The Burn’s Night Supper is a special dinner held in homes across Scotland on 25th January each year. Robert Burns the poet is Scotland’s National Bard and this celebration with Scottish food and poetry has since become popular around the world.
So what makes this such a great occasion for Scottish culture? Here’s the background on one of my cultural food and wine pairings that I host at Savour Academy Barcelona: Burn’s Night!
Why do the Scottish celebrate Burn’s Night?
Since the first Burn’s Supper in 1801, when a group of his friends gathered in a cottage five years after his death to celebrate his life and works, this cultural quest on Burn’s birthday (on or around January 25th) has become a national event in Scotland.
Robert Burns grew up in empoverished farm life in Ayreshire. Although he became famous in his lifetime as “The Ploughman Poet” and revered in the Edinburgh capital, Burns remained a poor man by social standards. So count instead his fantastic contributions to Scottish culture, poetry, music and of course his passionate conquests (he fathered 12 children that are known, although nine of those were to his last wife). His other love interests include whisky and haggis, so let’s address those!
What is a traditional Burn’s Night Supper?
A traditional Burn’s Supper includes a hearty Scottish meal and recitals of poetry from Robert Burns, with toasts and even singing and dancing, to commemorate the bard. There is usually a reception including bagpipes and a welcome drink, followed by a soup starter and the main meal of haggis, presented with its own poem. Dessert follows and whisky, with some formal speeches given but the point of the evening is to have fun!
What Food is Served for a Robbie Burns Dinner?
Starters on Burn’s Night may include a soup (e.g. Cock-a-Leekie) or my favourite, Cullen Skink. This is like a chowder, thick and creamy with smoked haddock, potato and leek. Smoked haddock is not easy to find in Barcelona, so makes a special addition to the meal.
Mains at a Burn’s Supper is haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and mash). Haggis is boiled offal with barley and oats, salt and pepper, served in a sheep’s stomach lining. It has an earthy, peppery taste and I admit I don’t mind it! If you’re not inclined, I always make a great veggie haggis too on request.
Dessert is optional but I like to serve Cranachan: Raspberries layered with whipped cream, toasted oats and whisky. Invariably there will be whisky too!
The Burn’s Supper Menu at Savour Academy includes wine pairing for each course. Check the full menu and book your spot at the table!
Running Order of the evening
Although there are more or less formal ways of doing things on Burn’s Night, the running order is generally agreed as the following:
- Bagpiping in of the guests– If there is no bagpiper present, traditional music will usually suffice
- Welcome from the host– The chairman or host will say a few words of welcome
- Selkirk Grace- This is a short, humorous prayer by Robert Burns
- Starter is Served
- Piping in the Haggis, Address to the Haggis, Toast to the Haggis– Bagpipes are played as the haggis is presented, an ode to the Haggis is read and a whisky toast is made “The Haggis!”, after which the main meal is served.
- Dessert is Served
- Burn’s Poetry Readings or Songs- Participants can take it in turns to read or sing one of Burns’ works
- The Immortal Memory- A speech is read about Burns’ life and works
- Toast to the Lassies– A witty toast is made (by a male participant) to thank and appreciate the fairer sex
- Reply to the Toast to the Lassies– A witty reply is made (by a female participant) to rebuff the Toast to the Lassies
- Vote of thanks– The chairman or host says a few words of thanks
- Auld Lang Syne– The participants link arms to join in and sign Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns
NOTE: It is customary for the host and guests alike to volunteer for the reading parts on Burn’s Night, but you can also attend and enjoy the evening without performing a part, it’s up to you!
More About the Toasts and Recitals of Robert Burns
It is of course customary to have a “wee dram” meaning a glass of whisky, to accompany the toasts of the supper.
Address to the Haggis is probably the main toast of the evening thanks to its dramatic appeal. As the toast is performed, the reader should draw a knife and cut open the presented haggis during the speech. Whisky sauce (i.e. whisky) is splashed on the haggis. Needless to say the toast is applauded and cheered with a glass of whisky!
The Toast to the Lassies should appreciate the women of today and should end on a positive note. And the Reply to The Toast to the Lassies should be a funny comeback to this, preferably by a witty female.
During the recitals, you may hear or even want to perform one of these famous works by Burns.
What to wear on Burn’s Night?
For Scots, Burn’s Night is a great excuse to wear a full tartan oufit from the family clan, meaning a kilt and sporran for the men in many cases! However it is understood that not everyone attending a Burn’s Supper is actually Scottish or has access to a tartan outfit. If that’s the case for you, a simple tartan detail such as a scarf, tie or hairclip works perfectly, or failing that, just dress up as you would for a dinner.
Above all, remember that a Burn’s Supper is an evening of good food and entertainment in good company. So the best accessory you can have is the right attitude and a smile! Book your spot now.