Gatherings & Celebrations: Robert Burns Night, Scotland - #108

It was the year 80.  The tribes had been living in the hills of Scotland for over 5,000 years, but now there was a serious challenge to their independence.  The Roman emperor Hadrian and his army were marching into the countryside.  Hadrian had decided to subdue these troublesome people...  a task which he believed would be quite simple.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Not quite.  As Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet, pointed out about 1,700 years later, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go wrong.” The ancient Scots gave the ancient Romans so much trouble that eventually the Emperor decided to just forget about the whole thing.  And to help him forget, he built a wall -- a wall that ran for 73 miles across England. The Scots were on the north side, the Romans were on the south side, and the emperor tried to make believe that the Scots weren’t there.  But the Scots wouldn’t forget about the Romans.  They’d learned a valuable lesson about their own vulnerability.  And to protect themselves, they formed defensive clans, clans that were held together by blood ties, and eventually an appreciation of well-designed plaids. 

The next nine hundred years or so were spent making illuminated manuscripts, and fighting off the Vikings, Teutonic Knights, William the Conqueror, and of course, the English.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   It is true that a Treaty of Union was signed in 1707 bringing the English parliament together with the Scottish parliament, in order to form the United Kingdom.  But there are many Scotsmen and Scotswomen who believe that that is a deal in theory only.  And one of the first things that I noticed when I got to Scotland is that even though England and Scotland both have currency denominated in pounds, and they exchange that currency freely, the English pounds are issued by the Bank of England and the Scottish pounds by the banks of Scotland. 

This is Glamis Castle, a place where the complex history between the English and the Scots has been playing itself out since 1372.  The current Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain was born here; so was the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret.  Shakespeare used this castle as the location for his play Macbeth.  Macbeth was a real person, but his life story was not quite the one that Shakespeare told.

BURT WOLF:   So what’s the real story with Macbeth?

SHONA THOMSON:  Well, he was a good king, Burt; he reigned between 1040 for about seventeen years [sic].  And so he wasn’t all bad; he lasted seventeen years. 

BURT WOLF:   So Shakespeare was not quite accurate. 

SHONA THOMSON:  No.  “Artistic Licence,” you might say.

BURT WOLF:   (in new location)  Thank you... wow.  Not exactly a breakfast nook.  What a room.

SHONA THOMSON:  Would you like to dine here?

BURT WOLF:   I certainly would --

SHONA THOMSON:  You can --

BURT WOLF:   -- but not by myself.

SHONA THOMSON:  Well, you could have thirty-six at the main table here, the family table, or we can take that away and have ninety.  So, whatever you wish.

BURT WOLF:   And the room is actually for rent. 

SHONA THOMSON:  It is indeed, yes, for our dinner parties.  It’s actually -- you’re now in the west wing of the castle, which was originally built in the seventeenth century.  The portraits at the end here are of the Queen Mother’s grandparents, and in 1903, they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.  And the estate tenants gave them a gift of this silver neff, or galleon on their golden wedding anniversary. ... [new location]  This room was used by the Earl and his family for afternoon tea, dining, entertaining their friends, and certainly the Lord’s retainers wouldn’t have been up here.  It was the Great Hall.

BURT WOLF:   With a live-in fireplace.

SHONA THOMSON:  Absolutely.  It’s actually very Scottish.  It has here the thistles on the left-hand side and the roses of England on the right, and it was to commemorate the union of the crown in 1603. 

BURT WOLF:   And the thistle is always a symbol of Scotland.

SHONA THOMSON:  Absolutely.

The castle piper is Stewart Robertson. The Scots are very serious about being very Scottish.  They have a great sense of their history and the uniqueness of their culture. 

STEWART ROBERTSON:  Well, the early history of the pipes actually originated in the Middle East, possibly Egypt.  And it’s only through a process of migration and invasion that civilization has moved westwards, that the pipes have actually come to Scotland.  They work on a quite basic principle; the bag here is a reservoir of air, which the piper inflates at the start and continues to top off as he progresses through the tune.  The air is then passed over the reeds; the chatter reed, which is here, where the melody’s played, the chatter, and also the drone reeds, which are here -- the bass drone here and the two tenor drones.  And that is the background tone you hear when the pipes are being played.  A lot of young players are coming through, and especially female players, which is a great thing, you know.  Boys and girls take up the pipes, and it’s been encouraged greatly throughout the schools.

Being Scottish is very much a part of daily life, but it is particularly pronounced during three annual celebrations.


