A Burns Supper honours the poetry and life of Robert Burns, a prolific Scots poet who lived from 25 January 1759 to 21 July 1796. The dinners often take place on or around January 25, also known as Burns Night, the poet’s birthday (also called Robert Burns Day or Rabbie Burns Day). Celebrations can, in theory, be held at any other time of the year. Around the world, Burns suppers are celebrated regularly.
Burns’ friends hosted the first memorial dinner at Burns Cottage in Ayrshire on July 21, 1801, the fifth anniversary of his passing. Since then, it has taken place on a recurring basis. The earliest Burns Club that is still in existence was established in Greenock in 1801 by businessmen who were Ayrshire natives and some of whom had met Burns.
They celebrated the inaugural Burns dinner on January 29, 1802, the day they believed to be his birthday, but in 1803, they learned from the Ayr parish records that he was actually born on January 25, 1759. Suppers have since been held on or around January 25.
The annual celebration of Burns Night is regarded by the Scottish Parliament as a significant cultural heritage occasion.
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Burns Night is a traditional Scottish holiday, and with good reason.
The annual celebrations provide a welcome justification for a feast, entertainment, dancing, and bragging about Scotland’s cultural achievements.
What time is Burns Night?
Annually, January 25, is Burns Night. The poet was born on January 25, 1759, hence the date was picked to fall on his birthday. The Burns Club staged its inaugural Burns supper on January 29, 1802, which was widely believed to be Burns’ birthday. However, it was discovered the following year that the late poet’s birthday was actually four days earlier thanks to the unearthing of parish documents.
How is it celebrated?
The Burns Supper is the primary event of Burns Night. Participants usually dress in tartan, listen to bagpipes, sing Auld Lang Syne, which is also sung on New Year’s Eve, and recite poetry and songs by the great author. The poem Burns wrote in 1788—originally sent to the Scots Musical Museum—was the inspiration for the song Auld Lang Syne.
The Saltire, the Scottish flag, is frequently used at Burns Night festivities. Although new customs have been added to the event since the first Burns Supper was hosted in 1801, its core remains the same and centred around honouring Burns in whichever way feels appropriate.
What is Traditional Dinner?
Haggis, a savoury pudding made of minced sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs wrapped with onion, oats, suet, stock, and a variety of spices, is always the star of the show at a Burns Supper. Historically, it has been secured inside the animal’s stomach.
In Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-‘race,” the haggis is referred to as the beginning of the meal.
The traditional side dish of mashed neeps and tatties is served with haggis (swedes and potatoes). Naturally, the best domestic whisky is served with the food.
Haggis cooked without meat is an option for vegetarians, pescatarians, or those wanting to branch out a bit. Seafood delicacies like Cullen Skink soup, which is prepared from smoked haddock, are also very popular.
The traditional order of the event
- Typically, a bagpiper plays to welcome the guests, who mingle and assemble as at any casual celebration. Traditional Scottish music is played at less formal events.
- The host welcomes everyone to the dinner and may perhaps briefly explain why it is happening. All of the guests are seated, and grace is said. This is typically done using the Selkirk Grace, a well-known Scots-language thanksgiving performed before meals.
The Selkirk Grace, though credited to Burns, was also known as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters’ Grace” in the 17th century. Due to reports that Burns delivered it at a supper hosted by the Earl of Selkirk, it became known as the Selkirk Grace.
“Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”
- The soup course comes first at dinner. Typically, a Scottish soup is provided, such as cock-a-leekie, cullen skink, potato soup, or Scotch broth.
- As the haggis is brought in, everyone stands. Although haggis is traditionally a meat meal, a vegetarian version is also frequently offered. The haggis is typically brought in by the cook on a big plate, usually as a bagpiper leads the way to the host’s table. You might hear “A Man’s A Man for A’ That,” “Robbie Burns Medley,” or “The Star O’ Robbie Burns.” The Address to a Haggis is then recited by the host or perhaps a visitor.
Address to a Haggis
|Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.
|(fa = befall, sonsie = jolly/cheerful)
(aboon = above, a’ = all)
|The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
|(hurdies = buttocks)|
|His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
|(dicht = wipe, here with the idea of sharpening)
(slicht = skill)(reekin = steaming)
|Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
|(deil = devil)
(swall’d = swollen, kytes = bellies, belyve = soon)
(bent like = tight as)
(auld Guidman = the man of the house, rive = tear, i.e. burst)
|Is there that o’re his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect scunner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
|(olio = stew, from Spanish olla/stew pot, staw = make sick)(scunner = disgust)|
|Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
|(nieve = fist, nit = nut, i.e. tiny)|
|But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whistle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thristle.
|(wallie = mighty, nieve = fist)
(sned = cut off)
|Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!
|(skinkin ware = watery soup)
(jaups = slops about, luggies = two-handled continental bowls)
- The line the speaker usually pulls out and sharpens a knife is “His knife see rustic Labour dicht.” He inserts the knife into the haggis and chops it open from end to end at the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht.” The “ceremony” is one of the evening’s highlights when done right.
- A whisky toast will be made to the haggis at the conclusion of the poem, and everyone will then sit down to eat. Traditional accompaniments to the haggis include mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed swede turnip (neeps).
- The meal may also include a dessert course, cheese courses, coffee, etc. Typically, traditional Scottish recipes are used in the dishes. The “drink of life,” Scotch whiskey, may be served as dessert in the form of cranachan or tipsy laird (whisky trifle), followed by oatcakes and cheese. Toasts Various speeches and toasts are made when the meal reaches the coffee stage.
- The speech’s main speaker recalls a particular incident from Burns’ life or body of work. It could be humorous or serious and could feature the reading of a Burns poem or song. The next step is a toast to Robert Burns’ legendary memory.
- Originally, a male guest thanked the woman who had cooked the food with a brief speech. The topic is now much broader and typically involves the male speaker’s perspective on women. Typically, it is humorous and not offensive, especially since the relevant “lassies” will respond. To the health of the women, the males raise a glass.
- Occasionally, this is jokingly referred to as the “Toast to the Laddies.” Similar to the preceding toast, it is now generally extremely diverse. A female visitor will share her opinions on men and address any particular issues brought up by the preceding speaker. It ought to be humorous without being offensive, just like the prior speech. The speakers offering this toast and the one before will frequently work together to make sure the two toasts are complementary to one another.
- Following the speeches, there might be singing of Burns songs such “Ae Fond Kiss,” “Parcel o’ Rogues,” and “A Man’s a Man” as well as additional poems like “To a Mouse,” “To a Louse,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” “The Twa Dogs,” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”It can go as long as the guests desire and can be carried out by either the individual guests or the invited professionals. It might also contain additional writings by poets who were influenced by Burns, especially those who wrote in Scots. Foreign visitors may also be asked to sing or perform works from their native countries.
- The host will then ask one of the guests to offer the closing thanks. Then, to close the evening, everyone is requested to stand, hold hands, and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”