Robbie Burns Day on the 25th of January celebrates the birthday of the man considered by many to be Scotland’s national poet, their beloved Robert Burns. Though not an official public holiday in Scotland, it is widely celebrated.
Burns was born 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, the eldest of seven children. His parents were farmers. In 1788, at age of 29, he published his first book, married Jean Armour, moved to Dumfries and rented a farm. He didn’t prove to be a good farm manager, and he got depressed at the state of affairs. He died very young at the age of 37 from rheumatic fever in 1796.
He is now celebrated for his poetry, particularly on Robbie Burns Day. Events centre around a meal (called a “supper”) and highlight his poetry, traditional Scottish food and often other Scottish party activities such as Scottish country dancing.
Burns Day celebrations can be formal and earnest, or filled with much hokum and merriment. They can be formally organized by organizations and held in public venues, or held informally in homes.
Some people only know Burns as “the haggis guy” owing to the tradition of serving haggis, which most people feel is de rigeur.
Everyone stands as the haggis is brought into the room, accompanied by music from a piper walking along with it. The haggis needs to be addressed first with Burn’s “Address to a Haggis” before it can be served with whisky. It’s likely owing to this poem by Burns that haggis became and has remained the centre-piece of the event.
After or before the meal depending on the club there is the Loyal Toast to the Crown (after which guests may be told they can relax a bit and remove their jackets), then some of Burn’s poems are read out loud. Not everybody actually understands the language his poetry was written in, which is in fact not English nor Gaelic but rather Braids Scots (in fact, in his Ayrshire dialect of it even.) With enough whisky, however, people soon get into the spirit of things.
At the end of the evening Auld Lang Syne is sung.
The haggis is usually served with turnip and potato.
“Ecclefechan Tarts” (butter tarts) are often served as well at a Burns Supper.
Many celebrations now may deviate from the traditional whole haggis being served, and choose instead to spotlight Scottish nouvelle cuisine, or present the haggis as a terrine.
In Vancouver, Canada, some people celebrate “Gung Haggis Fat Choy” Day, on the 25th January, which celebrates both Robbie Burns Day and Chinese New Year at the same time. Foods served include haggis won tons (deep fried, perhaps as a nod to the modern Scottish side), and lettuce wraps with haggis, as well as traditional slices of haggis. The event has now spread to Seattle.
Robbie Burns Day and Women
Robbie Burns clubs were traditionally all male-clubs and thus women were banned from attending Robbie Burns suppers, even though there was a woman present at one of the very first ones:
“One of the attendees of the first supper in Alloway in 1801 was Primrose Kennedy. Some have suggested that this offers grounds for believing that the first supper acknowledged the role of women in Burns’s life and work by according them a place at his table. However, Primrose Kennedy was Captain Kennedy, a well-known military hero in Ayrshire.”[ref]Burns, Robert. Burns Suppers. University of Glasglow: Future Learn. Accessed January 2019 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/robert-burns/0/steps/11633)
Burns Suppers have long featured a “Toast to the Lasses” speech, though it was reputedly often ribald.
The irony exists that women have probably very often been present at Burns Suppers in inns and restaurants, but in roles of preparing and serving the food and refreshments of course.
It would not be until well into the 1900s that, in an attempt to open up the Burns tradition to women, women’s clubs began to be formed.
“The years between the two world wars saw the foundation of many Ladies Burns clubs in an attempt to address this issue: Shotts boasted an all-female club in 1920, and Annan Ladies Burns Club (which is still going today), dates from 1928. The strength of feeling was apparent to all in these years: while some male-only clubs held compensatory Ladies Nights with polite games to entertain their guests, a columnist in the Scotsman newspaper noted in 1929: … surely women have even more reason to remember the great poet who paid them so much homage more than he ever did to his own sex. Burns, indeed, might be claimed as the patron saint of women, if they have not one already.”[ref]Burns Suppers. Future Learn.)
Some Burns Clubs in Scotland still do not allow women at a Burns Supper — or indeed any meal they hold. One such club as of 2019 was the Arbroath Burns Club (founded 1888) in Arbroath, Angus, Scotland (Arbroath is also home to the famed Arbroath Smokies.) In 2019, citing the need to prepare for inevitable change, they invited a woman, Dr Karen McGavock, to the supper as a speaker in order to take up the challenge of replying to the Toast to the Lassies. [ref]Jeffay, John. Men-only Robert Burns club in Arbroath to allow woman in for first time in its 131-year history as chiefs hail ‘pleasant inevitability’. Glasgow, Scotland: The Scottish Sun. 24 January 2019.)
