Burns Night held on January 25 (or near to it) is a celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s National Poet, Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns. It usually involves a ceremonial meal with toasts to the Bard and performances of his poetry.
Who was Robert Burns?
We all sing ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ at New Year’s celebrations and Burn’s Night is celebrated all over the world but did you know that this national poet of Scotland was from a poor farming family and that he had little formal schooling?
Born in Ayrshire in January 1759, Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns, was a Scottish poet and songwriter who wrote both in Scots Dialect and English. He was the eldest of seven children and his parents were poor tenant farmers. While his father made many efforts to improve the families situation but all failed and he died bankrupt when Robert was 25.
Having watched his father being beaten down by life, Robert rebelled against the social order of the day and struck out in his songs and poems about anything that perpetuated inhumanity to others.
Becoming a writer
Brought up with the Scottish tradition of orally transmitted folk songs and stories, Robert revised and adapted these into his own work and many of his songs were written to fit existing tunes.
He took up an offer to work in Jamaica as an assistant overseer of slaves. He could not afford the passage and so sent his book ‘Scotch Poems’ to Kilmarnock printer John Wilson and they were published in April 1786. Later that year his book ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’.
This was instantly successful and Robert was able to postpone his trip to Jamaica and instead travel to Edinburgh where a further edition of the poems was published. There he mixed with the higher society and continued his work.
Early in 1787, he met music seller James Johnson and he contributed a large number of songs to ‘The Scots Musical Museum‘ over several volumes which were published between 1787 and 1803.
Burns had a number of affairs and entanglements, starting with a servant of his Mothers and continuing with other women throughout his time in Edinburgh.
After this is he returned to Mossgile where he took up his relationship with Jean Armour, who he had previously wished to marry, and they moved to a farm in Dumfriesshire where he wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, the poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’.
Jean bore him nine children, sadly only three of whom survived infancy. After giving up the farm they moved to Dumfries where he put his energies into writing lyrics for songs, including the famous ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That’.
Although his situation was better than ever he had lost many friends over his views on democracy and his sympathy for the French and American Revolutionists. As well as writing songs and poems he was working as an exciseman and the combination of long hours of work and harsh conditions led to his early death in 1796 at the age of 37.
The cult of Robert Burns has grown and grown since his death. He influenced poets and writers, monuments have been erected to him and organisations formed to promote and appreciate his work.
He had a varied and eventful life but despite his prolific poems and songs, his philandering and restlessness the most fascinating fact we have found about Robert Burns is that he never claimed to have written ‘Auld Lang Syne’!
In 1788 he sent the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to the Scots Musical Museum, saying that it was an ancient song that he had been the first to record on paper.
When was the first Burns Supper?
The first ever Burns Supper was held at Burns Cottage in Alloway on July 1801 to celebrate five years since the death of the Bard and was attended by nine of his close friends.
They shared a meal of Haggis, read his work aloud and made a speech in his honour. The event was so successful and they enjoyed it so much it was repeated on his birthday, and thus the tradition of Burns Night was born!
How to celebrate Burns Night
Burns Night can be celebrated in a few different ways. If you have a Burns Supper event near you then it can be great fun to attend and take part in a meal and often a Ceilidh (traditional dancing).
You could also treat it like a dinner party, inviting a few friends over for your own Burns Supper with all the ceremonial aspects too.
If you’re not attending a full Burns Supper then you can still make a delicious Scottish-themed meal and raise a toast to the Bard at least!
What happens at a Burns Supper?
While each Burns Supper will differ there are some common ceremonial and traditional aspects. At the very least a meal of Haggis is included, as well as reciting some of Burns works.
But the full ceremonial night goes a bit like this:
Before the meal:
The ‘Selkirk Grace‘ is recited and a few welcoming words are said.
“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.”
The meal begins:
Starters are served, and then the main meal of Haggis is piped in (yes, it is brought into the table to the sound of bagpipes) and the ‘Address to a Haggis’ is performed. And when we say performed, we mean it is a theatrical event!
The host should stab the Haggis as verse three arrives (note, make sure there’s a little hole beforehand to let the steam out!), and holds the haggis aloft at the end while reciting the line “Gie her a haggis!” to, hopefully, rapturous applause.
“His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
After the meal:
This is when the works of Burns may be recited, and the Immortal Memory, a speech written to honour Burns, is delivered. Each one is different and may focus on a different theme.
After this, there’s an Address to the Lassies, which traditionally thanked them for their hard work in the kitchen, but has since evolved to reflect on the changing role of woman, although it might contain some tongue in cheek comments.
It’s followed by the Toast to the Laddies, where a spokesperson for the women can give her own opinion on the place of men in society and have the last word on it!
Some popular Burns works to recite include ‘Tam O’Shanter’, ‘A Red, Red Rose’, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, and finally, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to close the night.
This might all be followed by a Ceilidh if you’re at a larger event.
Burns Night Menu Ideas
There’s definitely an element of tradition to the food served at a Burns Supper. Haggis is the centrepiece, of course, often preceded by a soup and followed by a sweet dessert or cheeseboard.
However, it can be fun to mix things up by taking classic dishes and giving them a modern twist so we’ve outlined a more traditional Burns menu, followed by some alternative Burns Supper ideas, especially useful if you’re just having a small meal for two.
Traditional Burns Supper Menu
Alternative Burns Supper Recipes
Try a Scottish Salmon dish instead like Smoked Salmon or Potted Salmon with Homemade Oatcakes.
It’s pretty hard to depart from the traditional Haggis for the main, given that it’s the centrepiece of the ceremony surrounding Burns Night too!
If you’re having a smaller meal with family and friends and just want to acknowledge the Bard, then you could even serve Chicken Balmoral, which is chicken stuffed with Haggis and wrapped in bacon and topped with whisky sauce.
Scotland seems to have no end to delicious desserts, so you can really have what you like for this part of the meal. The most popular are Clootie Dumpling and Cranachan, but Tipsy Laird and a Scottish Cheeseboard feature highly too.
You could even go completely different with a slice of Dundee Cake!
What to drink at a Burns Supper
Wine and beer are popular tipples to have throughout a Burns Supper, but whisky definitely makes an appearance too. It’s popular to douse the Haggis with a bit of whisky before serving but you can also toast the haggis with it and have a dram yourself at the end of the meal.
It may not be quite so traditional, but if you could also give some of our whisky cocktail recipes a go.
Burns Night is a fun and interesting night that breaks up the dreary winter January days in Scotland and is a good excuse for a party and some fun.
However you choose to celebrate Burns Night, be sure to raise a toast to Scotland’s poet and have a bit of Haggis!
Planning a Burns Night Party
- Choose one of these 11 Scottish Desserts to try
- Check out our Savoury Recipes and Sweet Recipes for more ideas
- Read our Beginners Guide to Whisky to plan your tipple
- Try out some Whisky Cocktails (not traditional, but fun!)
Have you ever been to a Burns Supper or celebrated Burns Night?
Sonja and Phil x