For Scots all over the world, January 25th marks the annual commemoration of the life of the poet Robert Burns. It also celebrates Burns’ contribution to Scottish culture. But who was Robert Burns and what do people do on that special day?

Robert Burns

Also known as Scotland’s favourite son or the Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist and is seen as the national poet of Scotland. He was born in Ayrshire, on January 25th and died in Dumfries at the age of 37 in 1796. He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and became after his death a cultural icon in Scotland and a great source of inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism. Not only a poet making original compositions, he also collected folk songs from across Scotland in order to revise or adapt them. His poem « Auld Lang Syne » is often sung on New Year’s Eve and « Scots Wha Hae » used to be the unofficial national anthem of Scotland.

Burns photo © Georgios Kollidas - Fotolia.com

Where does the tradition come from?

The first suppers were held on in Ayrshire on July 21 in the late 1700s by Robert’s close friends, celebrating the anniversary of his death, and have been a regular occurrence since then. In 1801 was founded the first Burns club in Greenock by merchants some of whom had known Robert. They decided to celebrate Burns supper on 29 January but found out 2 years later that his date of birth was in fact 25 January. Since then, suppers have been held on 25 January.

The celebrations are held throughout the world anywhere where his work is appreciated. They take place around a highly ceremonial Burns night Supper which may be formal or informal.

How do we celebrate Burns night?

Burns supper can be held by anybody who wants to celebrate the poet’s life. Formal dinners are hosted by organizations such as Burns clubs. In those formal dinners and large gatherings a traditional ceremony is usually held. But really, anyone can host a Burns Supper, all you need to do is celebrate Burns’ memory.

The formal ceremony:

For those who want to hold a formal, traditional ceremony, here is what should be done. First, the evening starts with the sound of bagpipes playing and guests will stand and clap in time to the music. The host welcomes everyone and recites the Selkirk Grace:

"Some hae meat and canna eat.
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.'

Then comes what everybody is waiting for: the legendary Parade of the Haggis. The Haggis is usually welcomed with the sound of bagpipes. Before the knife is plunged into the meal, people say the traditional Address to the Haggis, an ode written by Robert Burns itself to the Scottish dish.

“'His knife, see rustic labour dicht
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight
'

Follows speeches made in praise of Robert Burns and other poems and recitations such as “Tom o’ Shanter” or “To a Mouse”.

At the end is made the Toast to the Lassies, a humorous toast designed to praise the role of women in the world and is done by selective quotation from Burns’ works.

The typical meal served on Burns supper is Haggis, neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes)

haggis © Christelle - Fotolia.com

 Symbols

Most Scottish people who celebrate Burn’s night display the Scottish flag, the Saltire. Many men wear kilts and women may wear shawls, skirts or dresses made from their family tartan.

Along with haggis, neeps and tatties, there are many types of food associated with Burn’s Night, including cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek soup), cranachan (whipped cream mixed with raspberries and served with sweet oat wafers) and bannocks (bread cooked on a griddle). People usually drink whisky.

 

If you wish to celebrate Burns night and eat the traditional meal here is our short list of the best places to go to:

  • A dinner and a Drama at The Oran Mor, a bar and restaurant in Glasgow.
  • Toast the bard at the St Columba’s Hospice annual Burns supper at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange.
  • Outside Scotland, head to Boisdale, Scotland’s unofficial embassy in London. The evening features famous actors and bag pipe players.
  • In Manchester, the Whisky Lounge is a great place to celebrate Burns night with a whisky Tasting.
  • You will find a less conventional Burns celebration at The Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham, with a traditional supper along performances by the Don’t Go Into The Cellar theatre company.