The Scots felt that Christmas was too much a creation of the Popes and therefore proceeded to write it off.  Their celebrating became focused on New Year’s Eve, which the Scots called Hogmanay.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The second annual gathering of the Scots takes place on St. Andrews’ Day, which falls on November 30th.  And though it is celebrated in Scotland, it has really become an important day for Scots living outside of Scotland.  They gather in cities all around the world and celebrate their Scottish heritage.

In Scotland itself, however, the great day for rejoicing in things Scottish is the birthday of Robert Burns.  Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland.  He was born in 1759 and his words have become familiar throughout the world.  Each New Year’s Eve millions of people join together and sing his words to “Auld Lang Syne.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days o’ auld lang syne? 

“Auld lang syne” is Scottish dialect, and it means “long ago.”  Burns was reminding his countrymen not to forget their past.  He became a national hero because he celebrated the history and beliefs of Scotland at a time where everything Scottish were under attack by the British government. He celebrated the rights of the common man.  He celebrated their battle against the dishonesty of the official government and the corruption of the church.  And these days, everybody in Scotland celebrates the anniversary of his birthday, which takes place on January 25th. The celebration takes the form of a Burns Night dinner, and we’ve come to Scotland to take part in one.

Our very traditional Burns Night Dinner is taking place at Alvie House, by the village of Kincraig, near Kingussie, in Inverness-shire.  All of which is actually much easier to get to than it is to say.  Alvie House is an Edwardian shooting lodge set above a small loch in the Scottish Highlands.  A thirteen thousand acre estate surrounds the main house and offers all the sports that are dear to the Scotsman’s heart. Alvie House has been home to five generations of the Williamson family. These days a portion of the estate has been turned into a charming guest house under the direction of Jamie and Lyn Williamson.

BURT WOLF:   What does Robert Burns Night mean?

JAMIE WILLIAMSON:  He’s very important because Scotland started losing its identity; it amalgamated the parliaments in 1707.  And though there was a 1715 rebellion, with what we call “The Olde Pretender,” and then Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745... and so by the 1750s, when Robbie Burns was born, in 1759, I think it was, we were at a fairly low ebb.  The revolution had been put down, the 1745 rebellion had been put down, and we were losing our Scots identity.  Now, Robbie Burns did his poetry not in the English, but in the dialect of the southwest of Scotland, and really poked fun at the administration and some of the corruption.  And he really brought home the sort of culture , and though he probably wasn’t as popular when, by the time he died in about the turn of the century, I think it was 1796 he died, gradually, especially as people going abroad, he’s been remembered, and he’s the one thing that is very typically Scottish.

Scotland is not a country rich in farmland and its climate can be less than ideal in terms of growing seasons.  As a result, the history of its cooking illustrates the Scots’ skill at making a lot from a little.  Hundreds of miles of seashore, loch-front and riverside have given Scotland an ideal source of seafood.  Scotch salmon is world famous.  There’s great trout... haddock... and kippers.  Aberdeen Angus beef produces steaks that are outstanding. The Scots are devoted to recipes that are based on root vegetables like potatoes and turnips. The hunting season brings in venison, pheasant, hare and grouse.  Because of the intensity of the winters, Scots have a cuisine designed to produce a sense of inner warmth.  Lots of porridge. Thick soups.  Endless rounds of baking.  Scones. Oatcakes.  Shortbreads.

Lyn Williamson, amongst all her other responsibilities, is the head cook at Alvie House and she’s preparing our Burns Night menu.

LYN WILLIAMSON:  All right, we’re going to put together Cock-A-Leekie Soup, which is very much a Scottish favorite, all right?  And it’s really simple.  You just take a chicken, this is about a three pound chicken, all right, and this will feed about eight people, or a family for two days, because it reheats very well.  We just add the leeks, which we’ve cut up to about two millimetre thickness, including some of the green, because that adds flavor to the soup... put all that in... we’ve probably got a bit much... that’ll probably be enough.  I’ve made up a little bunch of herbs; it’s just fresh thyme, parsley and a bay leaf.  I’ve tied it together to make it easier to fish out later on.  Now I’m going to fill this with cold water, okay?  So perhaps if you’d pop round to the sink I could pass it over to you, and we just want the water just covering the chicken and the leeks. 

BURT WOLF:   Should do it...

LYN WILLIAMSON:  I would say that was perfect. 

BURT WOLF:   All right.

