Every Jan. 25, proud Scots from Edinburgh to Shanghai celebrate the life and literary genius of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns through a beloved tradition called Burns Night. Ranging from formal ceremonies with kilted bagpipers to small gatherings of old friends, a good Burns Night has three things in common: a bottle of good Scotch whisky, readings of classic Burns poems and songs, and a fat and juicy haggis.
It's hard to overstate the heroic status of Burns in Scottish cultural psyche. Born Jan. 25, 1759, not only was Burns the author 550 songs and poems — including "Auld Lang Syne" (the second most-sung song in the world after "Happy Birthday"), and favorites like "My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose," and "To a Mouse" — but he was a man of the people, a lifelong farmer known as the "heaven-taught ploughman" or "Ploughman Poet."
Alistair Braidwood, creator and host of the Scots Whay Hae! podcast, says that Burns' poems are some of the first taught in Scottish primary schools and that his dashing portrait is plastered on posters nationwide, like Che Guevara or John F. Kennedy.
"The fact that we can project different aspects of a national identity onto this figure has allowed him to endure," says Braidwood. "You could say, 'Scotland is a hard-drinking country' and Burns did that. Or 'Scotland is a socially liberal country' and he was that. There's something about him, the man and his poetry, that people can tap into."
The cult of Burns is celebrated all year in Scotland, but a special veneration is reserved for his birthday. It started just a few years after Burns' untimely death at just 37 years old from rheumatic fever, when his close friends gathered for a memorial supper in his honor, toasting their beloved "Rabbie." From there, the tradition spread across Scotland and eventually the world. Wherever you find a Scot on Jan. 25, you'll likely find a Burns Night. Formal suppers are held at the 250 official Burns Clubs worldwide, and various restaurants and private individuals host Burns suppers too.
The Star of the Supper
The main attraction of Burns Night is the Burns Supper and the star of the supper is undeniably the haggis, the traditional Scottish "pudding" of boiled sheepskin stuffed with a savory blend of sheep's heart, liver and lungs, plus onion, oatmeal and spices. After opening remarks by the host and the recitation of the traditional Selkirk Grace, (see tweet below) the haggis is brought out with great fanfare, sometimes accompanied by a parade of bagpipes.
Which brings us to everyone's favorite part of the night, the reciting of "Address to a Haggis." Written in the Scots language, like many of Burns' greatest work, "Address to a Haggis" is a humorous paean to the iconic Scottish dish, in which Burns scoffs at the high cuisine of France and Italy (which would "make a pig vomit") and praises the strength and virility of the haggis-fed man.
The poem is meant to be recited with gusto, complete with dramatic (and sometimes suggestive) hand gestures. At the uttering of the words, "His knife see rustic Labour dight, / An' cut you up wi' ready sleight, / Trenching your gushing entrails bright," the orator slits open the haggis from top to bottom, revealing its steaming spiced delights.
"It's just a great, fun poem apart from anything else," says Braidwood. "I've seen people really give it their all when they're doing the 'Address to a Haggis' and you've got the cutting open of the haggis right there in the poem. It almost tells you how to enjoy a good Burns Night."
The party doesn't stop with the haggis. After everyone has stuffed themselves with boiled sheep meat and the traditional sides of "neeps and tatties" (mashed rutabaga and potatoes), it's time for the performance of famous Burns songs, after which come the traditional toasts and speeches. These are usually accompanied by wine, ale or, of course, Scotch whisky.
To The Immortal Memory and the Lassies
When Braidwood gets together with his friends (some of whom are Burns scholars) for a Burns Supper, the evening includes a rousing discussion of the great man and his work, but at a more formal gathering, someone will be assigned (or hired) to give the official "Immortal Memory" speech.
This isn't an off-the-cuff toast, but a well-researched talk referencing Burns' biography, his literary achievements, his politics, his rural roots and his very embodiment of Scottish pride. Alisdair Hutton, a seasoned Burns Supper speaker, recommends reading at least two Burns biographies to prepare for the speech, which ends with the toast: "To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!"
And that's not the only speech. Burns famously appreciated the fairer sex — he fathered 12 children (only nine with his wife, Jean Armour) — and the "Toast to the Lassies" is a chance for one intrepid guest to use some snippets of Burns verse to praise (and poke fun at) the ladies in attendance. The men have to be careful, though, because it's the women who get the last laugh with the "Reply to the Toast to the Lassies."
The evening ends with everyone holding hands and singing "Auld Lang Syne." If your only experience with the song is mumbling and bumbling through the chorus on New Year's Eve, it's worth learning more about this nostalgic ballad to the gift of friendship, including the words. That way, you'll be able to take "a cup o' kindness yet" to close out a memorable evening.