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How to Have a Burns' Night Supper

Updated on February 7, 2013
Robert Burns was a farmer, so no need for the family silver or your best china. A rustic look for the table is the ideal way to celebrate the birth of Scotland's favorite poet.
Robert Burns was a farmer, so no need for the family silver or your best china. A rustic look for the table is the ideal way to celebrate the birth of Scotland's favorite poet. | Source

How to Have A Burns' Supper

Scotland has never made much fuss of her national day, St Andrews Day. There are two reasons for this.

1. It has only recently been made a national holiday.

2. We celebrate all things Scottish on another day, specifically Burns Night, the 25th of January.

All around the world Scottish people and their friends gather together for a night of laughter, singing, poetry and drinking, when all things Scottish will be well and truly celebrated, but this is not the anniversary of a national event, a victory in battle, or the birth or death of a Saint. The twenty-fifth of January is the birthday of a farmer, a man who died at age 37 and never fought a battle or owned a castle. Some of his work is almost incomprehensible, even in his own land, yet he is invoked year after year without fail, not just in Scotland, but around the world. His name is Robert Burns.

Robert Burns fame has spread throughout the world. This is a statue of the poet in New York's Central Park.
Robert Burns fame has spread throughout the world. This is a statue of the poet in New York's Central Park. | Source

Who Was Robert Burns

Robert Burns was born in the lowlands of Scotland, the son of an unsuccessful farmer who followed in his fathers footsteps. Despite his best efforts he never managed to make much of a living from farming, but he did have a great gift as a poet. When a friend encouraged him to publish what he'd written, Burns became an immediate success. He travelled to Edinburgh and mixed with many of Scotland's best minds.

His poetry was extremely diverse, some written in broad Scots, some in plain English and some in a mixture of the two. The poems covered a huge range of subjects, and Burns is justly famous for his romantic poetry and song lyrics, such as 'Ae Fond Kiss' and 'My Love is like a Red Red Rose.' but he wrote more that beautiful love songs. Politically, Burns favored the republican ideals of the French and American revolutions. His independence of spirit seems to sum up the Scottish character and ideals, so much so that his song 'A Man's a Man for A That' was woven into the ceremonial opening of the Scottish parliament when the new, devolved Scottish assembly convened for the first time.

A Typical Menu for a Burns' Supper

Cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) soup is traditional, but for a variation why not try Cullen Skink a fish based soup.

Haggis with Chappit Neeps and Tatties. There really is no substitute for this, as Burn's poem 'To a Haggis' is a major part of the celebration.

Dessert: Clootie Dumpling or Cranachan.

Drinks: Whisky, Atholl Brose

Can't find a Haggis and don't want to cook? Try this

A Recipe for Haggis

Haggis is really the centerpiece of the Burns Supper, but can also be served at any Scottish celebration, from St Andrews Night to the formal dinner at a Highland Games or even a New Year celebration.

Few Scots make haggis. It is bought from the butcher, but if you really want to give it a try, here is a recipe for a 'bagless' haggis.

  • Set of sheep's heart, lungs and liver (cleaned by a butcher)
  • 3 cups finely chopped suet
  • One cup medium ground oatmeal
  • Two medium onions, finely chopped
  • One cup beef stock
  • One teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • One teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon mace

Boil the sheeps entrails for an hour or so until tender. Then toast the oatmeal and mix everything with the suet, adding some of the stock the meat was boiled in to be sure the resulting haggis isn't too dry.

A traditional haggis is then stuffed inside a sheep's stomach and boiled for around three hours. Our bagless haggis can be cooked in a normal bowl as long as its heatproof and the inside is fully greased. Ideally, cover the bowl with cling film or foil and steam the haggis for around two hours until it is fully cooked. The good thing about this method is that it's easy to reheat in a microwave when you need it.

Some people like to add Whisky to their haggis, personally I think Drambuie, a Scottish liqueur tastes better, but unless your haggis is very dry (and it shouldn't be) you don't need either.

Chappit Neeps and Mashed Tatties

The traditional accompaniment to Haggis, is Neeps and Tatties, otherwise known as turnip and potatoes.

These are served mashed, but if you want an authentic Scottish taste, be sure to mash plenty of butter, salt and pepper into both. And no, margarine will not do. You can also add cream, especially to the potatoes.

Format of a Burns Supper

To begin the meal, someone will usually say the 'Selkirk Grace'. This is often attributed to Burns, but it's likely it is more traditional, and Burn's simply delivered his own version of it.

Here are the words, together with my own translation.

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 thankit.

If you need a translation, it would be

Some have meat but cannot eat, some need meat to eat it,

We have meat and we can eat, and so the lord be thanked.

When it is time to eat the haggis, it is presented on a large platter, and usually 'dressed' with feathers. The Haggis is carried into the hall, and piped in by a piper in full Highland dress. The toast to the Haggis is a glass of Whisky which many believe should be downed in one go!

The master of ceremonies will then 'address the haggis' using the words of Burns Poem, 'To a Haggis.' You can find the text in one of the links below.

From there, the format of the night will vary, but always includes more of Burns songs and poems. If you're celebrating at home, all you need is the text of some of Burns' poems and some suitable background music on CD. You can make the evening as formal or informal as you like.

Here's the best description of events I've been able to find.

How to Address A Haggis

And Finally -

Here are some lines from one of Burns most famous poems often recited at Burns Suppers.

Then let us pray that come it may, 
(As come it will for a' that,) 
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth, 
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that. 
For a' that, an' a' that, 
It's coming yet for a' that, 
That Man to Man, the world o'er, 
Shall brothers be for a' that. 

The poem was written in 1795. American independence and the French Revolution had changed the way people thought, still, things were very different from the world we know today, but sadly, more than two hundred years later, we still can't say that Burns' ideal has been achieved.

Where to Get More Information

There are some excellent hubs and webpages all about Burns and Burns' Suppers. Here are just a few.


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    • Amaryllis profile imageAUTHOR

      Lesley Charalambides 

      5 years ago from New Hampshire

      I hope you do give it a try, but why not at least try the haggis - you'll feel odd piping in an eggplant parmesan and addressing a speech to it! Then, if you don't like it, then by all means, have something else.

      Don't get me wrong, I love eggplant parrmesan - but maybe you could find something a little bit more Scottish for this particular event? Think of all those poor wild haggi, roaming the Scottish plains, knowing that their purpose in life is to evade capture until needed for a Burns Supper. If we all take to eggplant parmesan, there will be no reason to preserve the wild haggis, and you wouldn't want to be responsible for it's extinction, would you?

    • BrightMeadow profile image


      5 years ago from a room of one's own

      What a fabulous idea! Even more fabulous is the fact that a whole culture celebrates the birthday of a poet. I SO want to do this. It sounds like so much fun! (Okay, well maybe not the haggis but I suppose it would be pure sacrilege to suggest a lovely eggplant parmesan?)

      Thank you for introducing this fascinating celebration.


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