The Burns Supper and its history
The earliest recorded Burns Supper was held in Alloway, Ayrshire in July 1801 when nine friends of Robert Burns met for dinner to celebrate his life and works. Dinner consisted of haggis, washed down with wine and ale and the friends spent the evening reciting and singing some of Burns’ works. Their dedications to Rabbie Burns evolved into what we now know as The Immortal Memory.
After the success of that first evening, 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 was a well established tradition but, from that year, it became an annual event held on the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns on 25 January as this was a quieter time in the agricultural calendar.
In 1806 the Burns Supper began its global journey with the first event being held outwith Scotland. A group of Glasgow students introduced the celebration to Oxford University where it grew in popularity. Well educated Scots travelled and worked across the world, enjoying their traditional Burns Suppers wherever they went.
In 1817 Dumfries Burns Club made arrangements for a dinner in celebration of Burns’ birthday. Although not the first, this Burns supper can be counted amongst one of the earliest. Sir Walter Scott was one of the honorary members of the Dumfries Burns Club.
‘To The Immortal Memory’
A Burns Supper may be a very grand banquet or a few friends around the kitchen table. Whatever format it takes, you can be sure to enjoy tasty haggis, entertaining and humorous poems, recitals and music and to raise a generous toast to the genius that is Robert Burns.
The Order of Events at a Traditional Burns Supper
The Burns Supper is an important annual event in the Scottish calendar. The birth of our National Bard is celebrated each 25th January at Burns Night events across the country and can range from an informal gathering of friends to a grand, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance.
At a formal supper, guests are welcomed by a piper who will continue to play until the high table is ready to be seated. Less formally, where there is no high table, the host may simply bang on the table to mark the start of the evening. At smaller events, traditional music may be played.
The host welcomes the guests and introduces the evening’s entertainment.
Before the meal can be enjoyed, the Selkirk Grace – also known as Burns’s Grace at Kirkcudbright – must be read.
Piping In the Haggis
Guests now stand to welcome the star attraction which should be delivered on a silver platter by a procession comprising the chef, the piper and the person who will address the Haggis. A whisky-bearer should also arrive to ensure the toasts are well lubricated.
During the procession, guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The music stops and guests are seated in anticipation of the address to the haggis. (Click the image below to view a video of The Address to a Haggis)
The honour of the recitation goes to one who will offer a fluent and entertaining rendition of ‘To a Haggis’.
Knife poised at the ready, he cuts the haggis casing ensuring the hot, tasty contents spill out. (It is wise to make a small cut in the haggis before it is piped in to avoid the potential explosion of hot haggis onto the guests!)
At the last line of the recital, the haggis is raised in triumph to ‘Gie her a haggis!’ and the guests cheer rapturously.
The host or speaker now makes a toast to the haggis and glasses are raised to the shout of ‘The Haggis!’. At formal affairs, the haggis may be piped back out to the kitchen to applause from the guests.
Burns Night – January 25th
The Burns Supper is traditionally held on 25 January, the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.
January 25th is sometimes called Robert Burns Day or Burns Night (Burns Nicht), as the Burns Supper is usually the focus of a celebratory event held in the evening.
Address to a Haggis.
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
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 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 slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie 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 ragout,
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 trash,
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, haggis-fed,
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 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!
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.
Haggis, neeps & tatties
(Haggis wi’ bashit neeps
an’ champit tatties)
Clootie Dumpling or Typsy Laird
(fruit pudding or Scottish sherry trifle)
Cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes)
Wine or ale should be served with the meal. Whisky may be added to the haggis.
After the meal, a fine malt is offered by the host.
Entertainment to follow the Burns Supper
Burns Night entertainment begins in the form of a singer or musician performing a traditional Burns song. This is followed by speeches, songs and poems, starting with the Immortal Memory.
A spell-binding, dramatic and witty delivery of the colourful story of the life of our beloved Robert Burns. The conclusion is a heartfelt toast ‘To the immortal memory of Robert Burns!’
A Burns poem or song may be introduced at this point, followed by a Toast to the Lassies.
This should be humorous and preferably include reference to present guests.
Reply to the Toast To The Lassies
Once the speeches are complete the evening continues with songs and poems.
These should be a good variety to fully show the different moods of Burns’ muse. Favourites for recitations are Tam O’Shanter, Address to the Unco Guid, To a Mouse and Holy Willie’s Prayer.
The host stands to thank his guests, speakers and entertainers for a wonderful evening and invites guests to stand for a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne prior to closing the evening.
Old Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.