Burns Night is probably our favourite night of January. What better way to cheer up a miserable month than by hosting an evening of whisky, poetry and haggis?
Keep reading to find out more about Burns Night, the food served, the traditional order of events, and tips for hosting Burns Night at home.
What is Burns Night?
Burns Night is celebrated every year on 25th January to commemorate the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. People gather at home or in public to remember Robert Burns, read aloud his poetry, eat delicious Scottish food and drink a little (or a lot of) whisky.
Born in 1759, Robert Burns (also known as Robbie/Rabbie) is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He wrote in both standard English and Scots, and many of his poems and songs are still very well known today. His poem Auld Lang Syne is traditionally sung at New Year celebrations worldwide.
Burns Night has been celebrated since 1801, five years after the poet’s death. After over 200 years, many elements of the celebration remain the same, and you can experience them in your own home. The evening is a brilliant way to break through the gloom of late January and enjoy Scottish delicacies, great poems, and (of course) a dram or two of whisky with your friends.
Everyone can choose to celebrate Burns Night in their own way, but below we give the usual menu, running order of events and some suggestions for adapting it for your own gathering.
What food is served at Burns Night?
Burns Night is a chance to eat some of the most delicious food Scotland has to offer. Warming and comforting, the traditional Burns Night menu is perfect for a gloomy January evening.
Traditionally the starter for a Burns Night supper is a soup. Scotch broth is very popular, as is cullen skink (made with smoked haddock) and cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek).
If you’d like something lighter, Scottish smoked salmon served with toast and butter always goes down well!
Both soup and smoked salmon are great options for a dinner party starter because they can be made ahead of time.Main course:
Haggis is the main food event of the evening, and is part of an exciting theatrical spectacle. After diners are seated, the haggis is piped in: bagpipes play as the haggis is paraded around the room. At banquets this will be by real bagpiper players, but at home a Spotify playlist is more likely! Then Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis” is recited, the speaker plunging a knife into the haggis at a specific point in the poem. Everyone drinks a whisky toast to the haggis, and eating begins.
If you’ve never eaten haggis before, you may have been put off by what it contains. If you can put that aside, haggis is truly delicious - peppery, savoury, spicy and moreish. Haggis is easy to buy from a supermarket at this time of year, or you can order online, and it’s easy to cook too.
If you have vegetarian guests or people who are squeamish about haggis, vegetarian haggis is available and tastes great too. For a non-haggis meat option, we recommend sausages.
Accompanying the haggis traditionally are neeps and tatties. This means mashed potatoes and mashed swede (not turnip!).
In addition, we serve our Burns Night haggis with mixed greens, gravy, and whisky cream sauce.
If you have space after all that haggis, it’s time for pudding! A traditional choice is Cranachan, which is a dish made with cream, raspberries, honey and whisky. Another option is a Tipsy Laird - a Scottish trifle made with whisky or drambuie.
If you want to keep it simple, Mackie’s of Scotland ice cream served with shortbread and raspberries never fails to please.
For a savoury option, serve cheese with oatcakes rather than crackers for a final Scottish touch. Get brownie points for serving Scottish cheese too. If you don’t live in Scotland, an easy option is Seriously Strong Cheddar, which is made in Dumfries and Galloway!
How do I celebrate Burns Night?
Burns Night suppers have evolved a set order of events. Of course you don’t have to follow this to the letter. Below we give the traditional running order, but keep reading to see some suggestions to adapt the traditions to your own evening.
The traditional order:
Bagpipe music plays as guests take their seats. The host welcomes the guests and the Selkirk Grace (by Robert Burns, of course!) is said.
The Selkirk Grace
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!
- The starter is served and eaten
- The haggis is piped in. Bagpipe music plays as the haggis is carried in on a platter as part of a procession with the chef, the piper, the whisky bearer and the person who will address the haggis. This person then performs the Address to a Haggis. At the line “His knife see rustic-labour dight”, the performer plunges their knife into the haggis and cuts it along its length to reveal the tasty innards, timed with the line “trenching its gushing entrails”.
- Everyone toasts the haggis with a dram of whisky, raising a glass and shouting “the haggis!”. The main course is served and eaten.
- Pudding is served and eaten
- A Burns song or poem is performed by one of the guests
- A speech in tribute to Burns is given. This is known as the Immortal Memory, and includes facts about his life and his works. It should be entertaining and witty as well as educational! At the end of the speech, everyone raises their glasses to toast Burns, with the line “To the immortal memory of Robert Burns”
- Another poem is recited
- The Toast to the Lassies is given. This is a humorous speech about women featuring quotes from Burns’ poems. The toast concludes “To the lassies!” as everyone raises their glasses once again.
- A final poem or song is recited
- The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies is presented by a woman, and provides a chance for the women to rebut any comments made about them! This is another good-humoured speech.
- The host thanks everyone for coming, and everyone stands to sing Auld Lang Syne
How to adapt Burns Night for your own evening
The full running order of a traditional Burns Night supper is quite full on, so if you’re having one at home you may want to scale it down. Here a few suggestions of how to do this while still keeping the core of the traditions.
First of all, unless you know someone that plays the bagpipes, you’re unlikely to have live bagpiping. A Man's a Man for a' That is the traditional piece played while the haggis is piped in, and you can find many versions of this on Spotify and YouTube.
The piping in of the haggis is one of the highlights of the evening, but you don’t have to put on a full procession. Simply carrying the haggis to the table on a plate or board while bagpipe music plays is enough.
Reading the Address to a Haggis is pretty key, and is fun to do. Tell whoever you want to do the reading in advance so they have time to practice, as if you’re not used to Scots it can be a little tricky. Having a printed copy with a standard English translation is a good idea so that everyone can follow along with what’s happening in the poem. Find a translation here by the Alexandria Burns Club.
The full schedule of speeches can be a lot, especially if your guests are busy and don’t have time to prepare speeches in advance. A simple way to celebrate Burns and get everyone involved is to provide each person with one of Burns’ poems, or an excerpt, and take turns to read them aloud after eating. You can put the poem at each place setting as you lay the table.
Burns’ poetry may be old but some of it is still hilarious - and rude! Reading these poems aloud most certainly won’t be boring. Here’s a list of some of our favourites - they're a mix of romantic and funny. Remember you can give only a section of the poem out so no one is stuck reading out loud for too long.
Winter: A Dirge (perfect for the teenager who really doesn't want to be there)
Setting the table
Fancy hosting Burns Night at home? Browse our range of Burns Night tableware, including full table setting kits here.