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Your guide to the annual celebration of revered Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

There is perhaps no celebration as curiously and uniquely Scottish as Burns Night, which takes place every year on January 25th. The origins of this ritualistic supper date back to 1801 when friends of the iconic poet Robert Burns gathered to read his works, drink whisky in his memory and dine on haggis to take pride in their national heritage. Burns Night gatherings are still going strong over 200 years later, and while there is somewhat of a formal order of activities to follow, the key to a successful evening is a reverential attitude toward the Scottish homeland and a genial sense of merriment. Read on for a few tips on hosting a wee Burns Night at Home celebration on yer own.

The Man Himself

A poet, lyricist, champion for equality and father of 12, ol’ Rabbie Burns was voted “the Greatest Scot” over 200 years after his death. Scots know his work, and you do too – he wrote “Auld Lang Syne” (aka the New Year’s song), among hundreds of other works that are still widely read today at events like Burns Night. Other fun facts about Rabbie:

  • In 2009, became the first person to appear on a commemorative Coke bottle

  • Orbited Earth over 200 times when an astronaut carried his poetry book into space

  • Has more worldwide statues in his memory than all non-religious figures except Queen Victoria and Christoper Columbus

  • Had a scientifically-verified larger-than-average head

It’s no wonder we toast to Robert Burns, the man, the legend – but no myth!

The Grand Entrance

Bagpipes welcome guests as they arrive for supper. There is general milling about until the host arrives, takes his position at the head table, and welcomes everyone. Following in short order is the recitation of Selkirk’s Grace, which is a short and sweet ode of praise to having meat on the table.

Do it yourself: Play this clip of bagpipes blowing “Sweet Afton,” written by Robert Burns in 1791, as you set the mood and the dining room table. Then parse the Scottish dialect and try your hand at the Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

The Piping of the Haggis

The real star of the evening is the haggis dish, which marks its arrival on a silver platter with great fanfare as guests stand in respect. Upon placement of the haggis dish at the host’s table, a hush falls over the crowd as the Burns masterwork To A Haggis is read in its totality.

Do it yourself: Traditional Scottish Haggis is actually illegal to make in the US because…it’s so delicious. Let’s go with that. But you can come darn close to the real thing with this recipe.

The Skillful Knifing

At the first line of the third verse (“His knife see Rustic-labour dight” – translation, “This is a sharp-ass knife”), the poem’s reader dramatically produces and sharpens a knife. By the next line (“An cut you up wi ready slicht” – translation, “this knife is really good at slicing”), the knife is plunged lengthwise into the haggis, spilling out its shall we say appetizing innards to the delight of all. Everyone raises a glass and toasts to “The haggis!”

Do it yourself: Ready to try out that Scottish accent again? Here is “Address to a Haggis” in full.

The Meal

The haggis is then served to the supper-goers on a plate with tatties and neeps. Whisky liberally fills glasses and bellies alike. After traditional Scottish dessert, cheese plates and coffee have been served, the rest of the evening’s entertainment begins.

Do it yourself: Mash your own turnips and potatoes for the sides, pour a dram of your favorite whisky and toast to friends from across the Zoom.

The Immortal Memory

Following a brief warm-up act of a Burns song or poem, the keynote speaker rises to pay tribute to the eternal guest of honor himself. This speaker is free to touch on any aspect of Burns’ life he so chooses, so long as it’s entertaining. Every speech ends in a toast: “To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!”

Do it yourself: The Robert Burns archive is a treasure trove of immortal poems, song lyrics, literature and commentary. Here’s just one, “Tam o’ Shanter,” for your entertainment.

The Rest of The Evening

The Burns celebrations continue into the night, with more readings and performances. No Burns Night would be complete without the Toast to the Lassies, whereby the men give an uplifting message of appreciation for the women gathered in the room and praise the actions of women in general. The lassies then give their reply to the lads, and in that moment beautiful equality is achieved.

Do it yourself: Call this one “FaceTime to the Lassies” and call the gals you appreciate the most. They’ll surely return the favor.

The End

Burns Night is over when a toast of thanks is given to the night’s attendees and the staff who made it possible. After one last song, the guests depart with the spirit of Scotland’s greatest Bard coursing through their veins. Or maybe that’s just the whisky. Happy Burns Night, everyone! Put on your Sport Kilt and make it a legendary evening.

Do it yourself: Wash your dishes and clean your kitchen to the sounds of this Robert Burns playlist. Then make one final toast to a Burns Night well hosted!

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