The 25th of January is a special day for every Scot! It is the anniversary of Robert Burns’, probably the most famous Scottish poet, birth! Rabbie Burns, The Bard of Ayrshire, Robden of Solway Firth or simply Scotland’s favourite son – is undoubtedly a national hero to many, and one of the most important figures in Scottish history.
Burns Suppers are a tradition with many possible aspects – they might be extremely formal and elegant celebrations of literature, but may also take the form of wild parties with whisky flowing! Whichever seems more appealing or appalling, the supper has some highlights that can’t be omitted – and that includes both poems and victuals. The first event of this kind was established after the poet’s death and was celebrated by his friends in Ayrshire. Originally the commemoration date was 21st July – the anniversary of Burns’ death. A few years later, when the first Burns Club (once a men-only club formed to cherish the poet’s memory and Scottish culture in general, nowadays women are also welcomed in most of them) came into being, its members decided to organise a festive supper on the day of Scotland’s favourite son’s birthday. The first few birthday suppers took place on the 29th of January, but after the discovery of documents in Burns’ hometown parish the correct date turned out to be January 25th, and that’s the date Burns Suppers have been held ever since.
Read more about Ayrshire, Robert Burns’ hometown
So, what are the essential ingredients? The most important one is probably you and your friends, but you’ll also need a piper (or some recordings of Scottish music), haggis, Scottish whisky, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and – of course – some Rabbie Burns poems! There is a certain schedule that this event traditionally follows, and several very interesting traditions that are kept. The Burns Supper should have an official opening, with a speech from a host, and the guests will say Grace before eating, usually The Selkirk Grace in the Scots language. When the main course is ready to be served there will be The Piping of the Haggis, which is the ceremonial presentation of a haggis to the table accompanied by bagpipe music and a recitation of Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis. During the recitation of specific verses the host sharpens the knife, and cuts the haggis open from one side to another. This is the most important moment of the evening, although the whole ceremony is still far from its end. After the meal, while guests sip coffee (or, more likely, Scotch whisky!), the next speaker gives a talk about the life and
poetry of Burns (for even though newcomers might have the impression that it’s all about the haggis, this is not the case and the poet is still in the spotlight!). There will be a round of toasts made, and a discussion afterwards. The first toast is made to Burns himself, and followed by a Toast to the Lassies, made by one of the male guests. This toast was originally intended to thank the women who had prepared the supper but were not permitted to attend it, but now, as women also take part in the suppers (and do not necessarily prepare the meal), the speech has become an entertaining summary of the speaker’s views on women. It is usually followed by a Response to the Laddies, which is made by a female guest in the same spirit as the Toast to the Lassies. Afterwards, the guests are invited to perform Scottish songs as solo performances or in groups. Popular choices include Tam O’Shanter, and others – especially if the words are written in the Scots language. Later, when the supper comes to an end, there is a closing ceremony which includes a thank-you speech made to the host and a rendition of Burn’s national classic Auld Lang Syne with all the attendees dancing and embracing one another.
Read more about Scottish Whisky
When it comes to the dishes besides haggis, neeps and tatties – what else should you serve? Haggis is of course essential, but it can take some getting used to for modern palates and you might wish to only have small taster plates of this dish as a starter for your first Burns Supper. When looking for inspiration for traditional alternatives, you can’t go wrong in considering a warming Scottish soup. Cock-a-leekie soup or Scotch broth are two of the most popular choices and are very easy to learn to make. The choice of the main course is up to you, but we recommend something with a Scottish twist to avoid a lack of cohesion in the menu. We personally advise a roasted turkey (also known as a Roastit Bubbly-Jock) using a traditional Scottish stuffing recipe, or a recipe using Scottish haddock or langoustines such as Cullen Skink. For dessert, again this will depend on what you anticipate as the needs of your guests. For a light and creamy sweet consider Raspberry Cranachan with it’s delicious toasted porridge oats and tart raspberries setting off the whipped cream to perfection. Or if you think they’ll need something more substantial to soak up all the whisky, you may find your answer in a dense and rich Clootie Dumpling, packed with dried fruit and served with thick homemade custard!
The above is the most traditional schedule, which of course is loosely adapted by the Scots all over the country and overseas. Nowadays it has become quite popular to dine out in restaurants – not everyone has the time or skills to prepare such a special meal on their own. If you prefer a less formal atmosphere and Scottish music with a modern twist – there are plenty of concerts and events commemorating Robert Burns in a relaxed atmosphere. The biggest celebrations are held in Dumfries, which was the hometown of the poet, in Edinburgh and, surprisingly, in London. Whichever option you may choose – we raise a glass of Scotch with you to celebrate the memory of Rabbie Burns and we wish you a wonderful night!
As we approach another year of Scottish events, we come again to that beloved festival celebrating Scotland’s Poet, Rabbie Burns. Last year we gave you an overview of his life and works, explaining that, despite his tragically early death, the body of writing he left behind has become a great treasury and legacy for Scottish people, and so his birthday is celebrated even to this day.
This year however, we thought we would broaden our horizons a little – for not only is the life of Robert Burns celebrated at home with suppers, recitations and music – but also in public, and worldwide!
Robert Burns was a man of deep passions; his love for humanity and concern with social reform and humanitarianism touched the hearts of people worldwide, and he is still held in memory as not only a great poet of Scotland, but also as a great poet and philosopher of the human condition.
His birthday is mainly celebrated in Scotland, or among the Scottish diaspora prevalent in Australia, Canada and the United States, however he is remembered in other ways too; other than Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus he has the most statues dedicated to him than any other non-religious figure for example, and his version of the folk song “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognisable songs ever written.
From inspiring Abraham Lincoln in his fight against slavery, to being adopted by the Chinese resistance fighters of WWII, to entertaining 21st century astronauts who took a miniature book of Burns’ verse aboard a 2010 mission, his work has echoed throughout the ages, and remains as touching and relevant today as when it was freshly penned by the educated farmer from Ayrshire.
This poem, one of his most famous, was used during the opening ceremonies of the Scottish Parliament, and is meant as a reminder that wealth or social standing (or lack thereof) should not be the yardstick by which a person’s worth is determined;
A Man’s A Man For A’ That
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Burns has also given his name to a special accolade for humanitarianism, awarded annually on Burns Night by the county of South Ayrshire, his birthplace. The ceremony includes a Burns supper, recitation and Scottish music as well as announcing the winner of the award.
Traditional suppers of the sort most usually celebrated at home are now becoming popular in restaurants and hotels also, especially abroad amongst dedicated Burns groups or other social clubs with a link to Scotland in general or humanitarianism in particular. Attending one of these can be a great opportunity to hear Scots dialect poetry recited natively if you aren’t familiar with the musical tones of the language of lowland Scotland. Some of these events have grown so much they now include concerts, speeches, traditional story-telling, dancing and more – and most are aimed at providing a welcoming family environment to encourage children to learn about this important man and the wonderful country he came from.
Whatever you decide to do this Burns Night, recall also that traditional Scottish clothing is to be expected. Men in kilts are a welcome sight at any time, but especially on this particularly Scottish of evenings, when you may be asked to quote a few lines over dinner – the Selkirk Blessing is useful and easy to remember – or share a dram with a fellow countryman!
We look forward to your comments as always, perhaps you’ve helped to plan a public celebration for Robert Burns, or perhaps you have a strong tradition of your own in recognising his works privately – whatever the method what remains important is the fact that for over 200 years Scots worldwide have remembered and respected the tenets by which this creative and forward thinking man lived and died.