Scotland is preparing to celebrate Burns Night 2023 on Wednesday 25 January – the birthday of the country’s national bard, Robert Burns. In this guide we pick out some top tips for hosting your own supper.
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert Burns – aka Robbie Burns, aka Rabbie Burns, aka Scotland’s Favourite Son – was a Scottish writer and lyricist.
Born into rural poverty in a two-roomed cottage in Alloway, near Ayr, on 25 January 1759, he became a prolific poet who wrote about everyday life using a Scottish vernacular that was already under threat from English in his own lifetime.
On 21 July 1796, Burns died at the age of 37, leaving behind a body of work that “recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration”, the Poetry Foundation said.
Two and a half centuries later his work is still celebrated in Scotland and beyond – although few people now know more than a handful of his poems.
How did Burns Night begin and how is it celebrated?
The traditional Burns Supper began a few years after the poet’s death in 1796 as a way for “Rabbie’s friends and acquaintances to honour his memory”, according to the Manchester Evening News. Today it is has become a celebration of all things Scottish, including whisky, bagpiping and Highland dancing.
The night’s celebrations follow a reliably scripted order – poetry recitals and haggis-eating, boozy toasts and perhaps a chaotic ceilidh. Through it all “single malt whisky is the toasting tipple of choice, especially during the ceremonial slicing of the haggis”, The Independent said.
Most famous of all the traditions is the recitation of Address to A Haggis, a poem written by Burns in 1786. This is usually performed over the intestinal delicacy, before it is cut open and eaten.
Famous poems and works
By far the best-known Burns composition is the traditional New Year’s Eve anthem Auld Lang Syne. Other famous works include the epic poem Tam O’Shanter and the romantic A Red, Red Rose.
What should you eat and drink at a Burns Night supper?
Celebrate Scottish cuisine with the classics on Burns Night: smoked fish soup; haggis; and neeps and tatties (swede/turnip and potatoes).
According to Great British Chefs, traditional Burns supper recipes include creamy Cullen Skink (thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions), sweet Cranachan (traditional Scottish dessert) and of course haggis. Alternatively, your Burns Night feast could feature a fillet of Scottish beef or spiced Scottish scallops.
It’s also a tradition on 25 January to raise a glass of Scotch whisky to “Rabbie”.
Haggis – though full of cholesterol – is high in vitamins A, B6, B12 and C, along with minerals like folate, selenium and iron. Whisky too has some surprising health benefits: it contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant that could potentially absorb cancer cells. What’s more, a study in 1998 found that the antioxidants in a shot of whisky could protect against heart disease, the BBC reported.
Host your own Burns Night supper
If you’re planning to host a Burns Night supper on 25 January, then follow these instructions provided by VisitScotland. “All that’s needed is haggis, neeps, tatties, great company… and some Scottish whisky, of course!” For Burns Night menus, running order and entertainment ideas see the tourism board’s ebook.
Everyone gathers, the host says a few words, everyone sits and the Selkirk Grace is said.
The starter is served, the haggis is piped in (by a piper in a kilt, naturally, or find a piper “virtually”), the host performs the Address to a Haggis, everyone toasts the haggis and the main meal is served, followed by dessert (cranachan is a great option).
After the meal
The first Burns recital is performed, the Immortal Memory (the main tribute speech to Burns) is given, the second Burns recital is performed, and then there’s a Toast to the Lassies, followed by a reply to the Toast to the Lassies, before the final Burns recital is performed.
To end the night
The host gives a vote of thanks, everyone stands and sings Auld Lang Syne, crossing their arms and joining hands at the line “And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!” For a virtual ceilidh-dancing experience see visitscotland.com