A Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns, author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day or Burns Night, although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.
Burns suppers are most common in Scotland and Northern Ireland but occur wherever there are Burns Clubs, Scottish Societies, expatriate Scots, or aficionados of Burns’ poetry. There is a particularly strong tradition of them in southern New Zealand’s main city Dunedin, of which Burns’ nephew Thomas Burns was a founding father.
The first suppers were held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by Robert Burns’ friends on the anniversary of his death, 21 July, In Memoriam and they have been a regular occurrence ever since. The first Burns club, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. They held the first Burns supper on what they thought was his birthday on 29 January 1802, but in 1803 discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was 25 January 1759, and since then suppers have been held on 25 January, Burns’ birthday.
Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in Address to a Haggis), Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organisations such as Burns clubs, the Freemasons or St Andrews Societies and occasionally end with dancing when ladies are present. Formal suppers follow a standard format as follows:
Start of the evening; Guests gather and mix as in any informal party.
Host’s welcoming speech; The host says a few words welcoming everyone to the supper and perhaps stating the reason for it. The event is declared open. All of the guests are seated and grace is said, usually using the Selkirk Grace, a well-known thanksgiving said before meals, using the Scots language. Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 17th century, as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters’ Grace”. It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given 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.
The supper starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served.
“Piping” of the haggis; Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host’s table, where the haggis is laid down. He/she might play ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, ‘Robbie Burns Medley’ or ‘The Star O’ Robbie Burns’. The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the Address to a Haggis;
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 wordy 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 dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that o’re 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 ower 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 wallie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whistle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thristle.
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!
At the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht the speaker normally draws and cleans a knife, and at the line An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end. When done properly this “ceremony” is a highlight of the evening.
Supper; At the end of the poem, a Scotch whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, then the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps). A dessert course, cheese courses, coffee, etc. may also be part of the meal. The courses normally use traditional Scottish recipes. For instance, dessert may be cranachan or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle) followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with the “water of life” (uisge beatha) – Scotch whisky. When the meal reaches the coffee stage various speeches and toasts are given. In order, the core speeches and toasts are as follows.
Immortal memory; One of the guests gives a short speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or intensely serious. A good speaker always prepares a speech with his audience in mind, since above all the Burns’ supper should be entertaining. Everyone drinks a toast to Robert Burns.
Appreciation; The host will normally say a few words thanking the previous speaker for his speech and may comment on some of the points raised.
Toast to the Lassies; This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal. However, nowadays it is much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but not offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned. The men drink a toast to the women’s health.
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies; This is occasionally (and humorously) called the “Toast to the Laddies” and, like the previous toast, it is generally quite wide-ranging nowadays. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, this should be amusing, but not offensive. Quite often the speakers giving this toast and the previous one will collaborate so that the two toasts complement each other.
Other toasts and speeches; These may follow if desired. It is not unusual to toast the locality or nation in which the supper is being held.
Works by Burns; After the speeches there may be singing of songs by Burns — Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel o’ Rogues, A Man’s a Man, etc. — and more poetry — To a Mouse, To a Louse, Tam o’ Shanter, The Twa Dugs, Holy Willie’s Prayer, etc. This may be done by the individual guests or by invited experts, and it goes on for as long as the guests wish and may include other works by poets influenced by Burns, particularly poets writing in Scots. Foreign guests can also be invited to sing or say works from their land.
Closing; Finally the host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne bringing the evening to an end.