Burns Night is one of those national celebrations that has to be explained in tourist guides – which automatically makes us proud of it. Everyone loves explaining national oddities to visitors, particularly when it involves a food that’s a talking point in itself. It’s also nice to celebrate something that seems to still have more than a remnant of relevance to its origins – St George’s Day has become synonymous with a level of patriotism unfortunately exploited by the BNP, and St Patrick’s Day is now so over-commercialised you’d be forgiven for not even knowing it was Irish. Burns Night is also based on literature, which gives it that cultural edge national holidays or saint’s days don’t have. It’s ok to get pissed in the name of poetry.
This being said, how much do we actually know about Burns Night? Here’s a handy guide to hosting your own Burns Supper, and help fend off any accusations that it’s just an excuse to drink too much whisky, pretend you like haggis, and have a go at doing a Scottish accent (see instruction video below).
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert Burns was a Scottish poet who wrote primarily in the Scots dialect, and was a key figure in the Romantic movement. He was a Republican and sympathetic to the French Revolution. Burns also wrote and adapted folk songs, many of which are still sung today: most notably Auld Lang Syne. He is loved so much that he has multiple aliases, such as ‘Rabbie Burns’,’ Scotland’s favourite son’, the ‘Ploughman Poet’, ‘Robden of Solway Firth’, ‘the Bard of Ayrshire’ and in Scotland, simply: ‘The Bard’. The first official Burns night was held in 1802 by friends of the poet to commemorate him, and has been a tradition ever since.
The night begins with the Selkirk Grace, which is as follows:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
A Scottish accent is mandatory. This is followed by soup, which is usually Scotch Broth or the appetisingly named ‘Cock-a-Leekie’. Tell any foreign students that the name of the latter has got nothing to do with leeks and everything to do with an old-fashioned cure for venereal disease. Clear away the untouched bowls.
Next comes the ‘Address to the Haggis’. Haggis is a sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal, onions and suet, and it is actually quite nice. Wouldn’t recommend buying it on Cowley Road though. The guests recite the Address to it, and again it is imperative this is done in a Scottish accent. The full Address is very long, but here’s the gory bit:
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Traditionally, at the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht the speaker normally draws and cleans a knife, and at the line An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open. In the interests of safety and being able to actually eat the haggis, it is recommended the most sober person perform this.
A scotch whisky toast is proposed, and then the haggis is served with ‘neeps’ (mashed swede) and ‘tatties’ (mashed potato). Further perplex any foreign guests by telling them ‘neeps’ is the Scottish word for nipple, and ‘tatties’ for breast. Explain that many Scots see food as an integral part of lovemaking.
Then follows the Toast of the Immortal Memory to Burns, where a guest recites some of his poetry, and then the Toast to the Lassies. This is where a male speaker offers his whisky-infused opinions on women. After invariably much furore, a female guest stands up and delivers the Reply to the Toast of the Lassies – a riposte. According to Wikipedia, this is also ‘humourously’ referred to as the Toast of the Laddies.
The night then descends into rap-battles in Scottish, as Burns was a well-known pioneer of free verse. Burns Night is officially over once the affection for our highland neighbours has worn off and the first anti-Scots remark is made. Go to bed with a headache consoling yourself this has all been in the name of culture.
How to do a Scottish Accent:
Watch this tutorial video, featuring a particularly enthusiastic demonstration of how to roll ‘r’s.