I have had two surprises in the course of the last week.
Well, I think that I have probably had more than two surprises: but I have had two that stick in my memory. The first was a casual remark, made on the context of my awareness of the affiliation to the Burns Federation of a friend whom I was entertaining to coffee, that I had noticed posters in the windows of a number of local butchers’ shops proclaiming 2014 to be the year of the haggis. “Ah, yes,” he replied in a matter-of-fact voice, “I’m glad of that, for I dreamt up this scheme to mark the year of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Referendum and the Homecoming. What better year than this to be declared ‘The Year of the Haggis.’
And the second surprise was to discover, in the context of the inevitable association of haggis with neeps and tatties, this entry in Wikipedia, under ‘Neeps’: “A neep or tumshie is the ruit crap Brassica rapa var. rapa that’s aft growen in maumie climates athort the warld for its white, bulbous tapruit. Smaw, neshy kynds is growen for human consumption, while lairger kynds is growen as feed for stock. Neeps is weel-likit in Europe, parteecular in caulder airts, sith they growe weel in cauld climates an can be keepit for mony months efter the hairst.”
So now you know … or should I write, “Weel, ye ken noo.” Botanically, Brassica is the Latin name for a cabbage; and Brassica rapa is the Latin name for a turnip, both terms having been adopted … as were many other Latin plant names … by the great Swedish botanist Carl Linné, the intellectual who devised a comprehensive means of categorising the entire plant world into families and sub-divisions of families and who preferred, as many intellectuals of the eighteenth century did, to be known by the Latin form of his own name, Linnaeus.
Robert Burns, as is very widely known, was a bright Scots lad who struggled to win a living from a series of small farms, mainly in Ayrshire, and was as well-known for his womanising as he was for his drinking. There are some sound reasons for supposing, however, that his womanising and drinking were grossly exaggerated after his untimely death by Edinburgh gentlemen who regarded the intrusion of a country lad into their literary world as an outrage. After all, would a drunken womaniser be appointed a civil servant on the finance department, as Burns was when he was made an exciseman? Be that as it may, there are also grounds for supposing that Robert Burns’ father, William, who had farmed in Aberdeenshire, as familiar with the Swedish turnips which Scottish merchant vessels, trading between the north-east ports and the near continent, brought back to Scotland as ballast when there was no other cargo; and that he brought some ‘swedes’ with him when moved south, the swede being the larger, yellow-fleshed variant of the family, while the turnip is the smaller, white-fleshed vegetable. (By the way, people who are into tracking their ancestry might care to know that William spelled the family name ‘Burness’.) And it may well be that, in the days of sail when few of the small vessels which sailed from Ayrshire ports would have ventured to the more northerly ports of continental Europe, the swede was little-known in the south-west of Scotland prior to being grown there by the poet’s father.
Be that as it may, I like the romantic notion that neeps are associated with Robert Burns for this reason. And, although I shall not be at a Burns’ Supper on the 25th, I look forward to enjoying a tasty dish of haggis, neeps and tatties.