A Beginners Guide to Burns Night

00000168_sThank goodness Burns Night is just around the corner. With Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations all over for another year, I’ve been suffering from post-festive-season-depression this past week. Touted as Scotland’s unofficial national day, Burns Night is a celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s most loved bard, Rabbie Burns. It’s also the perfect excuse to get together with friends and family, just in case you didn’t quite get your fill over the holiday season.

Burns Night came about a few years after the bard’s death, when a few of his pals decided to honour olde Rabbie’s memory with a supper. Today Burns Suppers are held annually on the 25th of January, and involve much merriment that I’m sure the bard would have approved of, including lashings of food, whisky, poetry and dancing.

This will be my first Burns Night in Scotland – last year I was visiting Norway at this time of year and missed out entirely. So since I’m rather new to all this Burns business, I decided to do a bit of research for all of you out there who, like me, will be honouring the bard for the first time


Born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire, Robbie Burns has an extra special place in Scotland’s heart. You’ll already know what is considered his most famous work, Auld Lang Syne. It’s recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the top three most sung songs in the English language, alongside Happy Birthday and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Just to show you how mad about him the Scots are, a 2009 STV poll voted Burns as the Greatest Scot of All Time, narrowly beating William Wallace to the post.

While his early life was hardly prosperous, Burns was given a rounded education which enabled him to develop a love for literature and song. As a young man he worked long and hard hours on the family farm, also developing an appetite for drink and the opposite sex. As well as bringing a huge creative output of poems into the world (including Tam O’ Shanter, Ae Fond Kiss and To a Mouse), Burns was also known for his numerous love affairs, fathering a total of 12 children. It is said the poet has over 600 living descendents, of which American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger claims he is one.

Burns sadly died at the young age of 37 in 1796 as a result of alcoholism and the after-effects of long periods of physical labour in his early life. After Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, he has more statues dedicated to him around the world than any other non-religious figure. Finally, in yet another nice piece of synchronicity between Scotland and my home, the New Zealand town of Mosgiel was named after Robert Burns’ family farm in Ayrshire.


A formal Burns Supper full of pomp and circumstance has a particular running order, starting with a piper who welcomes the guests. If you don’t have a piper handy then some traditional music will do. The chair will then begin the evenings proceedings by assembling the guests and introducing the evenings entertainment.

A short but important prayer is then read, authored by none other than Mr Burns. The Selkirk Grace is read in Scots, and goes like this:

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.

Then, the main event. Guests stand for Piping in the Haggis. The dinner’s star attraction should be delivered on a silver platter, followed by a whisky-bearer to ensure guests and vessels are well lubricated. An honoured reader, with a knife at the ready, will then give a lively and spirited rendition of another Burns classic, Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

Before everyone digs in, the crowd then normally toasts the haggis by raising a glass and shouting ‘The haggis!’ in the last line of the poem. Now you’re allowed to eat, drink and be merry. You can find out more about Burns Supper fare below.

Dinner is followed by the Toast to the Lassies, which was once a speech given by a male guest to thank all the women who had prepared the meal. Now, it’s a much more amusing, informal affair and is followed by a Toast to the Laddies, where the women reciprocate with a speech of their own. Recitals of the works of Burns, and much drinking and nibbling will continue well into the night. The chair will close proceedings by inviting guests to stand and belt out a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The company joins hands and sings as one, having made sure to brush up on those difficult later lines.



The centrepiece of any good Burns’ Supper menu is the iconic haggis, or as the bard himself described it, the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race’. Haggis is a dish made of beef suet, beef fat (although some will prefer lamb), lamb pluck (heart and liver), oatmeal, onions and plenty of spices, all wrapped in sheep’s stomach. I swear, it’s absolutely beautiful. You can buy this from your local butcher, deli, supermarket or nearest Scottish store if you live overseas.

Traditional accompaniments to the haggis are neeps and tatties or as they are more commonly known – turnip and potatoes. These are normally served mashed. For a starter, Cock a Leekie soup is a good shout. And for desert, you can’t go wrong with Clootie Dumpling. You can find recipes for both of these in my Scots Christmas Fare post from last year.



Don’t forget our store over at ScotClans has everything you need to ensure you look the part this Burns Night. It’s definitely recommended that you wear at least a little bit of tartan! We’ve got loads of sashes, ties and bowties in stock and ready to ship now. But make sure you get your orders in quick – especially if shipping overseas. Click here to visit our store.

Best of luck for your respective Burns Night celebrations – and don’t forge it’s not cheating to use some modern technology to help you through any unfamiliar parts – the Burns app is a phone-sized guide to everything you need to know, while the Rhyme with Rabbie Burns online game can get you started on creating your own verses.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

View all posts by Nadine Lee →

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