Burns Night and the subsequent Burns Supper is a traditional night in Scotland that see’s participants come together to celebrate the life and works of the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns.
The night is one that’s steeped in tradition, and brings to mind plates of peppery haggis, drams of whisky and performances of poetry penned by Burns throughout his life.
This is everything you need to know.
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns is a famous Scottish poet, known for penning over 550 poems and songs prior to his death in 1796.
Burns was born in the village of Alloway, near Ayr, to father William and mother Agnes Brown Burnes. He was the eldest of seven children.
While Burns was a practicing poet throughout his life, he was initially a tenant farmer like his father. He worked on the farm of Mossgiel, where his family moved. Just before turning 29, Burns pursued a career change, gaining employment as an exciseman (or gauger) in Dumfries.
An exciseman was employed by the Government to ensure that people paid their taxes - especially in relation to alcohol.
Burns is considered the national poet of Scotland, with some of his most famous poems including Auld Lang Syne, To A Mouse, A Red, Rose Rose, Tam O’Shanter and Address to a Haggis.
Burns died on 21 July 1796, although the exact circumstances and cause of his death has been subject to speculation.
The most well known theory for his passing is that he died from rheumatism, having been found by the road in the freezing cold rain following a heavy drinking session. Burns held a reputation as a hard drinker, which makes this theory the most popular.
However, Burns had been seriously ill for a long time - at least five years before his passing.
What is Burns Night?
Burns Night is a night designed to celebrate the life of Burns, with the very first Burns Night tracing back to 1801 in July, when nine of Burns’ friends got together to mark the fifth anniversary of the writer’s death.
It was held at Burns Cottage in Alloway, and saw the friends gather around a feast of haggis and enjoy performances of Burns’ work. They also held a speech in honour of the bard, which we now know as the Immortal Memory.
The night was regarded as such a success that they decided to hold another Burns Night the following year, but on his birthday rather than his death, thus spawning the tradition that we know and love today.
When is Burns Night 2023?
Burns Night takes place on the same date each year - 25 January, which is the date of Burns’ birthday.
This year in 2023, the date falls on a Wednesday.
What usually happens at a Burns Supper?
While each Burns Night Supper is individual, traditionally, the night will follow this running order.
To begin, everyone should gather together and, after the host has said a few words, the Selkirk Grace is said. Selkirk Grace is a poem commonly attributed to Burns, and it goes:
“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!”
Then the meal is served, with the host performing the famous Burns poem Address to a Haggis.
After the meal, the first Burns recital is performed and the Immortal Memory is given, which is the main tribute speech to Burns. Then Toast to the Lassies is performed, followed by Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, before the final Burns recital is performed.
At the end of a Burns Night, it is traditional for guests to cross their arms and to join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne to bring the evening to a close.
What food is traditionally eaten at a Burns Supper?
Traditionally, the menu that’s served up on Burns Night consists of three courses, which usually goes as follows:
Of course you’ll need a drink to go with your supper - for true authenticity, you’ll need a glass of Scottish whisky.
Why is haggis eaten on Burns Night?
The reason that we eat haggis on Burns Night is likely down to the man Robert Burns himself.
During his lifetime, haggis would have been a nourishing and cheap meal for poor families to prepare.
One of his most famous poems, Address to a Haggis, shows Burns humorously declaring his love for the humble dish. The poem was written to celebrate the delicacy, and as a result, Burns and haggis have been forever linked with one another.
Speaking about the famous poem, James Macsween, managing director of haggis producer Macsween, said: “Burns unwittingly elevated haggis, making it an iconic dish which has been embraced by Scotland.”
Address to a Haggis in full
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 arm.
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.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre 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?
Poor devil! see him owre 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!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis