Burns Night traditions and their origins

The January Blues might be expected to hit Scotland, with its grim winter weather, harder than most parts of the world, but the end of the month coincides with celebrations that are guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Robert Burns.

Whether in a formal Burns Supper club setting, or just toasting with a dram at home, Burns’ Night gives the whole country a chance to reflect on our contribution to the world.

Not for nothing is January 25 considered Scotland’s ‘other national day’ alongside St Andrew’s Day in late November.

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The ‘mother club’, the first Burns Club that was formed by Ayrshire ‘expats’ in Greenock, hosted its first Burns Supper over 200 years ago.

Robert Burns.

Traditions of that night still exist today, and from the entertainment to the cuisine, we look at the origins of those special things that mark Burns night.

The Date

There were actually two potential dates for some of Burns’ contemporaries to honour him, with an informal gathering in Alloway, where Burn’s Cottage had been turned into an alehouse.

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Scottish history timeline from 1054 to 2014
Robert Burns.

According to Oxford University, that first gathering, organised by the Ayrshire Guild of Shoemakers, took place on January 29th, which they erroneously thought to be Burns’ birthday.

A later event, more akin to the kind of Burns Supper we recognise today, was held in late July, the anniversary of Burns’ death.

These events, attended by many of Burns’ friends, were both held for several years until the January date was settled on, reportedly because it was a fallow period for local farmers.

The food

The Haggis, where it real, could be considered Scotland’s national animal.

The ‘great chieftan o’ the pudding race’ was rumoured to have been served at the first Burns’ Supper, and its origins are fairly obvious even to the uninitiated.

‘To a Haggis’ is one of Burns’ most famous works, and it is traditionally recited just before the meal is served, with cutting taking place as it is mentioned in the poem.

It is thought that the piping in of the haggis is a relatively modern invention, having been introduced sometime in the 20th century.

The consumption of a sheep’s head, present at the early burns suppers, has been left by the wayside, to the delight of many.

The Drink

As Burns’ suppers expanded in the last hundred years or so to become as much a celebration of Scottish culture and heritage, so has the drink served at Burns’ Suppers changed, with whisky (or Irn Bru) now commonplace.

Given the time and location of the first Suppers, there’s little chance either of those featured.

In fact, according to historian Rab Houston, ale was more than likely served, alongside wine, which modern sommeliers would dictate should be red to complete the haggis.

Burns’ work

Like the food, it is relatively self-explanatory why Burns’ work would feature prominently in the earliest Burns’ Suppers.

It is, however, extraordinary that such traditions have lasted so long, with the reciting of music and poetry still the central plank of any Burns supper.

The earliest Immortal Memories (toasts to Burns himself) would have been more akin to dedications at a wake or memorial, given they were often delivered by those who knew Burns.

Now, they tend to be a wider reflection of Robert Burns in a modern context, the speaker’s favourite works, and their interpretation of his life and legacy.

Toast to the lasses (and response)

Of all the traditions of Burns Night, nothing has gone through as much change as the toast to the lasses.

In the original suppers, they were a cursory way of thanking the women who invariably served the meal or waited on the diners, the way a modern speaker at a social event may thank the bar staff.

It later developed to become a broader look at the complicated role women had in the life of Burns himself.

Only in the last several decades have Burns’ suppers ceased to be all-male affairs, meaning a chage in the toast to the lasses was necessitated.

Now, they tend to involve gently ribbing the women in the room, who are of course offered a similarly caustic right of reply in the toast to the laddies response, usually full of jokes at the expense of the male speaker.