My partner’s birthday is the 25th of January. An odd link, I know, but she is in auspicious company. Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January in 1759. I remember her Grandmother remarking once that she’d never be without a party on her birthday, and she was not wrong. On his birthday each year groups all across the world gather in celebration, and it’s one hell of a party.
It has been over two centuries since our Rabbie passed. Yet every year, all across the world, poetry lovers, romantics and Scots gather to celebrate Robert Burns. So who was this man, and what is a Burns Night?
Born from humble beginnings in Ayrshire, Robert Burns was a poet whose memory is still celebrated to this very day. From the American founding fathers to the Soviet Revolution, he has influenced political thought and literary tendencies to this very day. Even Bob Dylan took notes from The Bard.
As a Romantic poet before the term had even been coined, his poem A Red Red Rose is often considered one of the best love poems ever written. Conversely, satires such as Tam o’ Shanter and Holy Willie’s Prayer show the man’s sharp wit, as they set to cut down ideas long held. Perhaps his best known piece is Auld Lang Syne which is sung each year on New Year’s Eve by millions around the world.
Sadly, the greatest tragedy to befall this talented poet was that he had a tumultuous life that ended far too soon. After a life often filled with hardship to fuel his pen, he died at the mere age of 37.
Burns Suppers, or Burns Nights, celebrate The Bard’s birth, but it wasn’t always that way. Five years after Robert Burn’s death, a group of nine of his friends gathered to celebrate him; it had more in common with a memorial dinner than a celebration. They gathered for a meal of haggis and sheep’s head, told stories of a man they revered, spoke his poems and toasted Rabbie with whisky most fine. If some tellings are to be believed, they toasted often, and the song they sang only got more lively as the evening went on.
Two years later, this memorial turned into a full celebration. The first Burns club started in Greenock in 1803. It still exists today and is known as The Mother Club.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!
The Selkirk Grace
While Burns Nights range in scope and seriousness, there are some staples which occur at all formalised Suppers. These are usually the ones hosted by Burns Clubs, which are affiliated with the Robert Burns World Federation.
Once the Supper guests are gathered, the top table is introduced. These are typically the club committee, and artists who may be reciting some of The Bard’s works. Then the Selkirk Grace is said. Although this poem is often credited to Burns, it seems to have been in use before his birth.
Next, the Haggis is piped in. It is carried in on a platter befitting its status as the focal point of the meal, with a guard of honour. Although this varies from club to club and evening to evening, a piper is the most important part. The chairperson of the club, other pipers and perhaps even a sword bearer may join the dish. Together they parade through the tables and around the hall to a rising slow clap from the guests before laying the Haggis down at the top table.
From there, the most iconic moment of the night takes plate: the Address to a Haggis.
Speaking in Burns’ own words, the haggis is serenaded for its virtues. This moment cuts to the heart of the poet and his celebration, even generations after his death. This is what makes a Burns Night a Burns Night.
His work is grounded in the deepest emotions we all universally feel, and the Address is no exception; it’s a little humourous and wholly articulate. Even on matters as small as food – though one could argue that’s no small matter at all – he was able to cut to the heart of things which well up inside until words fail us. So he gave us his words, to speak of heartbreak, that a joyful meal has been enjoyed, and perhaps we are not all quite so alone.
Following the dinner, but before too much drink has been imbibed, a Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns commences.
It is from the first gathering of the poet’s friends that this tradition comes, when they told stories and lauded his memory. The speaker is expected to give a personalised tribute to the legacy of the man who has brought them all together. It’s no small task; much study is involved, with no small amount of creativity required to give a fresh perspective and appreciation for a man lauded for over two centuries. This is not quite as easy for those who didn’t know the man personally!
From there, songs and recitals of Burns’ works are led by artists engaged to speak before the guests. These will range from oft-known poems such as A Red Red Rose to obscure songs such as The Lea Rig. While best known for his poems, The Bard was an avid songwriter who shaped Scottish music and continues to have a profound influence to this day.
After often serious and hard hitting recitals, a different aspect of appreciation comes to the fore. A toast is given to the ladies present. Like all the best love affairs, this toast takes its time with a great deal of humour. Keeping matters light, a speaker will praise and bemoan the many effects that girls have on boys, women upon men. Rabbie was known as a womaniser, fathering many children and ever tangled in this love affair or that. There’s a reason he’s often called proto-romantic in his style, as much of his work is on love. The trick to a good Toast to the Lassies is to ride the line of good humour without insulting anyone, and it’s best to redirect anything awry on the speaker himself.
At the end, a toast is raised to any female guests. At a male-only event, this would be any ladies who helped serve or prepare the meal. “To the lassies!”
The toast is not one-sided, and the lassies have a chance to reply. Typically, the speakers will collaborate so they can cross reference the other’s toast. This grows into a good-natured tête-à-tête for an amused and approving audience. Self-awareness and the ability to take a joke and poke fun at oneself are all encouraged indeed, before concluding similarly, “To the laddies!”.
The final item at a traditional Burns Night is the vote of thanks. One soul amongst the congregation has the onerous task of taking notes and chronicling the night’s events. From individual conversations and merriment to the talents of the artists, they gather it all together. This is woven together into a witty script to sum it all up, and propose a vote or toast of thanks to those in attendance. This marks the end of formal proceedings, though the informal ones may last until daybreak in the company of John Barleycorn.
John Barleycorn was what Burns often referred to whisky as in his poetry. Although not poetry, we also have a few remarks on whisky and where it comes from here.
Alas, all evenings must draw to a close, even the best ones. The same goes for blogs. So I’ll leave you with a few of my own words in the style of our Robert and away myself tae bed:
A toast of thanks that made it here,
Speak of a man, chasing the deer
Hold memory of Robert near,
Spake tall tales and singing braw songs,
Trickle from lips, water o’weir,
Say Auld Lang Syne and let go wrongs.