On January 25th of each year, the world pays tribute to Celtic poet Robert Burns and the literary legacy he left on the world. His poetry celebrated aspects of his life, traditional culture, religion, and he spent his writing career extolling the wonder of his native land in poetry and song. At BookClub, we are building a community of people who celebrate authors as well as the impact of their work, and the Burns Supper is a beautiful example of that.
The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,
The joyless winter-day,
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
- from Winter: A Dirge by Robert Burns
Born in 1759 in Alloway, Scotland as the oldest of seven, Robert Burns always loved poetry, as he had written his first love poem to another farmer’s daughter at the age of 15. His first collection came 12 years later, in 1786 with the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, also known as the Kilmarnock Edition. After publication, he quickly rose to national fame because his writing addressed issues that primarily impacted lower social classes, including lack of social equality.
Along with being known for his literary prowess, Burns rebelled against the social structures of his time. He looked down upon many schools of religious and political thought that to him seemed inhumane. Burns would later be fondly acclaimed The Ploughman Poet, because he was the son of a farmer, and most of his writing was penned in Scots dialect.
After the publication of his first volume, he met James Johnson, who was creating a volume of songs that would later be known as The Scots Musical Museum. This meeting led Burns to focus primarily on penning songs in the later years of his life.
By 1788, Burns had spent most of the newly accumulated wealth afforded to him by the publication of his works and had to find employment as an Excise Officer (someone who approves the import of goods) to make ends meet. Smuggling was rampant at the time and the demands of the job led to the deterioration of his health and ultimate demise in 1796, only ten years after getting published.
Though never officially named as such, Burns is celebrated as Scotland’s National Bard. Burns wrote many verses of songs and poetry that have since influenced legends like Bob Dylan, John Steinbeck, and Abraham Lincoln.
If you’ve heard Auld Lang Syne, traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve, then you’re already familiar with some of Burns’ work. Other popular works include To a Mouse, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, and Comin’ Thro the Rye.
The birth of Burns Supper
Five years after Burns’ death, nine men held tribute to their friend via a meal of haggis with neeps and tatties (a dish of mashed turnips and potatoes). The dinner would later be recognized as the first Burns Supper.
Also called Burns Night, the dinner tradition was first celebrated out of Scotland at Oxford University in 1806. Traveling merchants took the tradition with them, and soon the night of poetry and friendship spread across the world.
Since the tradition’s spread, Burns Supper has become a tribute to the man himself, as well as a way to celebrate Scottish culture around the world. Many include bagpipe music, whiskey, and wearing tartan (a Scottish pattern often mistaken for plaid) as part of their celebration.
Burns’ work has touched dozens of people in the 200+ years since his death. The themes of love and nature present in many of his verses appeal to those stuck in the mire of everyday life. His ability to use small subjects like mice and a louse to express big, often abstract, ideas has inspired people across centuries.
Celebrating in 2021
In years past, people would have gathered together to hold their own Burns Night. Typically, the host of the evening says a few words and performs Address to a Haggis. Then, everyone in attendance shares a meal, following which several other recitations are performed.
Typical recitations include Selkirk Grace, Immortal Memory, Toast to the Lassies, Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, and Auld Lang Syne, but you can include or exclude whatever you’d like. It’s also typical to pepper several toasts throughout the evening, as toasting is an essential part of Scotland’s culture.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Scotland is asking those who celebrate to do so virtually. You can join in the celebration with the hashtags #burnsnightin and #virtualburnsnight on social media to share your celebrations with the world.
A traditional Burns Supper includes haggis with neeps and tatties, after the memorial dinner held in 1801. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of dish, try out one of these modern twists, including a tikki recipe and haggis bon bons.
Whether you were born in Scotland or just happen to love Burns’ literary works, holding a Burns Supper is a great way to remember Scotland’s favorite son. Show us your celebration by tagging us @bookclubdotcom on Twitter or Instagram.