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What is Burns Night?
Frequently Asked Questions

Burns Night Burns Night is the commemoration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland's most famous poet. It is celebrated with traditional suppers, which have been held annually on his birthday for more than 200 years.

Burns was born on January 25 1759, in Alloway, Ayrshire in south-west Scotland. He is renowned worldwide as a great poet and songwriter. A keen social commentator, Burns wrote movingly about love, universal brotherhood and the human condition. He wrote from the heart and, to this day, his words are considered timeless. 

The Burns Night supper ritual was started in 1796, a few years after his death, by his close friends as a tribute to his memory. The basic format for the evening still follows the same pattern whether it is held in formal dining rooms or the local pub. The ceremony begins when the designated "chairman" of the evening invites "the company" (guests) to receive the haggis - a traditional Scottish dish made of minced offal with suet, onions, oatmeal and seasonings.

Next comes the reciting of a prayer, Selkirk Grace (written by Burns):

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.

The company are then asked to stand to receive the haggis. A piper in full traditional Scottish dress and playing the bagpipes (a musical instrument featuring an air-filled bag fitted with pipes) leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table.

The bagpipes play an essential part in a traditional Burns supper, but contrary to popular belief, the bagpipes are not of Scottish origin. The first version of the instrument can be traced back to the Middle East, well over 2,000 years ago. Then, it was most likely a rather crude instrument comprised of reeds stuck into a goatskin bag. As civilisation spread throughout the Middle East and into Mediterranean lands, the people brought their music with them. Some of their instruments were adaptations of the early bagpipe.

As the ceremony continues, the chairman recites Burns' famous Address To A Haggis. When he reaches the line "an' cut you up wi' ready slight," he slices open the haggis with a sharp knife. It is customary for the company to applaud the chairman and to stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.

The traditional Burns supper menu consists of cock-a-leekie soup (or Scotch broth) and haggis with "tatties and neeps" (potatoes and rutabagas), Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle) followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with liberal tots of the "water of life" - Scotch whisky.

One of the central features of the evening is when an invited guest is asked to give a short speech on Burns. Known as the Immortal Memory speech, it can be light-hearted or literary but the aim is to outline the greatness and relevance of the poet today. Various humorous speeches follow.

Once the speeches are complete the evening continues with songs and poems written by Burns. Favourites include Tam O'Shanter, Address To The Unco Guid, To A Mouse, and Holy Willie's Prayer.

The evening ends with the company standing, linking hands and singing one of Burns's most famous works, Auld Lang Syne.

It is not just in Scotland that the Burns supper tradition is maintained. On or around January 25, the life and works of the poet are celebrated everywhere from Moscow to Manhattan, Newfoundland to New Zealand.

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