The Burn’s Supper is traditionally held on the 25th January; the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. It is sometimes called Robert Burns Day or Burns Night. Burns Suppers vary hugely from a very formal banquet with much pomp and ceremony to those which are simple gatherings of a few friends around a kitchen table to remember the poet’s legacy. It should always be remembered that whilst haggis, whiskey and recitals of Burns’s poetry will normally be in evidence at a Burns’s Night event, the only true essential ingredient of a successful Burns Supper is good company.
The tradition began in July 1801 when nine friends of Robert Burns met for dinner to celebrate and remember his life and works. The friends dined on haggis and their meal was washed down with wine and ale. Their dedications to the poet evolved into what we now know at as The Immortal Memory. After the success of the first gathering, the Burns Supper became a bi-annual event which was emulated by other informal groups of men who appreciated the works of the Bard. By 1809, the Burns Supper had become a popular tradition and began to be held annually on the anniversary of the birth of the poet.
In 1806 the first Burn’s Supper outside Scotland took place. A group of Glasgow students introduced the event at Oxford University where it grew in popularity. Well educated Scots travelled and worked their way across the world, taking their Burn’s Supper tradition with them.
In 1817 Dumfries Burns Club made arrangements for a dinner in celebration of Burn’s birthday. Although this was not the first Burn’s Supper it was one of the earliest and was significant as Sir Walter Scott was one of the honorary members of the club.
At a formal traditional supper the guests are welcomed by a piper who will play until the top table is seated. At a less formal gathering the host may bang the table to signal the beginning of the evening.
The Host welcomes the guests and sets out the order of events for the evening.
Before the serving of the meal the Host will recite the Selkirk Grace also known as Burns’s 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.
After the grace at a formal gathering the Haggis is piped in. The guests stand to welcome the haggis which is carried on a silver platter. The haggis bearer is followed in procession by the chef, in his traditional whites, the piper and the person who is to address the haggis. A whiskey bearer should arrive to ensure that the toasts are well lubricated. During the procession the guests clap in time to the music until the haggis arrives at the table. The guests sit to hear the address to the haggis.
The honour of making the recitation to the haggis is widely sought after and the aim is to make a fluent and entertaining rendition of ‘To A Haggis’.
During the course of the recitation, the speaker cuts the haggis casing to allow the hot, tasty contents spill out.
Address to a Haggis – Robert Burns
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there
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
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight,
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; The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect sconner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his
As feckless as a 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,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an
arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her grateful
Gie her a Haggis!
At the last line of the recital, the haggis is raised in triumph to ‘Gie her a haggis’.
The guests clap and the host or speaker then makes a toast to the haggis and glasses are raised to the shout of ‘The Haggis’.
Traditional fare for a Burns Supper is cock-a-leekie soup or Scot’s Broth for a starter, haggis for a main course usually served with potatoes and turnips or in Burns’s words ‘bashit neeps an’ champit tatties’. Clootie Dumpling or Scottish sherry trifle are a typical desert followed by a cheeseboard with oatcakes. Wine or ale is served with the meal with a fine malt whiskey offered by the host at the end of the meal.
Following the meal at a formal event a musician or singer will perform some of Burns’s songs.
This is followed by speeches and toast beginning with ‘The Immortal Memory’ which should be a witty and entertaining account of the life and antics of Robert Burns. This is followed by the toast to ‘The Immortal Memory ‘ of Robert Burns. Then a ‘Toast to the Lassies’ again the focus is on wit and entertainment. The ‘lassies have an opportunity to reply in ‘ the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies’.
Usually there are further recitals of Burns’s poetry and at the end of the evening the host thanks everyone for being present and the night is ended with Burns’s song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ one of the most popular songs in the English language and also extremely popular in China where it is known as You Yi Di Jiu Tian Chang meaning Friendship Forever.