Burns Supper Time

Haggis, Whisky and a Toast Tae the Lassies

  (image via shutterstock.com)

Robert Burns (1759- 1796)

Yes, it really is a year since I last wittered on about Burns’ Night. Said night is nothing to do with standing too close to a bonfire and ending up in Accident and Emergency. Rather, it’s the night when Scots and Scotophiles, both in Scotland and around the world, commemorate the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns.

A Burns’ supper is held annually on the 25th January to commemorate his birth. Haggis is eaten and whisky, along with some of the guests by the end of the evening, is drunk. Speeches are made, Burns’ songs are sung, and his poetry recited.

I’ve blogged about the traditions involved in the supper and given examples of some of the best known of Rabbie’s songs and poems in previous posts. If you’re attending a supper and you aren’t sure what to expect, or have to a speech to make, you might find it helpful to read those earlier posts.

Let’s hear it for women

In my 2014 post there is my own version of a Toast to the Lassies. This is a speech usually made by a man in honour of women. Burns had a romantic view of the world and of women, but he was also an unfaithful husband and womaniser. Of course times have changed since Burns’ day. Women have made progress in terms of equality with men, but even now in 2016 women have a way to go to attain full equality of earnings, opportunity  and respect. So if I was proposing a toast to the lassies today it would involve asking for a concerted effort on the part of everyone to improve the lot of women worldwide. Here endeth the politics.

Burns’ poetry and what’s involved in a supper

In 2015’s post I described the format that’s usually followed at a Burns’ supper and I also wrote about the man and his work. He wrote romantic, philosophical and political poems and songs.

He also wrote an epic thriller of a poem, Tam O’Shanter, which is one of favourite pieces of his work. My other favourites are the romantic song Ae Fond Kiss and the political and, satirical poem A Parcel of Rogues about the pre-United Kingdom, Scottish parliament.

A Toast

So, in honour of Scotland’s – so far unsurpassed –  national bard, I raise a wee dram of whisky to all of you who drop in here to read my scribblings. Here’s tae ye all Lassies and Laddies. Slainte Mhath, Your Good Health! and Thank You.

Do let me know in the comments if you’re going to a Burns’ Supper this year. Will you be proposing one of the toasts? And do you have any favourites among his poems and songs?

Three Cheers for Burns’ Night

Robert Burns image via shutterstock.com
Robert Burns
image via shutterstock.com

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.


My grandmother's book of Burns poems, now mine, from circa 1900. Rebound in leather by my father, a bookbinder, circa 1965
My grandmother’s book of Burns poems, now mine, from circa 1900. Rebound in leather by my father, a bookbinder, circa 1965


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 wrote beautiful, poignant and heart-rending love songs to the women and places in his life including: A Red, Red Rose, Afton Water, Ae Fond Kiss and My Heart’s in the Highlands.

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.

Front pages of the above book
Front pages of the above book

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.

One of the illustrations from the above book. This shows 'Cutty Sark' (meaning short shirt) the name Burns gave to the young witch in Tam O'Shanter poem. Note the devil in the background.
One of the illustrations from the above book. This shows ‘Cutty Sark’ (meaning short shirt) the name Burns gave to the young witch in Tam O’Shanter poem. Note the devil in the background.

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

image ©spline_x via shutterstock.com
image ©spline_x via shutterstock.com
  • 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.

Slainte Mhath!


* 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:

Scottish Poetry Library

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Burns Scotland










Tae the Lassies – or – Let’s Hear it for the Ladies

This is a supplementary post to the usual monthly magazine in honour of Scotland’s national bard or poet Robert Burns

Robert Burns


This year Burns’ suppers will be held on Saturday 25th January all over Scotland and the wider world wherever ex-pat Scots are to be found. It’s a time when the Scottish people  traditionally hold a special dinner of haggis, *neeps and tatties* and drink a wee dram or two of **uisige beatha** to remember our greatest poet, Robert Burns and his work.

