A Burns supper
is a celebration of the life and poetry
of the poet Robert Burns
, author of many Scots
poems including "Auld Lang Syne
," which is generally sung as a folk song
and other New Year
celebrations around the world. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, January 25
, sometimes known as Burns night
, although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.
Burns suppers are most common in Scotland, but they occur wherever there are Burns clubs, Scottish Societies, expatriate Scots, or lovers of Burns' poetry.
The first suppers were held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by his friends on the anniversary of his death, July 21, In Memoriam and, although the date has changed to 25 January since then, they have been a regular occurrence ever since.
They may be formal or informal but they should always be entertaining. The only items which the informal suppers have in common are haggis, Scotch whisky and perhaps a poem or two. Formal dinners given by organisations such as the Freemasons or St. Andrews Societies often do not allow ladies to be present. Those that do may occasionally end in a céilidh. However whether they are single sex or not, the formal suppers follow a standard format which is as follows.
Order of the supper
Start of the evening
Guests gather and mix as in any informal party.
Host's welcoming speech
The host says a few words welcoming everyone to the supper and perhaps stating the reason for it. The event is declared open.
Everyone is seated at the table(s) and grace is said, usually using the Selkirk Grace. The Selkirk Grace is a well-known thanksgiving said before meals, using the Lallans Lowland Scots language. Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace in fact was already known in the 17th century, as the "Galloway Grace" or the "Covenanters' Grace". It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.
The Selkirk Grace
- Some hae meat and canna eat,
- And some wad eat that want it;
- But we hae meat, and we can eat,
- Sae let the Lord be thankit.
The supper then starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served.
Entrance of the haggis
Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis
on a large dish. It is brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the haggis is laid down. S/he might play 'A man's a man for aw that'. The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the Address To a Haggis
|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 o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
(sonsie = cheeky)|
(aboon = above)
(thairm = intestine)
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.
(hurdies = hips)
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,|
An' cut you up wi' ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
(dicht = wipe, here with the idea of sharpening)|
(slicht = skill)
(reeking = steaming)
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:|
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
(deil = devil)
(swall'd=swollen, kytes = bellies,
belyve = soon)
(rive = tear, ie burst)
Is there that o're his French ragout|
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect scunner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?
(olio = olive oil, staw = make sick)
(scunner = repugnance)
Poor devil! see him ower his trash,|
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
(nieve = fist, nit = louse's egg, ie. tiny)
But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,|
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whistle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thristle.
(wallie = mighty, nieve = fist)
(sned = cut off)
(thristle = thistle)
Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,|
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!
(skinkin ware = watery soup)
(jaups = slops about, luggies = two-handled
At the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht
the speaker normally draws and cleans a knife, and at the line An' cut you up wi' ready slicht
, plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end. When done properly this "ceremony" is a highlight of the evening.
At the end of the poem, a whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis. Then the company will sit and enjoy the meal. The main course is, of course, haggis, and is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties
) and mashed neeps
(known in England as swede or in North America as rutabaga or turnip). A dessert course, cheese courses, coffee, etc. may also be part of the meal. The courses normally use traditional Scottish recipes. For instance dessert may be cranachan
or Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle) followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with liberal tots of the "water of life" (uisge beatha) – Scotch whisky.
When the meal reaches the coffee stage various speeches and toasts are given. In order the core speeches and toasts are as follows.
The host proposes a toast to the health of the monarch (or to the leader of the country if it is not a monarchy
). After this speech it may be acceptable for guests to smoke or leave their tables.
One of the guests gives a short speech, remembering some aspect of Burns' life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or intensely serious. The speaker should always prepare a speech with his audience in mind, since above all, the Burns' supper should be entertaining.
Everyone drinks a toast to Robert Burns.
The host will normally say a few words thanking the previous speaker for his speech and perhaps commenting on some of the points raised.
Toast to the Lassies
This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to those women who had prepared the meal. However nowadays it is much more wide ranging, and generally covers the male speaker's view on women. It is normally amusing but should never be offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the "lassies" concerned.
The men drink a toast to the women's health.
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
This is occasionally (and humorously) called the 'Toast to the Laddies', and like the previous toast it is generally quite wide ranging nowadays. In it a female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech this should be amusing but not offensive. Quite often the speakers giving this toast and the previous one will collaborate so that the two toasts complement each other.
Other toasts and speeches
These may follow if desired. It is not unusual to toast the locality or nation in which the supper is being held. It is also quite common to propose a toast to Scotland but there is no fixed list of subjects, so this is very dependent on circumstances.
Works by Burns
After the speeches, there may be singing of songs by Burns -- Ae Fond Kiss
, Parcel O' Rogues
, A Man's a Man
, etc -- and more poetry -- To a Mouse
, To a Louse
, Tam O' Shanter
, The Twa Dugs
, Holy Willie's Prayer
, etc. This may be done by the individual guests or by invited experts. It goes on for as long as the guests wish and may include other works by poets influenced by Burns, particularly poets writing in Scots. The only rule is to give the audience what they want.
There may occasionally be Scottish country dancing, if the venue allows, but this is not a normal part of a Burns supper.
Finally the host will wind things up, calling on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne
which brings the evening to an end.