How to: Celebrate Burns Night
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune …
Robert Burns – The National Poet of Scotland
Robert Burns had a lot of things going for him. He was widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. His creations ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Scots Wha Hae’ are intricately linked with the history of Scotland itself, one of them being sung on Hogmanay (the last day of the year) and the other serving as an unofficial national Scottish anthem. He had a fairly captivating love life (this could be an article on its own, but there’s a word limit here), and there’s an entire day dedicated to celebrating him. Not bad, for just one person!
The first Burns supper was held five years after Robert Burns’s death, and at that point was just a group of his friends who got together in memoriam. Burns was, and remains, an iconic figure in Scotland, and soon the first Burns Club was formed. Its members continued this tradition, meeting up on 25th January (Burns’s birthday) to celebrate his life.
Celebrating Burns Night
So, how should you celebrate Burns Night? There’s a recognised formula – formal suppers follow a standard order, which you should adhere to if you want to celebrate in style. However, if you’d rather get stuck in to your dinner quicker, we recommend skipping ahead to Step 5 (with or without bagpipes – your call).
Step 1: Enter the piper
No Scottish celebration would be complete without the sound of bagpipes, and the piper plays to welcome the guests as they arrive, gather, and mingle.
Step 2: The host's speech
The host makes a speech, welcoming the guests and mentioning Burns Night, and then everyone sits down at the table.
Step 3: Time to say grace
Not just any grace: the ‘Selkirk Grace’, a traditional verse of thanks that Robert Burns delivered to the Earl of Selkirk, is the preferred manner.
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Step 4: Bring in the soup!
The starter course is generally a Scottish traditional soup, like cock-a-leekie or Scotch broth.
Step 5: The arrival of the haggis
Oh, the haggis. The most traditional and iconic of Scottish delicacies, along with the deep-fried Mars bar, the haggis possesses its own important place in history, and in Burns Night. The piper plays to accompany the arrival of the haggis to the table, before the host recites the ‘Address to a Haggis’.
Step 6: Honouring the haggis
The what? Yep, that’s right – the haggis is honoured with the recital of a poem. This ceremony is the highlight of the evening, and the person serving the haggis should follow the cues: at the line “His knife see rustic Labour dicht”, they should unsheath their knife, and plunge it into the haggis at “An' cut you up wi' ready slicht”, cutting it open from end to end. If you Scottish is nae up to scratch, have no fear, there’s a translation of the whole ‘Address to the Haggis’ available here.
Step 7: A whisky toast
A whisky toast is made to the haggis. We recommend Hunter Laing’s Highland Journey, for maximum authenticity.
Step 8: The main course
Time for the main course, which is haggis served with tatties (mashed potatoes), neeps (mashed swede) and whisky sauce.
Step 9: Dessert
Optional dessert, or an optional cheese course, or, optionally, both. The most important part is still to come, as we move onto:
Step 10: The toasts!
We’re here to celebrate Robert Burns, but also to celebrate each other. The main speaker should start with a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, which is followed by an Address to the Lassies from the men, and a Reply to the Laddies from the women. Then there are recitals of Burns’s poems, singing of his songs, cèilidh dancing, general merriment and a lot of whisky drinking.
Step 11: Farewell
When everyone has had enough whisky and poetry – which generally won’t be until the small hours – it’s time to go home. The host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, and then everyone stands to hold hands and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’. And with that, Burns Night comes to a close – until next year.
Address to a Haggis
(translation available here)
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An' cut you up wi' ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that o're his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect scunner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whistle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thristle.
Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!