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A Beginner’s Guide to a Burns Supper

On 25 January every year in Scotland, and across the world, Burns Night is celebrated. The day marks the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns and has become a celebration of his life and work. People come together to toast to the national bard with the traditional Burns supper.

The first Burns supper was held in July 1801, marking just over five years since the death of Robert Burns. A few of his close friends came together to remember him by cooking a meal, performing his work and giving a speech in honour of their late friend. The night was so successful that they continued it every year, only changing the night to the date of Burns’ birthday.

Centuries later and the celebrations have grown. It is an evening synonymous with good food and good company with a helping of Scottish tradition. The night follows a set programme, no matter whether the supper is formal or informal, although variations and twists are welcomed.

All the information needed to host a Burns supper is below for those who have never hosted their own or for those who want to learn more about this famous evening!

For information regarding Burns Night in Scotland and Robert Burns, visit: www.visitscotland.com/burns

For information about Burns events and Burns suppers taking place across Scotland visit: www.visitscotland.com/blog/scotland/burns-night-guide/

Top tips for hosting a Burns Supper

Step 1: Scottish Music

It is no secret that Robert Burns was a fan of good music and the occasional danc, so it is only fitting that music plays an important part in a Burns supper. For a formal Burns supper, a ceilidh band is traditionally hired for the evening, while an informal supper can range from a playlist featuring some great Scottish artists (old and new) to people picking up and playing their own instruments. Music is usually played when welcoming the guests and when announcing the arrival of the haggis.

Step 2: The Haggis

The haggis is at the very heart of a Burns supper. Haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) is traditionally the main course, while starters and desserts may vary. A meal may begin with a Scottish soup, Cullen skink - which contains haddock, potatoes and onions - or Scotch Broth, followed by haggis, neeps and tatties with the dessert being perhaps a cheeseboard or the Scottish pudding, cranachan (which traditionally includes raspberries, honey and toasted oatmeal – yum).

Before the haggis can be served it must first be ‘greeted’ by the guests. In a formal Burns supper, the chef will bring through the haggis, held high on a silver platter, while the guests stand and the bagpipes play. The host of the evening will then deliver a rendition of Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ before the guests toast to the meal with a dram of whisky and the haggis is bagpiped back out of the room, ready to be cooked. The traditional address is:

‘Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!

Aboon them a' yet tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye worthy o'a grace

As lang's my arm.’

Step 3: Poems and Speeches

The ‘Address to a Haggis’, is not the only speech to be made during the evening. The Selkirk Grace is recited by the host of the evening before the meal and the piping in of the haggis. It is as follows:

‘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.’

Throughout the night guests are encouraged to recite their favourite Burns poems or songs while the host is to deliver the main speeches such as, The Immortal Memory, an ode to Robert Burns, his life and his legacy, and the Vote of Thanks to the guests. There is the opportunity for a Toast to the Lassies and a Reply to the Toast of the Lassies. This is usually a fun and good-humoured rapport between the males and the females present at the supper.

Step 4: Ceilidh Dance and Auld Lang Syne

Some Burns suppers round off the evening with a ceilidh; a selection of traditional lively Scottish dances. A ceilidh band provide the music and there is usually someone who announces the steps to the dances to those who are less practiced in ceilidh dancing. The evening is then closed by the singing of Auld Lang Syne, perhaps Robert Burns’ best-known piece of work. The guests come together to join hands and sing, only crossing over hands on the final verse.

Step 5: Have a Good Time

The most important part of hosting a Burns supper is to have a good time! The evening calls for all to join in the celebration of the Scottish poet with good food, plenty of whisky, dancing and humour, surrounded by good company.

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  • robert burns
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