What is Burns Night?

Robert Burns, 1787. Source unknown. Author originally Alexander Nasmyth, 1758 - 1840. Public Domain
Robert Burns, 1787. Source unknown. Author originally Alexander Nasmyth, 1758 – 1840. Public Domain

Burns Night is held on or near the birthday of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796) on January 25th. It is a celebration of the poet’s life and poetry – and is celebrated in countries worldwide, generally wherever Scottish people have settled over the years. It’s a night for celebrating Scotland’s national poet, Robert (Rabbie) Burns, by eating a lot, drinking a lot of whisky and partying! Celebrations range from ceilidhs to whisky tasting and Burns Suppers.

Before I go on about what happens at a Burns Supper, here’s a cute little YouTube video about Robert Burns himself from aboutscotland:

The video is nice and simple but it does leave out a lot of detail about Burns’ life and poetry – and the fact that in 2009, Burns was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish TV channel STV – narrowly beating William (Braveheart) Wallace. Nor does it tell us that Rabbie Burns was the eldest of seven children. (Only one brother is mentioned in the video.)

The first Burns Supper was held at Burns Cottage (where the poet was born) by Burns’ friends on the 21st July 1801 – the fifth anniversary of his death. They have been a regular occurrence ever since. Suppers can be simple gatherings to big formal dinners.

Burns Cottage in Alloway. Transferred to de. Wikipedia by Malisin. Creative Commons
Burns Cottage (now a museum) in Alloway. Transferred to de.Wikipedia by Maksim. Creative Commons

A formal dinner often involves a piper to welcome the guests until the high table is ready to be seated. This is followed by a round of applause and the chairperson’s welcome and outline of the evening’s entertainments.  Next comes the Selkirk Grace, also known as the Burns Grace at Kirkudbright (pronounced ker-koo-bree). These are the words to the prayer:

The Selkirk Grace

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.

The prayer is followed by the piping in of the haggis:

RCMP Pipes and Drums Band piping in the Haggus (not a typo!) at their annual Burns Supper. Author Gleniarson. Creative Commons
Haggis at a Burn’s Supper. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons.

The address is in the form of a poem (aptly called Address to a Haggis) written by Burns in 1786. During the recital, the reader has a knife poised ready, and he cuts the casing along the length, making sure to spill out some of the gore. The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line as he yells, ‘Gie her a haggis!’ (the ‘her’ in this case being Scotland).

Cutting a haggis at a Burns Supper. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons
Doctor Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Burns Supper, Columba’s United Reformed Church, Oxford, 20004. Author: Kaihsu at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

The following video, uploaded to YouTube by Richard200sx, shows the piping in of the haggis, followed by quite a lengthy address. I’m sure many people, other than Scots, will have a hard time understanding what the ‘reader’ is saying, but as the poem is eight verses long, I’m only putting a translation of verse one here, with a link to the Wiki page for the rest for anyone interested.

 Address to a Haggis

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 wordy o’a grace
As lang’s me arm.


Nice seeing your honest, chubby face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Belly, tripe, or links:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

Link to full translation here.

So now we all know that a haggis is just a big sausage!

A toast is then made to the haggis: ‘The haggis!’ At some of the larger events, the piper leads the procession carrying the opened haggis to the kitchen for serving to the appreciative clapping of the audience.

So what, exactly, is haggis is made of?

Although recipes vary slightly, the main ingredients of this Scottish dish seem to be a sheep’s stomach or ox cecum (found at the junction of the small and large intestine) for the outer bag. The inner stuffing is made up of the heart and lungs of a lamb (or calf’s offal) mixed with oatmeal and sometimes suet, and seasonings.

Not something  everyone would love – but there are many who do.

Haggis on a garnished platter with a knife used to cut it open in the "Address" to a haggis at a Burns Supper in Rochester, Minnesota. Author: Jonathunder. Creative Commons
Haggis on a garnished platter with a knife used to cut it open in the “Address” to a haggis at a Burns Supper in Rochester, Minnesota. Author: Jonathunder. Creative Commons

The actual meal consists of various courses, each served with plenty of wine or sometimes ale.  It generally starts with soup. This can be a Scottish broth, or sometimes cock-a-leekie. The main course, the haggis, is served with ‘tatties and neeps’ (potatoes and turnips):

Haggis served with tatties and neeps (turnips) at an Edinburgh Burns Supper in 201. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons
Haggis served with tatties and neeps (turnips) at an Edinburgh Burns Supper in 201. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons

The haggis itself is served with a whisky sauce, which is actually neat whisky!

Dessert is usually a typically Scottish recipe, such as cranachan  – made of whipped cream, whisky, honey and fresh raspberries, with toasted oatmeal soaked  in a little whisky.

