On January 25th every year, lovers of Scottish culture, whisky, and poetry gather together to celebrate the life and lyricism of famed scribe Robert Burns at dinners across the world. Burns Night is a unique experience befitting Scotland. The dinners include song, bagpipes, oration, and of course, haggis.
Who Was Robert Burns?
Scotland’s national poet, ’Rabbie’ Burns grew up in the mid 18th century Ayrshire. His formative years performing hard labor on a farm are the stuff of legend, but the youngster also benefited from an exceptional education by a personal tutor.
Rabbie wrote his first poem at the age of 15, and published his first volume of works, The Kilmarnock Volume, at the age of 27. He rose quickly to admiration and acclaim before his unfortunate death on 21 July 1796, at the age of 37.
Burns’ life was short, but his artistic output was prolific, forming the basis for his lasting fame. Known as the ‘Ploughman Poet’ due to his appeal to the working class, Burns was an equalist, a revolutionist, a lover of many, and an empath for the downtrodden. He romanticized the world’s smallest creatures and wrote scathing verses attacking political tyranny and the hypocrisy of religion. He deeply understood anguish and man’s identity, while maintaining that wonderfully Scottish ability to bring satire into sadness. He wrote in English and in Scots, a language even then in disuse. Some of his best known works include ‘A Red Red Rose’, ‘Tom o Shanter’ & ‘To a Mouse’.
Burns was also a lyric poet – contributing upwards of 200 songs to The Scots Musical Museum. He wrote many original lyrics to Scottish instrumental ballads & airs, as well as updating other songs and even composing many melodies.
Burns’ legacy is vast. His works influenced a laundry list of greats including Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan, Walter Scott, John Steinbeck, and Maya Angelou. In an era before social media or combustion engines, his funeral was attended by upwards of 100k people according to contemporary accounts.
What Is Robert Burns Night?
In 1801, few years after Burns’ death, a group of the Baird’s admirers and friends founded The Mother Club in Greenock, Scotland. The Mother Club’s stated objective was “to cherish the name of Robert Burns; to foster a love of his writings, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature.”
“It’s about celebrating what it is to be a Scot. I mean the English don’t have Shakespeare night do they?”Hector Barraclough
With that noble objective, the Club’s annual Burns Dinner soon sparked other tribute nights across Scotland. By 1812, the event spread internationally, first popping up in India. Ultimately, Burns Night evolved into an evening of Scottish music, dance, and pride.
“It’s about celebrating what it is to be a Scot. I mean the English don’t have Shakespeare night do they?” exclaimed loyal Scotsman Hector Barraclough. Barraclough, along with friends Viscount Kelburn and Will Cavendish, is celebrating Burns Night by hunting pheasant and drinking tea at Kelburn Castle, Scotland this weekend.
“Tonight we will dine, do the Toast to the Haggis, drink a dram, wield knives, have a ceilidh and get pissed till we all fall down. It’s very much part of the national identity,” added Cavendish.
Of course, not everyone celebrates with such fervor. John Campbell, Distillery Manager at Laphroaig, says he equally loves the “big shindig with the pomp and ceremony. But equally tonight I will be having a quiet one in my house…a plate full…oh and there will be whisky. I will have a Laphroaig 10yr old cask strength batch 11, and maybe 2-3 of them as a nice wee nightcap.”
Burns Night Traditions
A standard Burns night can be held anywhere and be any size.
Traditionally, a selected Master of Ceremonies presides over the event. The festivities open with a welcome from the MC including the ‘Selkirk Grace’. However, the dinner’s headliner is indisputably the dramatic ‘Address to a Haggis’, the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’. During the Address, the speaker first apologizes for killing the haggis and then dramatically slays it for the applauding crowd.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
Haggis, itself, is not for the faint of heart (think organ meat and oats stuffed sheep’s stomach). The meal can also include traditional favorites such as Scots Broth, Cock-a-Leekie or perhaps a Cranachan dessert.
After the meal, a series of toasts and readings begin. One common element is the ‘Toast to the Lassies’, a scripted series of satirical jabs at the female guests. Fear not, this Toast is immediately followed by ‘A Toast to the Lads’ aka ‘The Repy,’ an oft-scathing roast of the men present. Burns receives his due in the form of a toast to his “Immortal Memory” as well as recitations of his works.
The event concludes with the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the perennial classic penned by Burns.
Where To Attend
Here are some places around the US where you can attend a Robert Burns Night. Take heed, they fill up fast!!
- New York City
- The Rookery 6th Annual Robert Burns Night Drunken Poetry Slam
- No RSVP needed, just show up with your kilt & some insults. Info here.
- Aris – Atlanta’s Stage for Celtic culture, “with a collective total of over 200 years experience in the performing arts”. For a proper dramatic telling of ‘Tom O’ Shanter’, this one’s not to miss.
- Tickets are $20 and can be bought here
- Hosted by Scots in Dallas, this one’s got dancing & a formal sit down dinner. Tickets are $50 for adults, $25 for children. Event details here
- Merlin’s Rest Pub
- $15 per person deposit
- Info here.