Updated: May 6
Every 25th of January in Scotland we celebrate Burns’ Night or Burns’ Supper. With this special day we salute the Winter Festivals’ season inaugurated on Saint Andrew’s day, but what this tradition really is and who was Robert Burns?
Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns, the National Bard, Bard of Ayrshire and the Ploughman Poet was in fact a Scottish poet, one of the most loved if not the most loved.
Burns is a symbol of Scotland and told the history of Scotland like no one else. This is probably why people loved him and still loves him so much nowadays.
Robert Burns was born the 25th of January 1759 in Alloway an area of Ayrshire in the south of Scotland. Despite the difficulties of growing up in a poor family who constantly moved from farm to farm, Burns was a talent and wrote the first poetry attempt when he was only 15 years old. He died at the age of 37 due to a heart illness but he left us an immense archive of poems and songs that have been recited and passed on through the years from generation to generation.
In spite of his fame, however, Burns never forgot his humble roots. His passion for rural life accompanied him throughout his life and it is no coincidence that, in his writings, he often denounces the problems that afflicted the poorest classes, highlighting the need for greater social equity. There is no doubt why the poet became almost a hero, an extraordinary source of inspiration for the people and for the founders of liberalism and socialism. His works were at a time when the Scots needed someone who publicly reminded them of their pride. Burns’ stardom in Scotland, therefore, was – and still is – undisputed. And Burns’ night dinner is one of those many events, characterised by good food, poetry and music, to which the Scottish people are proudly attached.
When was the first Burns Night?
We can trace Burns ‘first supper’ back in July 1801, when nine of Burns’ friends gathered to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his death in his hometown. The evening included a sumptuous dinner followed by reading Burns’ works and a speech in his honour. The party was so successful that they decided to hold a second one in Winter, on Burn’s Birth date and that was the beginning of the tradition that still continues today.
What do you eat at Burns’ Supper?
Exactly as Burns’ friends used to do to celebrate their mate at Burn’s night you eat, read poetry, sing and have fun.
Dinner usually starts with a soup course, normally from the Scottish tradition such as “Cullen Skink” or “Cock a leekie” or a good Scotch Broth.
Main course, flagship of every Burns Supper is the traditional “Haggis”. Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt, mixed with stock and simmered for three hours in the animal’s stomach. Haggis is usually accompanied by “Neeps and tatties” (swede, yellow turnip and potatoes, mashed separately) and a “dram” (a glass of Scotch Whisky).
What do you do at Burns’ Night?
Everyone has of course its own ritual for a Burns supper but usually the dinner follows a few fundamental steps.
To begin, the host says a few words of welcome and when all the guests are seated grace is said using the Selkirk Grace, a kind of prayer/thanksgiving said that uses the Scots language.
The appetizer, which includes a soup, are then served.
Everyone stands and, accompanied by the sound of the bagpipes, the protagonist of the evening is presented on a silver tray: the haggis. At this point the host recites Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis” from 1887.
Dinner then continues with desserts, generally Cranachan or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle), followed by oatcakes and cheese.
At the end of the dinner, reading of Burns’ works begins with the “Immortal Memory” (the main speech in tribute to Burns) and then proceed with “Address to the Lassies” followed by “Reply to the Laddies” and other final works of the poet.
When the evening has come to an end, the host gives a thank you speech then everyone is asked to stand and sing “Auld Lang Syne” crossing arms and holding hands on the verso “so take my hand, trusted friend!”.
Burns Night is indeed a very special evening, particularly dear to Scots who, as a rule, participate wearing traditional clothes. The men, in fact, are in their ceremonial kilts and the women can wear shawls, skirts or clothes made with their family tartan.
This post was first published 23rd January 2020