Having just passed New Year’s Eve, on which “Auld Lang Syne” is sung by everyone, not just those of Scottish descent, readers may find the name Robert Burns familiar. He was a Scottish poet born in 1739. On January 25, 1739, to be exact. Burns died fairly young, but he made an impression, and in 1796 the tradition of the Burns Night Supper (or sometimes Burns Night Dinner) began. Over the years, numerous traditions became established. Today, throughout the world, Maine included, the birth of this unique poet is celebrated with toasts, songs, and a menu that features some uniquely Scottish items, including haggis. One of the most famous poems Burns wrote, after all, was titled “To a Haggis.”
What on earth, some of you may be asking, is haggis? Let me use a wee excerpt from my fourth Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery, The Corpse Wore Tartan, to answer that question. The scene takes place in the kitchen of The Spruces, Moosetookalook, Maine’s charming old hotel, where my fictional Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society is about to hold their annual Burns Night Supper.
“The haggis is the centerpiece of the evening!” he shouted at the chef, ignoring the fact that she not only towered over him but was standing right next to a rack of sharp butcher knives. “It must be made according to the ancient recipe—chopped sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with oatmeal, onions, suet, and spices in a sheep’s stomach casing.”
“Listen, mister!” Angeline poked Bruce in the shoulder with one bony finger, leaving a smear of flour on the expensive black velvet. “You know and I know that ain’t about to happen. The FDA had the good sense to keep sheep offal out of the food supply.”
“Who’d know? Slaughter your own sheep and—”
“Give it a rest! You’ve got what—three hours till your banquet starts? Thing has to boil that long. You’ll take what I’ve cooked for you and like it. Damned nuisance as it is, like making sausages from scratch.”
Bruce’s face abruptly drained of most of its color. “Tell me you didn’t use pork!”
“Lamb, beef liver, oats, and suet. The casing isn’t sheep’s stomach, but you don’t eat that anyway.” Angeline’s expression of disgust was eloquent. Then it was her turn to go pale. “Do you?”
Bruce ignored the question. “We asked for real haggis. That means it’s made from a sheep. You can’t get the right nutty texture otherwise. Or the savory flavor.”
“You won’t be able to tell the difference,” Angeline promised. “Now get out of my kitchen so I can get going on the turnips and the potatoes.”
“Neeps and tatties,” Bruce corrected her. “And don’t forget the cock-a-leekie soup to start and the tipsy laird for dessert.”
“Yeah, yeah. Sherry trifle. I’m on it.”
“But about the haggis—I don’t think my people will be happy with—”
Deciding it was time to step in, Liss cleared her throat, interrupting Richardson Bruce’s complaint. As soon as she had his attention, she took his arm, exerting enough pressure to start him moving toward the door. “I’m certain everything is under control, Mr. Bruce, but if you like I can go get some of the canned haggis we sell at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. It’s made in the U.S. from Highland beef. Of course, there are only four servings in a can, but I could sell you a case of twenty-four for, say, two hundred fifty dollars?”
During her previous dealings with Richardson Bruce, all of them protracted negotiations concerning the cost of various items needed for the Burns Night Supper, Liss had learned he was the sort of man who’d squeeze every nickel till it screamed. Since he was almost a caricature of the penny-pinching Scot, she was not surprised when the mere mention of additional expenses made him back off.
“No. No, I’m certain . . . that is—” He swallowed convulsively. “I’ll just run along and check on the whiskey.”
As there is a Scottish-American heritage theme to all my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, I knew from the beginning that I’d have to structure a story around a Burns Night. My original title was, indeed, Homicide with Haggis, but it was vetoed on the grounds that not enough readers would know what a haggis is. Now, to my mind, not knowing would make a potential reader pick up the book and glance at the front matter to find out, but I’m only the author, so what do I know? In due time, the novel became The Corpse Wore Tartan. To give credit where it’s due, my editor came up with that title and I liked it at once. Still, you never quite let go of the first name you come up with for a new project.
Since this is a murder mystery, someone soon ends up dead, but the weapon isn’t the haggis. It’s a skein dhu, that little knife kilt-wearing Scots tuck into the top of their hose. There’s also a battle with a bagpipe. Not bagpipes being played in a sort of Scottish Deliverance theme, but one actually used as a weapon to beat someone over the head with. You remember that I write humorous cozy mysteries, right? Comic relief is essential to the genre. And why not? Real life is full of absurdities, and Maine is a state chock full of eccentrics. Some of them are even Scottish-Americans.
Because the story is set in late January, I felt comfortable throwing in a blizzard to complicate matters. Instead of spending just an evening at the hotel, the members of the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society end up trapped there for a couple of days with the power out and phone lines and cell phone towers down. This year, in the real Maine, a blizzard would be welcome. We didn’t see a decent snowfall between Halloween and January 12th. But my real reason for cutting off contact with the outside world was simple. I needed to give Liss a chance to solve the crime without interference from the state police, who would ordinarily have been on the scene within hours of the discovery of the body, excluding everyone else from the area and making it impossible for an amateur sleuth to accomplish anything at all.
Happy Burns Night, everyone. And if you must take your skein dhu out of its sheath at all, please restrict its use to cutting into the haggis!