Why do Scots hold a Burns supper?

Why do Scots hold a Burns supper?

Casa Scozia and The Milan Scottish Country Dancers will hold a Burns Supper followed by Scottish Country Dancing at All Saints Church, Via Solferino 17, Milan on Saturday, 27 January 2018. Places limited so booking essential by 20 January at latest through John Murphy (j.murphy@buroservice.com). Price €25 per head (€15 under 18 yrs)
The Scottish Festive Calendarjohn-murphy_highland-dress-2016

Scotland has three main traditional festive occasions: St. Andrew’s Night (on or around 30 November). Hogmanay aka New Year’s Eve (31 December) and Burns Night (on or around 25 January). Indeed, there was a time, not that long ago, when Hogmanay was considered more important than Christmas: up to the 1950s, Scots would have 1 January off (to recover from the night before), whereas many had to work on Christmas morning! The English, on the other hand, got Christmas morning off, but had to work on New Year’s Day. Nowadays, everyone gets 1 January as a holiday, so the Scots have maintained their advantage by getting 2 January off as well!

St. Andrew’s Night is to celebrate our Patron Saint. In Milan, we just celebrated it on 18 November (see photos), whereas next year we have already scheduled it for 17 November 2018. So please put that in your diaries (or smartphones).

The etymology of Hogmanay is far from sure, but there’s a great deal of conjecture, which Wikipedia goes into at length.

The origins of Burns Night, on the other hand, are far more certain…tartan


Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns, author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January.

The first supper was held in memoriam at Burns Cottage by Robert Burns’ friends on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death, and have been a regular occurrence ever since. The first still extant Burns club was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants 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 in Ayr parish records that his date of birth was 25 January 1759. Since then, suppers have been held on or about 25 January.

Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in Address to a Haggis), Scotch whisky, and the recitation of Burns’s poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organisations such as Burns clubs, the Freemasons, or St Andrews Societies and occasionally end with dancing when ladies are present. Formal suppers follow a standard format.


Order of the supper

Piping in the guests

A piper generally greets the guests, who gather and mix as at any informal party. At less formal gatherings traditional Scottish music is played.

Host’s welcoming speech

The host says a few words welcoming everyone to the supper and perhaps stating the reason for it.

All of the guests are seated and grace is said, usually using the Selkirk Grace, a well-known thanksgiving said before meals, using the Scots language. Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 17th century, as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters’ Grace”. It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

The Selkirk Gracesgian-dubh-cutting-haggis-l

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.

Soup course

The supper starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch broth, potato soup, cullen skink, or cock-a-leekie is served.

The haggis

Piping in the haggis

Everyone stands as the haggis is brought in. It is usually brought in by the cook on a large dish, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host’s table, where the haggis is laid down. They might play “A Man’s A Man for A’ That”, “Robbie Burns Medley” or “The Star O’ Robbie Burns”.The host, or perhaps a guest, then recites the Address to a Haggis

At the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht the speaker normally draws and sharpens a knife, and at the line An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end. When done properly this “ceremony” is a highlight of the evening.

burns-night-dinnerMain course

Haggis served wi’ neeps and tatties (with turnips and potatoes), At the end of the poem, a whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, then the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps).

Other courses

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. In order, the core speeches and toasts are as follows.

Immortal memory

The main speaker gives a speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or serious and may include the recitation of a poem or song by Burns. A toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns then follows.

Address to the Lassies

This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal. However, nowadays it is much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but not offensive, particularly bearing in mind that 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

This is occasionally (and humorously) called the “Toast to the Laddies” and, like the previous toast, it is generally quite wide-ranging nowadays. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, this 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.

Works by Burns

After the speeches there may be singing of songs by Burns – Ae Fond KissParcel o’ RoguesA Man’s a Man, etc. – and more poetry – To a MouseTo a LouseTam o’ ShanterThe Twa DugsHoly Willie’s Prayer, etc. This may be done by the individual guests or by invited experts, and it goes on for as long as the guests wish and may include other works by poets influenced by Burns, particularly poets writing in Scots. Foreign guests can also be invited to sing or say works from their land.


Finally, the host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne bringing the evening to an end.

Adapted from Wikipedia


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