25 Jan 2022

Burns Night traditions and etiquette

This poetic and gastronomic extravaganza pays tribute to the Scottish national poet, Robbie Burns (1759–96). It was first held on 25 January 1801, on Robbie Burns’s birth date, just five years after his death. A group of nine friends and patrons, organised by the Reverend Hamilton Paul, gathered together in his family home, Burns Cottage in Alloway, to memorialise the poet. Even at this stage the celebration embraced many familiar practices: a haggis was ‘addressed’, toasts were drunk, and Burns’s work was extolled.

Within a year, Burns Clubs were springing up all over Paisley and Greenock and an annual tradition was born. As Scottish settlers travelled across the globe, they continued to revere their national poet, adhering to the Burns night tradition, and today there are over 1,000 Burns clubs worldwide.

A Burns night can follow the time-honoured rituals to the letter, and may be quite a formal event. It can also simply be a gathering of friends, who enjoy a genial ‘themed’ get-together in the grim midwinter.  While close adherence to the traditions may not be essential, a number of elements of the evening are de rigueur: the consumption of haggis, cock-a-leekie soup and neeps and tatties, liberal intake of whisky (accompanied by toasts), the recital of choice samples of Burns’s verse, and renditions of his songs.

The host of a Burns night is responsible for orchestrating this gastronomic and poetic jamboree. It is a good idea, therefore, to plan it in advance. Review the traditional order of events (set out below) and decide which elements you want to retain. Burns suppers demand contributions from guests – from reciting, to toasting, to speech-giving. You will need to allocate these roles well in advance and brief your guests carefully, or the whole evening will lose its unique flavour. On the night itself, you will have to be very conscious of timings and your programme, and will need to keep events moving along. Copious intake of Scotch whisky may render your guests raucous and uncooperative, so be prepared to be assertive.

Guests will need to accept that this is an unusual event, requiring more energy and commitment than the average dinner party. If they are asked to contribute, they should dedicate some time to preparing – whether it is a toast, a recital or a witty speech. Don’t be a party-pooper, who undermines the whole event by not fully engaging in the entertainment. Be prepared to cooperate and to follow your host’s lead.

Above all, relax and enjoy a convivial evening, which celebrates the spirit of the Bard and good fellowship.

Burns Night Itinerary

Gathering

As the guests together, they can greet each other , admire each other’s tartan and raise a glass. Some traditional Scottish music playing in the background will set the mood

The Selkirk Grace

The host/chairman offers the opening grace, also known as the ‘Grace at Kircudbright’. Ideally at this point the participants will enjoy their Cock-a-leekie soup.:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it;

But we hae meat, and we can eat,

And sae the Lord be thankit.

Parade of the Haggis

Traditionally the haggis is piped in on a silver platter, accompanied by the chef.  Most home entertainers will not be able to provide a Highland piper, but some traditional Scottish music on an iPad will suffice.

Address to a Haggis

A designated addresser should now embark on a spirited rendition of Burns’s poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ (or an edited version of it): ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!’  He or she, or the chairman, then slices the haggis open. To avoid an explosion, make a slit in the skin before it reaches the table.

The Toast

A simple toast to ‘The Haggis’, with raised glasses, and the meal is ready to begin.

Immortal Memory

It is now time for a designated speaker to deliver the Immortal Memory address, which outlines the story of Robert Burns and looks his work, ideally highlighting aspects that are relevant to the assembled participants. A further toast to the ‘immortal memory of the Bard of Ayr’ finished this part of the evening.

The Entertainment

Songs, music and readings should now follow and participants should read works of their own choosing – they do not have to be exclusively by Burns, they may be works of other Scottish poets or stories and anecdotes about his life. During this phase of the evening guests can eat pudding or cheese and yet more whisky. This is the point when, the host/chairman must be assertive and organised, ensuring that every speaker is given his/her allocated slot, and is not interrupted when speaking

Toast to the Lassies

This is a light-hearted tribute to the ladies, which pokes affectionate fun at their various foibles and eccentricities, while making occasional reference to the work of Robbie Burns. It should end on a conciliatory note with a toast ‘to the lassies’.

Reply from the Lassies

This should be a witty rejoinder, which decries the men’s social inferiority and lack of refinement. Reference should be made the Bard, perhaps a wry comparison with the men of the day. It should end on a complimentary note.

Closing Remarks

The Chairman thanks the guests for their attendance and good company, and now is a suitable time for a designated guest to voice general thanks for the Chairman’s efforts, proposing a final toast to the Chairman.

Auld Lang Syne

Before finally switching off for the night a rousing rendition of this sentimental Scottish song will cause general hilarity, especially if plenty of whisky has been consumed (make sure to circulate the words, which no one can actually remember!).

Tartan Tips

In the spirit of Robbie Burns, wear at least a bit of tartan – a hat, a tie, a scarf, or even a full kilt. In Robbie Burn’s day this traditional Highland woven cloth, whose pattern identified individual clan affiliations, had fallen into disuse. The British government had banned tartan after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, aiming to crush the rebellious Scottish clan system. Tartan was revived in 1825 when George IV visited Edinburgh, but many of the traditional patterns had been lost, and new ‘original’ tartans had to be reinvented. The Victorians had a passion for all things Scottish, and tartan became hugely popular. Today, it is a symbol of Scottish pride, and therefore a suitable choice for an event honouring Scotland’s most celebrated poet.

The Bill o’Fare

A typical Burns supper consists of the following:

Starter

Cock-a-leekie (chicken, leek and prune soup)

Main course

Haggis (cooked, minced sheep’s offal mixed with suet,  oatmeal and seasoning encased in a sheep’s stomach), neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes)

Pudding

Clootie Dumpling (a spiced fruit pudding boiled in cloth, or clootie) or Tipsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle).

Cheeseboard

Served with bannocks (oatcakes) accompanied by wine, ale and lashings of whisky.

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