How to celebrate your very own Burns Night

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Stained glass window of Robert Burns in Glasgow University’s Bute Hall.

Although he died over 220 years ago, It’s Burns’ ability to empathise with the human condition that makes him as relevant, and as popular, today than even in his own time.

His poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a sincere expression of friendship is sung, and suppers are celebrated on his birthday (25th January) each year with traditional dishes of haggis and whisky along with recitals of his best-loved work. Although there are many fine eateries willing to celebrate the event with a ‘Burns Supper’, here are some tips on creating your own night of celebrating the ‘Scottish Bard’.

You may not be able to play the bagpipes, but having some pipes playing in the background as you welcome your guests is a good alternative. The host of the event will then welcome his or her guests as they take their seats with a short speech. Once guests are seated, Burns’ famous ‘Selkirk Grace’ is read.

Dining begins with a soup course. This is usually a classic Scottish soup such as cock-a-leekie soup, Scotch broth or potato soup. Following the soup course, the main feature of any formal Burns’ night is the piping of the haggis.

Lights are dimmed (cue bagpipe CD) with bagpipes welcoming the haggis to the host’s table. The tune performed is usually one of Robert Burns’ compositions. Once the haggis has arrived at the table, the host will read the ‘Address To A Haggis’. This is a performative poem celebrating haggis, with prompts instructing the host when to draw and sharpen their knife, and when to slice the haggis. The haggis must be sliced from end to end in a proper ceremony. It is tradition for guests to then drink a toast of Scotch whisky to the haggis.

With guests seated and haggis served, side dishes of mashed potatoes and swedes make up the main course. This is sometimes followed by dessert and cheese courses, usually they too are made to a traditional Scottish recipe. The whole meal is washed down with another glass of Scotch whisky.

After the meal, a selection of toasts are given. Like the meal itself, these follow a specific order which must be observed. It is also at this point that the host (or guests) give a celebration of Robert Burns. This is usually a reflection on Burns’ life or work. Very popular in Scotland. The speech can be either humorous or serious. It ends with a toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.

Although not designed to be offensive, a toast of thanks are then made to the women who prepared the meal, this address has become much more involved in recent years. At the end of the speech, all the assembled men drink a toast to the women’s health (Obviously, times have changed, so this element of the tradition can be removed if offence is caused).

One of the reasons the male speaker dare not be too offensive is that his speech gets a response from the women in the room. An elected female speaker will share her views on men and reply to any comments made by the previous male speaker.

The penultimate part of the evening, and perhaps the longest, is a series of readings of Burns’ poetry or the singing of his songs. There may also be songs and poems influenced by Burns’ work.

Finally, the host will call upon one of the guests to give a vote of thanks. Once this is done, guests will stand, hold hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne to bring an end to the evening.

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