January 25th…the day of harp seals and haggis! Ok, odd combination, I know. In other words, the 25th marked the annual Stranding Workshop for the marine mammal stranding team I volunteer for, and it also happened to be Burn’s Night in Scotland.
A few words about harp seals. We have several different types of seals who call Maine home or travel along our coasts. In the past several years, harp seals have become an increasingly common visitor during the winter months. Do you remember the seal posters that every animal lover had back in the 80s…the one that had the fluffy, furry white marshmallow baby with the big black liquidy eyes? Yep, that’s a newborn harp seal pup. Sadly, that pup also became the face of the animal activist movement for a time, as reports of seal clubbing in Canada became widespread. Fortunately, the population is fairly healthy at this point.
Harp seals are little chameleons of the sea. Their pelt changes color and pattern several times before they reach their final, adult appearance. Harp seals pup on pack ice. At birth, they have the fluffy, white coat, called lanugo. They shed this in clumps and patches, in a phase known as the “ragged jacket”. They then have a spotted or splotchy coat, and are known as “beaters”. (This is not in reference to any physical trauma…it’s a description of their awkward attempts at learning to swim. I can relate…I think I looked like a rotary egg beater when I was learning to swim too!) When the pups are a little over a year old, they undergo a second molt which leaves them with a similarly spotted coat, but they are now known as “bedlamers”. Finally, when they reach adulthood, they gain their “harp”. Adults have dark faces, silvery grey bodies, and a saddle that resembles a lyre harp.(Personally, I think it looks more like a wishbone, but “harp seal” sounds better than “wishbone seal”.) It’s also interesting to note that those small, cuddly little pups are generally 300-400 lbs as adults and 5 to 6 feet in length.
We see several beaters this time of year here on the midcoast, as well as adults through out the year. The little guy pictured at the top of this post is a beater I that I went out to assess a few winters ago. At yesterday’s Workshop, we taught volunteers seal identification, and how to assess a seal’s environment, condition, “stranding status”, and overall health. It’s always good to start the year with a review of all things strandings!
What does haggis have to do with all this? Well, I suppose a traditional haggis in its casing resembles a fat, happy adult harp seal…we do often describe them as looking like “sausages lying on rocks”! No, it’s merely in reference to the fact that January 25th is also Burns’ Night.
Celebrated worldwide, but particularly in Scotland, Burns’ Night is a celebration of the life and works of Robert “Rabbie” Burns. Chosen by the Scottish public in a 2009 vote as the “Greatest Scot”, Burns lived from January 25, 1759-July 21, 1796. He is remembered primarily as a poet, but I think some of his enduring appeal lies in the feeling that he represents the Everyman. His poetry often focused on familiar, humble subjects, and he often wrote in Scots dialect. After his death, a group of his friends started an annual dinner to commemorate him on his birthday. This tradition comes down to us today in the form of Burns’ Night Suppers.
Burns’ Night Suppers begin with the presentation of the haggis. Bagpipes herald the coming of the rather homely pudding, which is then grandly placed in the midst of hungry diners. Burns’ famous “Address to a Haggis” is then recited, beginning with the lines:
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!”
-Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns
Guests enjoy a traditional Scottish meal that includes haggis, neeps, and tatties. This is followed by series of toasts. Many variations exist, of course, but attending any form of a Supper is sure to be an event!
I attended a Supper last year right here in Maine. All the pomp and circumstance was there…bagpipes, toasts, freely flowing whisky (scotch), and haggis. It was a kind of Maine/Scotland fusion cuisine…venison haggis. Interesting, but I have to admit, I prefer the Scottish version. Really, who wouldn’t find ground sheep lung mixed with oatmeal and spices appealing???
All kidding aside, I actually really do like haggis. The version typically served in pubs and restaurants in Scotland is a combination of ground lamb meat, oats, and spices. We Americans have a tendency to wrinkle our noses at the word and have a predetermined dislike for the dish. But those who are brave and give it a try are typically pleasantly surprised. So, go ahead, try it if you see it on a menu!
So how did I end my day of harp seals and haggis? With a couple of imports…some haggis crisps and a wee dram! Slainte, Mr. Burns!