When is Burns Night? Date, origins, traditions and how to host a proper Burns supper

Burns Night is a huge part of Scottish culture, but when is the big celebration - and what exactly is all the fuss about?

Celebrated annually, Burns Night celebrates the life and work of Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Traditional festivities generally include a ‘Burns supper’ featuring significant poetry readings at specific points throughout the meal.

If you're planning on hosting a Burns supper this year, here's everything you need to know (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you're planning on hosting a Burns supper this year, here's everything you need to know (Photo: Shutterstock)

When is Burns Night?

Burns Night is celebrated on 25 January every year, which was also Robert Burns’ date of birth.

READ MORE - Burns Night: Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns in full

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist who lived between 1759 and 1796. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and penned some of his works in Scots, as well as in English with a Scots dialect.

Which foods are served at a Burns supper?

Normally a quintessential Burns supper will begin with a soup course - normally a Scottish soup, such as cullen skink or cock-a-leekie.

Following that, a haggis is served. Traditionally, guests will stand as the chef carries the haggis into the dining room, led by a bagpiper. The haggis will then be dished out with neeps (swede or turnip) and tatties (mashed potatoes).

Sometimes a dessert course is then eaten, usually a Scottish recipe such as cranachan - whipped cream, whisky, oats, honey, and raspberries.

Which poems are read at a Burns supper?

Before eating, the Selkirk Grace is read. This short poem is often attributed to Burns, but in reality he simply delivered the verse at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Selkirk, hence the name.

Once the haggis is brought into the dining room, someone should read Burns’ poem, Address to a Haggis. At key moments throughout, the speaker is expected to sharpen a knife before dramatically plunging it into the haggis and cutting it open.

Which toasts are given at a Burns supper?

As well as toasting the haggis with whisky after it has been sliced open (but before eating), certain guests at a Burns supper are required to address the group, according to tradition.

After eating and once coffee has been served, a speaker generally makes a toast to the ‘Immortal Memory of Robert Burns’. This usually includes a short speech, as well as the recitation of a poem or song by Burns.

Following this, a male guest gives the ‘Address to the Lassies’ - a brief, usually humorous speech that was once intended to thank the women present who had prepared the meal just eaten.

A female guest will then respond with the ‘Reply to the Laddies’, written in a similar vein. Often these speakers will collaborate on their toasts to make sure they complement each other.

Which songs are sung at a Burns supper?

Several Robert Burns songs may be performed at a Burns supper, including Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel o' Rogues and A Man's a Man.

However, according to tradition, Auld Lang Syne is sung at the end of the event to bring the evening to a close. Guests should stand, join hands and sing the song together before parting ways.

When was the first Burns Night celebrated?

The first Burns Club, formed by Ayrshire ‘expats’ in Greenock, hosted its inaugural Burns Supper over 200 years ago.

According to Oxford University, that first gathering, organised by the Ayrshire Guild of Shoemakers, took place on 29 January 1802, which they erroneously thought to be Burns’ birthday.

The group later discovered the poet’s real date of birth - 25 January - and Burns suppers have been held on that day ever since.