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The celebration, now known as a Burns Supper or Burns Night, was started by close friends of Burns a few years after his death in 1796 as a tribute to his memory and to commemorate his life and work. The first ‘recorded’ event was in 1801.
Originally held on the anniversary of his death, this was later changed to celebrate his birthday, now known widely as Burns Night (25th January), although suppers are often held days before or after this date.
The itinerary and menu for a Burns Supper are traditional but not compulsory and can be as formal or informal as desired. Not everyone has ready access to a piper or a high table, not everyone enjoys whisky or haggis. Originally Burns Suppers were men-only events but now usually include both men and women.
A piper welcomes guests and plays until the high table is ready to be seated and the supper starts when the chair gives an opening address or welcome and the meal commences with the ‘Selkirk Grace’:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
The company is then asked to receive the haggis.
A piper leads the chef, carrying the haggis, to the top table, while the guests welcome the haggis with a slow hand-clap.
The chair, or an invited guest, then recites enthusiastically Burns' famous poem Address To A Haggis.
When the line 'an cut you up wi' ready slight' is reached, the haggis is cut open and disgorged with a sharp knife.
It's customary for the company to applaud this and then stand to toast the haggis with a glass of whisky. Dinner is then served.
The traditional ‘Bill o’ Fare’ can include:
Cock-a-Leekie Soup (chicken and leek soup), Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup with potato and milk) or Scotch Broth (often made from lamb/mutton and with barley and much else)
Haggis wi’ Champit Tatties and Bashed Neeps
(Haggis with mashed potatoes and turnip (swede). A whisky ‘sauce’ (undiluted whisky) is sometimes poured over the haggis and then lit. Vegetarian haggis is widely available in Scotland.)
Cranachan (toasted rough oatmeal, raspberries, cream and honey), Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle) or Clootie Dumpling (a traditional suet pudding with fruit, boiled in a cloth (or clootie))
Cheese and Oatcakes (crisp biscuits made with oats)
Tea or Coffee
The entertainment should start after the meal has been served.
The Immortal Memory (the keynote speech)
An invited guest is asked to give a short speech on Burns. This can be either quite light-hearted or more scholarly, but should emphasise, in an entertaining way, the importance of Burns as a man and national bard.
The speech should end with the invitation to toast the ‘Immortal Memory of Robert Burns’.
Toast to the Lasses
The main speech is followed by a light-hearted address, this time to women. The speaker should highlight the influence and importance of the 'lassies' in Burns' life; and women in general. These speeches can be quite raunchy, particularly at men only suppers, but, as with the Immortal Memory, should be humorous and not offensive and end with a ‘Toast to the Lassies’.
In mixed company, this is chance for the lasses to reply to the previous speaker, and outline men's little quirks and those of Burns. Again, the speech should be humorous but not insulting.
Once the speeches are over, there are usually more poems, songs and music.
Vote of Thanks
The speaker should give a short thank you to the organisers: chair, chef, speakers, musicians and the evening finishes with the company standing, linking hands and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
© Martin Coventry 2017