One of the great days of the year is almost upon us for Scots around the world.
What is Burns Night?
It’s a celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96). Affectionately known as Rabbie Burns, or sometimes the Bard of Ayrshire, he was one of the forefathers of the Romantic movement. His work has inspired generations of poets, writers and even political activists.
When does Burns Night fall?
It’s observed on Burns’s birthday, 25 January, though many Scots across the world hold their ‘Burns Supper’ on the nearest weekend. And Scots really do celebrate: it’s become at least as visible a national day in Scotland as St Andrews Day, which falls on November 30.
How long have people been celebrating Burns Night?
Since 1801, when a small gathering of his friends was held in July – on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s untimely death at the age of just 37. A few months later the Burns club in Greenock (which still exists today) held a similar celebration on what would have been the poet’s 43rd birthday. The tradition has continued ever since.
What do I need to do to hold my own Burns Supper?
A haggis. Neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potato). Whisky. A room full of friends. A bagpiper, to ‘pipe in the haggis’ as it’s carried in on a silver salver. A fancy knife with which to divide the haggis. And someone in attendance who can give a decent reading of ‘Address to a Haggis‘ – the magical poem by Burns which contains this immortal line: “Great chieftan o the puddin’-race!”
There are other bits and pieces which you could also go ahead with. Die-hard traditionalists, for example, will insist that a starter of cullen skink (or some other traditional Scottish soup) is non-negotiable. But we’ll forgive you if you pass on that, or if time, money or logistics mean you have to use a CD or a Youtube clip to provide the bagpipes.
One more thing though: you probably ought to say the Selkirk Grace before anybody tucks in.
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
Do I really need to eat the haggis?
Yes. Just man-up (or woman-up) and get stuck in, because it’s a genuinely delicious dish. As for all that nonsense you may have heard about how it is made? The stories are all entirely true… but before you turn your nose up, just ask yourself what you think most sausages are made of.
If you really insist on not eating a full, delicious plate of haggis, neeps and tatties, you could always try this: a blob of haggis surround by little piped towers of mashed potato and mashed turnip, and all served up on a Nairn oatcake. It’s the sort of canapé Rabbie himself might have approved of – particularly if it were passed round by a comely serving girl. The naughty poet fathered three of his twelve children via various domestic staff across Scotland.
Where can I go to join the celebrations?
Top of the list for those who really want to do it in style is The National Trust for Scotland’s event at the house where Burns was born in Alloway. It’s a hefty £250, but for a once-in-a-lifetime evening with a piper, toasts, recitations, music and speeches, it feels like the definitive experience for a Burns devotee.
The National Trust for Scotland are running more events during the week as well – including throwing open the doors of Burns Cottage to visitors on Sunday 28th for a ‘Big Birthday Bash’ which includes a haggis hurling championship. (Yes, haggis hurling is a real thing.)
Restaurants, bars and distillieries around the country (and indeed the world) will be running special events. Here’s a few of them to consider:
- The Big Burns Supper in Dumfries – where the poet lived for some time – is a full-on festival lasting 11 days, with poetry, music, comedy and theatre.
- Edinburgh is another city where Burns spent a lot of time, and while the Scottish Storytelling Society’s wonderful-sounding evening is sold out there are events on just about everywhere in town.
- Burns Night Supper at the Devonshire Club, which will include all the usual treats (cock-a-leekie soup followed by the classic haggis, neeps & tatties – or Arbroath smokies fish pie for refuseniks) followed, brilliantly, by a deep-fried Mars bar to have alongside your coffee and whisky. £35 for three courses, which includes bagpiping from Matthew Supranowicz, who was crowned world’s best bagpiper in 2015.
Fortnum & Mason will celebrate with a special evening of feasting, music and poetry, hosted in The Gallery restaurant. £75 gets you in to the four-course feast featuring Scottish dishes paired with top-class wines and whiskies.
- If you can’t get away during the week and want to defer to the weekend, Weston Park’s Burns celebration is on Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 January. It includes all sorts of nice touches – an afternoon whisky tasting with head butler Barry Fairhurst, for example – as well as a five-course meal in Weston Park’s historic dining room. The cost is £399 per couple.
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