(1759–1796) 250th Anniversary
The 19th-century scholar and educationalist J S Blackie summed up Burns’
importance to Scotland and the Scots with the words: ‘When Scotland forgets Burns, then
history will forget Scotland.’
Robert Burns has been a landmark in Scotland’s national history and identity. The ploughman poet, the national bard, the man of the people, the lover of the good life...are only a few of the characteristics that have been attributed to Burns, who is definitely the best loved Scottish poet, admired not only for his fascinating work, but also for his extraordinary life.
Burns will remain in our memory for many reasons, but most of all, because through his poems he asked us to embrace his dream of true brotherhood and celebrate our common humanity. From being an opponent to the slave trade to being a member of the Freemasons society, his fight against social inequalities and pursuit of justice for all people, played a key role in his life.
But apart from his strong devotion to the common good, he was also famous for his character, his high spirits, his hard drinking and his passion for the lasses, which is quite obvious in most of his poems.
Born on January 25, 1759, he was the son of a farmer and grew up in a small cottage in the village of Alloway near Ayr. He lived a childhood of demanding physical work and poverty through which he experienced and developed his acute awareness of the social injustices around him.
From his first works in April 1786 his talent became obvious and by his mid 20s he was already an accomplished poet and songwriter in his native Scottish Dialect. Some of his first works include “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, “To a Mouse” and “To a Mountain Daisy,” which earned him much critical acclaim. Poems such as “Tam O’ Shanter”, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and others established him as Scotland’s national poet. One of the most famous songs of the world today, “Auld Lang Syne” is also written by him and sung every New Year’s Eve.
Burns died at the age of 37 of rheumatic fever, but has always been remembered as one of Scotland’s most important gifts to the world and his poems and songs are still as popular as they were when first written. After his death, his closest friends started the ritual of the Burns night, which has remained largely unchanged today, celebrating his memory and keeping his legend alive.
So, let’s pay tribute to him, as he so highly deserves, on this
significant anniversary, along with countless people all around the globe. No doubt if he
were alive today, he would have joined us in the celebrations with a wee dram himself!
For more historical info on the biography of the poet, check out these links: http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk; http://burns.visitscotland.com/who; http://www.worldburnsclub.com; http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/burnsnight; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Burns.
What to expect from a Burns Supper
There are guidelines and observances to be followed and traditionally,
guests at the Supper are involved in these observances helping to make it a great
Although, many believe that Burns Suppers which traditionally take place every year on the 25th of January, should be conducted in the old conventional way, today Burns Suppers take on many different forms, styles and varieties, ranging from formal gatherings of dedicated Burns fans and academics to informal parties which feature a more modern or unusual twist to the celebrations. The majority of Burns Suppers sit somewhere in the middle, following the basic guidelines of the night, but also the host’s personal taste and unique character.
There is a traditional ritual followed by many Burns Suppers but only three absolutely essential elements:
Burns himself, in a toast, a poem or a song,
haggis or some other great Scottish food or drink and
Piping in the Top Table. The top table guests are piped in (if it’s a formal gathering) and the assembled gathering welcomes them by clapping along to the music. If it’s a smaller event and there is no piper, then traditional music soundtrack is normally played. When ready to be seated, the piper stops playing and the guests give a round of applause.
Chairman’s Welcome. The Chairman’s role as ‘Master of Ceremonies’ is very important to direct proceedings throughout the evening. The Chairman welcomes everyone and introduces the top table, speakers and entertainers and may run through the sequence of events for the evening. Then it is customary to say the ‘Selkirk Grace’ before the starter is served:
“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it,
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.”
Piping in the Haggis. The Chairman asks the guests to stand up to receive the star attraction- the haggis. This is delivered to the table with pomp and ceremony, presented on a silver platter, carried on high by the chef. The small procession, including the person who will address the haggis as well as perhaps a whisky bearer, is led in by the piper, playing a rousing tune.
