Burns night is the celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. Burns Night is officially set on 25 January but it can be celebrated on or near this date. It is celebrated in Scotland and by the Scottish anywhere they may live, but also by fans of Burns’ poetry. The meal consists of traditional Scottish food and may be accompanied by reading a poem or two or singing a song written by Burns.
Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) was a great Scottish poet and songwriter. He was also a social commentator, championing the importance of the common people, and the subjects of his poems and songs were usually love, universal brotherhood and the human condition. His works are considered timeless.
The first celebrations of Burns night were held by a small group of his friends on the anniversary of his death on 21 July, but this tradition was soon moved to the anniversary of his birth, 25 January and has remained there ever since.
The dinners can vary from extremely formal to an impromptu gathering of friends. When formal, the men wear kilts and the women wear cocktail dresses. The haggis, the traditional food, is piped in to the room by bagpipes, the chef and piper are poured a dram of whisky and the haggis is addressed with a recitation of Burns’ famous ‘Address to the Haggis’. The meal begins with ‘Selkirk Grace’ an old Scots grace recited at national celebrations (not written by Burns but often attributed to him):
‘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’.
Then follow the formal toasts, ‘To Burns’ Immortal Memory’ (more serious), then ‘To The Lassies’ (more light-hearted, sometimes quite silly) and finally a ‘Reply’ (a light-hearted defence), by one of the lassies. At the end of the evening, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is sung to end the night.
An informal evening is simply a group of friends getting together and possibly reading some of Burns’ work, possibly Addressing the Haggis but certainly keeping to the essential elements of serving a Haggis, neeps (yellow turnips, otherwise known as swedes or rutabaga) and tatties (potatoes), along with whisky—toasting to Burns or other important events in the diners’ lives.
The importance of the food is in its representation of the common man. In Burns’ time the Scots were very poor northern Europeans. The Haggis is made from the odds and ends of the sheep, seasoned and bulked up with onions and oatmeal and all stuffed in a bag made from the stomach. While it sounds unappetizing to the uninitiated, it is actually an unexpectedly tasty meal. Burns used the Haggis as a symbol of the common man, celebrating its worth he wrote a poem (Address to the Haggis) which is a plea to not judge everything by appearances.