Burns Night

On or around the night of January 25th, many Scots celebrate the life of Robert Burns with a Burns supper, eating haggis and neeps, drinking whisky and listening to the works of Robert Burns. My Great Great Grandfather, John Robert Box, although not born in Scotland, may well have celebrated the night. He had a copy of ‘The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns’, dated 1875, when he would have been around 26.

He had also lived with his uncle, Robert Bryson, in Edinburgh for several years around 1871, so would have been exposed to the National Bard during that time.

Although born and growing up in Edinburgh, haggis did not feature prominently in our diet at home. My brother and I worked summer jobs in a cafe called County Fayre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. As it was, at the time, the first place, if you set off down the hill from the Castle, where you could sit down for a hot meal, it was very popular during the Festival, and many of the customers were American tourists. Haggis was one of the traditional Scottish dishes on the menu, so it fell to the person serving at the counter to explain Haggis to the customer, without putting them off. We did discover that Americans do not use the term ‘mince‘, which we had been using, and that ‘it is a bit like ground beef, but made from sheep’ worked better. The job was an eye opening experience, and gave me a lasting insight into what goes on behind the scenes when eating out, and an understanding of what it is like to be working in the industry.


  1. ‘Behind the scenes’ indeed! That was my role, while John was front of house. I’ve just Googled the cafe and not found it, and I’m pretty sure it’s no longer there in the same form/management- so ‘no resemblance to any present day establishment intended’.

    While the customers upstairs saw the serene swan, down in the basement there was a lot of paddling going on. Literally on a couple of occasions, as the basement flooded sometimes (I can’t remember why) leaving us paddling in a couple of inches of water. However, the show went on regardless. My job was general dogsbody, assisting the cook and the washer-upper, both middle aged ladies. Both with some problems. The cook fairly soon taught me the basics of preparing the rather limited menu – the haggis mentioned above, mashed potato (I don’t remember a deep fat fryer, so no chips), vegetables (cooked from frozen – remember macedoine?), macaroni cheese, tinned soup, etc. So once I could make a cheese sauce I had pretty much all the knowledge needed. This was soon necessary, as the cook’s attendance was somewhat erratic. Due to her drink problem.

    Actually, I first started as washer-upper, which was a bit of a baptism of fire, in more ways than one. The industrial dishwasher worked extremely quickly, with trays of crockery etc slid inside a hood, subjected to jets of scalding hot water, then the hood lifted and the trays slid out the other side, to be stacked ready to go upstairs. This last part involved picking them up, which was the hard part – actually this wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was coping with the resulting third degree burns. Repeatedly. Mercifully the regular pot washer lady was back at work after a few days. The reason for her earlier absence was never fully explained but I think she may sadly have been a battered wife. From time to time she would have a little cry to herself but then regain her composure and pick up another stack of red hot plates. We were not alone in this basement kitchen though, as we had occasional visits from small quantities of cockroaches. I guess we might have had more if they had been better at swimming. All this was quite character-forming as well as proving me with more cordon bleu cuisine responsibilities than I expected. Funnily enough my employment highlight wasn’t going upstairs to receive the plaudits of admiring diners, but a memorable occasion when the cook arrived somewhat the worse for wear. She got straight to work though, proceeding to pick out the cockroaches from the dry macaroni sitting ready to be cooked in a large bowl and then tipping it into a big pan of boiling water. I think all the cockroaches escaped unharmed. No feedback from the diners anyway.

    To sum up; re-read John’s final sentence above.

    1. The cockroaches were not completely confined to the kitchen. As it was August, the Deputy Manageress was on holiday in Spain, and the real manageress was sufficiently efficient that she had been promoted to run all the restaurants in the little chain – there was a Highland Fayre, and similar, about half a dozen scattered around Edinburgh. I was a second year student, in an establishment largely staffed by first year students, which meant I tended to be landed with cases where someone wanted to talk to the person in charge.
      A customer told me there was some kind of bug, on her son. A quick look told me that there was a cockroach on his coat, which I brushed off and stamped on. The eating area was furnished with pine tables and long pine bench seats, built into the wall, so I assured her solemnly ‘Furniture Beetle, Madam’.

      A few days later there was a unscheduled inspection from the food hygiene people. By a strange coincidence, the evening before a team of cleaners arrived, along with a kit of items such as a notice saying ‘For Handwashing Only’ to go by one of the sinks behind the counter. Even more strangely, after the inspection the notice and some of the other things which had appeared then vanished again after the inspection, presumably to appear just ahead of the inspectors somewhere else.

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