Burns Night celebrates the life of a famous Scottish poet and lyricist, Robert Burns. He was born in Alloway, Scotland in 1759 and died in Dumfries aged just 37. Notably, his most famous work is Auld Lang Syne, a song which is sung around the world as part of welcoming in the New Year.
From humble beginnings
Robert Burns was the eldest son of two farmers: William Burnes and Agnes Broun. In 1784, Robert (or ‘Rabbie’ as he was known) inherited the farm after his father died. Just 2 years later, Burns was in terrible financial difficulty.
In 1785, his first child was born: Elizabeth. At the same time, he was also courting a stonemason’s daughter called Jean Armour. However, Jean’s parents were unhappy with the couple being together and sent her away to live with her uncle.
Burdened by his financial and personal woes, Burns decided to emigrate to work on a sugar plantation. At the time, importing sugar was big business and he was offered a job in Jamaica by his friend Patrick Douglas. Burns needed to raise money to cover the cost of emigrating so he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1786. His poetry was an immediate success and, with this new found popularity, Burns chose to stay in Scotland.
A troubled life
In 1788, Burns married Jean Armour. The couple went on to have nine children, but only three survived infancy. A very loving and forgiving wife, Jean accepted and took responsibility for all of Burns’s children – including those born illegitimately.
Burns ceased farming in 1791 and embarked upon a career as a tax collector. Sadly, the money earnt from his steady employment was used to fund his alcoholism.
Burns died aged 37 in Dumfries after contracting rheumatic fever. The last of Burns’s 12 children, Maxwell, was born during his funeral service. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his family.
The first Burns Night
The very first Burns Night took place in July 1801, when 9 of the poet’s friends gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. The supper featured haggis and performances of Burns’s poetry. The night was a resounding success, so the friends decided to hold it again but changed the date to celebrate Burn’s birthday – the 25th January. This tradition is still honoured by many people around the world.
Burns Night traditions
A Burns Night supper can range from an informal gathering of friends to a much more formal affair involving Scottish pipers announcing the arrival of the haggis to the dinner table.
A haggis is a staple feature of Burns Night and, whilst it may not be to everyone’s preference, the Scots are fiercely proud of the dish. It consists of a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt mixed with stock. This dish is typically encased in the animal’s stomach and served with potatoes (tatties) and mashed suede or turnips (neeps). To top this all off, the meal is usually accompanied by a glass of Scottish whiskey.
There are several common features of Burns Night which may vary depending on the host’s preferences. However, there is a typical running order:
- To begin – Scottish music is played whilst the guests arrive. The host of the meal will welcome the guests and grace is said in the form of a traditional Scottish thanksgiving called Selkirk Grace.
- The meal– Supper normally starts with a soup course such as potato soup or Scotch broth. The main event is the arrival of the haggis to the table, which guests stand for. The host may recite a poem called Address to a Haggis. A whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis and then the guests will take their seats.
- After the meal– When coffees are being served, various speeches and toasts are given. This will normally include a toast to the memory of Robert Burns.
- At the end of the night– The host will call on one of the guests to give the thanks. Then, everyone is asked to stand and sing a nostalgic farewell song: Auld Lang Syne. This song brings the evening to an end.
Despite his relatively short life, Burns left a legacy of poetry and songs which have been enjoyed for hundreds of years. Written in the traditional Scottish dialect, his works are instantly recognisable and have the power to surprise, amuse and delight readers. Today, Burns is regarded as the National Bard (poet) of Scotland.
Suggestions for your setting:
- Decorate your setting and rooms in the colours of the Scottish flag
- Let the children taste a lunch of neeps (mashed swede or turnip), tatties (potatoes) and meatloaf or traditional Cock-A-Leekie soup (chicken and vegetable)
- Dress up in tartan or do a craft/colouring activity with the tartan pattern
- Try a Scottish flag jigsaw or colour in some Scottish flags
- Have a go at Highland dancing to traditional Scottish music
Will you be celebrating Burns Night at your setting? Share your photos with us firstname.lastname@example.org.