Marking the anniversary of poet and lyricist Robert Burns’ birth on 25 January, Burns Night is a celebration of Scotland’s national bard. Renowned for producing everything from traditional ballads and thought-provoking poetry through to romantic verse and humorous satires, many of Burns’ works are instantly recognisable.
Scotland’s passion for Burns continues and reciting his works on 25 January during a special supper is a much-loved tradition for many. If you’re a fan of the poet and want to mark the occasion in 2021, there are plenty of ways to enjoy a slice of Burns Night at home.
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway in Ayrshire and penned his first poem at 15. In his personal life, Burns dedicated hundreds of lines of verse to women and went on to father 12 children, 9 to his wife Jean Armour. For all his fame, Burns never forgot his humble roots. His love for farming stayed with him throughout his life and his writing often dealt with issues affecting the poorer classes, notably highlighting the need for greater social equality. Despite his short life (he died at 37) Burns left a huge catalogue of poetry and songs that have been poured over, enjoyed, and spoken aloud for more than 200 years!
The first Burns supper took place on the anniversary of Burns’ death in 1801, when nine of his closest friends got together to celebrate his life. They met at Burns Cottage in Alloway, tucked into some tasty haggis, performed many of his best works and honoured the great bard with a speech, now known as the Immortal Memory.
Such was the success of the evening that his friends decided to hold it again, although they switched dates to Burns’ birthday – starting the tradition that is enjoyed to this day.
How to throw a Burns Night Supper
1. To start: Historically, individuals would gather for Burns Night supper in their finest traditional Scottish dress, although today guests’ attire is often more casual. The host says a few words of welcome and everyone sits down for the recital of the Selkirk Grace.
2. The meal: Popular starters include cock-a-leekie and Scotch broth, before the haggis is piped into the room and the Address to a Haggis is performed. Everyone toasts the haggis and the main meal is served. Dessert is often Cranachan, a traditional Scottish sweet made with fresh seasonal raspberries and cream, coupled with Scottish oats and whisky. If you fancy creating a Burns Night treat at home, check out our recipe for Cranachan.
3. After the meal: Traditional Burns songs are performed, followed by the main tribute speech to Burns – the Immortal Memory. This is followed by two Burns recitals. A Toast to the Lassies comes first, then a Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.
4. To end the night: The host gives a vote of thanks, and everyone stands and sings Auld Lang Syne, traditionally crossing their arms and joining hands at the line: ‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!’
Visit Scotland has a detailed Burns Night Guide if you want to find out more about the traditions for your own Burns Night Supper.
Get inspired by these classic Burns quotes
Just in case you aren't too familiar with any of Burns' poems, here's a quick go-to for some of his classic lines!
‘There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.’
‘The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley.’
‘But to see her was to love her, Love but her, and love forever.’
Other ways to celebrate Burns Night at home
Enthused with a love of Celtic traditions, The Nest Collective, an organisation championing modern folk music, is hosting a virtual Burns Night party for 2021 live on YouTube from 8 – 9.30pm. Featuring an array of musical performances from different folk artists, this unique celebration will give you the chance to experience traditional Scottish cheer at home, wherever you’re based.
Another virtual Burns Night extravaganza is the Big Burns Supper, which will be packed with online performances from some of Scotland’s best musical, comedic and cabaret acts. The line-up includes the likes of KT Tunstall and Janey Godley and is set to pay tribute to the beloved poet, with some artists performing songs especially written for the anniversary. This free 75-minute event will be streamed live from 7pm on Facebook and YouTube.
If you’re keen to bring Scottish music into your home, VisitBritain’s Scotland’s Sounds playlist on Spotify is packed with some of the nation’s best musical talent.
Film fan? You can wind down after the festivities with an at-home screening of a classic Scottish movie, such as Bill Forsyth’s feel-good Local Hero set in the Highlands, 1980s rom-com Gregory’s Girl or Danny Boyle’s gritty portrayal of Edinburgh, Trainspotting. Alternatively, why not mark the occasion by getting stuck into one of the five seasons of Outlander, a gripping historical fiction based around the Jacobite risings, largely filmed in Scotland.