The first recorded celebratory gathering to honour Robbie Burns was held on 29th January 1801 in Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland according to Professor Rab Houston (School of History, St Andrew’s University):
“Even before his death, Burns’ cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire, had been sold to the incorporation of shoemakers of Ayr, one of whose members turned it into an alehouse. It was here, on 29 January 1801 (they got his birthday wrong), that soldiers of the Argyll Fencibles (militia) met to hear their band play – and to use the services of his cottage in its new role.”[ref]Houston, Robert Allan and Rab Houston. Scotland: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 27 November 2008. Page 129.)
The first recorded actual Supper was held in July 1801 in Burns Cottage, Alloway, Scotland when a few friends gathered to remember his death five years previous in July 1796 :
“The first recorded Burns Supper took place at Alloway in , but on the anniversary of his death (21st July). It involved a speech and multiple toasts; to eat there was haggis (which was addressed) and, a mercifully lost tradition, sheep’s head; given the social status of those present, refreshment was probably wine and ale rather than whisky. Present were nine friends and patrons of Burns. Among them was a lady, though thereafter the Suppers were mostly (sometimes militantly) all-male affairs until far into the twentieth century: a curious slant on Burns’ own life as well as on the first dinner. The ‘toast to the lasses’ was traditionally thanks for the cooking and an appreciation of the women in Burns’ life, only later degenerating into a sexist (often misogynistic) rant.” [ref]Houston, Rab. A Very Short History of Burns Suppers. Oxford University Press Blog. 22 January 2009. Accessed January 2019 at https://blog.oup.com/2009/01/burns )
“Arguably, the first Burns supper was held in Alloway, the poet’s birthplace, in July 1801, when nine guests sat down to a meal of haggis and sheeps’ head. (I say arguably, as it was actually designed as a memorial dinner.) The idea of commemorating the bard in this manner had been the brain child of John Ballantine, a former Provost (mayor) of the town of Ayr, but it was Reverend Hamilton Paul – a clergyman and later the author of The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (1819) – who organised this most memorable evening that would have a long-lasting legacy.”[ref]Burns Suppers. Future Learn.)
The third recorded Burns event, and second actual Supper, was held on 25th January 1802 in Greenock, Scotland, this time on the correct date of his birthday, setting the date for the event to what it is now today:
“The first Burns Supper was held on January 29, 1802, to celebrate what the club believed was Burns’ birthday. However, in 1803, a search [in] the Ayr parish records resulted in the bard’s date of birth being confirmed as January 25, 1759.” [ref]”Congratulations Greenock Burns Club”. The Robert Burns World Federation Limited. 26 January 2010. Accessed at webarchive.org at
For several years, both the birth and the death date commemorations seem to have been observed, but by 1809 the (correct) birthday date eventually won out:
“These events, attended by many of Burns’ friends, were both held for several years until the January date was settled on, reportedly because it was a fallow period for local farmers.” [ref]McCafferty, Ross. Burns Night traditions and their origins. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Scotsman. 8 January 2018.)
“Celebrations were held twice yearly until 1809, when participants settled on 25 January, because this fell in a slack period of the agricultural year.”[ref]Scotland: A Very Short Introduction. Page 129)
The first two Burns clubs were in Greenock, Scotland (1802) and Paisley, Scotland (1805). [ref]Burns Suppers. Future Learn)
A Burns Supper was held in Oxford in 1806; in 1810, the first one was held in London. By the mid-1800s, Burns Clubs were being formed wherever the Scottish diaspora went: Dunedin, New Zealand (1861), London (1868), and New York (1871). A Burns Federation was formed in 1885 to unite the Burns Clubs around the world.[ref]Burns Suppers. Future Learn).
The event and the clubs that sponsored them helped to affirm Scottish cultural identity in the growing multi-cultural British Empire at the start of the Victorian era:
“In an increasingly commercial age, and when the encroachment of ‘Anglicised’ tastes threatened to erode much that was left of distinctive Scottish cultural practice, Burns clubs, with their annual suppers, offered a way of reaffirming Scottishness.”[ref]Burns Suppers. Future Learn)
In some countries, Burns Suppers are organized by St Andrew’s Societies or Caledonian Societies.[ref]Leitch, Gillian I. St. Andrew’s Societies in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopaedia. 19 December 2016.)
Literature & Lore
Address to a Haggis
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 wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
[Ed: At this point, the haggis is stabbed for slicing]
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn they stretch an’ strive,
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad stow a sow,
Or fricasee was mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! See him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware,
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
It’s also customary to recite the “Selkirk Grace” at some point, usually early in the evening:
“Some hae meat and cannae eat
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit!”
Hutcheon, Paul. Salmond under fire for role at all-male Burns clubs. Glasgow, Scotland: The Herald. 20th July 2013.
Scott, Kirsty. The lassies who cannot honour Burns. Manchester: The Guardian. Saturday, 24 January 2004.
Scots actor Brian Cox blasts clubs for banning women from Burns suppers. Glasgow, Scotland: Scottish Daily Record. 24 January 2012.