How to Celebrate Burns' Night (January 25): Rituals, Food and Drink

Updated on August 28, 2019
Glenis Rix profile image

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

The Parade of the Haggis
The Parade of the Haggis | Source

About Robert Burns (1759–1796)

The Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was born on the 25th January, 1759. He is regarded as the national poet of Scotland and, in 2009, a vote run by Scottish television confirmed his place as the Greatest Scot.

A cult grew up around his name and his poetry in the years following his death, which culminates each year in the celebration of his birthday with a formal supper and time-honoured ceremony in most of Scotland and by the Scottish diaspora around the world. The first Burns' supper was held in 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.

Robert Burns
Robert Burns | Source

What to Wear for a Burns' Night Supper

Historically, the wearing of tartan was politely left to Scots who could claim a connection to one of the Scottish clans. More recently, tartan has become a fashion item and is worn by many who cannot claim Scottish roots.

Some Burns' Night celebrations require formal dress (this should be indicated on the invitation/ticket); other events are less formal and have a more relaxed dress code.

Dress Tartan and Tartan Sashes

A true Scotsman would not be seen without his dress tartan at a formal Burns' Night supper, and many ladies wear a tartan sash over one shoulder. 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 a search can be conducted on a surname.

Haggis, neeps and tatties.
Haggis, neeps and tatties. | Source

Food and Drink Served at Supper

The emphasis on Burns' Night is on traditional Scottish ingredients and recipes—and on malt whisky for the toasts.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The first course is traditionally cock-a-leekie soup (a thin chicken and leek soup) but sometimes Scottish smoked salmon is served instead.
  • If haggis has been served as a starter course, you may be offered as the main course beef or a highland casserole containing venison and/or other game.
  • Cranachan is a traditional dessert comprised of Scottish raspberries and cream.
  • A cheeseboard with Scottish oatcakes is sometimes offered after the dessert.

How to Make Cranachan

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

"The Selkirk Grace"

Although attributed to Robert Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known before his lifetime. It came to be called 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.

Plunging the dagger into the haggis.
Plunging the dagger into the haggis. | Source

"Address to a Haggis," Written 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

English Translation of "Address to a Haggis"

Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,

Great chieftain of the sausage race!

Above them all you take your place,

Stomach, tripe, or intestines:

Well are you worthy of a grace

As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,

Your buttocks like a distant hill,

Your pin would help to mend a mill

In time of need,

While through your pores the dews distill

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour wipe,

And cut you up with ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like any ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm steaming, rich!

Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive:

Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,

Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by

Are bent like drums;

Then old head of the table, most like to burst,

'The grace!' hums.

Is there that over his French ragout,

Or olio that would sicken a sow,

Or fricassee would make her vomit

With perfect disgust,

Looks down with sneering, scornful view

On such a dinner?

Poor devil! see him over his trash,

As feeble as a withered rush,

His thin legs a good whip-lash,

His fist a nut;

Through bloody flood or field to dash,

O how unfit.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his ample fist a blade,

He'll make it whistle;

And legs, and arms, and heads will cut off

Like the heads of thistles.

You powers, who make mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill of fare,

Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,

That splashes in small wooden dishes;

But if you wish her grateful prayer,

Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!

The Toasts

At the end of the meal, a gentleman rises from his seat to propose a toast to the ladies 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 rises to respond to the toast. This is often a similarly tongue-in-cheek speech about the shortcomings of men. The ladies then toast the men with a dram of whisky.

After the Toasts

The formalities of the event over, the evening may go on into the witching hour with entertainment relevant to Scottish culture—e.g. Scottish dancing or poems and songs written by Rabbie Burns—and more whisky.

A Village Voices choir singing a selection of Robbie Burns songs at a Burns' Night supper, 2018.
A Village Voices choir singing a selection of Robbie Burns songs at a Burns' Night supper, 2018. | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 GlenR

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