Burns Night, A Scottish Tradition

Have you heard of a “Burns Supper”? No, it is not when you’ve scorched your meal, but rather a celebration of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. And by hosting or going to a Burns Night Supper, you have a perfect occasion to wear your traditional Scottish outfits from The Celtic Croft!

The Beginning of Burns Supper

A Burns Night supper of haggis and tatties on a plate with a tartan napkin.

Born on January 25th, 1759, Robert Burns became a poet extraordinaire in Scotland, and, soon after he died in 1796, the Burns Suppers, launched by his friends, honors his life and works.

Nine of Burns’ closest friends got together at the Burns Cottage in Alloway to commemorate the fifth anniversary of their friend’s death. Traditional Scottish dishes of haggis and drinks (paired with performances of Burns’ works) were on the menu.

The evening was so enjoyable; his friends decided to repeat it, but this time on Robert Burns birthday of January 25th. Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns, the National Bard, Bard of Ayrshire, and the Ploughman Poet, is regarded as Scotland’s national poet. This tradition of a celebration for the bard continues until today.

The Burns Night Agenda

A black and white etching of men celebrating at a Burns Supper

According to The Alexandria Burns Club, a Burns Supper can be either formal or light-hearted affairs. If one of the official Burns Clubs in the Robert Burns World Federation hosts, it will be more structured. But, other groups certainly host more laid back nights.

Either way, this is the general order of the evening, as laid out by the website Visit Scotland:

1.Everyone gathers, and the host opens with a few words. After seated, the Selkirk Grace is said (see the Poems and Toasts section below).

2. The meal begins with the starter, the haggis, and the Address to a Haggis (see Poems and Toasts), performed by the host. Everyone then raises their glasses to the haggis, and then the main meal, followed by dessert.

3. After dinner, the Burns recitals.

  • The first Burns recital occurs (anyone may perform a Burns work throughout the evening in the recital portions).
  • The Immortal Memory (the main tribute speech to Burns) commences. An invited speaker gives a personal, original, formal, and well-researched tribute to Robert Burns. 
  • The second Burns recital occurs.
  • Toast to the Lassies which is a humorous and less formal toast
  • Reply to the Toast to the Lassies – if women are present, all the males stand and honor them. However, One of the ladies responds with a salutation. In Scotland, Burns Suppers are traditionally a rowdy, all-male affair. But in America, Burns dinners usually always include women and a  Toast to the Laddies, too.
  • The final Burns recital 

4. At the end of the evening, someone will propose a vote of thanks to the performers and speakers. The person nominated takes careful notes of the artists and speeches, then toasts for a witty ten minutes, recapping all that has transpired. To do so, this person often has to refrain from partaking in the drinks of the evening.

5. Final song: everyone stands and sings Auld Lang Syne, crossing their arms and joining hands at the line “And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!”.

6. The vote of thanks and song is the official end of the program; celebrations may carry on to the wee hours of the morning.

Decorate and Dress the Part

Whether you are the host, performer, or guest of the Burns Night celebration, you will want to harken your heritage by dressing in the full-Scottish formalwear. Find your clan crest and customize it from head to toe. Let’s all raise our glasses on January 25th to honor the great Scottish poet Robert Burns!

Poems and Toasts

A group of men toasting glasses of whisky at a Burns Night celebration

Address to Haggis

It is not a true Burns Night without an Address to Haggis. The Alexandria Burns Club has kindly provided a translation to the poem for those who are not fluent in Scotsmen. This ode to Scotland’s national food helped boost its popularity outside of Scotland.

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.”

The last line is often varied to read-

“And sae the Lord be thankit.”

The Selkirk Grace is a critical part of any traditional Burns Supper and is said before eating. Check out this video to hear it in all of its glory!

Toast to the Lassies

Heed these tips for making your Toast to the Lassies from writer and founding member of Robert Burns World Federation Guild of Speakers, Alasdair Hutton.

Auld Lang Syne

One of Burns’ most popular works, you have probably heard of Auld Lang Syne (at the end of the film It’s a Wonderful Life perhaps?)

To see more of ‘ol Rabbie Burns’ works to perform at your next Burns Supper, find him on Poets.org

Auld Lang Syne, Burns Night, Burns Supper, haggis, Robert Burns
Scottish Slang to Include in Your Vocabulary
The Origins of the Scottish Bagpipe

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