How To Throw a Burns Night Celebration
Celebrated on the 25th of January to honor Robert Burns, who was born on that day, Burns Night is a night of traditions. There’s a precise way in which things are done so that all manner of things may be observed. And, as Burns was unapologetically Scottish, you can bet your bottom dollar that these traditions are 100% Scotch. (Learn more about Robert Burns and his importance to Scotland as well as the rest of the world in the post Scot, Wha Hae Wi’ Burns Read.)
Firstly, there is the gathering for a proper celebration cannot start without a gathering of souls together. Whoever is hosting the Burns Night throws open her doors to those invited to share in the wonder of the written word. Congregate and catch-up before the evening commences. I’ve even put together a playlist of instrumentals of classic Scottish fiddle pieces here.
Then, as Shakespeare- another Bard of repute- would say: I am sent to bid you come into dinner. Dinner is served and the celebrants are called to take their seats at table . (At some high brow events, this will consist of a bagpiper piping in the guests until all are ready to be seated and the chairman gives his welcome.) Before spoon is dipped to broth, however, grace must be said. And on Burns Night it is the Selkirk Grace which is prayed over the meal. There’s a kerfuffle about this one. Many believe Burns wrote this prayer. However, in Burns’ lifetime, the Selkirk Grace was already widely prayed. Originally it was called the Galloway Grace or the Covenanter’s Grace. The Selkirk Grace was Robert Burns’ favorite grace and he recited it often; with each recitation came a lasting association, so today, the myth persists that Robert Burns’ wrote it. This grace is still prayed before meals in Scotland today, in the Lowlander Scotch it was originally composed in, too, though the words and phrasing are somewhat archaic today, even in Scotland.
After grace comes the piping in the haggis. This is the moment of pomp and circumstance, though you won’t hear Sousa’s march playing. Rather, a piper plays as a silver platter is born out bearing the haggis. Behind the platter bearer, there is a whisky-bearer who carries a bottle to make sure that there isn’t a dry dram in the house.
When the star pudding reaches its destination at the table, the honored reader rises. The honored reader is the one selected to breath life into Robert Burns’ poem To the Haggis. This part of the proceeding is called The Address to the Haggis. As with every part of the evening, there’s a whole show that goes with this address. The reader honors the Great Cheiftain o’ the Pudding-race; humorous and lively recitations are expected, so if you’re trying your hand at this, make sure to make ‘em laugh. And have at the ready a knife. For when the words His knife see Rustic-labour dight,/ An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight are spoken, the reader wields said knife and slices the haggis open it is Trenching your gushing entrails bright/ Like onie ditch. (From what I understand, it is advised that a wee slice be made in the casing prior to piping in the haggis so that when the reader cuts into the Great Chieftain of the Pudding Race, his entrails aren’t spittled across the table and at the other revelers. However, in true Scottish form, there are those who believe that this sort of fallout only makes the evening more fun.
The Address to the Haggis is complete and the pudding has been cut. All revelers lift their drams and cry TO HAGGIS. Then, the meal is served. While menus will vary, you’ll start with soup, traditionally cock-a-leekie soup made from chicken stock and leeks, thickened with rice or barley. Then there’s the main course, which is the the haggis. Don’t forget to let your pudding in on the fun, too. Before sampling the sausage, make sure to splash it with a bit of scotch. At this point, there’s neeps and tatties, too. For dessert, there are variants of what’s served. You can have Clootie Dumpling or Typsty Laird, but whether you’re wanting pudding or trifle, you’re sure to have a cheeseboard with bannocks along with tea and coffee.
And speaking of drinking, no Burns Night would be complete with uisge beatha. In Scotch-Gaelic, that translates as whisky, or as the rest of the world calls it, scotch. No Burns Night can commence without scotch. It’s the water of life, fueling merriment and poetry.
However, if you’re not an on the rocks sort of person, or if you can’t abide drinking your whisky neat- single malt or blended- we’re not snobs here, then you might be more inclined to try a cocktail named for one of Rabbie Burns’ poems- Tam o’ Shanter. I’m usually a straight up kinda girl, but I think I might try my hand at this one tonight:
Tam O’ Shanter Cocktail:
1 1/2 parts Scotch Whisky
1/2 part Drambuie Liquor
1 part Bordeaux Red Wine
3 dashes Orange Bitters
Orange Peel (for garnish)
Add all ingredients together in a mixing glass and stir.
Strain into a chilled coupe or martini glass.
Garnish with a flaming orange twist.
(On the subject of Tam O’ Shanter, legend has it that Robert Burns wrote his poem- over 220 lines- in one day. Put that one in your back pocket to impress your Burns Night guests.)
Once the meal has been served and all the bellies filled, the evenings entertainment begins. For the first flush of entertainment, there is the obligatory recitation of poems by Robert Burns. Not all recitations are dry recitals, however. Burns wrote much of his work to music. And since no party is complete without music, pipers and players will join in as the celebrants sing the songs Burns’ put to paper.
Now it’s time for The Immortal Memory. Whoever has been chosen as the keynote speaker, whether it’s the host or one of the celebrants, rises and with solemnity and soberness, he or she addresses everyone with an oration of Robert Burns’ life. This is not just a biography about the Ploughman’s Poet, but rather a moment for reflection on what the speaker has taken away from an aspect of Burns’ life or work.
After the toast to Burns’ Immortal Memory, there’s a second raft of entertainment. Perhaps the music here will be a trifle more lively as the revelers will want to cut loose. Or maybe, after the Immortal Memory toast, the celebrants are in a more pensive frame of mind with violins and pipes playing quietly. For sure, Burns poems will be read or recited here, too.
Next comes a toast I am 100% certain Rabbie Burns would have excelled in giving: A Toast to the Lassies. Now, when it came to the lassies, Robert Burns could be rather bawdy. Scratch that. There’s not ‘could’ about it; he just was. There are poems that I could trot out that would make even out experienced culture blush, particularly with the usage of certain words that in polite society today are still considered taboo. Regardless, Robert Burns had a passionate appreciation for the female of our sex. And while there are those poems that herald them for their comely form or passionate embraces, there are many more penned by Burns that praise them for their virtue and for the richness added to his life because he loved them. That’s what the toast to the lassies should be about, praise for the ladies who enrich our lives. This toast should be farcical and humorous, and, while at touch bawdy, should take into account that there are ladies present. So, crack a few jokes that raise a blush, but don’t get crass, gentlemen.
Following the toast is the Reply to the Laddies, in which a lass comes up and enacts her revenge, oh, I mean, delivers her reply to the men present. I consider this portion of the night to be a sort of battle of the sexes. There’s the deprecating jokes and jokes that make fun of the stereotypes attached to both sexes. I do find it interesting that Burns Nights included the Lassie’s Reply, though, as it does give the woman the last word. Which, if you’ve lived long enough, you’ll know, is precisely as it should be.
Then the host rises to his or her feet. Perhaps she’s a little unsteady. The libations have been flowing freely and the fun has been had. However, a vote of thanks must be made to those that participated and made the night a success.
Then, with a cup of kindness lifted, Burns Night is brought to a close with a song. Perhaps Rabbie Burns’ most famous one: Auld Lang Syne. Revelers hold hands and belt out the verses in the spirit of togetherness.
That’s another important reason Burns Night is so revered. Yes, the fun and revelry is wonderful. So are the times of introspection where Burns and his life are remembered. And the jokes and bawdy humor is singular and silly. But, when all of these things bring us all together, where we’re laughing and loving the life around us, then you’ve had a truly successful Burns Night.
Happy Burns Night, dear readers.
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