How to Celebrate Burns Night
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 6th January 2015, last updated: 29th November 2018
The glorious Scottish tradition of Burns Night is celebrated on 25th January, so there’s still time to prepare your own Burns supper if you wish, and join in with this splendid tribute to our nation’s favourite poet! If you decide to have your own Burns Night supper remember to tell us all about it on our Facebook page!
Here is a brief history of Burns Night, with a look at the rituals and speeches that take place. So, Lords, Lairds and Ladies of Scotland, here is everything you need to know.
We hope you have a go celebrating your own Burns Night!
Where did Burns Night come from?
Rabbie Burns was so popular, that when he died (1796) his friends still gathered together on his birthday, the 25th January, and ate haggis (a dish he loved), recited his poems and drank to his memory. So began the Burns Night tradition. More traditions have attached themselves as time has gone by, and now a Burns supper can be quite a grand affair if you want it to be.
What do you eat on Burns Night?
You could just cook a haggis, with neeps (swede/turnips) and tatties (potatoes), or have it with clapshot (which is neeps and tatties mashed together with chives – yum!). Whisky sauce is optional (but we wouldn’t say no!). Lots of whisky to wash it down with and a book of Burns poetry to pass round the table and recite from (ever more drunkenly), is one way to mark the occasion, and not a bad way neither.
Haggis, whiskey sauce and clapshot
(In case you’re wondering, Scottish whisky is spelled without an ‘e’. Irish distillers distinguished their product by adding the extra ‘e’, and the Americans adopted this spelling, causing worldwide confusion ever since!)
How to celebrate Burns Night
If you want to go the whole haggis, and celebrate Burns Night civic style, then employ a highland bagpiper in full regalia to lead a procession of important personages to the high table (providing you can find one high enough), where the chairman, guest speakers, exalted members of the Burns Federation and perhaps a local vicar, could be rustled up to sit before the assembled diners. This is precisely how many a Scottish banqueting hall, assembly room (or back room in the pub) might be arranged on the 25th January.
However high or low your tables might be, the supper still follows the same beloved traditions. After everyone has settled in their seats, an appointed chairperson makes a short welcoming speech. Then the Immortal Memory toast is given. This is where a guest speaker talks about Robert Burns and his life, then expands on one of his many poems and illuminates the audience to its meaning.
Vegetarians don’t need to feel left out, because now you can get vegetarian haggis, stuffed with a savoury mixture of grains and vegetables. It’s almost more delicious than the meat version!
‘Piping in the haggis’
It’s then traditional to have your bagpiper pipe in the haggis, as it is carried by the chef to the top table on a silver platter. The chef and the piper both receive a wee dram of whisky so they can join in the toast. Leading up to the toast, the guest speaker then recites ‘Address tae the Haggis’, Burns’s most famous foodie poem, and with the line: ‘His knife see rustic Labour dight,’ the speaker takes up a ceremonial knife, and when he says: ‘An’ cut ye up wi’ ready sleight,’ he cuts into the haggis’s skin with a flourish. As hot steam and contents spill out onto the platter he continues with:
‘Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, Ach what a glorious sight,
Rousing stuff for foodies everywhere! After the haggis is dished up and before everyone tucks in to their dinner, someone must give the ‘Selkirk toast’. Allegedly Rabbie Burns gave this toast ‘off the cuff’ when having dinner with the Earl of Selkirk:
‘Some Folk hae meat that canna eat,
And some can eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
So let the Lord be Thanket!’
The next toast, often made after the main course, is the toast to the lassies, directed affectionately at the women present. When Burns suppers were all-male events, one of the party would thank the maids who served the food – the only lasses allowed in – then mock them heartlessly behind their backs! These days in mixed company the speaker who receives this poisoned chalice must be a little more diplomatic!
In these heady modern times, women not only get to attend, but to speak as well! Burns night has been infiltrated by a new tradition: the reply to the toast to the lassies, given by a female speaker of course! This is very much in the spirit of Robert Burns, who believed in equality for all.
Poems and songs from Burns’s works may be said or sung at intervals throughout the evening and more toasts may be given. There may even be a short entertainment laid on. A selection of fine malt whisky finishes off the meal in style, and often a hearty Scottish dessert like Clootie Dumpling (fruit pudding) or Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle), not forgetting the all important cheese board with Bannocks (Scottish oakcakes).
Burns Night is almost as much a celebration of Scottish food and drink as it is about dear auld Rabbie. But if by some divine provenance Robert Burns could see how he is even more loved and celebrated three centuries after his death, then the following words he penned might yet be prophetic.
‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!’
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