web analytics
Burns Cottage

Burns Night Traditions

Burns Night will soon be upon us once again.  It is a very Scottish affair, celebrated to mark the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, born 25th January 1759 in Alloway, South Ayrshire (less than 40 miles away from where I live).  On Burns Night, we celebrate the life and work of the world famous poet.

When I say it’s a very Scottish affair, don’t get me wrong, I am not denying that Burns Night is celebrated throughout the world and not just in Scotland.  I am saying I can guarantee the recitals of his work will tongue twist a few not familiar with the Scottish twang (dialect) and will take much practice, so I also assure you having a Scottish accent does kind of help in this situation.  This is one of the reasons on the run up to Burns Night, kids from Primary schools in Scotland have to learn a Burns poem and recite it at the Burns Competition in their best loud clear voice, pronouncing every word correctly.  This is then judged and the winner usually gets a book or some other small prize.  Some schools take part in the country wide competition as well, so the winner(s) from each school recite it again in front of members of a Burns Club and the overall winner is announced usually in National newspapers, website, etc.

The first Burns Supper was held in July 1801 by eight of Burns’ closest friends in his home cottage in Alloway (known famously as the Burns Cottage now), which marked the 5th anniversary of Robert Burns’ death.  They had a meal of Haggis, drank and recited works of their friend to honour him.  However, they decided it should be an annual affair but instead of celebrating it on the anniversary of his death, they should celebrate on the anniversary of his birthday (which seems like more of a reason to celebrate than his death to be honest).  This is still pretty much the tradition today.

As you can imagine, formal Suppers are slightly different to casual ones you would have at home.  Burns Suppers are all very different and unique depending on where you attend it, but most follow the order of the night starting with everyone at the table or gathered in the one room where the host welcomes everyone.  This is followed by the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!

Then the haggis is brought in, at formal Suppers this is usually done by the chef/cook while a Piper plays music to a Robert Burns song. Before the main course where the host will recite ‘Address to a Haggis’:

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, (at this point the host usually draws and begins sharpening a knife)
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, (at this point the host uses the knife to plunge it into the haggis and begins cutting it from end to end)
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Warm-reekin, rich!

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,
“Bethankit” hums.

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?

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!

Sometimes at informal gatherings, everyone present makes a toast to the haggis they are about to eat instead.  The haggis should be served with neep and tatties (that’s mashed potatoes and mashed turnip).  At formal Suppers they tend to use whisky sauces rather than peppercorn sauces and desserts tend to use whisky in some form also.  The toasts are normally made with whisky too.

Once the meal is done, coffee and shortbread is sometimes served while the speeches begin.  The first is usually by the host or a chosen guest and is named the Immortal Memory where they pay tribute perhaps in the form of a recital or song of Robert Burns.

Second tribute is known as ‘Address to the Lassies’ which used to be a tribute to the female cook who made the meal, by the male host.  But nowadays even in a formal setting, this toast is usually done by a male to a female in jest (but never offensive) and the third toast ‘Reply to the Laddies’ is a retort by the female back to the male toaster also in a humorous manner.

After the speeches, there are usually songs sang written by Robert Burns or further recitals of his written works.

To end the night it is customary for all guests to stand, give thanks in the form of a final toast followed by holding hands and the singing of Auld Lang Syne (just like you would at new year).  Some events do have ceilidh’s afterwards, but most formal events don’t.

Are you attending a Burns Supper this year?  Perhaps even one out-with the UK?  Let us know in the comments below, we love hearing about your experiences.