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24 Jan 2019

The Burns Supper

Address to the Haggis
Address to the Haggis
Burns Suppers have been held for over 200 years. They celebrate good fellowship and the genius of our national poet, Robert Burns.

How did it all start?

The first Burns Supper was held in 1801 in Burns Cottage, Alloway, which you can visit at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

This first supper was organised by the Reverend Hamilton Paul for a gathering of nine ‘honest men of Ayr’. For some years there was a question over whether a woman had been in attendance, as one of those noted had the Christian name Primrose, an uncommon name for a man.

It introduced all the key ingredients of the Burns Suppers we see today, namely good food, plenty of drink and friends who toasted the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns as well as reciting some of his works.

Guests at this first supper were served sheep’s head; this rarely features on modern menus!

Burns Cottage
Burns Cottage

What happens on Burns Night?

Traditionally, Burns Suppers are held on or around Burns’s birthday – 25 January. They’ve become popular around the world.

While it used to be the case that a Burns Supper was a male-only affair, this is definitely not still true.

Large Burns Suppers may have a top table for the Chairman, speakers and their partners, any special guests and the organising committee (if there is one), but you can also run a smaller and less formal affair.

The menu or Bill o’ Fare will detail what the party will be eating and usually includes a list of the speeches, speakers and entertainers. You may also find the words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which will be sung at the end of the evening before guests depart.

Most suppers start with a grace, most commonly ‘The Selkirk Grace’ attributed to Burns.

What to wear at a Burns Supper?

As a celebration night, dress can be quite formal. There’s no rule obliging a kilt to be worn but this has become common evening dress for many Scots. A dinner suit or trews (tartan dress trousers) are equally acceptable.

It should be noted that it’s very unlikely that Burns himself would have worn a kilt. He was a Lowlander and the kilt is traditionally Highland dress. It was also illegal to wear a kilt between 1747–82, in the aftermath of the Jacobite Risings.

At a more traditional Burns Night, ladies might wear a black or white dress with a hint of tartan, perhaps a tartan sash pinned to the right shoulder (only a Clan Chief’s wife should wear her sash pinned to the left).

Many suppers are ‘come as you are’. If you’re the organiser, just let your guests know how formal you intend the evening to be.

Presenting the haggis
Presenting the haggis

What to eat at a Burns Supper?

The first course is traditionally soup, either Scotch broth, cock-a-leekie or Cullen skink – all good Scottish recipes using fine Scottish ingredients.

Haggis is then served either as the main course or an intermediate course.

The haggis is accompanied by champit tatties (mashed potato) and neeps (mashed turnip).Sometimes carrot is mixed with the neeps, although this is not traditional. Many suppers now include a whisky sauce to accompany the haggis.

If haggis is the intermediate course, it’s often followed by a main of Scottish salmon, Scottish beef, a steak pie or game such as grouse or pheasant. This would be accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables. 

Scots are known for their sweet tooth so pudding is an essential part of the meal! It might be a traditional Scottish trifle or cranachan, a dish of oatmeal, cream and raspberries with a hint of whisky.

Finally, a cheeseboard is passed around, usually with a selection of fine Scottish cheeses such as Caboc, Arran cheddar, Dunlop cheese from Ayrshire (similar to cheddar) or a Lanark Blue, served with Scottish chutneys and oatcakes.

This can be accompanied by port or whisky and followed by coffee and tea, before the speeches begin.

Haggis & cheese scones recipe

A formally dressed man gives a speech at a Burns Supper.
The speeches are an important part of the Burns Supper entertainment.

Addressing the haggis

This has become a key part of all Burns Suppers and involves the Addresser, the chef, a piper and 3 glasses of whisky (drams). It’s likely that all guests will be given a dram at this point, if they don’t already have one.

The piper leads the procession of the haggis, carried on a platter by the chef. As they circle the room, guests clap in time to the music. The haggis is presented in front of the Addresser who is flanked by the piper and the chef.

The Addresser will then recite the ‘Address to the Haggis’.

Once the Address is complete, the Addresser gives a glass of whisky to the chef and the piper, and invites the whole company to ‘toast the haggis’.

The chef will then recover the haggis and leave the room to plate this part of the meal. Sometimes the haggis is passed around the table for guests to help themselves, adding tatties and neeps from large bowls placed on the table.

A fiddler plays at a Burns Supper
Musical entertainment is popular after the meal.

Speeches and entertainment

After the meal, the speeches and entertainment begin in earnest, starting with a toast to the monarch, known as The Loyal Toast.

This is followed by the main toast of the night, to The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

The Immortal Memory should be a heartfelt toast to the genius, life and works of our National Bard. At more formal dinners this speech focuses on a theme of Burns’s works, ending with a formal toast where all guests are invited to raise their glass.

The next speech will be The Toast to the Lassies, a reflection of Burns’s ‘appreciation’ of women. Traditionally, this takes the form of a witty reflection on the relationships between men and women, ending with the men rising to toast ‘the Lassies’.

This is followed by the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies. This should also be witty and seek to correct the previous speaker’s assumptions about women. The speech often ends with rousing applause from the women present, who then rise and raise their glasses to the men, toasting ‘the Laddies’.

At larger or more formal Burns Suppers, there may be further speeches that reflect on the guests and absent friends, Scotland and a formal vote of thanks.

The speeches are followed by entertainment – often including recitations and music. The night should end with a rousing rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and three cheers, marking the end of a successful Burns Night.

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