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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.

Burns night

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,
Warm-reekin, rich!’

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!’

About the author

Written by: Stewart Borland

Comments on this post

  • Lord John Bellingham
    06/02/15 - 15:59

    I have lived in “Little Scotland” Kearny N.J. almost all of my life and have celebrated Robbi Burns night in our local fish and chip retaurant year after year> Complete wilth Haggis, bag pipes, dancers and fish ahd chips. A wonderful tradition

  • Larry A. MacDonald
    06/02/15 - 16:50

    Enjoyed the history about Robert Burns and the night. Don’t know what Haggis are but be interested in knowing.
    thank you for this.

    Larry M

  • John Nethercott
    06/02/15 - 18:02

    Dear larry M,

    Haggis (Haggis scoticus) are small creatures that roam the hills arouund our country. They have the legs on one side longer than the others so that they can run across the slopes of the hill and mountainsides comfortably, and in safety. Some haggi have longer legs on theleft side, and so run clockwise round the hills, and another genus has longer legs on the right side, and so run anticlockwise. There has been some inter-breeding, and here in the Cairngorms we are finding some haggi which have all legs the same size. However, they are few and far between, and Scottish Natural Heritage – responsible for the natural environment – are trying to have these listed as a protected species.

    Haggis (plural “Haggi”)may be shot on weekdays and Saturdays, but not on Sundays. This means it is not best to purchase Haggi on Mondays – for they had to be shot in the previous week, and therefore are not fresh. At least wait until Tuesdays to get a fresh one.

    They are usually boiled for a long time, with a lot of spice in their meat, before eating.

    I asm sure you would enjoy one.

    If you happen to be dropping by feel free to come to call in at our Castle and we will prepare some for you. Just shout when you reach the moat, and one of the hand-maidens will lower the drawbridge for you.

    Best wishes,

    Lord John

  • Lord Peter Morley-Payne
    06/02/15 - 18:22

    Enjoyed reading the above article regarding Burns and the traditions of its celebration.

    Larry, don’t believe the rumour that Haggis is a rare Caledonian flightless bird….However they do taste wonderful with neeps n’tatties and go especially well with a decent and aged Malt!

  • Lady Lisbeth M Larsen
    06/02/15 - 19:50

    I shall be celeberating Burns night from now on. Learn how to make a good haggis and uphold these wonderful traditions is something I will take up thanks for enlighting us about this tradition celeberating Burns night and cheers hope you had a great Burns night.

  • Roger Rankin
    07/02/15 - 00:45

    Just had a great Burns night here in Canberra, Australia. Unfortunately the chef was South African and didn’t know what haggis was!
    We did the toasts,grace etc.

  • Margeurite Bennett
    07/02/15 - 23:13

    I always celebrate Burns night and have got my daughter started on the tradition all the way over here in Turkey. I go to UK every year and bring back a freshly caught haggis!

  • Laird Andrew Stackpool
    08/02/15 - 22:26

    A MacDonald, a Scot who dinna ken the wee Haggis?
    Rabbie is spinning in his grave.
    But beyond that, on the nicht a group o’ richt guid friends duly gathered to recall and celebrate the great mon. I had the toast to the lassies and also provided each a red rose wi’, I hope, the grace a’ Rabbie himself.

  • Lionel W. Bell
    09/02/15 - 12:43

    Sorry to be a bore, but the “Selkirk Grace” and not “Selkirk Toast” (isn’t that burnt bread or something, ho, ho?) has been given incorrectly. In the second line, it’s not

    “And some can eat that want it;” but rather
    “And some wad (would) eat that want (don’t have) it;”

    Otherwise it doesn’t make sense as a grace before the meal.

  • Cliff Morton
    11/02/15 - 01:16

    Enjoyed the reparte! Are the quantities in the dishes(recipes), available?
    Thanks, a lot of fun. Have enjoyed RB’s poetry for years.

  • Thursa Wilde
    17/02/15 - 17:10

    HI Cliff
    Many of these recipes can be found online. There is another post on here featuring some of the recipes also. Many thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Kate Riley
    20/01/16 - 18:12

    Here’s a bit about the history of the man himself:

  • John Kreiner
    17/01/18 - 14:29

    Any special tune for the piper to play when he follows the chef and the haggis…?

  • Laird Geoffrey Miller
    17/01/18 - 16:47

    Having my own Burns Night with friends in Brittany….always a good night.

  • Ian Lomax
    17/01/18 - 18:03

    I love Haggis anytime of the year, when I can get my hands on some in Manchester.

    I really like the story by John Nethercott. Been telling my step daughter for years that they exist and some legs are shorter on one side, but she doesn’t believe me.

    Already purchased mine in readiness for next Thursday and kilt pressed

  • Dave Bridgett
    21/01/18 - 16:53

    After seeing one made kind of put me off eating one

  • Laird Peter
    22/01/18 - 15:32

    An answer to Lord John Bellingham

    I had lived in Scotland for 6 years only. This short time has reshaped my live completely
    Burn’s Supper celebration has become a must event, even if ‘m the only one who wears a kilt here
    and who sings “Auld lang syne” solely with a tear in my eye.
    Fortunately also at the upcoming Burn’s supper my brave wife, Lady Pia will accompany me

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