A Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796), the author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, occasionally known as Robert Burns Day (or Robbie Burns Day] or Rabbie Burns Day) but more commonly known as Burns Night (Scots: Burns Nicht). However, in principle, celebrations may be held at any other time of the year.
The first supper was held in memoriam at Burns Cottage by Burns’s friends, on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death; it has been a regular occurrence ever since. The first still extant Burns Club was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants who were born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. They held the first Burns supper on what they thought was his birthday, 29 January 1802, but in 1803, they discovered the Ayr parish records that noted his date of birth was actually 25 January 1759. Since then, suppers have been held on or about 25 January.
No Burns supper would be complete without a “Haggis.” Before you read any further, you should know that “Haggis” is a traditional Scottish dish, considered by many the National Dish of Scotland, and the Scots make it from a pluck (a sheep’s stomach) and lights (the lungs, heart, and liver). That said, the following recipe is a summary of the one from Mistress Margaret Dods’ Cook and Housewife Manual, which was first published in 1826. In reality, Meg or Margaret Dods was the pseudonym of Christian Isobel Johnstone, a writer and editor who lived from 1781-1857. People originally considered the book a literary farce because Johnstone used the name of the fictional landlady of Cleikum Inn from Sir Walter Scott’s novel St. Ronan’s Well. Research, however, proved the book to be legitimate, and for many years it was considered a useful household manual.
The supper customarily follows a certain procedure:
Pipes or traditional Scottish music is played while the guest gather in an outer room.
A host welcomes the participants with an explanation of why they have gathered such.
Once the guests are seated, the Selkirk Grace, a Scottish “prayer” of thanksgiving is pronounced, customarily in the Scots language. Although the Selkirk Grace had been known since the 1600s as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters Grace,” it is often attributed to have been produced by the hand of Robert Burns. It received the name of “Selkirk Grace” because Burns recited it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
A Scottish soup is customary served for the beginning course: Scotch broth, potato soup, cullen skink, or cock-a-leekie.
When the Haggis is brought in, the attendees stand. With tradition, a piper leads the way, followed the cook or server, to the host’s table. “A Man’s A Man for A’ That”, “Robbie Burns Medley” or “The Star O’ Robbie Burns” might be played. The host, or perhaps a guest, then recites the “Address to a Haggis.”
Burns Supper describes the remainder of the supper procedure as such: “At the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht, the speaker normally draws and sharpens a knife. At the line An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, he plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end. When done properly, the ‘ceremony”‘ is a highlight of the evening. At the end of the poem, a whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, and the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed swede (neeps).
“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 (whisky trifle), followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with the “water of life” (uisge beatha), Scotch whisky. When the meal reaches the coffee stage, various speeches and toasts are given. The main speaker gives a speech remembering some aspect of Burns’s life or poetry. It may be either light-hearted or serious and may include the recitation of a poem or a song by Burns. A toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns then follows.”
An address to the Lassies follows. “This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal. However, it is now much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing and not offensive, particularly since it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned. The men drink a toast to the women’s health.”
Reply to the Laddies might also be added. “This is occasionally (and humorously) called the ‘Toast to the Laddies’. Like the previous toast, it is generally now quite wide-ranging. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, it 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.
“After the speeches there may be singing of songs by Burns (such as Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel o’ Rogues and A Man’s a Man) and more poetry (such as To a Mouse, To a Louse, Tam o’ Shanter, The Twa Dogs and Holy Willie’s Prayer). Finally, the host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks. Then, everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne to bring the evening to an end.”
Needless to say, sheep lung is a bit hard to find in modern day supermarkets.That is because many Scottish sheep have been infected with Lung Worm, which makes the lungs inedible. Sandy Clark of the Scottish Agricultural College said, “…the changing climate and availability of the parasite is becoming a problem.” So, Scottish butchers are securing their sheep lungs from Irish farms instead. For vegetarians, such as I, there are meatless versions. Haggis is also available in the canned variety.
After the 3 hours remove from pot throw into garbage bin and open a can of baked beans. 😀
I agree, Smith.
I don’t think I could ever eat this dish! Plus I wonder how it smells while cooking it. However, if you start eating when you are small, they probably don’t even know what it is made of andgrow to like it?????
Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.