Robert (or Robbie) Burns is the most famous and celebrated of all the Scottish poets. In 1801, on the fifth anniversary of his death, nine of Burns’ friends got together for a dinner at his old home in Alloway, Scotland, to celebrate his life. This very first Burns evening was a grand affair, with a Master of Ceremonies presiding over events, reciting and singing Burns works, while raising a toast (in verse) to the memory of their friend.
The evening was so enjoyable that the men decided that it should become an annual event, which they’d celebrate on Robert’s birthday, every 25th January.
News of this Burns Night spread, and in 1802 some Ayrshire merchants hosted the first Burns Club Supper. Before long all Scottish towns with links to Burns took up the new festival.
By 1806, the Burns Supper had spread beyond Scotland. The first Burns Night celebrated outside of Burn’s home country was at Oxford University (hosted by Glaswegian students). Over the following twenty years, anywhere there were Scots merchants trading, Burns Night festivals were held.
It was in 1815 that the event took a big literary turn, when Sir Walter Scott organized a massive Burns Night in Edinburgh, and the event became popular on a global scale.
Burns Night celebrations have a regulated routine. To begin with, the guests are piped to the table to the playing of bagpipes. Then the assembled guests are greeted by the host and the Selkirk Grace is spoken;
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.
The guests all stand to welcome the main meal- the haggis. Once this has reached the host, he “addresses the haggis”. The poem, Address to the Haggis, is the highlight of the evening. If you’d like to read the whole poem, you can find it here- http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/address_to_a_haggis/
Once the address is over, the haggis is toasted with whiskey and the main meal of cock-a-leekie soup, Haggis, neeps & tatties (turnips and potatoes), followed by Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle) is served.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.