The Out About Scotland complete guide to celebrating Burns Night in Scotland
So… who was Robert Burns?
Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns is one of the most influential writers in Scotland’s long literary history, whose romantic songs, traditional ballads and amusing satires have become ingrained into Scottish culture. He’s affectionately known by many names including Rabbie Burns, the National Bard, the Bard of Ayrshire and the Ploughman Poet, but regardless of his title, he remains one of the greatest cultural icons in the nation’s history.
While he’s most famous for the song Auld Lang Syne that’s still sung around the world on New Years Eve, Burns is also revered for his clever prose where he was uniquely able to express the whole universe of human emotions, as well as his inspirational life story – a humble man from poor beginnings who was able to catapult himself to fame through sheer force of talent and hard work. All the qualities that people still admire and aspire to today.
A passionately proud Scot, Burns never forgot his roots and throughout the latter part of his life he fought hard for the rights of the lower social classes in Scotland and especially against the enormous gap between the rich and the poor.
His other passion was the preservation of the old Scottish culture, and over the course of his life he amassed a vast collection of traditional songs so they could be enjoyed by future generations. Along with his own masterful writing, Burn’s collection of poetry and songs have given Scotland a lasting legacy that will hopefully be enjoyed for many more years to come.
The Story of Robert Burns
Burns was born in a cottage built by his father on 25th January 1759, in Alloway, Scotland. His father was a farmer who died in 1784 leaving the farm to Robert with the understanding that he would continue to work the land, however it soon became clear the young bard had a greater love for life than for farming, and he soon found himself in extreme financial difficulty.
The seeds of Burns love for writing were first sown in his early teens when he started writing poetry to impress women, and he was obviously quite successful because by the age of 27 he had fathered children by two different women, but unfortunately his success with the pen didn’t help him with running the farm.
Just two years after receiving his inheritance the farm was barely making any money, so in desperation he decided to collect his poems together into a single volume and publish them with the intention of using the profits to start a new life in Jamaica.
This book of poems – ‘Poems in the Scottish Dialect’ – became an immediate success and was so popular in his native Scotland that Burns became relatively famous overnight, even more so once his work was released as an Edinburgh edition later on in 1786.
His success led Burns to remain in Scotland and marry his long-time sweetheart Jane Armour in 1788, who went on to bear nine of his children during the time they were together. After getting married and making a sincere effort to settle down, Burns purchased another farm near Dumfries, but this too failed to prosper and so the young bard changed career and become a full-time exciseman instead.
Although Burns was much more successful as an exciseman than a farmer, his love of writing only grew stronger as time passed and in the remaining years until his death he wrote some of his most celebrated works, including his most famous poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’. Unfortunately, the steady income from his new profession enabled Burns to continue with his greatest weakness – alcohol.
Infamous for being a heavy drinker, he died of rheumatic fever in 1796 at the age of 37 after falling into a drunken sleep at the roadside one night, but his poems continued to be sold in Scotland and eventually throughout the world. His work is just as popular today as it was when he first took pen to paper over 200 years ago and students of literature across the globe continue to study the works of the ‘ploughman poet’.
I want to find out more about Robert Burns – where do I start?
There’s a huge amount of information about the bard on the internet and a quick Google will take you to any number of pages that will tell you everything you need to know about Scotland’s national poet.
In fact, there’s so much information out there that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially when you’re trying to find out the history of his later years when his writing was at its most prolific. I’ve included a few resources below that I hope you’ll find interesting, and maybe they’ll inspire you to attend a Burns Night celebration on the 25th January to see what all the fuss is about.
Robert Burns Websites
- You won’t go far wrong with starting your Burns research with the world’s biggest internet information resource – Wikipedia. There’s a really good page about Burns on the site and it goes into great detail about both his early years and the years before his death.
- Robertburns.org is an enormous online library of Burns life that also includes copies of his complete works as well as links to places you can visit to walk in his footsteps. There’s even a Burns-related shop on the site.
- The Scottish Poetry Library is a great resource for all things Robert Burns with a collection of his poems to read and a comprehensive list of additional resources.
- The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has a great website that lets visitors discover his life and poems as well as help them plan a number of Burns-themed events.
Robert Burns Books
- The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography by Robert Crawford. This is a great book that re-assesses Burns as a man and a poet that explains his politics, his radicalism and his love of Scotland in a heartfelt and well written complete guide to the Ploughman Poet.
- Robert Burns: A life by Ian McIntyre is a highly recommended biography of Burns that doesn’t swing into self-indulgent hero-worship like some other books I’ve read. It’s a great read – impartial and well researched – and it gets good reviews on Amazon too.
- Robert Burns, the Complete Poetical Works by James A. Mackay lists every one of Burns poems in a clearly set out format that makes it difficult to put down. It’s a good-looking book too, and although I only borrowed it from a library it’s on my ‘must-buy’ lists of books that I want to own.
