Burns Night, or Burns Supper, is a celebration held every January 25th in honour of Scotland’s National Poet, Robert Burns. It is marked by a gathering of Burns’ fans over traditional Scottish specialties, drinks, poetry, and entertainment. Although the occasion is very popular in Scotland, Burns Night is also observed in other parts of the world where Burns’ works are revered.
Background on Robert Burns
Robert Burns is perhaps the most celebrated bard in Scotland and is famous for his poems and lyrics that focused on civil and political matters. One of his very popular works is “Auld Lang Syne“. This is often sung on New Year’s Eve in Scotland and in other countries. With people’s fondness of the late poet, they gave him nicknames such as “Rabbie Burns“, “Scotland’s favourite son“, the “Bard of Ayrshire“, and simply “The Bard“.
Burns was born on January 25th, 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, but legend has it that the first Burns Night was held at the end of the 18th century on July 21st, the anniversary of the poet’s death . His acquaintances gathered for a night of haggis and they recited and sang some of his works. Surely everyone had a brilliant time and they decided to meet again on Burns’ birthday. This tradition caught on quickly amongst Burns’ many admirers and they started their own annual Burns Supper.
There are variations to the programme of a Burns Night. Some are very formal with a toastmaster and a piper present while others are a simple gathering of friends and family at home. However, there are common elements to all celebrations – such as eating haggis, drinking whisky, and sharing Burns’ poetry – that would deem the event lacking without them.
During a traditional and bigger Burns Night celebration, a piper welcomes the guests to the venue. The master of ceremonies then too welcomes the guests, introduces them to one another, announces the steps of the proceedings, assigns readers, and may deliver a short speech to open the event before saying grace. The Selkirk Grace or Burns’s Grace at Kirkcudbright is recited and then cock-a-leekie soup is served.
A procession of pipers, the chef carrying the star of the event – the haggis, and the person who will recite the Address to a Haggis then follows. The guests are usually standing and clapping to the music during this time. The reader ends the address by raising the haggis before plunging a knife into it. The reader then proposes a toast and everyone raises a glass of whisky and shouts ‘The Haggis!’ The main course is served with whisky, wine, and ale. Desserts, like cranachan, are also set out.
The night continues with several performances of poetry reading and singing of songs. Tam o’ Shanter and Holy Willie’s Prayer are almost always part of the entertainment. There are also humorous speeches like the Toast to the Lassies, which is about the women’s shortcomings, given by men. Women get the chance to retort during the Lassies’ Reply. Sometimes ceilidhs, traditional Scottish dances, are also included in the evening’s programme.
Burns Night is capped off with the host inviting everyone to join hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.
Don’t forget to pack an umbrella when visiting Scotland as the climate is generally cool and wet. For those who prefer the sunshine, visit the country in June when the days are at their longest. The sun can be out for as long as 17 hours during this time. The country’s Standard Time is GMT+0 while it advances an hour during Daylight Saving Time. Although Scotland prints their own banknotes, their monetary value is equivalent to that of the British Pounds (GBP) and are widely accepted throughout the United Kingdom.
Direct flights to Scotland from Asia, Africa, Australasia, and Central and South America are rather limited. So flying in to major European hubs such as London’s Heathrow and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and taking an onward flight to Scotland is recommended. The rest of Europe, however, is linked to Scotland by air, rail, ferry, or coach.
Cock-a-Leekie soup – This common Burns Supper starter is a traditional peasant-style dish in Scotland. Different regions have a different take on this dish but it is often made with chicken, leeks, rice, carrots, and black pepper. Stewed prunes are the perfect accompaniment to this soup.
Haggis – Always accompanied by tatties (mashed potatoes) and neeps (turnip or swede), haggis is made by cooking minced sheep’s offal and stuffing them into the sheep’s stomach before stitching it up. It is then baked or boiled for around three hours.
Cranachan – Traditionally made from mixing crowdie cheese, cream, whisky, honey, toasted oatmeal soaked in whisky, and raspberries. These ingredients are served separately on a table and guests can make their own mix to suit their taste.