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A guide to Burns Night

The first Burns Night was held in 1801 at Burns Cottage on the fifth anniversary of Robert Burns’ death. What started as a way for his good friends to raise a glass in his memory has evolved and new traditions have cemented themselves. 


The occasion has grown from a supper at Burns Night cottage to a celebration that spans the entirety of Scotland. So, why is Burns still commemorated more than 200 years after his passing? And how do the Scottish mark this annual day? Let our Burns Night guide tell you everything you need to know.


Burns Night is a Scottish celebration observed every year on January 25th in honour of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. It celebrates his life and literary contributions, which are highly regarded in Scotland and further afield. The evening typically involves a Burns Night supper, recitals of Burns’ works, songs and music, toasts to his legacy and some great scotch whisky.


Robert Burns is a much-loved Scottish poet and lyricist who was born in 1759 and died, aged 37, in 1796. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is known the world over for his works including ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘A Red, Red Rose’.  

He had a humble background, growing up undertaking hard manual labour on his family’s farm. He wrote his first poem at the age of 15. His first collection, titled ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ was released in 1786 and was a huge success.


Robert Burns’ poetry was admired by the common people and Edinburgh high-society critics when it was first published, and it has been loved by many ever since. His poems cover many topics and themes including farm life, love, equality, solidarity, nature, and politics. Some of his best-known works include ‘Tam o’Shanter’, ‘To a Mouse’, and ‘Scots Wha Hae’.


Burns Night celebrations take place all over Scotland and most centre around a traditional Burns Night supper with speeches, recitals, and other forms of entertainment. Many towns and cities host events for the public to attend but lots of people also get together in their own homes to enjoy the food and frivolity. 


Burns Night traditions include the ‘Address to a Haggis’, a lively and poetic tribute to the haggis before it’s sliced and served. The more formal ‘Immortal Memory’ speech is also a key part, which reflects on Burns’ spirit and his contributions to Scottish culture. Then there’s the piping in the guests, The Selkirk Grace and a Toast To The Lassies, all of which are integral components of the celebrations.


No Burns Night is complete without a hearty Burns Night supper, which traditionally, includes a main course of haggis, neeps, and tatties. Starters and puddings also showcase delicious Scottish fare with Cullen skink, cock-a-leekie soup, cranachan and clootie dumplings all being popular choices.


Burns’ poetry is at the heart of Burns Night celebrations, with it being recited and sung throughout the evening. However, music, dancing, and the sharing of stories are also commonplace. Live bands, bagpipes players and a playlist of Scottish songs all contribute to a fantastic ceilidh!


For organised celebrations, formal wear is customary, and men are encouraged to wear traditional Scottish dress including a kilt and sporran. For smaller or more casual events, outfits that incorporate tartan are popular: think skirts, sashes and ties.


Burns Night has solidified itself as an important part of Scottish culture but that doesn’t mean that you have to celebrate it in the traditional way if that’s not your style. You can commemorate the country’s bard in whatever way you like. Wrap up warm and while the night away next to a roaring bonfire, invite some friends over for a Scottish movie night, take part in a cooking class focused on the country’s cuisine or host a whisky tasting.


When it comes to drinks, it wouldn’t be Burns Night without a dram! The perfect whisky is often paired with each course but also goes down well as a digestif after the meal has been enjoyed.


While traditional Burns Night celebrations often feature neat Scotch whisky, you can also incorporate Scotch into cocktails to add a modern twist to the festivities. If you want to stay on theme, try using ingredients from the region such as Scottish raspberries and orange marmalade.

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