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Every January, Scots both inside and outside of Scotland gather to celebrate the life and work of their favourite son, poet Robert Burns, with traditional foods, drinks and dancing. Writer Jonny Sweet gets us a seat at the table for an annual Burns Night supper.
Text by: Jonny Sweet
Country: Scotland

n a cold and windy night in January of 1759, in a small cottage built and thatched by the self-taught farmer who lived there, a squealing babe was brought into the world. The young pup would be named Robert Burns, and he would go on to become a ploughman, poet, political writer and philanderer, not to mention Scotland’s favourite son. Now, over 250 years later, the birth of the Bard of Ayrshire is still celebrated with a traditional Burns supper.

Each year on 25 January, Scottish people gather in homes or halls to rejoice in the poetic majesty of the country’s most famous penman. The ceremony combines all things Scottish: kilts, bagpipes, haggis, whisky – and of course, the poetry of Rabbie Burns.

INAUGURAL BURNS NIGHT

The idea of an annual celebration of Burns’ life and poetry was first introduced a mere five years after his death in 1801 by a group of his close friends. Since then it has snowballed into an event that is more keenly observed by the people of Scotland than their national holiday, St. Andrews Day. And the celebrations aren’t just confined to Scotland – the occasion is widely commemorated in Northern Ireland and even such far-flung places as New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

FIRST TIMERS AND OLD HANDS

Whilst Pilar attended a university-organised event, replete with tickets, a live band and abundant food and drink for all, Tessa enjoyed a far more intimate affair. She chose instead to celebrate the evening with a group of close friends in the cosy surroundings of her own apartment. And although the girls’ experiences may have varied in terms of stature and mood, they both followed the same general conventions for a Burns night.

THE TRADITIONAL CONVENTIONS OF A BURNS SUPPER

Traditionally the evening commences with a welcoming speech from the host or master of ceremonies. This is followed by the recital of the Selkirk Grace, a particular form of grace made famous by the Scottish Bard himself, which goes as follows:

ORIGINAL SCOTS
Some hae meat and canna eat it,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Some have meat and cannot eat it,
And some would eat that want it;
But we have meat, and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thanked.

THE FOOD!

This is followed by the first course, normally a Scottish soup – either Scotch broth or cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek), and afterwards appears the famous haggis. The main course is carried in – accompanied by the fanfare of bagpipes for a more formal celebration – and the master of ceremonies will then give a lengthy address to the dish. After hailing the haggis as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race” and carving it up into individual portions, the guests will set to devouring the chieftain, accompanied by ‘neeps’ (turnips) and ‘tatties’ (potatoes).

AFTER DINNER FESTIVITIES

After the main course, the guests normally drink whisky and make speeches, or simply read Burns’ poetry. Once a sufficient amount of alcohol has been consumed, the chairs and tables are cleared away, the band strikes up and the guests partake in ceilidh dancing – a formal dance peculiar to Celtic countries that is renowned for its frenetic pace and energy. The event concludes with a communal recital of the famous Burns’ poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a song traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve in a wide range of English-speaking countries. The title of the poem literally means “long time since”, though a looser but perhaps more accurate translation would be “for old time’s sake”. The general sentiment of the song is reminiscence; on New Year’s Eve (called Hogmanay in Scotland), it is sung to evoke memories of the past year, on Burns’ night, to evoke memories of the poet and his heritage.

THE GIRLS’ REACTIONS

After attending her first Burns’ supper and witnessing first-hand the traditions, Pilar enthused: “The experience was amazing! Although it wasn’t a ‘proper‘ Burns’ night, as it was the one organised by the University of Edinburgh and there were more foreigners than Scots, we ticked all the Burns’ traditions: we ate haggis, we drank whisky, we danced ceilidh and we listened to some people reciting poetry. My favourite part was when we all held hands in the end and sang and danced the Auld Lang Syne: it made me feel like a proper Scot!”

Meanwhile, Tessa’s low-key Burns’ night obviously omitted certain peculiarities of the supper such as the bagpipe-toting musician, the ceilidh dancing and even kilts were scarce; yet the poetry and the underlying theme remained the same. For her, it was less about ‘ticking the boxes’ and more about enjoying the work of one of her favourite poets. “The poetry holds a special significance for me and my family — we read Burns’ poetry all year round. We read his poems at New Year and funerals or weddings. My Dad sang ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That‘ at his friend’s funeral. His poetry is full of character and has stood the test of time. He is still very funny to this day, and at times his poetry is extremely romantic. His use of dialect makes every poem of his expressive and full of feeling, so no matter who reads it, it still exhibits the tone intended.”

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

More than anything, though, Tessa believes it’s about people getting together and revelling in their collective culture. “It’s a chance for people to feel proud of who they are and their heritage and inspires a warming sense of togetherness.” And although Pilar was approaching the event essentially as an outsider, she told me she felt unreservedly a part of the evening’s proceedings. “I think one of the best things of this celebration, as it happens with most Scottish traditions, is that it’s very inclusive and we foreigners can enjoy them and feel part of the culture as well.”

Both women will certainly be participating in Burns’ ceremonies for years to come. For every 25 January comes the opportunity to get together with friends, to share and embrace the Scottish culture, to remember and reflect on the man who was voted Scotland’s favourite son in 2009, and in his own words, to “tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang’s syne.”

ROBERT BURNS FACTFILE

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a lonely cottage in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland.
Burns was the eldest of seven children.
Burns was originally a farmer and ploughman and only wrote poetry in his spare time.
Burns had been planning to leave Scotland to seek his fortune as a bookkeeper on a farm in Jamaica. He originally wrote and published his first portfolio of poetry solely to raise money for the journey. However, its colossal success convinced him to stay and pursue a career as a poet in his native land.
Burns had 12 children in his life with four different women. However, he only ever married one woman, Jean Armour in 1788, with whom he had nine children. Only three of them survived past infancy.
Burns met and inspired another of Scotland’s most famous writers, Sir Walter Scott, who was only 16 years old at the time.
John Steinbeck’s famous novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ takes its title from the Burns’ poem “To A Mouse”, whilst the title of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” is a reference to the Burns’ poem “Comin’ Thro The Rye”.
There are more than 50 memorials dedicated to Robert Burns around the world. Excluding religious figures, only Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus have more dedicated statues.
Burns won a public vote in Scotland called “The Greatest Scot” in 2009, beating William Wallace into second place.
Burns died on July 21, 1796, from a long-standing heart condition. He was only 37 years old. His youngest son, Maxwell, was born on the day of his funeral.






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Poet’s supper .

Every year on january 25 Scottish celebrate the birthday of Rabbie Burns, a ploughman and a farmer born in 1759. During this evening Scottish drink whisky, eat haggis, dance to ceilidh music but most importantly people read and remember their favourite son Rabbie Burns.

Burns started to write poetry solely to earn money to go to Jamaica and become a bookkeeper in a farm there, however, his poetry book became so popular that he stayed in Scotland and wrote poems that have become traditional during weddings, funerals, New Year and more.

This evening called Burn’s supper, is a tradition held dear to all Scottish and also for people in New Zealand, Canada, United States and Australia. For many this evening is for people getting together, reading poetry, sharing their feelings and rejoice with traditions.

 

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