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What is a Burns Supper?

Updated on January 25, 2014
Celebrate the life of Robert Burns with a Burns Supper.
Celebrate the life of Robert Burns with a Burns Supper. | Source

A Burns Supper is a tradition celebrating the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

The tradition is often planned around or near the birthday of the poet in late January but can happen anywhere and at any time.

Find out about how the tradition got started, what a traditional dinner is like and how you can attend or host your own.

How Did the Burns Supper Tradition Get Started?

The Burns Supper was first held a few years after Robert Burns' death, in the early 1800's, by close friends.

It was held on or around his birthday. After that, Burns Clubs started picking up on the tradition and it spread.

Although most Burns dinners are held in Scotland and Ireland, there are other pockets of celebrants found all over the world.

To find a Burns club near you, simply open a search engine such as Google and type your location and "Burns club" or "Burns supper."

There are Burns Clubs where you can attend a Burns Supper all over the world.
There are Burns Clubs where you can attend a Burns Supper all over the world. | Source

Schedule of Events at a Burns Supper

Over the years, the Burns supper has developed a traditional menu and a traditional schedule of events.

Although each Burns supper may vary a bit, here is a bit about what to expect, what you might eat and how to properly celebrate the life of the great poet.

Start and Selkirk Grace

The gathering is started with an informal mingling with drinks and chatting.

At some point, the host will gather the crowd and speak a few words about Robert Burns.

Then all the guests are seated and a traditional Scottish prayer known as the Selkirk Grace is offered for the meal.

Selkirk Grace, the traditional Scottish blessing for food.
Selkirk Grace, the traditional Scottish blessing for food. | Source

What Kind of Food Is Served at a Burns Supper?

Featured at a Burns Supper are haggis and whiskey, two great Scottish traditions.

Dinner often starts with a soup of some type--usually one that has a nod to Scottish traditions.

Then the haggis is served.

Traditionally the haggis is brought in with bagpipes playing as it is brought through the room to the head table.

Robert Burns' poem, "Address to a Haggis" is then read.

Sides usually served with the haggis include mashed potatoes and mashed turnips.

For dessert, tradition suggests serving a pudding.

Modern Burns suppers emphasize the company and friendship and variations on the food traditions have been developed. There is even a vegetarian version of haggis available.

Piping in the Haggis

What Else Happens During a Burns Supper?

During the Burns Supper, traditional Scottish music should be played. This can be either from a live band or played via recorded music.

A speech paying tribute to Robert Burns and his influence is made as well as a toast.

The speech, which is composed especially for that dinner, should commemorate some aspect of Robert Burns' life and can be anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes in length. The official name of the speech should be "The Immortal Memory." There are suggestions and ideas for the speech available online and through official Burns Clubs.

An address and reply to the lassies is a part of the Burns Supper.
An address and reply to the lassies is a part of the Burns Supper. | Source

Another speech given during the night is the traditional "Address to the Lassies".

This speech is usually about five to ten minutes and is a lighthearted, and humorous look at the "shortcomings" of the gentler sex. It is not meant to be taken seriously and can invoke advice from Burns and others for women.

But the women are then given a chance to reply in what is known as "The Reply from the Lassies."

Both speeches are a short and humorous way to poke a little fun at each other and yet still go home friends at the end of the evening.

How Does the Night Usually End?

The night traditionally ends with a rousing, tipsy version of "Auld Lang Syne," that most famous song, penned by Robert Burns.

The song has become a standard at New Years' parties and at the holidays but should always be a part of the traditional Burns Supper festivities.

Since the supper is about celebrating friendship as much as it is about the Robert Burns and haggis, it is a a fitting ending to the evening.

End a Robert Burns supper with Auld Lang Syne.
End a Robert Burns supper with Auld Lang Syne. | Source

How Can I Attend A Burns Supper?

To attend an official Burns supper you will need to contact your local Burns club.

You can also host an informal one of your own with a few like-minded friends.

The important part is not whether it is official or not. It is about food, poetry and friendship.

There are many guides and suggestions for creating your own version of a Burns Supper available online. You can check the References and Further Reading section at the end of this article for links.

Haggis is traditionally served at a Burns Supper.
Haggis is traditionally served at a Burns Supper. | Source

What Should I Wear?

Traditional Scottish dress such as a kilt is suggested attire at a Burns dinner.

Some celebrants will wear clothing reminiscent of Burns' time period. However, most modern Burns dinners just suggest wearing something nice with perhaps a bit of plaid as a tribute to Scotland and the poet.

Want To Find Out More About Robert Burns?

The best way to know more about the great poet Robert Burns is to read his poetry.

All of his work is in the public domain.

You can read the complete collection of Robert Burns poems on Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18500

Or if you are on the go and want to listen to his poetry, you can find public domain recordings of his works at https://catalog.librivox.org/

Playing some recordings of Burns poems during a Burns Supper might also be a unique way to entertain your guests while they are eating.

Burns Suppers Are An Evolving Tradition

While there are traditional aspects of the Burns Supper, many encourage celebrants to make aspects of the tradition their own.

Modern twists on food served or order of events are perfectly acceptable for many.

The important aspects are a celebration of Robert Burns' life and poetry and a time of fellowship with food and drink and friends.

Have you ever attended a Burns Supper?

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