Raise a Glass to Robert Burns on Burns Night

Scottish poet Robert Burns, shown here in a portrait by Alexander Naysmyth, died at the age of 37, but his literary influence continues to this day. (Photo: Scottish National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

If you've ever sung "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve, you're familiar with at least one poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns. We only sing the first verse and the chorus of his famous work, but we do it every year on Dec. 31. And there's much more to know about the man and an annual rite held in his honor.

Even though he died in 1796 at age 37, Burns is still a big deal in Scotland. He's considered by many to be Scotland's national poet. His poetry is not only important for capturing life at the time — focusing on farm life and traditional culture — but his work is also a bridge between the fading Scottish vernacular of the time and the English language, according to Poetry Foundation. Many of his poems use elements of both languages, which is one of the reasons "Auld Lang Syne" is so confusing to modern English speakers.

The Scot's work is celebrated each year on his birthday, Jan. 25, with a tradition that has spread far beyond Scotland: a Burns Dinner, which is usually part of a festive gathering known as Burns Night. There are Burns Night celebrations throughout the United Kingdom, and over the past several years, celebrations have become more popular here in the United States. (If the 25th falls on a weeknight, the U.S. celebrations are often held on the weekend nearest the day, and I think the drinking might have something to do with that.)

Traditionally, Burns Night is a ceremony with a lot of the pomp and circumstance, and there are several elements to the celebration.

First, the haggis and the traditional verse

bagpiper heralds the haggis, Burns Night celebration, 1958
The 'piping in' of the haggis at a Robert Burns Night celebration in 1958. (Photo: Galt Museum & Archives/flickr)

Bagpipes announce the beginning of a Burns Supper as the guests come in. Grace is said, and it's traditionally Selkirk Grace, which goes like this and gives you a sense of how he mixes up the languages:

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 thanket.

The bagpipes begin again while haggis (sheep's heart, liver and lungs, mixed with onions, spices stock, then encased in the sheep's stomach) is brought in on a silver tray, according to BBC. Burns' poem "Address to Haggis," in which he calls haggis the "great chieftain o the puddin'-race," is recited. Here's the first verse (and click the Address to Haggis link if you want to read more):

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

Haggis isn't the only food served during the evening. A full meal of Scottish dishes are served — including some wonderfully named side dishes like mashed neeps (turnips) and mashed tatties (potatoes) — and that's followed by a cheese course and sweets.

Toasts and booze

Having a nightcap
Whiskey is poured liberally during Burns Night. (Photo: donfiore/Shutterstock)

Single malt Scotch is the drink of choice at a Burns Supper, but it's not the only drink. Wine and beer are served with the meal, and according to the BBC, the scotch comes out after dinner.

Toasts are made throughout the evening. There's a toast to the haggis, a toast to the lassies (given by a man), and a reply to the toast to the lassies (given by a woman).


A poem of love and despair in Robert Burns own handwriting. (Photo: National Burns Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Entertainment is an important element of a Burns Night celebration. Readings of his poetry, sometimes done in song, occur throughout the evening. A keynote speaker gives a specific speech — a history of the life of Robert Burns. The speech always ends with a toast, "To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!"

The night ends by singing "Auld Lang Syne."

I've missed this year's Burns Night celebration in Philadelphia because they all happened last weekend. Still, I think on the 25th, I'll pour myself a whisky and sit down with some poems by Scotland's national poet. The poetry shelf of my bookshelf contains a few compilations that include his work, and if I want more I can access the complete works of Robert Burns on RobertBurns.org.

Here's to Robert Burns.