- How to celebrate Burns Night: A modern and informal guide to celebrating Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns by Daniel Bee is a relaxed read that guides you through a traditional Burns Night supper whether you’ve been before or are new to the event. It’s a bit short but it’s full of really useful information.
Robert Burns Places
- The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum: Murdoch’s Lone, Alloway, Ayr KA7 4PQ. This is the original museum that offers a truly unique Burns experience. Inside there are exhibitions, original exhibits, a good cafe, a shop and even a kids play area.
- The Writers Museum: Lawnmarket, Lady Stair’s Close, Edinburgh EH1 2PA. The Writers Museum just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile presents the lives of three of Scotlands greatest novelists and poets (Burns, Scott and Stevenson) in a collection of exhibits, portraits and personal objects. It’s free to get in and definitely recommended if you’re in the city.
- Ellisland Farm: Holywood Road, Auldgirth, Dumfries, DG2 0RP. This is the family home built by Robert Burns for his wife Jean Amour which is situated in an idyllic spot on the banks of the River Nith. The attraction boasts an impressive collection of artefacts, memorabilia and original manuscripts.
- The Burns Monument Centre: Kay Park, Kilmarnock KA3 7RU. This fairly new custom built centre provides resources for visitors to discover their own Scottish history in a large archive that also includes information about Burns. The centre is also frequently used for wedding ceremonies and events.
What’s Burns Night all about?
Burns Night is an annual event that’s been held in Scotland since in 1801. The tradition began on the 21st July of that year by friends of the Scottish poet Robert Burns who came together to remember him five years after his death, but the following year they changed the date to coincide with his birthday on the 25th January.
Since that time Burns Night has grown in a semi-formal event where Scots celebrate the life and times of the bard in a celebration that can be found in every part of the country, from Peebles in the south to John O Groats in the north. It’s also the most Scottish-themed annual event in the country, where bagpipes are played, haggis is eaten, whisky is drunk, and a collection of Burn’s writing is read – and sung – before the evening finishes with a recital of Auld Lang Syne and a ceilidh (traditional Scottish dancing).
The size of each event varies wildly, with celebrations ranging from small informal gatherings to large dining experiences, but all involve haggis, whisky, and of course, poetry from the nation’s favourite wordsmith.
No two Burns Suppers are exactly alike and most are themed differently, from formal meetings of scholars to informal pub gatherings, but at all events the main attraction has to be the celebration of the haggis, the savoury pudding that looks revolting but actually tastes delicious.
In fact, this rotund little bag of sheep’s innards is so revered during Burns Night that it’s even introduced with a recital of one of Burns most famous poems – ‘Address to a Haggis’:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
There are another 7 verses to this poem so I won’t list them all but you kind of get the idea of the importance that’s given to Scotland’s national dish during Burns Night.
During the Burns Night supper the haggis is traditionally eaten with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed swede (neeps), and followed by traditional Scottish desserts such as cranachan or clootie dumpling (more on these dishes later) and washed down with a few drams of single malt whisky. The meal will, of course, vary slightly depending on the chef, but that’s more-or-less what you can expect.
Finally, after much poem reciting and whisky toasting, the night is rounded off with a group rendition of Auld Lang Syne and a ceilidh before the guests make their drunken way back home. It’s a really good night and if you’re in Scotland towards the end of January it’s definitely worth finding somewhere that’s hosting a Burns Night supper so that you can join in the fun yourself.
So what, exactly, is haggis?
Few things are more Scottish than the legendary haggis, the versatile, hearty, and delicious national delicacy that can be served at any time of the year but is a focal point for Burns Night.
Its origins are actually hundreds of years old and come from Scottish hunters who were keen to use every bit of the animals they killed, but who knew that the offal (the animal’s internal organs) would go to waste first. To preserve this meat they would clean the stomach to use as a cooking bag and fill it with minced heart, liver and lungs, along with oatmeal and suet to bulk it out and onions and pepper to give it some flavour.
Yes, I know it sounds revolting, and to be honest an uncooked haggis sitting in a stomach lining does look pretty rank, but let me assure you that once it’s cooked the flavours really come together and it tastes fantastic. It’s got a crumbly texture and a surprisingly peppery taste which goes extremely well with vegetables and whisky sauce, but Scots have all sorts of uses for it including using it to stuff roast chicken, frying it for breakfast, and using it to fill a pie. But my top tip is to use it to make Scotch eggs instead of using sausage meat – it’s delicious.
There’s one word of warning though. Not all haggis are created equal and some of the cheaper ones like those you’ll find in budget supermarkets are shockingly poor quality. Although the days of using a natural sheep stomach for the casing are long gone (except for upper-end haggis manufacturers like McSweens), the quality of the meat inside varies greatly with the cheaper ones having very little pepper and meat which is very fatty, so take my advice and spend a little extra on a quality brand instead.
These days you can even eat haggis if you’re not a meat eater and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available. And not only is haggis great for vegetarians but it doesn’t matter if you’re not much of a cook either because all you have to do is bung it in a microwave until it’s warm. I think it’s safe to say that haggis is one traditional Scottish dish that deserves its place on any modern dining table.