"The Best Scottish Dessert" - Cranachan. Author: Saskia van de Nienwenhof from Edinburgh. Creative Commons
“The Best Scottish Dessert” – Cranachan. Author: Saskia van de Nienwenhof from Edinburgh. Creative Commons

Another popular dessert is tipsy laird (whisky trifle). Whichever is chosen, it is followed by oatcakes (bannocks) and cheese, all washed down with ‘uisge beatha’ – the water of life (i.e. Scotch whisky) and often coffee.

The rest of the evening is filled with entertainments, including singers and musicians performing Burns’ poetry. A speech is given on the life and literary genius of Rabbie Burns – and of course, his nationalism.

Further toasts and readings of Rabbie’s poems follow, as well as an ‘Addresss to the Lassies’. Originally, this was a short speech given by a male guest to thank the women who had prepared the meal. Nowadays it often includes the male speaker’s view on women – in an inoffensive and amusing way, of course. It is promptly followed by a response from a female speaker called an ‘Address to the Laddies’. This is delivered in similar, humorous vein to the male address.

The evening ends with a vote of thanks for the chair – who is often very unsteady on his feet by now. The guests are all asked to sing Auld Land Syne.

I’ve never attended a Burns Supper, but it seems I’ve been missing out here! I’m not sure I could stomach haggis (excuse the pun) and I’d have to request wine instead of whisky (even the smell of whisky knocks me out). But it does look a great evening’s entertainment.

This final picture is of Robert Burns’ house in Dumfries, where he spent the last years of his life. He died in 1796 at the age of 37.

Burns' house in Dumfries. Author: MSDMSD. Creative Commons
Burns’ house in Dumfries. Author: MSDMSD. Creative Commons


BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/burns_night_running_order.shtml
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burns_supper
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Burns
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranachan
Robert Burns signature used for header image, from the above wiki link to Robert Burns. The image is Public Domain.

17 thoughts on “What is Burns Night?

    1. Thanks, Chika. I was only vaguely aware of what haggis was made of until I researched for this post. I’d never thought of them as giant sausages before. 😀 I’m not sure I’d like it, I have to say. But Burns Night looks a wonderful event.

  1. Amazing! Such a dedicated event, with precise rituals! I like and am curious about the addressal that men and women make to each other. Would surely be an interesting discourse. I remember Burns for his poetry O My Luve’s Like a Red Red Rose, which I dearly admire. I m pleased to know about this curios event associated with him!

    1. Thank you, Prabhat. The address from both the man and woman are meant to amuse, so each pokes fun at the other, but in a nice way. As for Burns’ poems, I really need to do a whole a post about Burns life and his poetry at some stage. There is too much to fit in this one. Perhaps I’ll do that for Burns Night 2018.

    1. Your Celtic blood would probably love Burns Night, Holly. I’m from Welsh and Irish stock (but no Scottish, as far as I know) and I love anything Celtic. I do love Scotland, too. It’s just so beautiful. Thank you for visiting!

  2. Very interesting article!
    Coincidentally, I devoted half of my post today to Robert Burns (though in a more humorous vein). I was thinking of mentioning Burns Night in my post, but decided not to for brevity’s sake. If you wish to refer to your article in a comment to my post, you’re welcome to do so. Click on:


  3. Mmm, haggis. Yeuch!
    I would have voted for Braveheart as the greatest Scot, except he yelled “Freeeedommmm” at the end of the film while he was being disembowelled. Not very realistic, I thought 🙂

  4. I like that the tradition started among his friends, rather than some politician or commercial like so many American traditions. I’ve never had haggis but it sounds pretty interesting to me — I’ve been wanting to try it for a while, but haven’t found the chance yet. The rest of that meal sounds delicious too. I’ll be happy to take your share of the whisky off your hands, Millie!

  5. Wow, so interesting! You know how to catch reader’s attention, dear Millie, I love your writing style! You are talented!

    1. Thank you, Ann. I enjoyed writing about Burns as I knew little about him before I did a little research. I’m afraid haggis isn’t something I fancy at all. 😀

  6. Nicely done. As Mrs Britain is Scottish, we often have haggis – and it MUST be accompanied by whisky. Give it a try – go on – it’s very tasty – though it can be dry if not cooked properly. You can buy little ones – when they’re in season… 🙂

    1. One of our four sons is a butcher, and has his own butcher’s shop in Newark. He sells haggis (and black pudding – ugh!) but generally only to order as it isn’t something on everyone’s weekly shopping list. He can’t persuade me to try it, either (and my husband is a vegetarian!).I know people who love haggis, so I realise it must be tasty.
      I’m guessing the ‘breeding season’for haggis is winter, as that’s when we see so many of them frolicking about. Lol 😀

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