Widely recognised as ‘Scotland’s second national holiday’, for those who have never been to a Burns Night before, the sequence of events throughout the evening can seem very bizarre indeed. In what is essentially an elaborate dinner party, bagpipes, haggis and the work of Scotland’s finest poet are all interspliced with dancing, toasts, culture, and plenty of whisky of course!
Why do we celebrate Burns Night?
Marked every year on 25th January, Burns Night has remembered the cultural turning point in the life and works of the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns for over 220 years. This all began back in 1801, when a group of the poet’s closest acquaintances came together to remember their lost friend on the fifth anniversary of his passing. On that merry night, they ate haggis, drank lots of whisky and recited some of Robert’s best-loved works, and well, a new tradition was born! And although the itinerary of a Burns Night is Scottish through-and-through, the celebrations are by no means limited to just its shores. In fact, the tradition is carried out all over the world, with parties stretching from Hong Kong to Montréal!
Who is Robert Burns?
Born in 1759, Robert Burns is best remembered as the visionary who brought Scottish culture and the country’s love for literature to the masses. Although he was a prolific writer during his day, some of his most notable pieces of work include ‘Parcel o’ Rogues’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’, all of which are regular features of a standard Burns Night.
How can I celebrate Burns Night?
For anyone looking to celebrate their very own Burns Night, there are a few things to know first. A good place to start here is that there’s no wrong way to celebrate, as many like to add their own twist to the proceedings. However, as a rule of thumb, here’s the Standard Order of a traditional Burns Night celebration:
Step One: The Guests Arrive
Greeting your guests with the sound of bagpipes should be your first point of call, however, if you don’t happen to have a piper to hand, an ambience of traditional Scottish songs will do well to set the scene. Add this to a light serving of whisky upon arrival, and you’ll be off on the right foot.
Step Two: Seating and Grace
When your guests are feeling warmed up from the whisky and bagpipes, it’s time to gather at the table. As the host, this is where your first big task comes in. Before anyone sits down, they must first join you in saying the Selkirk Grace; an ancient Scottish greeting that is sometimes attributed to Robert himself. In your best voice, repeat after us:
“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”
The Main Meal
Step Three: The Soup
As with any good dinner party, we start with the soup. The key here is to make your menu as Scottish as possible, so for this first course, we’d recommend rustling up either a scotch broth or a cock-a-leekie soup; Robert would be very proud!
Step Four: The Haggis
As the centrepiece of the night, the haggis deserves no less than a spectacle of an entrance. Led by a piper, who might typically be playing ‘The Star O’ Robbie Burns’, the haggis is paraded around the room before landing at the centre of the table. But the pageantry doesn’t stop there. Before the steaming delicacy can be served up, it’s paramount that its entrance is rounded off by what’s known as the Address to the Haggis. This poem was written by Robert himself, as an ode to the Scottish dish he loved so much.
Recited by either the host or an eager guest, the Address to the Haggis goes a little something like this:
“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 arm.
“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 dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
“Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
“Is there that owre 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 owre 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 walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
“Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis”
Although our spellcheck didn’t like the poem, we’re sure that your guests will love it! But there is an important action that you must do to properly perform the ceremony. At the beginning of that third verse, when the poem starts “His knife see rustic Labour dight,” brandish your favourite, and preferably sharpest, carving knife. In the following line, “An cut you up wi ready slight,” plunge the knife into the top of the haggis, and open it from end to end. Complete the Address by raising a glass of whisky in a toast to the haggis, and most importantly, to the man of the hour Robert Burns.
Step Five: The Main Meal
Once the haggis ceremony has been wrapped up, it’s time to unwrap the haggis and serve it to your eagerly-awaiting guests. The main course of a Burns Night is traditionally accompanied with neeps and tatties; a very traditional Scottish dish made from a combination of mashed potato and mashed swede. There’s no time limit on how long the main meal should last, and please feel free to add other side dishes too if you’re looking to bulk out the meal. And if you’re living your best life with a meat-free lifestyle, remember that’s it’s absolutely fine to substitute the haggis for something a little more vegetarian/vegan friendly
Step Six: The Dessert
The commencement of the main meal during Burns Night is then usually followed by a selection of Scottish desserts, oatcakes, cheeses and coffee; or more whisky if you prefer! If you’re feeling creative, why not try out a traditional Scottish dessert, like cranachan or tipsy laird; the latter being quite similar to a whisky-based trifle.
Although The Speeches are viewed as perhaps the most critical stage of a Burns Night, it’s also a chance for you and your guests to have a little fun with poetry; just as the great Scottish poet would have wanted. The speeches are done in a very specific order, starting with the Immortal Memory.
Step Seven: The Immortal Memory
As the opening speech, the Immortal Memory remembers the life and times of Robert Burns. Unlike other poems and verses that are read out throughout the evening, the Immortal Memory actually has no set criteria. In light of this, your speech should aim to remember Robert and his immortal contributions to Scotland, literature, politics and culture. Be as playful and as comprehensive as you’d like. Maybe you want to remember Robert’s rags to riches story, or his contributions to folklore, or how his work has had an everlasting influence on you. Of course, a little research is required, but for a man as revered as Robert, there’s sure to be no shortage of talking points.
Step Eight: A Toast to the Lassies
Although originally a speech to thank the women who had prepared the meal, these days, the Toast to the Lassies commemorates the wider contribution of women to culture, and of course their effect on the opposite sex! Led by a nominated male, this speech should never seek to be offensive, but rather, should work to make the women in the room smile. Again the direction of this speech is open to personal interpretation, and its contents are usually specific to the female guests present in the room.
Step Nine: Reply to the Laddies
Once the gentlemen have said their bit, it’s time for the hotly-anticipated response from the ladies! This toast should be equally light-hearted, and typically responds to any comments made in the prior toast. The Reply to the Laddies might mention the male contribution to society, but again, the contents of this toast are open to interpretation. Be as playful and as jovial as you see fit, but aim to finish with the entire room in fits of laughter.
Step Ten: Closing Ceremony
Just because this is called the Closing Ceremony, doesn’t mean that the party has to come to an end! Let your guests finish off their whisky and cheese with a generous helping of some of Robert’s finest works, poems and songs. Sing a song, get on your feet and dance, crack open that remaining bottle of whisky, the night is yours to make! But when you do feel like the proceedings are drawing to a close, get everyone together hand in hand to sing the night out with perhaps Robert’s most suitable masterpiece for the occasion; Auld Lang Syne.
Burns Night is a Scottish celebration like no other, and for many, it’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We realise that there are lots of specific steps here, but we want to emphasise that the most important thing to achieve here is to have fun. For those that have been lucky enough to experience Scotland, the evening is bound to bring back some fond memories, and for those yet to make the pilgrimage, it’ll give them a taste of what awaits them in this mystical land, and indeed, why Robert Burns loved it so very much.
But of course, the only way to really immerse yourself in Scottish tradition is to see it for yourself, and everyone knows that there’s only one way to travel in Scotland; join one of our comprehensive Walking Tours here.