- Robbie Burns, from “To A Mouse”
For more than 200 years, Scots, poetry lovers and haggis-o-philes alike have celebrated the life and works of Robert (or Robbie) Burns, the poet behind that famous line (also known as "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry"). To honor one of Scotland’s most beloved poets, his friends started hosting Burns Nights (also known as Burns Suppers) shortly after his death. Although they are celebrated all over the world, the suppers with the most fervor and excitement take place in his home country of Scotland.
Each year on January 25, the anniversary of the poet’s birth, people gather together and participate in a tradition that still looks much the way it did when it began in 1796. Burns Night ranges from the formal to the raucous, and for many Scots, it is as much a chance to celebrate their country’s fine traditions as to celebrate their late poet.
No Burns Night would be complete without the famed Scottish dish: haggis, made of “sheep’s pluck” (less cutely known as the heart, liver and lungs of the sheep) minced together with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt and encased in the sheep’s stomach. A true Burns Night begins with the chairman — more or less the emcee of the evening — inviting the company to receive the haggis. To many foreigners and the uninitiated, a haggis sounds a little intimidating, but to any true Scotsman, it’s is a delicious treat and the perfect way to honor Scotland’s finest poet.
Having opened up the evening’s ceremonies, the chairman recites the Selkirk Grace. Known throughout Scotland, this is a simple four-line prayer Burns wrote to bless food. At a truly traditional Burns Night, the Selkirk Grace is followed by a bagpipe-led procession of the haggis from the kitchen to the head table. That’s when the evening truly begins.
Once the haggis reaches the head table, the chairman recites Burns’ poem “Address To A Haggis.” It is important to note that the chairman is more than just someone who keeps the ceremonies moving. A truly great chairman will excite and delight his audience and raise the level of the event beyond the ordinary.
With a thick Scottish brogue (or at least a powerful speaking voice) and impassioned recitation, a chairman can make the evening a lively and exciting affair. And there is no more important moment for the chairman than reaching the line “an’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,” which serves as the prompt for the chairman to slice open the loaf and begin the supper.
Consisting of haggis plus a traditional Scotch soup, “tatties and neeps” (potatoes and turnips) and copious amounts of Scotch whisky, the meal is a delightful excuse for an evening filled with speeches, recitations and songs in memory of the great Robbie Burns. You’ll know it’s a good night if everyone is speaking in a Scottish accent by the end of it, Scotsman or not. As the evening draws to a close, the company engages in one final tradition by linking hands and joining in singing along to one of his most famous works, “Auld Lang Syne.”
The ideal way to honor the great poet is to travel to Edinburgh, Glasgow or anywhere else in Scotland. If you miss Burns Night, consider the Burns an’ a’ that! Festival in the poet’s birthplace, Ayrshire, at the end of May. You can visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum there, too. If you don’t make it beyond Edinburgh, find out more about the poet at the Writers Museum, which celebrates the lives of Scotland’s most famous literary native sons.
But even if you can’t make it this year, be sure to don your favorite kilt, gather your friends and drink a toast (preferably with Scotch) to the late, great master. And to help you celebrate your own Burns night in true fine form, play this do-it-yourself video haggis toast, brought to you by the Scotland tourism website, before you break open the traditional Burns night feast.
by Leigh Bryant
Top: On Burns Night, Scots across the world celebrate the life of Robert Burns, the country's most famous bard, by reciting his poetry, eating haggis and imbibing whisky. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
Left: Burns isn’t just beloved in Scotland: There’s a statue of him on Victoria Embankment in London, here decorated with a jaunty hat for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)