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With Verse And Haggis, 'Burns Dinners' Bring Scottish Poet Alive

On Jan. 25, a group of Vermonters will raise glasses of Scotch whiskey, recite poetry and eat haggis, all in honor of the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Millions of people around the world will be doing the same thing, as the day marks Burns' 255th birthday.

Unlike his contemporaries, who wrote more formally, Burns used the Scottish vernacular of his time, making his poetry accessible to rich and poor alike.  

Historians credit Burns with reviving and spreading Scottish heritage, something that’s celebrated every year at this time with “Burns dinners.”

Pittsford resident Jim McCrea and group of friends hold a Burns dinner every year, and several years ago, VPR's Nina Keck attended their annual winter tradition of Scottish culture and poetry.

“The night's a special night ... We all encourage each other to do the things we love to do. Lin loves to cook and loves to be the host. I love the poetry. I think Robbie Burns would enjoy it." - Jim McCrea

“The night’s a special night," says McCrea. "I think it’s because we all encouraged each other to do the things we love to do. Lin loves to cook and loves to be the host. I love the poetry. I think Robbie Burns would enjoy it.”    

One of the highlights of the annual dinner party is Lin Reuther's haggis, a traditional Scottish dish that's both beloved and reviled by natives.

"The first year, I didn't have any idea how to cook it," Reuther says. "So I went to the Rutland library, and they had to ancient books of Scots recipes from the 1800s. And the first time I read it, I went, 'The pluck! What's that? The lights! What's that?' And I actually had to find a Scottish woman who could tell me what these ingredients were."

The pluck turned out to be the sheep's heart, lungs and kidneys combined; the lights are the animal's lungs.

Reuther says you boil and chop up the animal parts, throw in some spices, several handfuls of toasted oats, stuff it all in a cleaned out sheep stomach, and boil it for three hours.

"I have to say, sometimes as I'm chopping this stuff up, I'm thinking, 'I'm going to eat this?' And then it, like, transforms itself inside this stomach … And of course a little Scotch doesn't hurt, either.

It also helps to have your own sheep. Back in November, at a neighbor's barn, Lin's husband Bill slaughtered one of their sheep for the party.

“It’s become part of the tradition for the Burns supper," Bill Reuther says. "Because it’s the only way we can get the stomachs. We can’t take a sheep to the commercial slaughter house because the FDA won’t let you get the stomach, and the heart and the lungs. So we couldn’t make a traditional haggis if we didn’t slaughter the sheep ourselves."

"Sometimes as I'm chopping this stuff up, I'm thinking, 'I'm going to eat this?' And then it, like, transforms itself inside this stomach ... And of course a little Scotch doesn't hurt, either." - Lin Reuther

The Reuthers think using one of their own animals also adds to the authenticity of the evening. The 15 guests gathered two months later in the couple's century-old farmhouse agree.

It's not a true Burns supper if the haggis doesn't receive its due. So, with much pomp and ceremony, the guests raise their glasses and salute what the poet himself called "the great ruler of the pudding race."

This is an evening of history and tradition, of poetry and bawdy jokes, of kilts and Scotch whiskey. It's a party that harkens back to a time when people were more connected to the land, the elements and each other.

Guests at the Ruethers bring homemade cheeses and bread, homegrown turnips, potatoes and greens, as well as bottles of home-brewed beer to share.

John Peterson, a high school history teacher, revels in the tradition of it all. Resplendent in a formal kilt, he raises his sword, and with a twinkle in his eye, launches into one of Robert Burns' most famous poems, the Ode to the Haggis:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the pudding-race! Aboon them a' yet tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy o'a grace As lang's my arm.

Didn’t quite catch that? You’re not alone. But if you’re like most people at a Burns dinner, and don’t speak antiquated Scots, you sit back, raise your glass at the appropriate moments and savor the theater of it all.

"One of the reasons we celebrate him around the world is it was very much a part of the culture of Scotland on Burns day. The lively exchange of ideas, conversation and the goings on in an active social environment. And this dinner is really about those traditions."

Guest John Hartman says the laughter, music and drama are what make this party so special.

"One of the reasons we celebrate him around the world is it was very much a part of the culture of Scotland on Burns day," says Hartman. "The lively exchange of ideas, conversation and the goings on in an active social environment. And this dinner is really about those traditions."

With the holidays over and the days cold and short, this Burns dinner is a deep, dark winter celebration of life and art – one these guests look forward to every year.