Burns Night is celebrated every year on January 25th in Scotland, and all over the world by those of Scottish descent and admirers of Robert Burns (often called “Robbie” or “Rabbie” Burns). It commemorates his birthday in 1759.
Burns Night celebrations generally take the form of a Burns Supper at which the traditional menu always includes a Haggis (though even this is omitted by some). A piper or a recording of Scottish music opens the feast and accompanies the delivery of the haggis to the table.
The guests are usually expected to contribute a recitation of the poet’s work or one of his songs (although some or all of these may be performed by professionals). A great deal of Scotch whisky is often a prominent part of the celebration, so these performances may become quite rowdy, with the other guests joining in or contributing pithy remarks.
The party is kept under control by a Chairman, whose duty is to welcome the guests and to keep order. There is also a Speaker, who proposes the Toast to the Haggis.
Some traditional dishes which you might expect to find at a Burns Supper are:
Haggis with neeps ‘n tatties
Clootie dumpling, Typsy Laird, Cranachan or Selkirk Bannock
This is a traditional Scottish dish, originally made from a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a mixture of oatmeal, lamb’s liver, suet and onion. Nowadays, supermarkets sell their own products – many of which are derived from pigmeat products rather than sheep. However, if you want a haggis worthy of the name, many Scots say that the only one worth eating is the one produced by MacSween of Edinburgh.
Vegetarians can buy or make a vegetarian haggis also available from MacSweens, whose product is approved by the Vegetarian Society, and those who eat fish can elect for a seafood soup such as Cullen Skink.
Neeps ‘n tatties
Tatties are what we call potatoes up here, and neeps are not turnips, as you might expect, but swede (also known as rutabaga or Swedish turnip). To make neeps ‘n tatties you need about twice as much swede as potato. Peel them, cut them up (the potato should be cut larger than the swede, as the swede usually takes a lot longer to cook) and boil in salted water until soft enough to mash, then mash together, adding nutmeg, salt, pepper and butter. Garnish with parsley if liked.
Robbie Burns was born into a poor tenant farmer’s family on January 25th 1759, in the village of Alloway, near Ayr, where his former home still stands. It is now maintained as a museum to his life and work.
The young Robert was an avid reader and received a good education. As he grew up he worked on farms and developed a passion for women, drink, poetry and nature as anyone familiar with his poems can probably work out for themselves.
When he was 26 Burns met Jean Armour who was to become his most well known female companion. They originally planned to elope to Jamaica until Burns’ success overcame her father’s objections to their relationship.
It was his growing fame that led Robert to move to Edinburgh, and his poetic language started to become more of a mixture of English and Scots (although he is known to have had mixed feelings about the people he was mixing with in the Capital).
Surprisingly, some of his most popular works were not written until later, when he returned to farming near Dumfries in 1788. These include Tam O’Shanter (after which many pubs are named) and the immortal songs My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne.
Burns’ popularity is partly due to his radical thinking, well expressed in A Man’s a Man For A’ That. The belief in equality and liberty expressed in this piece was not unique to him, but reflected ideas which were influencing the whole of the Western world at the time (leading up to and following the French and American Revolutions). However, this does not negate his position in Scotland as the champion of the underdog. It might even be said that much of the Scottish character of today can be attributed to his influence.
Burns became an Excise Officer in 1789, which was a great surprise to his drinking buddies, to say the least. The decision was taken so as to provide a reliable means of support for his wife and children, although the irony of the situation is reflected in his poem The De’il’s awa wi’ the Exciseman.
There are many museums and places of interest associated with Burns, mainly in Scotland and in particular in Ayrshire, including the Heritage Centre near Ayr, Burns’ cottage in Alloway and Souter Johnnie’s cottage in the village of Kirkoswald.
This Burns interactive is well worth a visit.