Burns Night traditions

Traditions | 18 January 2021

In a week’s time people around the globe will be meeting for another Burns Night - an annual celebration of Scotland’s National Bard. As we still live in the shadow of the pandemic, many of those traditional suppers will take place over video chat and paradoxically this could make the occasion a little easier to handle. Without the cost of renting a kilt or buying a fancy dress, all you need to do is send your pals a message: “Get some haggis and whisky, I’m sending you a link to a Burns Night supper!”

“Easier said than done” – your say – “but what are the Burns Night traditions?” In this post we’ll talk you through who Robert Burns was, what’s his legacy and what you can do to celebrate his birthday on the 25th of January. We’ll cover both traditional Burns Suppers and modern alternatives, but as there’s no wrong way to do it, it’s always up to you which way to go!

Life and work of Robert Burns

Even though his life was tragically short, it’s hard to contain Burns’ life in one paragraph. He is mostly known as a poet, but his contribution to Scottish culture as songwriter and collector was just as significant. Rabbie was a larger than life character who from humble beginnings got to be the toast of literary salons, dazzling scholars and ladies along the way. His best known poems were written in Scots language, although much of his writing is in English and a light Scots dialect, making him accessible to the global audience. Apart from lyrical verse, he had a sizable contribution to the political or civil commentary of his time, with his anti-slavery and anti-establishment stance earning him new recognition and following in modern times. 

Considered as one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement, he was the product of his environment. Home-schooled by his father and then taught by small-town tutors in rural Ayrshire, he kept his passion for words and turn of phrase despite working for years as a farm labourer. Under both financial and social pressures he almost emigrated to Jamaica to work as a slave handler, but by a stroke of luck his first published works were noticed by Edinburgh publishers: a letter proposing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect (and a pay check!) found him packing for the trip. From there he rose to fame and appreciation by generations of Scottish folk, but his revolutionary beliefs prevented him from fully capitalising on his success. Poor health finally caught up with him when he was 37. On the fifth anniversary of his passing a group of his friends held a supper in his memory – it proved a success and after the date was moved to his birthday, became a global celebration known now as Burns Night.

Burns literary legacy is wide and complex, but if you ever sang Auld Lang Syne on a New Year’s Eve, you already know one of his songs! If you want to dive into his works, you can find most of it around the internet, but if you nip into any charity shop in Scotland chances are you will leave with a tome of his poems in hand.

Burns Night Traditions
Burns Night Traditions - Alloway
Burns Night Traditions
Burns Night Traditions - Alloway

Even though his life was tragically short, it’s hard to contain Burns’ life in one paragraph. He is mostly known as a poet, but his contribution to Scottish culture as songwriter and collector was just as significant. Rabbie was a larger than life character who from humble beginnings got to be the toast of literary salons, dazzling scholars and ladies along the way. His best known poems were written in Scots language, although much of his writing is in English and a light Scots dialect, making him accessible to the global audience. Apart from lyrical verse, he had a sizable contribution to the political or civil commentary of his time, with his anti-slavery and anti-establishment stance earning him new recognition and following in modern times. 

Considered as one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement, he was the product of his environment. Home-schooled by his father and then taught by small-town tutors in rural Ayrshire, he kept his passion for words and turn of phrase despite working for years as a farm labourer. Under both financial and social pressures he almost emigrated to Jamaica to work as a slave handler, but by a stroke of luck his first published works were noticed by Edinburgh publishers: a letter proposing a second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect (and a pay check!) found him packing for the trip. From there he rose to fame and appreciation by generations of Scottish folk, but his revolutionary beliefs prevented him from fully capitalising on his success. Poor health finally caught up with him when he was 37. On the fifth anniversary of his passing a group of his friends held a supper in his memory – it proved a success and after the date was moved to his birthday, became a global celebration known now as Burns Night.

Burns literary legacy is wide and complex, but if you ever sang Auld Lang Syne on a New Year’s Eve, you already know one of his songs! If you want to dive into his works, you can find most of it around the internet, but if you nip into any charity shop in Scotland chances are you will leave with a tome of his poems in hand.

Burns Night traditions

More traditional Burns Nights – as held by Burns Societies around the world – developed over decades a certain programme of events. Of course you can go all in and make it as true and Scottish as possible, but we’re pretty sure the Ploughman Poet would be happy with any simple gathering that has a few of his verses, a warm haggis (meaty or veggie) on the plate and a few hearty drams to toast the good company. Wear a kilt or tartan dress if it makes it more special for you, but whisky sauce and irn bru spill just as well on t-shirts and jeans! 

Each Burns supper is different, but the traditional running order usually goes like this:

Introductions: 

  • everyone gathers
  • the host welcomes everyone 
  • the Selkirk Grace is said

The meal: 

  • starters 
  • haggis is piped in
  • the host delivers the Address to a Haggis and everyone toasts it
  • main meal
  • dessert

After the meal: 

  • first Burns recital
  • the Immortal Memory (host’s tribute speech to Burns) 
  • second Burns recital 
  • Toast to the Lassies
  • Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
  • final Burns recital

End of the night:

  • the host thanks everyone 
  • together they sing Auld Lang Syne (don’t forget to cross your arms and join them at the line ‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!’)

Food: who’s the chieftain o the puddin'-race?

The obvious element of a proper Burns Night! There are three things that you simply have to serve: haggis, neeps and tatties. The savoury pudding is synonymous with Scottish cuisine and tastes best when accompanied by mashed potatoes and turnips. You can go for the traditional version packed with sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, onion and spices, or the delicious vegan version full of grains and pulses. In both cases you can source them out from a local butcher or any good shop, but if you’re stuck at home with some time on your hands, why not try to be a bit more adventurous?!

Here are some pro-tips on how to prepare the main dish for your Burns Night supper:

And what apart from all the haggis goodness? For a fancy starter you can’t go wrong with cullen skink (a tasty Scottish fish soup), tablet and fudge can be your easy dessert options and finally – whisky! Can’t toast the haggis, lassies and the company without a golden dram of single malt (or seven)!

Rabbie Burns travel inspiration

If after all the merriment you realise that you really enjoyed Burns Night traditions, why not let the Bard’s legacy inspire an itinerary to less visited parts of Scotland. Ayrshire will forever be Burns country and the recently-opened Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a great starting point. It’s based in Alloway on the outskirts of Ayr, and apart from the new exhibition pavilion it also takes care of the Burns family cottage built by Rabbie’s father. A stone’s throw away are Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig O’Doon of the Tam O’Shanter fame, as well as Poet’s Path leading to the poet’s monument in charming gardens. 

For a multi-day option you can head to Dumfries & Galloway and follow Burns Heritage Trail. Connected with the bard’s later years and untimely death, this beautiful part of Scotland deserves more recognition from visitors. There’s some of Burns in every countryside road and rapid brook and following those traces can be a great way of discovering Scotland. Have a chat about it during this year’s Burns Night supper and start planning (or – to make it simpler – drop us a line)!