The Address to the Haggis. The appointed speaker then gives a resounding and dramatic rendition of Burns’ ‘To a Haggis’ With dirk or knife at the ready, he first apologizes for ‘killing’ the haggis, then during the line ‘An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight’ meaning ‘and cut you up with skill’, the speaker savagely stabs his knife into the haggis and slices along its length, trenching its gushing entrails (digging its innards) with a great flourish. The recital ends with the speaker raising the platter above his head, showing the audience the steaming dish and uttering the triumphant words: ‘Gie her a Haggis!’ to rapturous applause.
Toast to the Haggis. The speaker then asks the guests to share in a toast to the haggis. Everyone stands and raises their glass to ‘The Haggis’, shouting out the words loudly and with gusto. The piper again begins to play, leading the haggis back out of the dining room in preparation for the dinner. Again the audience claps in time to the music as the procession departs.
Interval. After the meal, there is a brief comfort break while the table is cleared.
First Entertainer. The Chairman introduces the first entertainer who could be a singer or musician performing one of Burns’ songs such as ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose’, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, ‘Rantin, Rovin Robin’ or ‘John Anderson, My Jo’. Popular recitals include ‘Tam O Shanter’, ‘To A Louse’, ‘Address to the Unco Guid’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ or ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’.
The Immortal Memory. The main speaker is introduced and gives a spell-binding account of the life of Burns. His literary prowess, his politics, his Nationalistic pride in Scotland, his humanity, his faults and his humour should all be explored, giving the audience an insight into the life and works of the Bard in a witty, yet serious way. The speaker concludes with an invitation to join in a heart-felt toast: ‘To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns’.
Second Entertainer. More celebration of Burns’ work or anything that honours the immortal memory and spirit of the Bard.
Toast to the Lassies. This humorous speech, gently ridiculing the (few) shortcomings of women should raise smiles from both sides of the mixed company, so anything too chauvinistic and cutting should be kept in check! Despite the tongue-in-cheek ribbing, the speech ends on a complimentary note, with the speaker asking the men to be upstanding to raise their glasses in a toast ‘To the Lassies’
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies. This is the chance for the women to retort with cunning, wit and a few good-natured jibes of their own. The speech often begins with a sarcastic thanks on behalf of the women present for the previous speaker’s ‘kind’ words and then gives a lively response highlighting the foibles of the male race, using reference to Burns and the women in his life. Again, this finishes on a positive note.
Final Entertainer. A final entertainer bravely faces the by now more than likely more than merry audience.
Vote of Thanks. As the festivities draw to a close, a vote of thanks is made to everyone who has made the evening such a success, from the chairman and chef to the entertainers and guests.
Auld Lang Syne. The traditional end to a Burns Supper’ or indeed,
any gathering among the company of friends’ is the singing of this famous Burns’ song
about parting. The company join hands, often in a large circle, and belt out the words
together. At the line: ‘And here’s a hand’, you cross each of your hands over to
rejoin those standing on either side of you.
Attending a Burns Supper is a truly unique experience, replicated in all corners of the world by those who admire the works and philosophies of Scotland’s Bard. The Burns Supper is a traditional way to celebrate the Poet’s birth and provides an excellent opportunity to meet old friends and make new friends in a convivial and distinctive atmosphere. There is no prescribed format for a Burns Supper but there are some essential elements. The works of the Bard enjoyed through his poetry, music and songs, good food and drink and fine Scottish hospitality.
Parade of the Haggis. This time the guests are the ones who stand to welcome their legendary haggis, by clapping their hands slowly, while the piper leads the chef to the top table.
Address to the Haggis. This is a threatening moment for the haggis, which is about to be stabbed by the chairman after he pronounces the last words it will ever hear: The ‘Address to the haggis’!
‘His knife, see rustic labour dicht
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight’
The address should ideally be accompanied by some gestures to give a hint to those who are not familiar with the poet’s language and be followed by the guests toasting the haggis with whisky.
The Bill o’ Fare (menu), A typical Burns’ night menu would typically comprise of:
– Cock-a-leekie soup, an old Scottish recipe,
– the main course of Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties and
– a sweet course of Tyspy Laird (sherry trifle)
The Immortal Memory. Toast to ‘the Lassies’. Reply to the Toast
to the Lassies
Closing poems and songs
As long as you pay honour to the Bard and celebrate his memory, there’s no way you can get it wrong!