Burns supper

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A Burns supper is a ceremonial event to celebrate the birth of Robert Burns ('Rabbie Burns', 1759-1796) on the evening of January 25th, known as Burns Night. The ritual was begun by friends of Burns soon after his death in 1796, and since then, the basic format has remained unchanged in Burns suppers celebrated throughout Scotland and by groups of expatriate Scots across the world. Burns is regarded as Scotland's greatest poet; he wrote mainly in Scots dialect, but most of his verse is easily intelligible to English speakers. His short life brought him fame in Scotland, not only for the brilliance of his verse but also for his love of women and his avowed hatred of hypocrisy. During the supper, a selection of Burns' poems and songs are performed by the guests, and the haggis is addressed with a recital of Burns' poem, Address to a Haggis. A typical meal for Burns Night would include Cock-a-Leekie, Haggis with Tatties-an'-Neeps, Cranachan and whisky.

Piping in the guests

A piper or other traditional music welcome the guests.


A short welcome to the guests, introducing each to the company. The supper is a formal affair, and the men are expected to wear formal Scottish evening dress, including in particular a dress kilt.

The Selkirk Grace

The Selkirk Grace is recited by the host to usher in the food. Often attributed to Robert Burns, the Selkirk Grace is a traditional blessing in use long before his time. (As well as being an original poet, Burns was also a notable "collector" of traditional Scottish songs and verse). While touring Galloway in 1794 with his friend John Syme, Burns stayed with the Earl of Selkirk at St Mary's Isle in Kirkcudbright. There, one evening, he recited a modified version of the Galloway Grace (also known as the Covenanter's Grace) a traditional Scottish grace. In its best known form, the Galloway Grace reads

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.

Burns' version as he gave it at Selkirk was[1]

Some have meat and cannot eat,
Some cannot eat that want it;
But we have meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit

Piping in the haggis

After the soup course, the company are asked to stand to receive the haggis. The haggis enters the room accompanied by a piper, the cook and the person who will address the haggis, while the guests accompany them with a slow handclap.

Traditionally, a haggis was made by boiling the liver, lungs and heart of a sheep, then mincing them and mixing with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. This mixture was stuffed inside a sheep's stomach, which was then sewed up and boiled. Modern haggises use better cuts of meat and use a synthetic skin; vegetarian haggises are also sold, and may even be eaten, but not at Burns suppers.

Address to the haggis

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm
(First verse of Burns' Address to a haggis).[2]

The reader of "To a Haggis" also holds a knife which is used to cut open the haggis dramatically with the line "His knife see Rustic-labour dight". In the process the reader ensures that the contents spill out and is synchronized with the reading of "trenching its gushing entrails". Finally the haggis is raised for the appreciation of the audience with the reading of the final line "Gie her a Haggis!".

Toast to the haggis

The guests toast the haggis (with whisky) shouting "The Haggis!"

The meal

Usually starts with Cock-a-Leekie soup (leek and chicken stock). The main course consists of the haggis along with neeps (turnip/rutabaga/swede) and tatties (potatoes). The dessert is often cranachan (whipped cream, whisky, honey, and toasted oatmeal).[3]

The first entertainment

The evening's entertainments are each a performance of a Burns song or a recital of a Burns poem. The entertainments will be chosen to display a range of Burns' moods and talents, but particular favourites include Tam O' Shanter, Address to the Unco Guid, To A Mouse and Holy Willie's Prayer. The Tale of Tam O'Shanter is a long and colourful picture of the drinking classes in late 18th century Ayr. The Tale describes Tam's thoughts as he is riding home, drunk, one wet and windy night. On passing an old church, he imagines seeing the Devil within, hosting a wild party, together with witches and ghosts. But the poem also contains some of Burns' most gentle and reflective lines:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts for ever.

By contrast, Holy Willie's Prayer is a bitter attack on the self righteousness and double standards of the Presbyterian clergy of the time. As a young man, Burns had been courting Jean Armour, who was later to be his wife, and she had fallen pregnant. As a punishment, The Presbyterian Church of Scotland required that Burns be publicly humiliated, by showing public penance in open church for three consecutive weeks. Burns was thereafter scathing of the hypocrisy he saw within the Church. Address to the Unco Guid is a (slightly) more gentle rebuke to their congregations. It begins[4]

O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours’ fauts and folly ;
and ends
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us :
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias :
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it ;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

The Immortal Memory

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention."

The Immortal Memory is a speech to commemorate the achievements of Robert Burns, and to highlight his continuing relevance. It is an honour to be asked to give The Immortal Memory, and the speech, typically lasting about 25 minutes, is expected to be erudite and witty. Common themes include his literary genius, his humour, his humanity( "Man's inhumanity to man/ makes countless thousands mourn!"), and his nationalism. Burns has been described as "a poet of the poor, an advocate for political and social change, and an opponent of slavery, pomposity and greed." [5], and it has been said (by Jack McConnell, then First Minister of Scotland) that "No political philosopher, has written more powerfully about class and politics as the ploughman poet"[6]. A common theme is one of Burns's most famous lines - "a Man's a Man for a' That", and especially the plea, in the last verse of that poem

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

The speech concludes with a toast to Robert Burns, often with the words: "To the Immortal Memory of the Bard of Ayr!"

The second entertainment

A performance of one of Burns’s songs or poems.

The toast to the lassies

Green grow the rashes, O!
Green grow the rashes, O!
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O![7]

Burns "is the international romantic icon of the suffering poet, and of certain Scottish virtues - he likes a drink, he falls in love easily, he's tempestuous in his affairs." [8] ("But to see her was to love her;/ Love but her, and love forever"). The 'Toast to the Lassies' is usually a humorous toast to praise women, often using quotations from Burns's works, and references to his life and loves. It concludes with a toast: "To the Lassies!".

The third entertainment

A performance of one of Burns’s songs or poems. Several of Burns' poems have been set to music, but Burns was also a great collector of folk songs. Perhaps the most famous of the songs that he collected is My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose:

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
My luve is like a melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
So fair thou art, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands of life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee well awhile!
And I will come again, my luve.
Tho' it were ten thousand mile.

The reply to the toast to the lassies

This reply to the men's toast is usually a witty response also citing from Burns's works. Often viewed as a competitive chance for the women to upstage the men with a more clever or humorous toast.

Final entertainment

A performance of one of Burns’s songs or poems.

Vote of thanks

This brings the supper to an end followed by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne by all the guests. Auld Lang Syne (Scots, literally meaning "old long ago") was first written down by Robert Burns, but he probably modified it only slightly from a traditional song, itself based on earlier poems[9] The first verse of Auld Lang Syne reads

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


  1. Selkirk Grace
  2. Address to a haggis rabbie-burns.com
  3. recipes for Burns Suppers from bbc.co.uk
  4. Address to the Unco Guid or The Rigidly Righteous Poet's Graves
  5. Words of Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, in giving the inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture, in New York, 2004.
  6. The Immortal Memory Speech by Jack McConnell, First Minister of Scotland, 2004
  7. Green Grow the Rashes O (Chorus) from Collected Works of Rober Burns
  8. Poetry for Burns night Andrew O'Hagan in The Guardian, January 25th 2008
  9. Old Long Syne a poem by Robert Aytoun(1570–1638), may have been the original basis of Burns' song. The first verse reads
    Should old acquaintance be forgot,
    And never thought upon,
    The flames of love extinguished,
    And freely past and gone?
    Is thy kind heart now grown so cold
    In that loving breast of thine,
    That thou canst never once reflect
    On old long-syne

    The Poems of Robert AytonBy Robert Aytoun, Charles Rogers, published 1844, digitised by Google books