Burns Night is Scotland’s in-official national holiday and observed by people around the world. But what are some of the traditional Burns Night traditions and how can you celebrate a proper Burns Supper? Read on to learn about the life of Robert Burns, what to expect at a Burns Night celebration and how to host your own!
This post contains affiliate links from which I may make a commission. Find out more here. All opinions are my own.
Burns Night is held every year to honour the life and legacy of Robert Burns.
Robert Burns – also called Rabbie Burns – is one of Scotland’s most beloved authors. His poems and songs are recited all over the country and his memory is honoured all over the world.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Everything you need to know about Burns Night including when it’s celebrated and why,
- The story of Robert Burns’ life and literary work,
- What to expect at a traditional Burns Supper,
- and plenty of tips to host your own.
Table of Contents
Burns Night FAQ
What is Burns Night?
Burns Night is a celebration of Robert Burns and his literary legacy. It is a significant cultural event in Scotland and many people consider it to be a second national holiday – in addition to St Andrews Day on 30 November.
Celebrating Burns Night is a way to honour all things Scottish. Burns Night is therefore an event that is celebrated by people of Scottish descent all over the world.
When is Burns Night?
Burns Night takes place every year on 25 January, the birthday of Robert Burns (or the weekend around that date). He was born on 25 January 1759.
Who is Robert Burns?
Robert Burns is one of the best known poets in the world and many consider him the national poet of Scotland. His poems and songs have been translated into many languages and are recited and sung around the world. You’ve probably heard at least one of them before!
His best known poems and songs include, ‘Auld Long Syne’, ‘A Red, Red Rose’, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ and my personal favourite, ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. Burns wrote in English and Scots, a language that is still spoken today.
You can learn more about Robert Burns and Burns Night traditions in the book ‘Robert Burns for Beginners‘ by Rennie McOwen. The book aimed at young readers, but adults will also enjoy this quick and easy read to learn the basics about this typical Scottish celebration.
Why do people celebrate Burns Night?
Robert Burns’ poems and songs are well-known around the world, but in Scotland they are part of the cultural heritage. Burns lines and quotes are part of growing up in Scotland and many children learn to recite Burns poems by heart.
People admire Burns for his work and his legacy of sharing Scottish lowland culture with the world. Celebrating Burns Night is a way to celebrate Scottishness as a whole.
There are many Burns Night traditions that should be observed at a proper Burns Supper. But before we get to those, let’s learn a little more about Robert Burns.
The Life of Robert Burns
His parents were tenant farmers and even though the children were expected to help, they also had a teacher who taught them to read and write. The young boy grew up writing poems.
Want to follow in Burns’ footsteps? My South Scotland itinerary includes a tour through “Burns Country”!
Burns was notorious for his love affairs and many of his poems and songs are dedicated to women he associated with, or love in general. In 1786, his girldfriend Jean Armour was pregant and gave birth to twins. Her father initially refused for them to get married. At the time, Burns was in need of money and accepted a job as a slave overseer at a Jamaican plantation.
To raise funds for the journey, he published his first collection of poetry in 1786. The book was such a great success that he changed his mind and decided to pursue a career as a poet in Scotland.
People all over Scotland soon read Burns’ poems. He moved to Edinburgh to meet with influential supporters – visit the Scottish Writer’s Museum to learn more. He also visited different parts of the Highlands, including Aberfeldy and the Falls of Foyers on Loch Ness.
You might also like: Hidden gem museums for your Edinburgh bucket list
During this time, Burns also met the young Walter Scott who would go on to become a famous author himself.
Burns was eventually allowed to marry Jean Armour in 1788 and together they moved to a farm in Ellisland near Dumfries. You can visit Ellisland Farm and learn about life on the farm. Unfortunately, Burns was not a very skilled farmer and took on additional work as an exciseman (collecting taxes for the government).
The family eventually gave up the farm and moved to Dumfries. During this period, Burns turned his attention towards music and wrote lyrics for many of his famous songs. You can visit the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries as well as the two-storey house he live in.
Robert Burns had been of ill-health for most of his life. He died in Dumfries on 21 July 1796. He was only 37 years old. He was survived by his wife Jean Armour (who died in 1834) and five children.
Burns Night Traditions
In his 20s Robert Burns joined the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club and worked up quite the reputation – he was no a stranger to lively gatherings and boozy events. It seems fitting then, to honour his life and legacy in the same way!
