Burns Supper 101

Also on the site is Burns Cottage, where Robert Burns was born in 1759

Burns Cottage, where Robert Burns was born in 1759

Burns Supper in a Nutshell

The first Burns Supper was held in 1801, exactly five years after the death of Robert Burns. Nine men, surely missing the comfort of their friend’s prose, gathered on this anniversary for a dinner at Burns Cottage in celebration of the poet’s life. In what was clearly a proper tribute to their friend they decided on a meal of Haggis with neeps and tatties, to be washed down with scotch, and peppered through the evening were songs and recitations of Burns’ poetry. Late into the evening they concluded with a toast to the memory of their friend Rabbie -as he was known in his hometown of Alloway, Ayrshire. The celebration was such a success that they decided to do it annually – moving the meeting date to his birthday, January 25th.

Burns’ recognition increased after his death, and Burns Suppers became popular tradition spreading quickly across the country. A group of Ayrshire merchants in Greenock held the first Burns Club Supper in January 1802. And the Burns clubs grew – some of which are still present today in Scotland!

Burns Supper didn’t just catch on in Scotland – they are celebrated all over the world. The first out of Scotland was at Oxford University in 1806 hosted by a few Glaswegian students who had brought the tradition with them from Glasgow. Traveling merchant Scots who ventured off to foreign countries took their heritage and traditions with them, including Burns Suppers. Over the next few decades this tradition to annually celebrate the bonds of friendship and poetry caught imaginations globally, expanding to areas as far and diverse as Australia, Russia, and China.

Granite Haggis sculpture which adorns the Poets Path in Alloway

Granite Haggis sculpture which adorns the Poets Path in Alloway

An American DIY Burns Supper

First of all, it is tradition to pipe in the guests with bagpipes – however finding someone to do this may not be the easiest of tasks. So a track of Scottish music would do the job (Check out Fiona Mackenzie or Maureen McMullan)! The evening will then proceed with a Chairman’s welcome – introducing the guests and who will speak throughout the evening.

Then it’s time to start eating but not of course before The Selkirk 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.

Everyone will stand for this while its read loosely translated as;

Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat but have no food,
But we have food and we can eat,
And so the Lord be thanked.

The traditional Scottish delicacy of Haggis is then piped in prior to its Address. However, it is harder to get Haggis over here so any meat will do but the more spherical shaped the better (perhaps sausage or meatloaf)! During the procession, guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The designated speaker will then perform “Address To the 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 worthy o’ 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,
Warm-reekin, rich!

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,
‘Bethankit’ hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
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.

Alasdair Nichol prepares to cut into the Haggis during the Address

Alasdair Nichol prepares to cut into the Haggis during the Address

After completing this lengthy Address the Haggis is theatrically cut into while everyone applauds and raises their glasses before shouting “The Haggis” (Be careful though and practice this or make a small incision before the theatrics so that your guests don’t get covered in flying haggis!).

Now there is more to the meal than just Haggis (that wouldn’t be very exciting – and with all that whisky would leave you very merry!). The starter is typically a soup called “cock-a-leekie” containing chicken broth and leeks. The main is, of course, Haggis complete with neeps and tatties (or turnip and potatoes to you and me!). Finally, the dessert, it’s got to be cranachan, a Scottish dessert made with whipped cream, whisky, oatmeal, honey, and raspberries.

After the meal with glasses charged it’s time for more Scottish entertainment, such as breaking into a country dance, and/or more songs and recitations. There is often a piece by Burns sung by an individual or group such as “Ae Fond Kiss” – although if you are not the singing type a recital of a poem by Burns always goes down well.

Portrait of Robert Burns

Portrait of Robert Burns

This is followed by the “Immortal Memory”, a tribute to Robert Burns speaking about all elements of love, life, and humanity. With impeccable timing come some of the funniest toasts! The Toast to the Lassies – is a praise of women today with a few jibes and jokes about whoever is doing the reply. Then we have the reply – the Toast to the Lads, a very satisfying moment for the lassies getting to have a go at the men and get revenge for their toast.

Finally, there will be a vote of thanks from the Chairman followed by a rendition by all of “Auld Lang Syne”. Take a cup of whisky yet and enjoy your very own Burns supper wherever you are in the world and remember the fine words of Rabbie Burns.

Visit Scotland offers a very good Burns Night Guide expanding on what we have summarized here.

If you aren’t too keen to host your own Burns Supper, it is likely there are celebrations around your own local community tonight and into the next few weeks. In our own New England neighborhood, the Oxford/Cambridge Society of New England hosts a formal Ancient Universities Burns Nicht and a less formal affair takes place every year at The Haven.

The Oxford/Cambridge Society Ancient Universities Burns Nicht will be held on January 27th.


The Oxford & Cambridge Society of New England and NTSUSA cordially invite you to the 10th Annual Ancient Universities Alumni Burns Nicht at the Winchester Country Club on [...]

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