The 25th of January is a special day for every Scot! It is the anniversary of Robert Burns’, probably the most famous Scottish poet, birth! Rabbie Burns, The Bard of Ayrshire, Robden of Solway Firth or simply Scotland’s favourite son – is undoubtedly a national hero to many, and one of the most important figures in Scottish history.
Burns Suppers are a tradition with many possible aspects – they might be extremely formal and elegant celebrations of literature, but may also take the form of wild parties with whisky flowing! Whichever seems more appealing or appalling, the supper has some highlights that can’t be omitted – and that includes both poems and victuals. The first event of this kind was established after the poet’s death and was celebrated by his friends in Ayrshire. Originally the commemoration date was 21st July – the anniversary of Burns’ death. A few years later, when the first Burns Club (once a men-only club formed to cherish the poet’s memory and Scottish culture in general, nowadays women are also welcomed in most of them) came into being, its members decided to organise a festive supper on the day of Scotland’s favourite son’s birthday. The first few birthday suppers took place on the 29th of January, but after the discovery of documents in Burns’ hometown parish the correct date turned out to be January 25th, and that’s the date Burns Suppers have been held ever since.
So, what are the essential ingredients? The most important one is probably you and your friends, but you’ll also need a piper (or some recordings of Scottish music), haggis, Scottish whisky, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) and – of course – some Rabbie Burns poems! There is a certain schedule that this event traditionally follows, and several very interesting traditions that are kept. The Burns Supper should have an official opening, with a speech from a host, and the guests will say Grace before eating, usually The Selkirk Grace in the Scots language. When the main course is ready to be served there will be The Piping of the Haggis, which is the ceremonial presentation of a haggis to the table accompanied by bagpipe music and a recitation of Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis. During the recitation of specific verses the host sharpens the knife, and cuts the haggis open from one side to another. This is the most important moment of the evening, although the whole ceremony is still far from its end. After the meal, while guests sip coffee (or, more likely, Scotch whisky!), the next speaker gives a talk about the life and
poetry of Burns (for even though newcomers might have the impression that it’s all about the haggis, this is not the case and the poet is still in the spotlight!). There will be a round of toasts made, and a discussion afterwards. The first toast is made to Burns himself, and followed by a Toast to the Lassies, made by one of the male guests. This toast was originally intended to thank the women who had prepared the supper but were not permitted to attend it, but now, as women also take part in the suppers (and do not necessarily prepare the meal), the speech has become an entertaining summary of the speaker’s views on women. It is usually followed by a Response to the Laddies, which is made by a female guest in the same spirit as the Toast to the Lassies. Afterwards, the guests are invited to perform Scottish songs as solo performances or in groups. Popular choices include Tam O’Shanter, and others – especially if the words are written in the Scots language. Later, when the supper comes to an end, there is a closing ceremony which includes a thank-you speech made to the host and a rendition of Burn’s national classic Auld Lang Syne with all the attendees dancing and embracing one another.
When it comes to the dishes besides haggis, neeps, and tatties – what else should you serve? Haggis is of course essential, but it can take some getting used to for modern palates and you might wish to only have small taster plates of this dish as a starter for your first Burns Supper. When looking for inspiration for traditional alternatives, you can’t go wrong in considering a warming Scottish soup. Cock-a-leekie soup or Scotch broth are two of the most popular choices and are very easy to learn to make. The choice of the main course is up to you, but we recommend something with a Scottish twist to avoid a lack of cohesion in the menu. We personally advise a roasted turkey (also known as a Roastit Bubbly-Jock) using a traditional Scottish stuffing recipe, or a recipe using Scottish haddock or langoustines such as Cullen Skink. For dessert, again this will depend on what you anticipate as the needs of your guests. For a light and creamy sweet consider Raspberry Cranachan with it’s delicious toasted porridge oats and tart raspberries setting off the whipped cream to perfection. Or if you think they’ll need something more substantial to soak up all the whisky, you may find your answer in a dense and rich Clootie Dumpling, packed with dried fruit and served with thick homemade custard!
The above is the most traditional schedule, which of course is loosely adapted by the Scots all over the country and overseas. Nowadays it has become quite popular to dine out in restaurants – not everyone has the time or skills to prepare such a special meal on their own. If you prefer a less formal atmosphere and Scottish music with a modern twist – there are plenty of concerts and events commemorating Robert Burns in a relaxed atmosphere. The biggest celebrations are held in Dumfries, which was the hometown of the poet, in Edinburgh and, surprisingly, in London. Whichever option you may choose – we raise a glass of Scotch with you to celebrate the memory of Rabbie Burns and we wish you a wonderful night!