A traditional Burns Supper is the celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns. The first Burns Suppers were held in memorium of Robert Burns’ death on July 21 at the end of the 18th century. These dinners were held by his friends in Ayrshire. As the popularity for Burns Suppers progressed, the First Burns Club was organized in 1808 by merchants in Greenock and these more widely-known suppers were held on the anniversary of his death, January 25th. Since this date Burns Suppers have been held on or around this date. Traditional Burns Suppers are held all over the UK, and all over the world by various Burns Clubs, ex-patriates, or simply by those that adore Burns’ poetry. They can either be informal or formal. Formal Burns Suppers always follow a detailed format, thus creating the traditional Burns Supper.
These formal suppers always begin by piping the guests in, the hosts says a few welcomming words, guests are seated, and grace is said. Usually the host wil use the Selkirk Grace, which came to be named when Burns delivered the grace at a dinner held by the Earl of Selkirk.
“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.”
Supper begins afterwards, usually a Scottish soup, perhaps Scotch Broth or Cock-a-leekie soup. The main course follows, which is always haggis, neeps (turnip, swede, or rutabaga), and tatties (potato). All guests stand and the haggis is piped in, and carried in by the chef. The dish is placed in front of the host, where the Address to a Haggis is then recited.
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 worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
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.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre 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?
Poor devil! see him owre 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!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis”
At the end of this recitation, a Scotch Whisky toast is proposed to the haggis, and then everyone tucks into their haggis, neeps, and tatties. Dessert follows and usually comprises of oatcakes and cheeses, and once coffee is served various speeches, toasts, vote of thanks, and poetry recitation begins.
These suppers are very much alive throughout the UK today, and hardly much at all has changed since their beginning in 1808. Men dig out their highland dress from the back of the closet and women, when invited to the suppers, dress to impress. They are fantastic annual occasions that have become part of Scottish heritage, and tradition. This speaks for itself when individuals all across the world in New Zealand, Australia, America, and Canada hold these suppers to maybe feel as though they are back in Scotland. Last year, I attended a Burns Supper in Auckland, New Zealand where only 3 of the guests at the supper had actually been to Scotland. Many others were simply Burns aficionados celebrating the life of Robert Burns.
If you are holding a supper this year, or perhaps are just simply interested in the recipes used at a Burns Supper, we have various Scottish recipe books that could help you recreate such a traditional meal. Remember though, don’t be frightened by what’s in Haggis, once you taste this Scottish delicacy you may find yourself recommending it to all your friends!