Fresh from singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s eve, it is time to celebrate the bard that gave us the seasonal song that we all know and love.
January 25th — it’s Burns’ Night!
The man himself (thanks Burns Museum)
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert “Robbie” Burns (or yes, I will allow you to say Rabbie Burns in your thickest Scottish accent) was a poet who was born on January 25, 1759 in Scotland. It is on this day every year that Scottish folk from around the world gather to commemorate the life of this remarkable man and all that he gave to Scottish culture.
Burns gave us some phenomenal works:
- Auld Lang Syne
- To a Mouse
- A Red, Red Rose
- Tam o’Shanter
Here’s a snippet from the last one on the list:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
Or perhaps this one may better whet your whiskers, from “To a Mouse”:
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae hasty, Wi’ bickering brattle!
Robert Burns also dabbled in political speeches and commentary (which sadly he just wrote in plain old English, not in Scots, because I would love to see that going down at Westminster). His poems and written works became the inspiration for generations to come, and many traces of his influence can be found throughout literature around that time (17th and 18th centuries).
Additonally, Burns was considered one of the pioneers of the Romantic Era and became a huge cultural icon after his death. Many of his poems are very romantic in nature, full of passion and love.
(Also on the theme of romance, one could also say, he ahem, ‘got around’; he had eight children with his wife Jean Armour and four children with other women says this source. He was quite the ladies man!)
To celebrate all that he gave us, Burns suppers are held all over the world in memory of “Scotland’s favourite son”, particularly in places such as Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand where strong communities of Scottish expats and bloodlines live.
It’s a fun night, filled with food, laughter and frivolousness and not to be missed!
How does one celebrate?
Burns’ nights vary from place to place. Some are very formal, some less so. There are usually one or two men in kilts and just as many who have had too much to drink.
Whether a low-key night with a few pals or a jam-packed hall filled with well-dressed ladies and gents, there are usually a few things in common:
Haggis: Ah, the haggis. The 3-legged little bugger that runs round the hills in the highlands by day, and descends into the cities by night, terrorizing the bairns while they sleep. (Or, the sausage-like pudding that is made from oats, spices and the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, boiled in said woolly creature’s stomach. Your choice.)
Bagpipes: The above haggis is ceremoniously brought in on a silver platter to the accompanyment of bagpipes, typically bellowing Flower of Scotland or some such tune that wells pride in the chests of all present. There may be a tear. There’s usually a sword, too, to officially cut up the haggis (which is then hurriedly taken back to the kitchen to be distributed a little more hygienically)
Speeches: Once the haggis is in the house, many speeches are made:
- a toast to the haggis: a chosen reader addresses the haggis with this speech. At the right point in the text, the reader cuts the haggis with the sword (or perhaps just a knife) and “trenches its gushing entrails”. It ends with a hearty cheer as he raises the haggis skywards in triumph and makes a toast
- the Immortal Memory speech: a somewhat serious and long speech in memory of Robert Burns and the life that he led
- a toast to the lassies: a humorous and cheeky toast to celebrate all that women bring to our society
- a toast to the laddies (the reply): a rebutal to the prior speech, which is both charming and a chance to poke fun at the shortcomings of men
- the Selkirk Grace: a quick prayer before the meal begins. It is copied at the bottom of this article
Drinks: Many drinks are likely consumed. We are Scottish, after all.
In addition, there may be one or two readings and recitations of Burns’ poems or writings.
What does one eat?
As well as the haggis above, there are a few other foods that are often served on Burns Night. Here’s a typical menu:
Starters: cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek soup);
Main: haggis, neeps (mashed turnips or swedes (before you ask, yes, they are different)) and tatties (mashed potatoes), drizzled with a whisky sauce;
Dessert: cranachan (whipped cream mixed with whisky, raspberries and served with a tasty, oaty crumble)
These are of course all washed down with a fine Scottish bevvy (probably Tennets) and hearty pour of whisky (not whiskey, yuck).
Will you celebrate Robert Burns this year?
Whatever you eat and however you celebrate, it doesn’t have to have a strict order of service. In fact, you may do it completely differently to how I do it. The important part is celebrating all that Burns gave to Scottish culture, in a warm atmosphere surrounded by good food and good company.
It’s a chance to relax, catch up with friends and to be thankful to Robbie Burns. His birthday falls on a Friday this year, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate!
Go on - at a minimum pour yourself a wee dram and raise a glass to the memory of ol’ Rabbie.
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.