LYN WILLIAMSON:  Thank you, now we’ll pop it onto the fast one, the fast lane this time  [she’s referring to her stove, which has different preset temperatures].  Right, we’ll cover that with the lid, and we’ll just leave that for about two hours.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  After two hours of cooking, the chicken is taken out of the pot, its skin and bones discarded, and the tender meat put back into the soup.

LYN WILLIAMSON:  In bite-size pieces.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In bite-size pieces.

Some cooked bacon goes in, and some prunes are added.

LYN WILLIAMSON:  This dish is very much a family food, what you just put together for a family supper, or have friends in.

Dinner is ready and the guests are arriving.

[some party chatter; BURT is sipping a glass of Scotch with two guests]

BURT WOLF:   Now, I noticed that we don’t have any ice or water in ours.

SIMON SANDERS:  Well, I have water, and I noticed that you don’t.  And I was going to talk to you about that.

BURT WOLF:   Should I?

SIMON SANDERS:  Well, everything is a matter of preference, but I personally believe you should.  For me, it releases all the interesting bits of a blended Scotch whisky.  It releases all the aroma, all the bouquet.  If you drink it neat,  as we say, “neat,” you’re drinking forty percent alcohol.  That’s very strong, and that’s more than your palate is going to be able to cope with.  And it’s not going to be able to pull out of that strong alcohol all the fine bouquets and aromas that go to make Scotch whisky what it is.  So add a little water, half and half will do fine, and you’ll find it’s a much more rewarding and satisfying drink, and you’ll enjoy it even more.

BURT WOLF:   You’re absolutely right, I totally agree, and I didn’t know that.


It’s not unusual to be attired formally for a Burns Night dinner in Scotland, but Scotland’s formal attire... well... that’s another thing.

BURT WOLF:   What are we wearing tonight?  Yours is slightly different than mine.

COLIN MacPHAIL:  The difference is, I’m wearing something that has a front, and it has a back as well.  What I’m wearing started out as a kilt; what you’re wearing is what it evolved into.  You’re wearing a kilt circa twentieth century, I’m wearing a kilt circa seventeenth century. 

BURT WOLF:   And it just started as one big piece of cloth?

COLIN MacPHAIL:  One big piece of cloth; it’s like a toga, it’s like a kimono... any culture starts off with a very basic piece of material they wrap themselves up in, and the Scots were the same.  They had a basic piece of material, and what they would do, is they would wake up in the morning, and they’d lay it out on the ground, and they’d pleat it and put their belt behind it, you’d lay down on that, you’d throw the belt up around, and you’d pull the material up, and you were dressed.

BURT WOLF:   And what’s in here?

COLIN MacPHAIL:  Okay, this is a sporin; in the old days there was a pouch worn usually at the side of the hip there, and what you kept in it was your oatmeal, or whatever it was that you were eating.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, it was a food pouch!

COLIN MacPHAIL:  Oh yeah, it was very, very basic.  I mean, there’s no pockets in all this.  Now it’s for keeping your small change in, and also positioned here for protecting your “small change” as well.

BURT WOLF:   [laughing]  I never thought about that.  Well, let’s go in to dinner.


JAMIE WILLIAMSON:  Welcome to Alvie.  Grace:  “Some ha’e meat and canno’ eat / And some would eat that want it / But we ha’e meat, and we can eat / And say the Lord be thanked.  Amen.”

[Dinner begins; various chatter.  Then the haggis is presented, and a guest gives a short speech in dialect in tribute to the haggis.]

The arrival of the main course is traditionally greeted by the dramatic recitation of a Robert Burns poem honoring the dish.

Very often the most important dish at a Scottish gathering will be the haggis; traditionally it involved stuffing meat, vegetables and grain into the stomach of an animal and then cooking it in a simmering liquid.  The word haggis comes from a verb that means “to hack” or “to mince,” as in minced pie.  It’s also the root that gave us the word hash, and a modern recipe for haggis is very similar to a modern recipe for hash.  Various parts of a lamb are minced and seasoned, but these days they are cooked in a sack rather than a stomach.

COLIN MacPHAIL:  Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for that bit of the Burns evening which we call the “Immortal Memory,” which involves someone who’s fairly terrified standing up and trying to do Burns justice.  I’d like to start off with a little poem which goes like this:

[he immediately launches into a fiercely dramatic recitation in Scottish dialect, then jumps right back to his own personality.]

