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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Secret Society Of The Haggis

Robbie Burns Day is coming up. On the possibility that I should be strangled in my sleep, odds are it's for this. And chances are the suspect will be none other than the vengeful ghost of Burns himself.

Scots Of The World Prepare To Celebrate Robbie Burns Day; Novelist Complicates Things

Edinburgh (Reuters) Each January 25th, the birthdate of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns is celebrated as Robbie Burns Day by Scottish descended people across the world. Bagpipes and drums are brought out. Kilts are worn. Haggis and Scots whiskey are consumed. And many a glass is raised in memory of the immortal Scot also known by a number of nicknames- the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, and more. Burns Night, as it is called, is a national holiday in Scotland, going back all the way to the early 19th century.

Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759, in Ayrshire, Scotland, according to parish records. He would spend his life as a Romantic poet, composing some of what would become pivotal to Scottish culture. Poems like Auld Lang Syne have transcended Scotland to become a New Year’s tradition. Burns Night pays tribute to the favourite son of Scotland, who died young in 1797 but left behind a long line of descendants. Scottish tunes are played at Burns Night events around the world with the pipes and drums.  Tributes are made to the memory of the poet with readings. Whiskey accompanies the haggis- perhaps because that’s the only way one can eat haggis, by getting drunk.

Haggis, incidentally, is a savoury pudding consisting of a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with oatmeal, onion, suet, and spices and cooked in the animal’s stomach. If it sounds unpalatable, it is, in the experience of this reporter, who once lost a bet and was obliged to eat it as a consequence. This reporter has often wondered if those who claim to enjoy haggis are only doing so to goad the unsuspecting into eating it and finding amusement in their grimaces of disgust upon learning what it actually is.

The haggis even has a bit of ceremony in its eating at these events- the recital of Burns’ famous poem Address To A Haggis to the guests before the haggis can be cut open. The event has changed little in two centuries, with toasts following the consumption of that awful concoction of innards and the evening ending with a drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne by everyone. One might wonder what Burns himself might have thought of all of this national feasting and toasting in his honour.

This year things have taken on an unexpected complication. The novelist Dan Brown has been researching Burns for his next novel. Browns’ series of books following Harvard professor Robert Langdon in preposterous mysteries involving art, architecture, and dark secrets mostly in Europe, have gained a legion of readers throughout the world, but created controversies along the way. Angels & Demons featured a priest character secretly pulling strings to make it seem that an old enemy was out to destroy the Vatican. The Da Vinci Code raised concerns from the Catholic church over its central notion that Christ was a father. The Lost Symbol took liberties with Freemasons. Inferno presented a futurist with a mad agenda about population control. And Origin played around with the theme of artificial intelligence and the advancement of the human race.

Brown has often been criticized for plot holes, leaps of logic, his tendency to pair his academic protagonist with a fetching younger and smart woman on an evening of rushing madly from place to place, and bringing together lessons in art history along the way. And so when news started getting out that Brown has been sighted around places in Scotland associated with Burns, such as homes and his grave, concerns were raised in the Scottish community as to what he was up to. It didn’t help that he was seen meeting with a controversial academic in Edinburgh.

Angus MacGyver (no relation to the television action character played by two different actors), a sixty four year old tenured professor of Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, has a record as divisive at times as Brown. He has routinely been condemned by Scots as a heretic and traitor for his book Italian Tartan. The book proposes that Burns was a falsification, that the real Robert Burns was in fact Roberto Bernini (no relation to the Italian actor of the current day Roberto Benigni). Born in Rome in 1758 according to the professor, Bernini’s family moved to Scotland two years later, where the boy picked up a Scottish accent and a name more fitting with that of his neighbours. But then why are there traces of Robert Burns in baptism records?

“It’s all a hoax,” MacGyver declared to this reporter. “Burns started writing, started developing a reputation and a following. And developing a secret society of his own. They call themselves The Society Of The Haggis. And they’re still around today. If you start looking at his poetry, there’s references to it everywhere. And the Society has spread their influence across the world. Burns knew that he had to hide his Italian roots for all time. First of all, this was the 18th century, and there was a lot of bigotry where Italians were concerned. Second, in creating himself a place in Scottish society as part of their national story, he knew that people wouldn’t stand for it if they found out his personal tartan, the one he didn’t go out in public with, included stylized pizzas and spaghetti.”  

MacGyver paused to drink a wee dram of whiskey before carrying on with the tale. “So he had to hide his roots. And so he did. False baptism records, sworn secrecy among the Society, even a few people from Ayrshire who met bad ends when they questioned the story. As far as the Society is concerned, the people of Scotland can’t bear to know that a national hero, a man they hold in as high esteem as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, a man who’s the very symbol of what it means to be a Scotsman… was an Italian. To this day, the Burns family and the Society still guard the secret. Their whole Burns Night suppers are filled with hidden symbology. And they’re not above trying to discredit those like myself who are onto them. Or taking more extreme measures when needed.”

With information like that, what might we expect out of Brown? Perhaps Robert Langdon running around Glasgow and Edinburgh through museums and art galleries in search of the truth about Robert Burns? And of course paired off with a younger female doctor or scientist, perhaps with a Scottish name? Perhaps dealing with an irritable authority figure who’s given to disregarding the facts, at least at first? And perhaps chased by a mad assassin in a tartan kilt playing the bagpipes in between killings? Brown himself is silent on the matter. Aside from a tweet showing the cover of Italian Tartan.

Should Brown go through with it and tell a preposterous tale of a Harvard professor rooting around in the personal business of Robert Burns, irritation from the Vatican will be the least of his troubles. An angry Catholic church is nothing compared to the whiskey fueled rage of countless Scots toting bagpipes and wearing kilts. With nothing beneath the kilts.


  1. Italian Tartan! Burns, Italian??!! We never knew ye!

    And ending on Groundskeeper Willie! Tour De Force!

  2. Bernini? Is nothing sacred?

    My British son-in-law once served haggis at a Burns party in his house. He made it and then he served it. My daughter forbid him to ever do it again.

    1. It probably explains a lot that I recently featured a Bernini at my photoblog, and the two names have a common sound to begin with.

  3. I'll skip the haggis, but whiskey is in order! I'll start now.


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