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Celebrating Burns Night

A group of people celebrating Burns Night

Traditionally, Burns Suppers are held on or around Robert Burns’s birthday – 25 January – but they can be held at any time of year. They celebrate good fellowship and the works of our national poet, Robert Burns.

Large Burns Suppers take place all across Scotland in late January, but you can also host a smaller and less formal affair at home.

How did the Burns Supper 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!

A traditional Burns Night menu

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. You can even serve your whisky in style from one of our beautiful crystal decanters!

Gifts for whisky and gin lovers

Rustic serving of haggis, neeps and tatties on a metal skillet showing the texture of the cooked meat with mashed turnip or swede and potato
Rustic serving of haggis, neeps and tatties

Some alternative Burns Night recipes

A full haggis supper may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are plenty of delicious Scottish recipes out there that we feel sure Burns would enjoy at his 261st birthday party!

For a lighter meal, try RBBM’s cheese and haggis scones.

Or perhaps you fancy celebrating Scotland’s cuisine in a more modern fashion, with these best-selling Irn-Bru scones:

Ingredients

2lb  self-raising flour
8oz margarine
8oz caster sugar
4 eggs
1 can of Irn-Bru
4 tsp of orange food colouring

Method

Rub the margarine into the flour and add the eggs, Irn-Bru and food colouring. Mix to a soft dough, add milk if required, then turn on to a floured surface. Cut out scones and cook at 180C in an electric fan oven or Gas Mark 4 for 20 minutes.

cheese and haggis scones on a Burns Night
cheese and haggis scones

What happens at a Burns Supper?

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

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!


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 will then recite the ‘Address to the Haggis’.

After the poem, 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 take 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.

‘Scotch Drink’ Poem by Robert Burns

A chef stands behind a large haggis on a decorative plate on Burns Night. He holds a sharp kitchen knife.
Presenting the haggis

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 his life and works. At more formal dinners this speech focuses on a theme of Burns’s works, ending with a 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 before guests depart.

Where to celebrate Burns Night 2020

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is running a wide range of events to celebrate Burns Night this year, including a Burns Supper, ceilidh and amazing fire show at their Blazing Burns Night Spectacular!

Earlier in the day, enjoy the fun at the Burns Gala Day with live performances and food and drink tastings.

And after all the Burns Night fun, join us on Sunday 26 January for a Big Burns Brunch.

There are also Burns-related events taking place at a number of other Trust places:

Burns Supper Drive Thru at Newhailes

Burns Supper Drive Thru at Bannockburn

Burns Night - Murder Mystery at Drum Castle

Whisky Tasting at Castle Fraser

Burns at Brodie Castle

Burns Weekend at the Georgian House

Explore Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

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Burns Night events near you

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