Thank you.  I still today don’t know exactly what that means... but it impresses the hell out of American visitors if you can say it.  The last part that you have to do is you have to say... what shall we say?  Just Burns, I suppose.  To Robert Burns.

ALL:  Burns.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Scottish have been distilling spirits for hundreds of years.  Nobody knows exactly when they got started, but there are records in the tax office that go back into the 1400s.  At the time, Scottish monks were distilling a spirit that had a big-deal reputation as a cure-all. Of course, they were drinking it for purely medicinal purposes.  They called it the “water of life.” In the Gaelic dialect, the name was “usquebaugh.” That sounded like “uishgi” to the English, who soon began to mispronounce it as “whisky.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   These days the Scots drink two types of whisky.  One is called “single malt,” the other is called “blended.”  The making of a single malt Scotch whisky starts with a process called malting.  Barley grain is mixed with water until it begins to germinate.  It literally starts to sprout.  After about two days of sprouting, the process is stopped by drying the barley.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The traditional way to dry the barley is with a fire that is at least in part fueled by peat. Peat is a local soil that comes from decomposed and concentrated plant life.  It is so thick that it can be cut and used very much the way we use coal. It adds a smoky flavor to the barley. 

The barley is then ground and sent off for mashing.  It’s mixed with warm water in a vessel called a mash tun.  After a while a liquid is drained off. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The liquid is called a wort and it’s packed with natural sugar that’s come out of the barley.  Yeast is added to the wort, which causes the sugar to convert to alcohol.  It’s called fermentation and it’s basically the same chemical process that’s used in making beer or wine.

The fermented liquid is transferred to a still.  A still is really just a giant teapot used to heat the liquid.  Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so the alcohol turns to a vapor first.  It rises up to the top of the still, then turns down in a pipe, and is recondensed to liquid alcohol on the other side.  The distilled spirit goes into a cask.  By law, the whisky must mature in the cask for at least three years in order to be called Scotch.  In practice, however, serious Scotch makers can age their whisky in wood for considerably longer.  A single malt whisky is made in one distillery, exclusively from barley. It may come from a number of different casks and different ages, but always from the same distillery.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the late 1800s, a wine and spirits merchant by the name of Matthew Gloag began to develop a blended Scotch whisky.  He wanted it to appeal to the tastes of ladies and gentlemen who were coming up to Scotland to take part in the sporting activities. 

They liked to fish for salmon in the great Highland rivers.  They liked to hunt the famous grouse on the moors.  They liked to track the magnificent Scottish deer.  And hunt the famous grouse on the moors.  They liked to seek out the wild partridge... and hunt the famous grouse on the moors. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Matthew Gloag could see the emergence of a pattern and its related opportunity.  If he could come up with a Scotch that was a classic and call it The Famous Grouse, then all he had to do was get the English to drink it as well as shoot it.

He got his daughter to sketch the famous red grouse on the label, and in time The Famous Grouse became the most popular blended Scotch in Scotland. It still is.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The blenders at Matthew Gloag have a secret formula for The Famous Grouse, which includes over twenty different single malts, including Highland Park from Orkney, and whisky from the patent still.

JOHN RAMSEY:  A blender has a job of bringing together all the various single malt whiskies and their differences in flavor, putting them together into hopefully a mix that will be greater than the component parts; almost a synergy of flavors, overlaying that with some grain spirit, or grain whisky.  Grain whisky was introduced during the 1800s, and at that time was used very much as a dilutant for the very harsh malt flavors that were abundant at that time.  Nowadays the malt flavors are softer and mellower, but the grain is still used very much as a sort of foil to lift and support the complex malt flavors.  I believe you’ve been filming some of the works of Robert Burns, and I could quote from Robbie:  “Freedom and whisky gang together; take half your dram.”  Will you have a dram?

BURT WOLF:   I sure will.

And just for the record, a dram is not a specific unit of measurement.  It can be a half ounce or a half pint.  It’s all in the eyes of the pourer. 

BURT WOLF:   Slangivar!

JOHN RAMSEY:  Slangivar.  Your very good health.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Well, that’s a brief look at Scotland and their Robert Burns celebration.  I’m going to be sorry to leave Scotland; it’s quite a place.  But as Robert Burns said, in a somewhat different context:

Had we never loved so kindly,

Had we never loved so blindly,

Had we never met - and never parted,

We would never have been brokenhearted.

Which I guess means that it’s time for me to start travelling around the world again, taking a look at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I hope you’ll join me; I’m Burt Wolf.