Burns was a ladies’ man, a philanderer and would nowadays be given short shrift by any sensible woman. But he was a romantic and a charmer and he did seem to genuinely like women, so I can kind of forgive his lack of fidelity. His were different times. And nowadays it can often be boys and men who find it hard to work out where their place is in society – certainly in settings other than the workplace. Feminists quite rightly have made their mark. I count myself as one of their number – as a child of the sixties, and one of five daughters, how could I be anything else? And we continue to push to improve the lot and treatment of women. My fervent hope for my granddaughter’s generation is that by the time they’re grown-up, if not before,  there will no longer be a need for feminism as a political movement, that all of us male and female, will be judged by who and what we are and not by our class, age or gender. I hope the two sexes can share a truly mutual respect and friendship for and with one another. I think my toast this year  is to the lassies and the laddies. Lets hear it for humanity. Cheers/Slainte! 


Below is my post about Burns and the ladies from January last year:

In this week’s post I’ve decided to verbally toast all the most important women in my life. Why? Well, because this week sees the commemoration of a poet who was very fond of the female of the species. Let me explain…

On Friday it will be Burns night. No nothing will be on fire.  Friday the 25th January 1759 is the birth date of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. So popular and successful was he as a poet that every 25th January his life and work are remembered and celebrated. He is Scotland’s national Bard. But it’s not just in Scotland that he’s known. There are Burns clubs all over the world. And there can be very few people who have never at least heard, if not sung, his most well known song, Auld Lang Syne’.

Burns was from Ayrshire and he was a farmer and excise-man. He was fond of drink and women. He died aged 37 and left a large body of work of poems and songs in both Scots and English.

On Friday night there will be Burns suppers held in schools, hotels, clubs and homes. The menu will be haggis, neeps and tatties (neeps=turnip of the large yellow variety, tatties=potatoes) washed down with whisky in many cases. The proceedings will follow a set pattern. There will be speeches and toasts – one to the haggis, one to Burns’ Immortal Memory and one Tae the Lassies (to the ladies).

And that last one has got me thinking about which particular lassies I would want to mention if I was proposing the toast.

First would be my maternal grandmother, Peggy who I wrote about here. She was such a positive influence on my early life and made up for my rather distracted and weary mother’s lack of time for her children. She instilled in me a love of words, storytelling and writing that has never left me and she made me feel very special.

My mother though not especially maternal in her child-rearing, instilled a work ethic and stoicism in me that has stood me in very good stead over the years. She raised a large family with very little money. She had a paid job – long before it was the done thing for mothers to work outside the home. And she was an amazing role model for independent and self-sufficient womanhood.

Next would have to be my four sisters. All are amazing, strong, loving women.

Sister number one was, after thirty years working in business, made redundant just once too often and she changed tack completely to become a personal carer. She earns a pittance working for her local authority but by providing care to elderly, sick and vulnerable people she makes it possible for these people to stay in their own homes. She has never been happier at her work.

Sister number two had to face early and tragic widowhood, but she rebuilt her life and has raised two fine young men. She is a pre-school teacher and she too loves her work.

Sister number three left school with no qualifications but didn’t let divorce and single motherhood prevent her from gaining a degree in nursing and building a successful career in that profession, in one of Scotland’s busiest and biggest hospitals.

And sister number four has also had to cope with redundancy – her husband’s and her own –whilst raising her sons on an, at times, very tight budget. She also spends a huge amount of her time looking after our elderly and extremely difficult father – for which she deserves sainthood and a medal.

Next there is my feisty daughter. Born with cerebral palsy and a steely determination, she grew up to become a veterinary nurse, wife and mother. She doesn’t think of herself as disabled and has always met every challenge head on.

And of course there’s my one-year-old granddaughter – who is of course the most beautiful, most intelligent and most adorable baby ever born 🙂 

And then there are all my most fabulous friends – my support network of very different and very amazing women. I’ve come to know them across every phase and location of my life – school, university, work, motherhood and neighbourhoods. They’re intelligent loving and loyal. I couldn’t live without them and I hope they know who they are.

My grandmother was born in the 1890s, I was born in the 1950s and my granddaughter was born in 2012. From Granny’s time to now, women’s lives have changed out of all recognition. I can’t imagination how life will be for my granddaughter’s generation of women. But there’s one thing I hope doesn’t change – and that’s the wonderful, life-enhancing support that  the lassies offer one another.

So here’s to us all. Here’s tae the lassies. Cheers, ladies.

* mashed swede and potatoes. ** whisky.