The first supper in his memory was held on the fifth anniversary of his death in Ayrshire (21 July 1801). The same year, a Burns Club formed in Greenock. They hosted the first Burns Night on 29 January 1802 – they actually got his birthday wrong! A mistake that was quickly rectified in 1803.
Burns Night (also called Burns Supper) is a merry gathering involving food (the Burns Supper), recitations, songs, dancing and drams.
Traditional Burns Night Meal
The traditional meal for Burns Night consists of haggis, neeps and tatties – that’s mashed turnip and mashed potatoes.
You may be able to buy haggis in a store. Making it yourself can be a grim business (it’s made with sheep intestines after all). It’s actually much easier and just as tasty to prepare a vegetarian haggis.
For a traditional Burns Night menu, think about pairing the haggis with other Scottish classics, like cock-a-leekie, Cullen Skink or cranachan. Here are some great recipes for those dishes.
What happens at Burns Night?
Every Burns Supper is a little different, but there are certain Burns Night traditions that simply have to happen.
A traditional Burns Night looks something like this:
Piping in the guests
There’s usually a piper to welcome the guests. If no bagpipes are at hand, a CD will do – or other music instruments. As long as it’s jolly!
Saying the Selkirk Grace
When everybody has arrived, the host of the event welcomes their guests and says grace.
Traditionally, they say the Selkirk Grace which was probably not written by Robert Burns originally. It is believed though, that he used to recite this version of the Grace at the home of the Earl of Selkirk in Kirkcudbright. Hence the name and Burns Night tradition.
The Burns Night Procession
Once the starters have been served, the main meal of haggis is carried into the room – usually accompanied by a procession and bagpipes. It’s a serious celebration of haggis!
The procession is made up of musicians, the carrier(s) of the haggis, the person selected to address the haggis (more on that below) and sometimes another person who represents a character called ‘Poosie Nancy’.
‘Poosie Nancy’ is named after Nancy Gibson, a woman who ran a tavern which Burns frequented in Mauchline, Ayrshire. Poosie Nancy was known to urge people on to have a good time – an old-timey animator of sorts. Poosie Nancy is usually dressed in an old-fashioned outfit including a large apron and a white cotton cap.
Address to a Haggis
After the procession follows the ‘Address to a Haggis‘. This can be quite the theatrical performance!
It is the recital of a poem presenting the haggis to the host and the guests. During the third verse, the person reciting the poem, takes a big knife and cuts open the haggis. At the end there is a toast – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Haggis’. And everybody responds by saying ‘The Haggis’ and takes a sip.
Like many of Burns poems, the ‘Address to a Haggis’ is written in Scots – you may want to practice it if you’re the chosen one to recite it.
Now that it has been properly addressed, you can eat the haggis.
The Immortal Memory
Every Burns Supper has a speaker who tells the story of Robert Burns and his legacy. This is called the ‘Immortal Memory’ and the speaker can say as much or as little as they like.
For the rest of the night, guests continue to recite their favourite Burns poems, sing songs and share many more drams.
Reciting Tam O’ Shanter
It is common for someone to recite the famous poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter‘ on Burns Night. Robert Burns wrote ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ in 1790 while living in Dumfries. It’s a long poem and tells the story of the farmer Tam who often gets drunk in a tavern in Ayr.
One night, on his way home, he comes across a haunted church. The witches, demons and warlocks chase after Tam and his horse Meg. They manage to grab the mare’s tail and rip it off, but eventually the two escape over the Brig o’Doon.
This is one of my favourite Burns poems. Recitals can be quite formal, or take on a theatrical storytelling element. It’s a brilliant poem to hear – even though it’s quite long.
A Toast to the Lassies
Another traditional toast at a Burns Supper is called ‘The Lassies!’ This usually involved a light-hearted (and positive) speech about women the by a male guest. It’s meant to be fun – even if it feels a little outdated.
A female speaker is then invited to deliver a response – an equally light-hearted speech about men. This is known as ‘The Reply to “The Lassies”‘ .
Some Burns Nights also include a ceilidh and there is lots of dancing.
Singing Auld Lang Syne
One of the most important Burns Night traditions is to end the night with the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, possibly Robert Burns’ most famous song. It’s a song about friendship, being happy and having a good time.
And with this, the traditional Burns Night is complete. Slàinte!