Burns Night Explained

Slightly confused by the prevalence of haggis in Sainsburys? CATHERINE TRINDER explains.

birthday Burns Night Catherin Trinder haggis neeps poet poetry Scotland tatties

The Shakespeare of Scotland, writer of Auld Lang Syne and prolific womaniser, Robert Burns would be celebrating his 252nd Birthday on Tuesday (25th January 2011). As he’s dead, we have to celebrate it for him.

Around the world, events will be taking place to commemorate his life – so dig out the ol’ bagpipes, don your kilt and get practising those terrible Scottish accents, ready for a night celebrated in true Scottish style (read: ‘hammered’).

Born in 1759, Robert Burns (aka Rabbie), grew up on a farm. His first attempt at writing poetry was in 1774, in an effort to woo some poor wee lass. Embarrassingly, that wasn’t the beginning of his career as a great poet. Terrible at poetry and farming, he made plans to move to Jamaica instead. The publication of his first book of poems was to raise the money for his passage.

A letter from renowned Scottish poet Thomas Blacklock praising the so called ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ persuaded him to cancel his journey and pursue a writing career. By the time he died in 1796 he had written over 550 poems and songs, including A Red, Red Rose, To a Mouse and Tam O’ Shanter. He had also fathered at least 12 children with four different women. That’s quite a legacy.

His influence has spread worldwide and inspired many other artists including JD Salinger, John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson.

Celebrations for Burns’ birthday are called Burns Suppers and follow a set form. The night opens with a Host’s welcome, followed by the Selkirk grace (listen below). Then comes the food. The starter is Scotch broth or Cock-a-Leekie (soup made from leek and chicken stock). The pinnacle of the night comes with the entrance of the haggis, hailed by a recitation of Burns’ ‘Address to a haggis’. It’s normally served with neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (potatoes). This is all washed down with copious amounts of whisky.

Listen to the Selkirk Grace, a.k.a. ‘Burns Grace at Kircudbright’

After pudding there is the ‘Immortal Memory’: a speech is made in honour of Burns, and then the ‘Toast to the Lassies’. This began as a thank-you to the women who cooked the meal, and also as a tribute to the ‘lassies’ that helped to ‘inspire’ Burns, but is now a tribute to women in general using the words of, you guessed it, Rabbie Burns.

A traditional Burns Supper Meal

It should be funny, but not offensive. The ladies should also get the chance to give a response, answering back to the men. Finally there will be performances of Burns’ works, ending when the party join hands to sing Auld Lang Syne.

Suppers will be taking place world over, and last week saw a new first as climbers held an early Burns Supper on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In previous years, other such events have included a Burns balloon fiesta in Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland where a 155 ft balloon in the shape of a piper was guest of honour; a supper on top of the CN Tower, Toronto; and a supper hosted by a Clan Chief on Balmoral Beach, Australia.

Suppers are being held at colleges all around Cambridge including Wolfson, Homerton, Downing, Murray Edwards, Darwin and Lucy Cavendish. If you can’t make it to one of these, you can always get into the spirit of the celebration by doing some online Burns karaoke, or checking out how you’d look in a kilt.


Host Your Own Burns Supper

Chicken and Leek Cup a Soup – 5 sachets for £1.09 from Sainsbury’s.

Neeps and Tatties – pre mashed, from Sainsburys, £2.49. Serves 2.

Haggis – vegetarian or meaty, £2 each at Sainsburys. Microwaves in 5 mins.

Whisky – we probably don’t need to tell you how to source alcohol. Make whisky sauce for your haggis, the traditional Scottish recipe is lots of it.

Assorted tartan accessories – Primark.

Bagpipes – hire your own bagpipe player here.

Illustrations by Amy Jeffs