A Traditional Celebration of Robert Burns


Every year in January the SCOT society, to which Hubs and I belong, has a dinner in January to honor Robert Burns. It’s a festive occasion with good food, so we never miss it.

Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie or Robbie Burns, was born in Scotland in 1759. He was a poet and lyricist and is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He wrote in the Scots language (Gaelic, a language, some, a few words of which I know), but much of his writing is in the Scots dialect of English, which while challenging is understandable. Luckily, his work has been translated into standard English.

The eldest of seven children, he was born on the farm of his father in Dunnotar. The family lived in poverty and faced constant hardship, largely because William Burns was consistently unfortunate and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances. The manual labor on the farms at a young age left Burns with a premature stoop and weakened health. He was educated in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, off and on between stints of full-time labor on the farm.

Failure seemed to dog young Rabbie’s footsteps as well. In 1781, Burns moved to Irvine to become a flax-dresser, but during the workers’ celebrations for 1782,  the flax shop caught fire and was burnt to the ground. Burns went home to Lochlea farm, where he befriended a sea captain named Richard Brown, who read the poetry that Burns had been writing and encouraged him to become a poet.

Burns married Jean Armour, a stonemason’s daughter in 1788, and Armour bore him nine children, three of whom survived infancy.

Burns was in financial difficulties due to his lack of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up an offer of work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. It was suggested that he should publish his poems as means of getting a little money to provide him the necessities for Jamaica. In July of 1786, his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published. It contains much of his best writing (which includes To a Mouse, one of my favorites). The book brought immediate success and he was soon known all across Scotland.

The second edition of the book brought with it some wealth, which allowed him to buy a farm in Dumfriesshire. There he trained as an exciseman, collecting duties on manufactured goods, and after he was appointed to duties in Customs and Excise in 1789, he gave up the farm. Through all this, he continued to write and had affairs both real and platonic with several women. As an Excise Supervisor, Burns went on long journeys on horseback, often in harsh weather conditions, and his health began to give way. Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37, in 1796.

The tradition of the Robbie Burns Dinner began five years after his death when a group of his devoted friends hosted a dinner to celebrate his life and work. The tradition caught on and was usually held on or around his birthday, January 25. That date, often referred to as Robert Burns Day, has become Scotland’s unofficial National Day. In fact, it’s more widely celebrated in Scotland than the official national observance of St. Andrew’s Day.

At the heart of the celebration is the Burns Supper or Burns Night—a traditional Scottish dinner typically accompanied by numerous speeches, recitals of Burns poetry and, of course, numerous toasts accompanied by drams of Scotland’s golden elixir, whisky, or uisge breathe (I’m showing off my Gaelic here). The men dress like peacocks: black tie with a brilliant tartan below and a sporran at the waist. The women are wrens, wearing only a sash or boutonniere in tartan.

The traditional Burns Supper begins with Burns’ Selkirk Grace:

 Then comes a soup course.  We had butternut soup, but it’s usually a classic Scottish soup like Scotch broth, potato soup, Cullen skink (a thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions) or cock-a-leekie (a soup dish consisting of leeks and peppered chicken stock).

The highlight of the dinner is the serving of the haggis—a traditional Scottish pudding comprised of the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep diced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, which has been cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Everyone stands when the haggis is ‘piped’ into the room by a bagpiper. The host then recites Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis:


 Haggis is traditionally served with neeps and tatties – turnips and potatoes. I’d been told Haggis is an acquired taste, but I find it delicious, along with the neeps and tatties.

Following coffee, the guests raise toasts to the memory of Robert Burns, punctuated by recitals of his poems. Here is a portion of Ode to a Mouse:

In Scots English

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a pannic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

English translation:

Little, cunning, cowering, timorous beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With bickering prattle!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering paddle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth-born companion
And fellow mortal!

Traditionally the evening ends when a male guest gave an “Address to the Lassies,” ostensibly this was to thank and toast the women present for preparing the meal but was often used as an opportunity for the speaker to give his views on women.

That toast was followed by a “Toast to the Laddies,” an opportunity for a female guest to give her views on men and to respond to any of the specific points raised by the previous speaker. The evening culminates in the singing of Auld Lange Syne.

Also accompanying the meal, either before or after, is harp playing, bagpiping, and Highland dancing – so the entire event is very entertaining. I wouldn’t miss it!

Tá súil agam gur bhain tú taitneamh as ceiliúradh lá breithe Robert Burns –

I hope you enjoyed the celebration of Robert Burns birthday!


48 thoughts on “A Traditional Celebration of Robert Burns

  1. You look as if your group has a really festive time, with something for everyone. I’m afraid my experience of the ‘party’ has been an excuse for more misogyny amongst a notorious misogynistic crowd. I gave up going, despite my love of the pipes and a wee dram. Unfortunately I am prevented from enjoying my favourite dram – Balvenie or Oban – by my meds at present, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, darn. That wee dram is the final thing! We do love our whiskies. We are finally heading to Scotland in September of 2023 – with our kids in tow, as usual. Looking forward to it. Hubs is having a fourth back operation this spring which we hope will fix him up for traveling.


  2. Fascinating post, Noelle. Although I’ve visited Scotland, and I live in the neighbouring country of England, I’ve only ever attended Burns’ Night on one occasion. That was as a press photographer way back in the 1970s, in Essex, where a club similar to yours held the annual event. I didn’t have a chance to stay or to sample to meal, unfortunately. Your post has told me more than I learned at that evening! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. alexcraigie

    Lovely post, Noelle. Both my parents were Scottish, as was my mother-in-law, and we always celebrate Burns night. I used to enjoy a wee bit of haggis but since becoming vegetarian (several decades ago) I buy the veggie version made mainly with pinhead oatmeal and onion. We always have tatties and neeps. I didn’t know some of these facts about Rabbie and it was sad that, like so many others, the family suffered a high rate of infant mortality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Then I must have written this post with you in mind! We toured Ireland a few years back and had a Yeats scholar with us. The similarities between Burns and Yeats became evident. I love hearing his poetry read in Scots English!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great post, Noelle. I had no idea that Burns died so young (nor that he lost so many children). A tragic life in many ways. The celebration sounds absolutely wonderful and if he’s looking down from heaven, he’s probably delighted with the whole affair. I can see why you look forward to it every year. What a fun tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

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