Burns Night is an annual celebration that’s held on or around the 25th of January to commemorate the life of the much-loved Scottish bard (poet), Robert Burns. As well as remembering the man himself, poetry fans also celebrate Burns’ contribution to Scottish culture by performing renditions of his most revered works, such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Tam O’Shanter’. The history of this now-global event started in 1801, five years after the death of Robert Burns, when nine of his closest friends met for dinner in Burns Cottage, in Alloway to celebrate his life and works. Any BUCKiTDREAMER who wants to immerse themselves in this rich, poetic tapestry should head straight to the Highlands and get measured up for a kilt!
The guests all shared in a sort of Masonic brotherhood with Robert Burns (affectionately known as Rabbie) and set about devising a ceremonial evening, centered around a nice fat haggis that would include recitation and singing of Burns’s greatest works and many toasts in honor of their fallen friend and hero. All those who took part had such a wonderful time that they made plans to meet again the following year, oblivious in the knowledge that they’d just started what would later become a global phenomenon known as the ‘Burns Supper’, which has barely strayed in form since its original inception.
Robert Burns’s poetry grew in popularity quite rapidly after his untimely death in 1796, so when people got wind of an annual night that was designed to share his poems and songs, the public’s imagination was captured. A typical night involved around ten to twelve men sitting down to dine on a feast of haggis (more on this curious food later), sometimes, but not always, in a bar that Robert himself had frequented. However, the real basis of the evenings has always been Burns’s poetry which strongly features themes of love, freedom and the essential value of humanity. Many of the earlier suppers were held by Burns Clubs, which still thrive today, but the big boost for the eponymous night came off the back of a literary Burns Supper held by Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh in 1815.
Many of the Scottish men back then received a good education at home before packing their bags and traveling the world to explore and seek their fortune. The first Burns Night in India was held as early as 1812 (just eleven years after the original), which was then followed on by traders traveling to Canada, Australia and New Zealand who set up their own chapters in around 1844. In fact, it was actually Burns’ own nephew who founded the city and the original Burns Club of Dunedin, in New Zealand.
Jump forward to the twentieth century and you’ll find that Burns and his supper had even been taken up over ‘the wall’ by the two communist superpowers of the day: Russia and China. Russia, in particular, embraced the early socialist sentiments of Burns’ work and even today you can find exuberant suppers held throughout January in his honor.
So now that you know the history and a little bit about the man himself, it’s time to answer the curious question of, “What exactly is haggis and should you try it in a skirt?” Well, the short answers are: ‘boiled sheep’s stomach’ and ‘yes’. Doesn’t sound overly appealing? Well, many would agree with you, but it would be a crying shame to miss out on this patriotic dish of Scotland, especially considering that its bark is far worse than its bite.
Haggis is essentially a rich, savory pudding that contains sheep’s pluck (heart, lungs, and liver), which is then minced with onion, oatmeal, suet (hardened fat) and a mixture of different herbs and spices and some salt. It’s then mixed in with a hearty stock, stuffed inside an animal’s stomach (usually the sheep’s), then either boiled or roasted until cooked.
Although the description of this dish might not scream ‘mouth-watering’, many claims that a properly prepared haggis has a delightful nutty texture and a deeply satisfying savory flavor. It’s usually served alongside ‘neeps and tatties’ (mashed turnips and potatoes) and washed down with a dram or two (or many, depending on the quality of the haggis and rendition of the poetry) of Scottish whiskey. The reason that this is the dish of choice at Burns Night suppers, is that it was Rabbi’ himself who canonized it as a sort of national pride back in 1787 with his poem ‘Address To Haggis’.
Burns Night has a charmingly unique legacy and however you choose to celebrate it, whether it be in a grand banquet hall or around a bonfire with a few friends, make sure to grab your haggis (veggie-friendly options now readily available), be inspired by his poems, raise a glass to his genius and most importantly, have a grand old time sharing in this distinctly Scottish pastime that Burns’ memory has given to the world (donning a skirt or kilt is obligatory).
If you enjoyed learning about Burns Night and have already marked January 25th down in your BUCKiTDREAM diary or if you’ve just got a particular penchant for Scottish culture then you should also check out, The Gothic Splendor Of Edinburgh.