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Culture > Holidays > Jan. 25: Burns' Night


Burns' Night (Jan 25):

Robert Burns
Robert Burns
Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery
No Larger Image Available

The birthday of Scotland's bard has become a second (unofficial) national day. While the life of Robert Burns is celebrated most commonly in Scotland, this day is celebrated in all corners of the world where there are Burns Clubs, Scottish Societies, expatriate Scots, or lovers of Burns' poetry. The Bard's friends held the first Burns Suppers in Ayrshire at the end of the eighteenth century on the anniversary of his death, 21 July. Although the date has been changed to that of his birth, Burns Suppers have been held in honour of the Bard ever since.

A Burns Night may be formal or informal, but it should always be entertaining. The only items which the informal suppers have in common are haggis, Scotch whisky and perhaps a poem or two. Formal dinners (the type usually held by organizations and clubs), on the other hand, follow a standard format:

Opening Address

The host addresses the crowd with some words of welcome, officially opening the event.

The Selkirk Grace

Everyone is seated for grace. The Selkirk Grace, a well-known verse of thanksgiving, is attributed to Burns, although it did in fact already exist in the seventeenth century as the Galloway Grace or the Covenanters' Grace. It came to be known as the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Selkirk.

"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."

~ The Selkirk Grace

The supper then begins with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup, or Cock-a-Leekie is served.

Address to the Haggis

Everyone stands as the cook brings the main course - a haggis on a large dish - to the host's table, accompanied by a piper. The Address To a Haggis, Burn's cheeky 1786 ode to this centerpiece of Scottish cuisine, is then performed with great ceremony:

The Haggis
The Haggis

Haggis cut open
Haggis cut open

Ode to a Haggis

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie [cheeky, plucky] face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon [above] them a' ye tak your place,
Painch [stomach], tripe, or thairm [intestine]:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye
Your hurdies [hips] 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 dicht [wipe],
An' cut you up wi' ready slicht [skill],
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Warm-reekin, [steaming] rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil [Devil] tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes [bellies] belyve [soon],
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive [tear],
"Bethankit" hums.

Is there that o're his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw [make sick] a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect scunner [repungance],
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve [fist] a nit [louse's edd, tiny];
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 wallie [mighty] nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whistle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned [cut off],
Like taps o' thristle [thistle].

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin [watery soup] ware
That jaups [slops] in luggies [type of bowl];
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

At the line "His knife see rustic Labour dicht," the speaker draws and cleans a knife, and plunges it into the haggis while saying, "An' cut you up wi' ready slicht."


At the end of the poem, a whisky toast is proposed to the haggis. Then the company will sit and enjoy the meal. The main course is, of course, haggis, and is served with sides of neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes). A dessert course, cheese courses, coffee, etc. may also follow. These courses normally use traditional Scottish recipes. Desert, for instance, may be cranachan (a concoction of cream, oatmeal, and whisky) or Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle) followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with liberal tots of the "water of life" - Scotch whisky.


A Toast
A Toast

A series of toasts, speeches, and readings follows the supper. In Commonwealth realms, the first toast is "The Queen," a rather ironic gesture given Burns' penchant for republicanism. After drinking to the health of the monarch (or leader of the country), it is acceptable to leave the table and mingle. The keynote speech is then given in honour of "the immortal memory" of the life and work of Robert Burns. The speech may be light-hearted or serious, but should be written with the audience in mind.

The next speech, the "Toast to the Lassies," was originally a short speech given by a male guest to thank the women who had prepared the supper. Nowadays it is much more wide-ranging, and generally covers the speaker's view of the opposite sex. While this speech is often amusing and sometimes racy, it should never be offensive, especially since it is to be followed by a reply from the "lassies" concerned. After the men drink to the women's health, a female speaker replies with a "Toast to the Laddies." Often the two speakers will collaborate on their speeches so that they will complement each other.

Other toasts may follow these four traditional speeches. It is common for a guest to propose a toast to Scotland, and toasts are frequently made to the locality or nation in which the supper is being held.


Highland Dancer
Highland Dancer

Following the toasts and speeches, entertainers may perform dramatic readings of Burns' most celebrated poems or sing his most popular songs. Often the podium is open to any guest wishing to share his or her favourite piece. This part of the night lasts as long as the guests wish, and may include other works by poets who either influenced Burns or were influenced by Burns, particularly those who have written in Scots. Sometimes Highland dancers, Scottish country dancers, or pipe bands will perform as well.

After the last performance ends, the host will conclude the supper by calling on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks. Everyone is then asked to stand in a circle, clasp hands, and join in a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne." The event is formally closed after the last lines are sung.

The Scottish Club of Windsor's Burns Supper 2009

"Address To a Haggis,"
"Address To a Haggis,"

The Scottish Club of Windsor has been celebrating Burns Night at 1340 Tecumseh Road since ****, and 2009 was no exception. Guests crammed into the Scottish Hall to enjoy an evening of food, fellowship, and entertainment.

Pipe major George Kay ushered in the haggis, to be honoured by an electric address delivered by Dr. W. Crosby. Before digging into the feast, Master of Ceremonies Brad MacLaren toasted Canada, George McKain toasted Her Majesty, and Avril Craig said the Selkirk Grace. Before the Scottish Society of Windsor Pipe Band came out to provide the evening's entertainment, the audience listened to a beautiful solo of "Sweet Afton" performed by Mamie McKain. The event continued deep into the night as guests danced to music supplied by the band Brand "X".

Leading the Haggis
Leading the Haggis
Scottish Society of Windsor Pipe Band
Scottish Society of Windsor Pipe Band
Toast to the Club
Toast to the Club
"Glasgow Girl"
"Glasgow Girl"
Staff of the Club
Staff of the Club

The Saint Andrew's Society of Detroit Burns Supper 2009

MC Addesses Guests
MC Addesses Guests

The Saint Andrew's Society of Detroit marked the Bard's 250th anniversary with a gala affair held at the beautiful Atrium of the Inn at St. John's in Plymouth, Michigan. Lads and lassies donned their finest Scottish garb and sat down to a gourmet dinner, after which they were entertained by piping and Highland dancing. Master of Ceremonies Elliot MacFarlane delivered a moving keynote speech, reminding the crowd that "by knowing Burns, even a little, we know something about ourselves."

Speakers toasted the Bard, the Saint Andrew's Society, the Lads and the Lassies, and, of course, Scotland. Remembering the harsh conditions that forced many Highlanders from their homes and into the New World, Andy Munro said, "Today Scotland is the land of our dreams and our desires ... We do not toast the Scotland that our ancestors left, but the Scotland that holds our hearts." Between each toast, homage was paid to Burns through the recitation of a song or poem. Society President Scott David performed Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss;" Jud Cole recited "Had I the Wyte? She Bade Me;" and Cliff Scott read the popular "To a Mouse." In the spirit of fraternity, the podium was then open to the floor as various audience members shared their favourite Burns pieces with the other guests.

Before the evening came to an end, door prizes were raffled off. These included a biography of Andrew Carnegie, an assortment of Walker shortbread cookies, tickets to the 2009 Highland Games in Livonia, and the grand prize, three bottles of Scotch whisky: a fitting way to close the evening!

Royal Scottish Honour Guard
Royal Scottish Honour Guard
Call to Supper
Call to Supper
"An' cut you up wi' ready slicht!"
"An' cut you up wi' ready slicht!"
Toast to Burns
Toast to Burns
A proud Scotsman
A proud Scotsman
The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.
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