Burns Night

Written by Chris Thornton | 26th of January 2024
Burns Night, celebrating Scotland's national poet

On the 25th of January, it is popular in Scotland to hold a Burns Night - dedicated to celebrating the life of Robert Burns, who is Scotland's national bard/poet. There are a set of traditions/toasts/recitals of his work, as well as a celebratory Burns Supper.

It's only in the last three years we have held our own Burns Night, but we have found it fun, and any excuse for a big family meal is fine by me!

Who was Robert Burns / Rabbie Burns?

A Scottish poet and songwriter famous for the song "Auld Lang Syne" which is sung at New Year's celebrations around the world. Burns wrote in both the Scots dialect and English. Although he didn't write "Auld Lang Syne" he was the first to adopt this ancient song and put it to paper.

Burns was born in 1759 and died in 1796 at the young age of 37. Over his short life, he produced over 220 works of poetry and as many as 400 songs - today his legacy is celebrated by the people of Scotland and has only grown in popularity becoming an important part of Scottish culture.

The first Burns Supper

The first Burns Supper was held in 1801, on the fifth anniversary of Burns death. The idea had come from John Ballantine a former Provost of Ayr, but Reverend Hamilton Paul was the one who actually ran with the idea and held the memorial dinner in July at Burns Cottage in Alloway.

Reverend Paul would go on to write "The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns" in 1819.

It was decided it should be an annual event, and the date change to Burns' birthday, instead of his death. The tradition has continued for 221 years!

What was on the menu?

Haggis and sheepshead were the food of choice at the first burns supper! Haggis is still the food of choice at Burns Suppers around the world, but sheepshead is no longer en vogue... thankfully!

What is a traditional Burns Night Supper?

Burns Suppers can be very formal events with men dressed in their kilts, tartan trews or suits and women in their finest dresses, but they can also be an informal laid back event to be enjoyed with family and close friends.

The top table

At the more formal and larger events, there is a main top table for any special guests and for those who will be singing or reciting Burn's work. All "normal" guests are first seated before the chairman leads in the top table guests, says a few words and introduces them all one by one.

The Selkirk Grace

A lesser-known part of a Burns supper is the reading of "The Selkirk Grace" which is read before the Haggis comes out. It is a short poem, more like a prayer, thanking the lord for the food that is about to be eaten.

"Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it, but we hae meat and we can eat, and sae the Lord be thankit."

Address to a Haggis

This is a fun and theatrical part of the evening, the haggis is paraded on a serving platter, often with a bagpiper following the chef, before it is placed before the person who will carry out the "address to the Haggis". Again this is an energetic reading and at a certain part, the speaker will plunge a knife into the haggis to match the words of the poem.

Granda Turner carrying the Haggis
My grandfather carrying the Haggis before the address to the Haggis.

The Loyal Toast

This is only included at very formal Burns Night's and I have never been to one that has done this part, but there is a toast to the queen and then the men of the room will remove their jackets as a mark of respect.

The Supper

A hearty supper is the highlight of the night. A three-course meal is common, normally with a starter of Scotch broth / cock a leekie soup,  the main course of haggis neeps and tatties, and a dessert of cranachan, clootie dumplings or Scottish trifle. Never heard of neeps? please check my article - what are neeps?. Tatties is of course mashed potatoes.

Cullen skink, a dish comprising of smoked haddock, potatoes and milk/cream, is also a popular starter to a Burns Supper.

It's also very common to enjoy your Burns Night supper with a dram of whisky.

What is Haggis?

Haggis is a pudding (a pudding in terms of a sausage or meat dish, not a dessert) containing sheep's pluck, which is the heart, liver and lungs of the sheep or lamb. It is minced with spices, suet, oatmeal, onion and salt... and historically encased in the animal's stomach, but modern Haggis has an artificial casing.

The normal reaction to this "Ewww that sounds disgusting" but it's actually very nice and has a lovely spicy flavour. The end product looks like finely ground dark brown meat, it looks nothing like its constituent ingredients, and organ meat is full of healthy vitamins. Why not give it a try?  You might like it.

More modern uses of haggis as an ingredient are also popular, with my particular being fried haggis bonbons with a wholegrain mustard sauce. Haggis lasagne is also very nice.

Vegetarian haggis is also available nowadays and is ideal for celebrating Burns Night if you don't like the idea of organ meat in your meal.

So Haggis isn't an animal?!

No, haggis is not its own separate animal. Scots will often joke with people that haggis are small hairy animals that roam the hills of the countryside... it is an in-joke that many tourists fall for.

Burns Monument | Burns Night Celebrations
The Robert Burns Monument in Alloway

The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

Also named "the first entertainment" there is a reading of a Burns poem after the dinner. The first speech is called "The Immortal Memory" and goes into detail about Robert Burns's life, its ups and downs and his love of Scotland. The speaker will often add current events and humour into his reading of the immortal memory with the intention of keeping the audience interested in the speech.

Performance of Burns Songs

Burns loved music, so it is no wonder there is usually a number of musical performances at a Burns Night. Sometimes it can be Burns poetry put to music - See Dougie Maclean's "Scots Wha Hae" - but also any traditional Scottish music can be played.

Toast to the Lassies

This is normally a 15-minute speech about women and their influence on men and is much less formal than the immortal memory. This speech need not include Burns work, but can be good to reference as part of the toast. It is normally a funny speech with a lot of jokes about the differences between men and women. The men will stand at the end of the speech and toast the women at the event.  The lassies will often then reply with a speech too, again humourous and witty.

The reading of Robert Burns most popular work

Burns has a vast catalogue of work, with over 600 individual pieces of work written in his 37 years in Scotland. Here are a few of his most popular:

Tam o’ Shanter

Maybe his most famous poem, Tam o' Shanter was published in 1791 and details a drunken Scot's supernatural encounter. It is one of his longest poems, often recited on Burns Night and a seriously impressive feat to remember off by heart and put energy into its reading.

Tae a Moose

This poem is Based on Burn's real-life experience working on a farm and accidentally destroying a mouse nest in a field. A tale of morality and man's influence on nature. Lines from this poem influenced John Steinbeck's famous bestseller - Of Mice and Men - "The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley".

Address to the Deil

This is a satirical and funny poem that makes fun of Satan. This would have been shocking on its release in 1785 with many people in Scotland believing in and fearing The Devil.

Vote of Thanks

This signals the end of the evening with a vote of thanks to performers, speakers and VIPs at the event. A short speech should cover the happenings of the night and witty speeches will include anything outstanding, funny or unusual that happened over the course of the evening.

Burns Night 2022 | Poetry readings
Enjoying Burns Night with my family

Conclusion

Burns Night is a fantastic tradition in Scotland and a great tribute to the memory and achievements of Robert Burns. If you are part of the Scottish diaspora around the world, why not hold your own Burns Night at the end of the month and celebrate your Scottish heritage.

If you're interested in Robert Burns, I can highly recommend a visit to the Robert Burns Museum in Alloway.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Comments:


Andrew Kaye
18th of July 2023 @ 12:59:38

We have enjoyed participating in the annual Burns Night festivities hosted by the Winchester (Virginia) Pipes & Drums for many years, and it is nice to have this article as more background into the event. Thanks much!

Clynderboy
21st of January 2022 @ 11:47:08

We really enjoy attending Burn's Night Suppers but Covid has curtailed them somewhat. Zoom events aren't like being there in person! Love the article and the family photo!