Burns Night is a meal held on or around the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, January 25. It is often simply called a Burns Supper.
The celebration may also be called Robert Burns Day or Burns Nicht and, in principle, be held at any time of the year.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have the highest numbers of Burns Suppers but they can be found all over the world where there are Burns Clubs, Scotland Societies, expat Scots and lovers of Burns’ poetry.
One very strong Burns Night tradition can be found in Dunedin, southern New Zealand’s main city, which was founded by Burns’ nephew Thomas Burns.
When did Burns Night start?
Burns’ friends started them in Ayrshire toward the end of the 18th on the anniversary of his death, (21 July) as an “In Memoriam”, and they are still held on this date too.
The Mother Club, started in 1801 by the merchants of Greenock, Ayrshire, held the first January suppers in 1801. Initially they held them on what was thought to be his birth date, January 29, but birth records discovered in 1803 proved the date to be January 25, 1759, and that date has stuck ever since.
The stages of a Burns Supper
Start of the evening
The same as any party, guests gather informally, maybe have some welcome drinks and small snacks.
Host’s Welcome Speech
The host makes a short speech to welcome everyone, maybe remind everyone of the reason for it and declare the party open.
Seating and Grace
Everyone takes their seats and grace is said. This is a specific form of grace known as the Selkirk Grace which was originally known as the Galloway Grace but came to be called the Selkirk Grace as Burns is said to have given it at a dinner held by the Earl of Selkirk.
Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae let the Lord be thankit.
Once grace is said the meal begins with a soup course such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leeki.
Main Course – Entrance of the haggis
Traditionally a bagpiper plays ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, ‘Robbie Burns Medley’ or ‘The Star O’ Robbie Burns’. The host or a guest then recites the Address to a Haggis. At the line “His knife see rustic Labour dicht” the speaker draws and cleans his ceremonial knife. Then at “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht” he cuts it open from end to end. When the address is finished there will then be a Scotch Whiskey toast to the haggis and the main course is eaten.
Speeches and Toasts
Once the coffee stage is reached there are certain speeches and toasts made as follows:
A short speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry.
The host thanks the Immortal Memory speaker and maybe makes a few comments. Depending on the event this could be formal or fun.
Toast to the Lassies
A speech by a male guest to thank the women who had prepared the meal; amusing in nature with light hearted views on women.
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
One big reason why the men’s toast is light hearted is that the women get the last word by way of a reply speech! The lady speaker will give her views on men and reply to any points made in the men’s speech. Speakers will often plan their speeches in advance so they compliment each other and add more humour.
May follow depending on the guests or nation where the dinner is taking place.
Works by Burns
After all the speeches it’s common to sing Burns songs such as Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel O’ Rogues, A Man’s a Man and to read poems like To a Mouse, To a Louse, Tam O’ Shanter, The Twa Dugs, Holy Willie’s Prayer. This may include other poems by poets influenced by Burns, especially if written in Scots.
The host ends the evening by calling on a guest to give the vote of thanks. Then everyone stands, joins hands, and sings Auld Lang Syne which brings the evening to a finish.