All over the world, people of Scottish ancestry are celebrating the 254th birthday of the man many Scots consider their greatest national hero -- poet Robert Burns -- with the annual "Burns Supper."
No king, patriot or churchman holds the same place that Burns does. The poet, also known as Rabbie Burns to the Scottish, was born on Jan. 25, 1759, and died on July 21, 1796. Burns came from poverty and hard manual labor, struggled to earn a living most of his life, and dallied with almost every woman he encountered -- from ministers' daughters to serving maids, married and unmarried -- fathering many children, 12 of whom survived him. Also during his hectic life, Burns published hundreds of poems and songs and preserved many more traditional Scottish folk songs, capturing the spirit and culture of the Scottish people at the time both were being severely repressed by the British. Burns enjoyed substantial success during his lifetime, and lasting renown since his death, as his work epitomized the "Scottish soul."
Burns' friends and admirers held events to celebrate the poet's memory not long after he died. On the 100th anniversary of Burns' birthday, events were held all over Scotland and anywhere around the world Scottish expatriates could be found. That now annual tradition, which will be celebrated locally through the Kern County Scottish Society, is known as the Burns Supper, and has a set order of events.
"Everything is ceremony until the time we get fed," said Kern County Scottish Society immediate past chieftain Gary Lockhart. "It begins with the invitation to Rabbie Burns to sit in his rocking chair, which is set to rock.
"Then there's the presentation of the haggis. (Burns) would bless it and then it would be taken back to the kitchen to be cut and served."
Haggis is a national dish in Scotland comprised of a sheep's heart, intestines, liver, plus oatmeal and other ingredients, and boiled inside the sheep's stomach.
"Haggis used to be the peasant food of the Scots," Lockhart said.
Organ meats were often the only food available to the poor, who couldn't afford to waste any edible part of an animal. Burns' ability to romanticize the humble fare of a peasant is a main factor in his stature among the Scottish people; his poem "Address to a Haggis" is read at every Burns Supper. After praising the dish, and extolling its virtues beyond any other type of food, Burns concludes:
"You powers, who make mankind your care,/And dish them out their bill of fare,/Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,/That splashes in small wooden dishes;/But if you wish her grateful prayer,/Give her a Haggis! "
Lockhart said eating haggis can be a gamble; if not prepared well, it can be a disagreeable experience.
"If you don't tell people what's in it, they don't know, and they usually eat it," Lockhart said.
"The haggis in Scotland is good," Lockhart said. "In the United States, it depends on who prepares it."
Lockhart said the haggis purchased for the Scottish Society's Burns supper comes from the same company that supplies the Caledonian Club of San Francisco, hosts of the oldest organized Scottish games in the world.
Lockhart said the haggis will be served in the traditional manner, with "smushed neeps and tatties" (mashed turnips and potatoes), as well as a prime rib and other dishes. The event includes a recitation of Burns' life, and concludes with the singing of Burns' famous song, "Auld Lang Syne."