Like many Canadians, I can claim some small portion of Scottish ancestry. While I may not boast Groundskeeper Willie levels of Scottish-ness, I do regularly partake of Scotch Whisky, widely considered as the gold standard by which all other whiskies are judged, and on one very special day of the year, I even prepare a haggis.
The special day in question is January 25, and will mark the 261st birthday of Robbie Burns.
For those not in the know, Robbie Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet/writer, considered the great national bard of the kilt-wearing folk. His birthday is considered one of the most important holidays in Scotland, and is celebrated by those of Scottish descent the world over.
Robbie was born on January 25, 1759 to peasant farmers in Alloway, and turned to writing poetry to escape the hardships of poverty and subsistence farming. He eventually rose to the status of cultural icon in Scotland, loved by rich and poor alike. His Scots Wae Hae lyrics were used as an unofficial national anthem for decades, but he is most recognized in North America for his poem Auld Lang Syne – y’know, the one you sang off-key back on New Year’s Eve.
Scottish emigration through the ages has resulted in 30 million people of Scottish ancestry living overseas, vastly outnumbering the 5 million people in Scotland proper.
Canada alone has 4 million people of Scottish ancestry – almost as many as Scotland! Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland) is home to large numbers of both Highland and Lowland Scots, and Scottish culture has continued to flourish there.
For many years, I have carried on the rich tradition of hosting a Burns Supper, which entails the drinking of whisky, the eating of haggis, and spirited reflections on the words and music of Robbie Burns.
As in years past, when the unruly posse of my regular drinking companions arrive for a night of Scottish libations and culture, they bear less resemblance to a group of poetry fans than a boisterous Scottish clan returning from a fortnight of fasting on the blasted heath with MacBeth himself, such is the vigour with which they attack the haggis and applaud the obligatory bagpipe music.
When the last of the haggis has been swallowed, we sit in repose with the dulcet tones of Scottish poetry streaming from YouTube, and enjoy many fine whiskies while toasting the memory of Robbie Burns, even reciting along with a few of the poems to add to the solemnity of the occasion.
Robbie Burns Day is also the one day of the year that I pull out the officially licensed Robert Burns Single Malt from the Isle of Arran Distillery, located on a craggy and windswept island just off the western coast of Scotland.
The island was home to many illicit distilleries in centuries past, always trying to stay one step ahead of the royal tax collectors, but the long arm of the law eventually caught up, with the last bootleg still seized by His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs officers more than 150 years ago. This spelled the end of the whisky industry on the Isle of Arran until the year 1998, when the Arran Distillery threw open the doors of their newly constructed distillery with great fanfare, with the Robert Burns Single Malt remaining one of their best sellers to this very day.
As an official patron of the World Robert Burns Society, the Arran Distillery is the only distillery permitted to use the name and image of the immortal bard himself on the packaging, which makes them particularly popular this time of year.
I am nearly finished a bottle of the 2008 Robert Burns Single Malt, which I only open one day a year to enjoy during my annual Burns Supper. A sweet and malty whisky that is aged in former Bourbon casks that provide hints of vanilla, followed by a brief maturation in former Sherry casks to impart hints of lush fruit and spice to the finish.
Despite my tradition of saving this whisky for one special night per year, it is only $50, which makes it popular with whisky drinkers as a regular tipple.
You can celebrate your inner Scotsman with a fine bottle of the Robert Burns Single Malt from your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant, with the haggis and bagpipes entirely optional!