Yes, it’s that time of year again. Sunday the 25th of January will be Burns’ night. This is the occasion when many Scots, at home and abroad, plus a fair number of non-Scots, celebrate the life and work of the Scottish bard and poet, Robert Burns, by hosting or attending a Burns Supper.
I blogged about Burns previously in 2013 and 2014, where amongst other things I wrote my own toast to some of the lassies in my life. But this year, I thought I’d do a post for those of you who don’t know about Burns and give you a flavour of his work and also give you the lowdown on what on happens at a Burns Supper.
The man and his poetry:
Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire in Scotland on the 25th of January 1759. He worked firstly as a farmer and then later as an excise man, collecting government taxes. But of, course it is as a poet that he is known and remembered. He was well known in his own life time and had he lived now I reckon he’d have enjoyed the celebrity life, appeared on the chat show circuit and been part of the line-up on satirical, comedy panel shows. He certainly had what we think of now as rock-star qualities. He was both a hard drinker and a womaniser. And it’s thought that drink played a part in his early death aged only thirty-seven.
His large collection of wonderful and memorable poems and songs whose subjects include the romantic, political, satirical and fanciful ensured his place in Scottish literature as the Bard. He wrote both in Lowland Scots and in English. Some of his poems were based on older Scottish folk songs and others were later set to music. So his work is both recited and sung.
As I said above his poems and songs cover a wide range of subjects.
He also produced harder and sharper verses that were critical of the hypocrisy, inequality and pretentiousness he saw in church and politics and amongst the wealthy. Holy Willie’s Prayer is one example where the sanctimonious Willie confesses all sorts of sins that he’s sure will be forgiven, and begs for all sorts of punishment on his neighbours. There’s To a Louse where the poet pays tribute to the lowly wee bug that has crept out of the bonnet of a well-to-do lady seated in front of Burns in church and in the poem he also asks that some higher power would grant people the power ‘to see oursels as others see us’ thereby making everyone a lot more humble.
He himself displays some humility in the poem To a Mouse where he apologises to a little mouse that he has startled while ploughing. He laments the destruction of the mouse’s carefully constructed home and its imminent exposure to the harsh weather. He laments too that Man interferes with and spoils Nature. But then he seems to turn more to his own situation and, in a very famous quote, rues the fact that ‘the best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men gang aft agley’ (meaning the most careful plans often go wrong). And he finishes by suggesting it’s actually all right for the mouse because, being a mouse, the creature only lives in the present, whereas Burns must look back on a sad and dreary past and look forward in fear to an uncertain future.
Burns’ more bleak side is also on display in his patriotic poetry. In Scots Wha Hae, where the poet takes on the persona of Scots king, Robert the Bruce, rallying his troops as they prepare to fight the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Burns presents the gruesome reality of battle as a price worth paying. As a song it’s certainly stirring stuff.
And then, in the angry Such a Parcel of Rogues, he makes a scathing attack on the Scots politicians who in his view sold Scotland’s independence and future to England in the 1707 Act of Union which saw the end of Scotland’s parliament.
In a further display of versatility Burns also wrote the fantastical thriller of an epic poem entitled Tam O’Shanter. The eponymous hero is riding home rather drunk on his trusty horse, Maggie when he comes upon a ghastly scene unfolding in a graveyard. The graves have been disturbed and the coffins stand open with the bodies on display. There are warlocks and witches dancing, and even the devil himself is in attendance. Laid out on a table are all sorts of murder weapons. Tam horribly fascinated conceals himself and watches the ghastly but wonderfully described scenes. Then he gives himself away. Having been rather taken by an unusually young and pretty witch, he shouts out to her and is then pursued by the whole gruesome and terrifying horde. He only escapes when he rides Maggie over the river and the witches cannot follow. Though poor Maggie pays the price with her tail, which is torn off as she and Tam approach the bridge and their final escape.
But my personal favourite, spoken or sung, is A Man’s a Man for A’ That. In this poem Burns appeals for equality. His assertion is that a person is a person is a person, regardless of creed, social class or whatever. The final plea ‘That man to man the world o’er shall brithers be for a’ that’ has rarely had more relevance than it does today.
The Burns Supper:
The Burns Supper takes place on the poet’s birthday on the 25th January. It is always a convivial occasion, but it will depend upon the age range of the guests just how raucous proceedings might become. It’s one of the nice things about Burns Suppers that they can include a whole range of ages from school child to adult. Indeed the Burns Supper is often a fixture of both Primary and High school calendars. Sometimes it’s just children and teaching staff who attend but often it’s pupils, teachers, parents and other members of the school’s local adult community. Other hosting bodies might be sports or social clubs and of course many people host a Burns supper in their home for family and friends to attend.
It involves a traditional Scottish meal, some drinking of toasts, lots of recitation and singing, some speeches and will often end with some good old traditional Scottish Country dancing. It’s a great Lowland version of the Highland ceilidh.
But it’s not just thrown together. A Burns Supper follows a set pattern although the atmosphere can be anywhere on the spectrum between convivial and riotous. The meal itself will usually be soup, such as Scotch broth, followed by **haggis, neeps (mashed swede) and tatties (mashed potatoes). Liberal amounts of whisky and ale will also be available. The format is usually as follows:
Order of Events
- Everyone gathers and the Master of Ceremonies (MC) makes a welcoming speech and invites everyone to be seated at their tables.
- The MC says the *Selkirk Grace.
- Soup is served.
- Parade of the haggis – chef brings in the haggis accompanied by bagpipe player playing ‘Brose and Butter or another traditional tune.
- Pre-chosen speaker reads/recites the ‘Address to the Haggis’ and then splits open the haggis with a dirk or large knife. Offer of a whisky to the piper, chef and the ‘haggis reciter’.
- Main course served and eaten.
- Pre-designated speaker makes a speech dedicated to ‘The Immortal Memory’. Thi speech usually references Burns’ life and work and his continuing relevance to contemporary issues. Toast to Rabbie.
- Pre-designated speaker gives toast ‘To the Lassies’. This is a light-hearted, sometimes teasing, but ultimately appreciative speech about women in general followed by a toast to the women present and to women in general.
- Pre-designated speaker gives the reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Nowadays this will be most often done by a women and will include some humorous ripostes to the preceding toast.
- Interval and clearing away of the tables before everyone regathers.
- A recitation by pre-designated reciter of one of Burns’ classic poems e.g. Tam O’ Shanter
- Invitations to ‘the floor’ to recite or sing a Burns poem or song – often done by children.
- Scottish Country Dancing
- Closing remarks by MC
- All sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’
If you’re attending a Burns supper this year, do enjoy it. If you’re organising one – well done – and try to enjoy it.
* Words for 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
**Haggis is the national dish of Scotland. It’s very tasty, but best not to dwell on what’s in it, just go with ‘King of Sausages’. It also comes in very tasty vegetarian form too.
Useful websites for more information: