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Traditional Burns Night Celebrations: Rituals, Dress, Food and Drink

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Glenis enjoys history, food and tradition which, combined with her Scottish family ancestry, ensures a memorable Burns Night celebration.

The Parade of the Haggis—bringing in the haggis on Burns Night

The Parade of the Haggis—bringing in the haggis on Burns Night

Why Do People Celebrate Burns Night on 25th January?

The Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was born on the 25th January, 1759. He is regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

The first Burns supper was held on 25th January 1802. From then, it became an increasingly popular celebration and nowadays is more widely observed than St. Andrew's Day, the official Scottish National Day.

What to Wear for a Burns Night Supper

Some Burns Night celebrations require formal dress (this should be indicated on the invitation/ticket). For a Scotsman, this is normally a full Highland Dress of kilt, sporran and other traditional accessories. Other Burns Night events are less formal and have a more relaxed dress code.

The Correct Way for Ladies to Wear a Tartan Sash on Burns Night

Many ladies wear a tartan sash over one shoulder at a formal Burns Night celebration, But be aware of protocol, ladies: If you intend to wear a traditional tartan sash, make sure that it is draped across your right shoulder—unless you are the wife of a chieftain or a wife of a colonel of a Scottish regiment, in which case you may drape it over the left shoulder.

For those who believe that they may have Scottish ancestry and would like to identify their clan tartan, there are a number of websites where searches can be conducted on surnames. Once you know what you need, you can find a range of tartans online.

Food and Drink Served at the Supper

  • Haggis is a must! It is central to a Burns' Night celebration. A meat haggis is an acquired taste. Vegetarian haggis is offered as an alternative. Haggis is, of course, widely available in Scotland; and as Burns' Night draws near, it appears in the chilled cabinets in some English supermarkets. Recently, I was surprised to receive an unexpected gift from relatives in Scotland - haggis in a tin, a product new to me! So, if you would like to sample this Scottish delicacy but can't track it down in the shops, you can order it online.
  • Traditionally, haggis is served with neeps and tatties (chopped boiled swede and mashed potatoes). Served this way, it becomes the main course. Nowadays, smaller portions of these components of the meal are sometimes served in a tower arrangement as a starter course—with a whisky or horseradish-flavoured cream sauce as an accompaniment. Which is how I prefer to eat it.
  • The first course at a Burns' Night supper is traditionally cock-a-leekie soup (a thin chicken and leek soup), but sometimes Scottish smoked salmon or cullen skink (haddock and potato soup) is served instead.
  • If haggis has been served as a starter course, you may be offered Scottish beef or a highland casserole containing venison and/or other game as the main course.
  • Cranachan is a traditional dessert comprised of Scottish raspberries and cream.
  • A cheeseboard with Scottish oatcakes is sometimes offered after the dessert.

"The Selkirk Grace"

Recited at a Burns' Supper, this became known as the Selkirk Grace because Burns is reputed to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk at St Mary's Isle Priory, Galloway.

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.

In English:

Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat that lack it,
But we have food and we can eat,
So let God be thanked.

The Format of a Traditional Burns Night Celebration

  1. Piping in the guests
  2. Chairman's welcome
  3. The Selkirk Grace (see below)
  4. The Parade of the Haggis
  5. Address to the haggis
  6. Toast to the haggis
  7. The meal
  8. The Toast to the Ladies
  9. The responding Toast to the Men
  10. Drinking and possibly Scottish Dancing or other entertainment relating to Rabbie Burns

"Address to a Haggis" by Robert Burns

After the Selkirk Grace has been recited, a piper ceremoniously precedes the carrying into the dining hall of a haggis, which is placed before the person who will give the address before ceremoniously plunging a dagger into the meat. (Scroll down for an English translation.)

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye worthy o' a grace

As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o need,

While thro your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,

An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve

Are bent like drums;

The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,

'Bethankit' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

Wi perfect scunner,

Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view

On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,

As feckless as a wither'd rash,

His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,

His nieve a nit;

Thro bloody flood or field to dash,

O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He'll make it whissle;

An legs an arms, an heads will sned,

Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies:

But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,

Gie her a Haggis

Plunging the dagger into the haggis

Plunging the dagger into the haggis

The Traditional Toasts Made to the Lassies and the Lads on Burns Night

At the end of the meal, a gentleman rises from his seat to propose a toast to the lassies who are present. The speech is an opportunity to poke humorous fun at the ladies. At the conclusion of the speech, the assembled gentlemen toast the ladies with a dram of whisky.

One of the ladies then responds with a similarly tongue-in-cheek speech about the shortcomings of men. The ladies then toast the men with a dram of whisky.

Traditional Scottish Recipes for Burns Night

  • Mary Berry's Classic Scottish Cranachan
    It's super easy to whip up Mary Berry's classic Scottish cranachan. Hold back some of the crunchy oats and raspberries for a pretty topping, but don't hold back on the whisky!
  • Cock-a-Leekie Soup
    This warming traditional Scottish soup is made in the traditional way, with shredded prunes to add slight sweetness and comfort.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Glen Rix