What exactly is Burns Night?


Robert Burns (or Rabbie Burns) is arguably the most famous man in Scottish cultural history. He was born in the small village of Alloway near Ayr on the 25th January 1759. Burns Night has been marked by Scots for 200 years and was begun by friends of the poet as a tribute following his death in 1796. Burns Suppers can be either grand formal affairs or small gatherings. For those especially hoping that 2014 will be the year that grants Scotland its independence, this Burns Night coming will undoubtedly have much added significance and extra stirrings of nationalistic pride.

Get your housemates to perform limericks, poems or songs to the party before settling down for a typical feast of haggis (a vegetarian alternative can be made with a Portobello mushroom), smoked salmon and the cheapest Scotch whisky Spar has on offer. Tartans and oranges are a must-have for the dress code and extra Burnie points if someone drags out a kilt.

Guests usually enter the banquet to traditional Scottish music played by live pipers. Unless it’s the night before an important exam, this can easily be replicated with a simple iTunes or Spotify playlist of soaring Celtic melodies. Everyone having been seated, the host of the dinner should then recite the Selkirk Grace or another reading of his/her choice:

[In native tongue]

‘Some hae meat and canna eat / And some wad eat that want it, / But we hae meat and we can eat, / And sae the Lord be thankit’.

[In standard English]

Some have meat and cannot eat,

Some cannot eat that want it;

But we have meat and we can eat,

So let the Lord be thanked.

You can even download the complete works of Robert Burns for free to your iPhone for an easy way to pick your readings. The app has a database of every Burns poem and includes helpful tips for hosting a brilliant Burns Supper. At the end of the reading, the haggis is ceremonially cut in two halves and then served to the guests with “neeps and tatties” (Scottish for turnip and potato). Leading supermarkets always have their finest Scottish produced haggis on offer this time of year, and though to a lot of people the concept of haggis does not sound particularly appealing, most people after tasting it do admit to it being a scrumptious delicacy. Vegetarian haggis is also easy to obtain for guests of that persuasion (or if you just want a healthier option). This meal is usually accompanied by a glass of Scotch whisky, but if you’re like me and even Jack Daniels knocks you sick, you can replace the dram with one of your favourite ciders or beers or (as I did last year) even a jug of wine! Dessert consists of a traditional cheeseboard, as simple or extravagant as you like and, of course, more drinking.

There are also a handful of Lancastrian charities that will be using their Burns Suppers to raise money for worthy charities so check out events near you. Happy Burn’s Night, folks!

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