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect when that work was revised for publication in Edinburgh in 1787. From there it became a core item within the poet’s oeuvre, remaining even now among the best-known of his productions. This is, in part, owing to its ritual celebration as part of the traditional Burns Supper.


The Ritual Haggis – Clark McGinn

Haggis has had a central role in the Burns Supper ever since the very first celebration arranged by Reverend Hamilton Paul at Burns Cottage Alloway in July 1801. He sought to create a convivial fellowship around the dining table to remember their friend who had spent many an evening in similar pursuits but to strengthen the emotional connection, Paul sought to incorporated tropes associated with the poet. As such ‘haimley fare’ (being haggis and sheep’s head) were on the bill of fare and the Address to the Haggis was duly recited.

So the circular links between Burns, the haggis and an ideal of Scotland were immediately adopted as a part of the Supper festivities with Paisley (1807), Kilbarchan (1808) and Baltimore ,MD recording as giving the haggis ’honours’ at some of their earliest club meetings. By 1826, Dalry Burns Club’s founders had envisioned ‘The Great Chieftain’ as a necessary constituent of their annual feast:

This year in Montgomerie’s, it first shall take place,

Where drink of the best, will be got

With a haggis and bannocks the table to grace

And a slice from the hip of a stot.

Sometimes, the Address was used as an opening ‘Grace before dinner’ but generally it was said as the haggis was placed on table. Thus the dish and its poem became traditional, embedded features of the party. Life as Burns himself would have enjoyed.

The haggis tradition continued to grow in central importance. Giving the chef d’oeuvre of a feast the honours of a parade around the dining room is an ancient and not exclusively Caledonian custom (think of the Boar’s Head Feast at Queen’s College, Oxford.) The various expatriate St Andrew’s Societies adopted a similar ritual in the late eighteenth century, introducing their festal dish to the dining room (originally Sheep’s Heids) to the accompaniment of bagpipes. By the late 1830s, the St Andrew’s societies in the USA had mainly adopted the haggis as the national dish (following the Burns Clubs) while the Burns Clubs in turn included a paraded haggis led by bagpipers and entourage culminating in the recitation of Burns’s Address certainly by the 1850s.

We have the first evidence that this more complex ritual had crossed back into Scotland in time for the Centenary of 1859 where there are three descriptions of a ceremonial procession of the haggis accompanied by a suitably mock-heroic recitation of the Address (including a theatrical stabbing). (Although Paisley Burns Club still uses a fiddler rather than a piper).After 1859, with increasing Victorian pageantry and a growth in the availability of haggis this ceremony became an integral and almost universal part of every Burns Supper and remains so to this day.


Haggis, The Dish – Arun Sood

Though often exclusively regarded as Scotland’s national dish, Haggis has a geographically wide and varied history. The first people known to have eaten ‘haggis-type’ dishes were the Romans who combined parcels of offal with cereal and preserved the mixture using an animal’s entrails (usually Pig and Goat). Similar dishes also appear in traditional French and Scandinavian cooking, with some historians even suggesting that the word ‘haggis’ derives from the French term hacher; which means to chop or mangle.

The traditional ‘Scottish’ Haggis is thought to have derived from these early recipes but instead used (locally available) sheep stomach to preserve minced lungs, liver and heart; along with oatmeal, fat, stock, salt and pepper. While the stomach lining is now generally ‘sewn’ or ‘clipped’ together, wooden skewers were originally used to fasten the mixture before boiling.

While the dish’s exact provenance might remain unclear, there is general agreement that ‘Haggis-type’ dishes were often regarded as ‘peasant’ food given the ‘no-waste’ use of all muscle meats and preservative casing (not to mention one Haggis could feed a very large group!). Thus, with a brief reconsideration of the dish’s origins, Burns’s ceremonious ‘Ode’ seems all the more powerful and fitting with his other egalitarian compositions.


The International Reception of ‘To a Haggis’ – Vivien Williams

A haggis is a very culture-specific item. What it is, what the food has meant and means in Scottish society, is clear to everyone in Scotland. Outside, though, haggis requires explanation, not only in terms of what it is made of, but also in terms of what it represents in Scotland.

Burns’s poem ‘To a Haggis’ is one of his most frequently performed works – not least thanks to the yearly Burns Suppers celebrated all over the world. But how was the poem received, for instance, in countries where a haggis is not part of the culture? How would one translate the concept of ‘haggis’?

Different poets have had different ways of dealing with the issue. As Natalia Kaloh Vid explains, the Russian dramatist, editor, and poet Samuil Marshak, for instance, extensively translated Burns into Russian; he was operative at the beginning of the twentieth century. In many cases, including that of ‘To a Haggis’, he chose to explain and unpack Scotland-specific concepts which were otherwise alien to Russian society and tradition. For this reason, ‘To a Haggis’ became ‘Oda Shotlandskomu pudingu Khaggis’ – ‘An Ode to the Scottish Pudding Haggis’. He thus provided a translation which attempted to remain as faithful as possible to the original concept, though this may distance the readership who cannot relate to the object of the poem (Vid, 175).

According to Hanna Dyka, Jerzy Hebda, the Polish author of a four-volume edition (1990-1999) of Burns translations, was fascinated by the creativity of Burns’ poetry, of which he praised the emotional value. He could see common features between Burns’ poetical stance and Polish national character. In spite of these parallels though, in his volume Pożegnania Hebda was compelled to provide explanations, annotations, and background information to complement some of his translations. Such is the case for ‘To a Haggis’ – a poem impossible to render accurately outside of its home-context (Dyka, 193).

Different translators and countries have taken sometimes radical approaches to Burns’ famous poem on the national Scottish dish. Some have chosen to preserve the original subject-matter, occasionally integrating with annotations and footnote to make the meaning clearer for their readership. Others have opted for a target-reader-centred rendering, by tweaking the content to bring it closer to the readership. Either way, the different approaches and the willingness to engage with the complexities dictated by the translation of a country/culture-specific topic show that the iconicity of ‘To a Haggis’ in the corpus of Burns’s works is such that perhaps a translated edition of Burns’s poems would be incomplete without it.



The Life and Works of Robert Burns, ed. Robert Chambers, rev. William Wallace, 4 vols (Edinburgh and London: Chambers, 1896), II, p. 28.

The Poetry of Robert Burns, ed. W. E. Henley and T. F. Henderson, 4 vols (London: Jack, 1896-7), I, pp. 407-8.

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), III, pp. 1221-2.

The Works of Robert Burns, ed. The Ettrick Shepherd [James Hogg] and William Motherwell, 5 vols (Glasgow: Fullarton, 1834-6), I, p. 151.

Hanna Dyka, ‘The Reception of Robert Burns in Ukrainian Culture’, in The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe, ed. by Murray Pittock (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 179-194, p. 193.

Natalia Vid, ‘The Reception of Robert Burns in Russia’, in The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe, ed. by Murray Pittock (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 155-178, p. 175.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply