Robert Burns is commonly thought of as one of the greatest Scots of all time. We make much of Shakespeare in England, but Burns Night is definitely a bigger thing north of the border than Shakespeare Day is down here. (It’s April 23 – I had to google it.) Indeed, every town Robert visited or looked at or wrote about seems to be adorned with a big plaque telling you what the connection is. But why do they eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night? When did he live? Is Auld Lang Syne the national song of Scotland, or is it Mull of Kintyre? All that and more coming up.
Robert, or Rabbie, was born 262 years ago to the day in Alloway, Ayrshire. You can still go there to see the thatched cottage he and his six siblings grew up in. This house was sold in favour of a farm when young Burns was 7, a place where the family endured financial hardship and couldn’t afford to send their youngest child to school. Luckily, Robert’s father was a sharp, self educated man who was able to give his children a fairly comprehensive education in lieu of regular schooling. Burns wrote his first song, ‘O, Once I Lov’d A Bonny Lass,’ in 1774 at age 15. Throughout his life, he would go on to publish masses of poems and songs that would earn him a deserved reputation as one of the greatest authors Scotland, if not the world, has ever seen.
So you probably know him for his poems. There’s so much to make of them that I can’t do them justice in one paltry article. If you’ve time, I highly recommend you look up any of his stuff online. His influence is felt in literature centuries on – Of Mice and Men takes its title from a Burns poem. However to focus on any of his poems in analytical style will take a book in and of itself. Let’s focus on a few interesting facts from the life and times of the man himself, rather than analysing his works.
So, why Burns Supper?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, growing up on a farm, Robert simply liked to eat what he would have had available to him as a young child. Well, that’s part of it. Haggis contains a lot of the less valuable parts of an animal so may have been a cheaper alternative than buying meat at market. He also frequently wrote about how much he loved haggis, though he never actually instigated a nationwide dinner in his own name.
The first one was held in 1802, five years after his death, as a way for his friends and fans to come together and celebrate his life and work. It was accidentally held on the wrong day, as the founders mistakenly believed the 29th to be his birthday. The supper, as such, will generally consist of recitals of Burns’ work as people come together to eat. Whiskey is also generally drunk on Burns Night, and if you really want to get into the spirit of things, many Scottish retailers offer a Burns ‘seasoning mix’ to add to your supper.
Once the ‘Selkirk Grace’ (a small poem about, well, saying grace) has been said by the host, guests can begin eating. The main meal consists of haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes.) It is sometimes paired with a soup course of ‘cullen skenk’ (a seafood bisque) or a cheese course, though many families put their own spin on it or don’t have another course at all. In any case, haggis and whiskey are the important parts.
After eating, men and women will give an opposing ‘Toast to the ladies’ and ‘Toast to the laddies,’ so if you’ve any particular grievances in your family, I’d get them aired before Burns Night if you really want to get into the spirit of things. The night ends with the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ so I guess he’s beaten Paul McCartney there, though I’m sure you could also sing ‘Mull of Kintyre’ if you wanted to.