25 January 2021

How to properly celebrate Burns Night

25 January 2021

Scottish folk (and non-Scots alike) are set to celebrate Burns Night, the annual hat-tip to poet Robert Burns.

It’s an important date in the calendar, as it commemorates the life of the famous bard who wrote hundreds of poems and songs in his lifetime, including absolute classic, Auld Lang Syne.

Many people mark the occasion by holding a Burns supper on or around Burns Night, which falls on January 25 – Burns’ birthday. But if you’re new to the tradition, how do you pay tribute to the 18th-century writer in the proper manner?

1. Cook up some Scottish grub

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Food is a huge part of a Burns Night celebration and no feast is complete without haggis.

Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s offal, and is traditionally boiled in a bag – the bag being animal stomach. “It’s mashed together with oatmeal, onion and various spices,” explains Ewan Gunn, global Scotch whisky ambassador for Diageo of the filling. “Quite often you’ll see people doing their own modern take on haggis too, like rolling the haggis into balls and deep frying them.”

It’s usually served with neeps (swede or turnip) and tatties (potatoes), which Gunn says are sometimes served mashed, or they might be cut into chunks.

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After gorging on haggis, Scots often tuck into cranachan, which Gunn describes as a “Scottish version of Eton Mess.”

“It’s cream and raspberries – we grow great ones in Scotland – some oatmeal, honey and a wee bit of whisky in there too. It’s a lovely dessert and pairs really nicely with a Scottish tipple.”

2. Raise a dram

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“Whisky runs through the veins of a Burns Night celebration, from start to finish,” says Gunn. “Burns was a great fan of Scottish whisky through his lifetime, so it’s traditional to have it on the table.”

Gunn says people will usually drink whisky neat in a dram, or they might add a splash of water to their drink too. “Some also pour a little splash of whisky onto their haggis too, almost like a gravy. It tastes delicious because the flavours of the whisky infuse through the haggis.

“People view Burns Night as an opportunity to share one of their better whiskies; it’s a time for something special,” he continues. “Increasingly in recent years, people have also played around with whisky cocktails like Old Fashioneds, and the classic cocktail The Bobby Burns – Scotch, vermouth and Bénédictine liqueur. ”

3. Put on a poetry reading


If you really want to celebrate a traditional Burns Night, you’ll need to follow an official running order for the evening, and that will involve reading poems and making speeches aloud.

When your household is seated, the evening usually begins with The Selkirk Grace, then follows the entrance of the haggis and the classic address, To A Haggis which is recited before the haggis is dramatically cut with a ceremonial knife. After the meal, the Immortal Memory (a formal tribute speech to Burns) is given, then there’s a Toast to the Lassies (which is  a bit more fun), followed by a Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, and a series of Burns poetry.

The formal aspects of the evening ends with a vote of thanks, and the partying can continue (pandemic restrictions allowing, this year).

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4. Go big on the bagpipes

Traditionally a piper will ‘pipe’ in the haggis at the start of dinner, but if you don’t have your own bagpipes, you could find some traditional Scottish music online, to be played during this part of the evening.

After a few whisky toasts dancing inevitably becomes part of a Burns Night evening, so make sure to have some Scottish tunes lined up for the end of dinner.

The beauty of Burns Night is that you can celebrate it anywhere – and many people are planning to make their celebrations virtual this year.

If you’re keen to host a dinner over Zoom, Visit Scotland have a whole eBook with advice and ideas for putting on the perfect night of music, poetry and culture.

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