The formal order of events for Burns Night
While the procedure for a Burns Night supper can vary hugely according to the event organiser there’s a formal order that should more or less be adhered to if you want your Burns Night to have an authentic feel. If you visit a high-end occasion you’ll find quite a bit of pomp and circumstance in the proceedings (although it’s all light-hearted and fun), and in my opinion it’s the tongue-in-cheek ceremony of the thing which makes Burns Night such a special time.
1. To begin with, guests enter the room with a piper playing the bagpipes (although sometimes a band plays traditional Scottish music instead), and once all the attendees are at their tables there’s a round of applause and the proceedings begin. The chair (who’s the event organiser), welcomes the guests and describes the evening’s entertainment before the Selkirk Grace is read.
The Selkirk Grace is a short piece written by Burns which is read to usher in the haggis:
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.
2. Next comes the main event – the piping-in and the address to the haggis. If you’re not used to Burns Night celebrations you’re going to wonder what on earth is happening here, but bear with me and I’ll explain.
At this point in the evening, all guests stand while a procession (normally wearing full highland dress) enters the room with a silver platter accompanied by a piper. On top of the platter – held proudly aloft by the chef – is a haggis, while the person who will address it walks in front and a whisky-bearer walks behind. As the haggis is carried to the table the guests are encouraged to clap in time to the music until it stops and the address is read aloud.
3. The speaker (who is usually the host, but can be any nominated person) reads the address and at a specific point in the poem raises his knife high and plunges it into the animal casing, making sure to cut it along its length and spill out the contents. This is met with applause by all attendees who raise their glasses and shout ‘The haggis!’ before it’s served along with the rest of the meal.
A Burns Night supper is traditionally a 3-course meal consisting of cock-a-leekie soup as the starter, haggis, neeps and tatties for the main course, and cranachan or clootie dumpling for the pudding, all of which are probably unrecognisable to you if you’re from outside Scotland but I explain these dishes in more depth in my article 10 traditional Scottish foods you HAVE to try.
4. During the meal the haggis liberally doused with ‘whisky sauce’ – actually neat whisky – while the first entertainment prepares. This is usually a band or a singer performing Burns songs or it can alternatively be a recital of his poems, either of which begins as soon as the meal finishes.
5. After the songs and recitals have finished ‘The Immortal Memory’ begins which is a witty speech about Robert Burns life, after which glasses are raised for yet another toast: ‘To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!’, followed by more poems and the latter stages of the evening – The Toast to the Lassies, and The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.
6. The first of these toasts praises the role of women today with a little bit of lighthearted joking at the ladies expense, while the second toast is an opportunity for the women to get their revenge on the men. The proceedings are then wrapped up with a vote of thanks from the organiser and a group rendition of Auld Lang Syne (note that the poem is normally sung in its entirety, so make sure you know the words to the later verses!).
The end of the Burns Night formal order is normally the queue for people to get up on the dancefloor and take part in some traditional Scottish dancing, but some events might prefer to finish st this point instead. Each celebration differs so if you’re not sure what to expect check with the organisers beforehand.
The 10 best places to celebrate Burns Night in Scotland
I hope by now you’ve got a bit more of an understanding of the Burns Night proceedings, especially if you’re visiting us from overseas where the whole thing might seem just a little bit bewildering, but I can honestly say everyone is welcome to these events and most would argue that the more, the merrier.
There are a huge number of Burns Night suppers happening throughout Scotland on the 25th January although some are held a few days before and after as well, so before you make a booking check with the organiser to find out if they’re holding their celebration on a date that might be more suitable for you.
So now we’re onto the list of the best places in Scotland to celebrate Burns Night. The list is in no particular order but they’re all guaranteed to offer a great time, and I know there are plenty of other celebrations being held throughout the country that are equally as good so if you’ve got any recommendations of your own please leave a comment at the end.
Map of the best places to celebrate Burns Night in Scotland
As one of Scotland’s foremost student towns, Aberdeen really knows how to party, and there are Burns Night events held right across the city. But it’s not just students who get to enjoy the celebrations as there are a huge number of events aimed at families too, and with several Speyside and Highland distilleries nearby you’ll be assured of a good dram or two as well.
Where’s a good place to go? The Illicit Still, Netherkirkgate, Broad Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1AU
Contact: Tel 01224 623123
Website: The Illicit Still
You might not have considered visiting Ayr for Burns Night, but for the Scottish it’s almost a necessity. It’s in Alloway, near Ayr, where Burns was born at his father’s farm cottage, and the locals there go all out to celebrate the birthday of their most famous son. Alloway is also home to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so if you want to become fully acquainted with Scotland’s most-loved writer it should be at the top of your ‘must-visit’ list.
Where’s a good place to go? Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Murdoch’s Lone, Alloway, Ayr, KA7 4PQ
Contact: Tel 01292 443700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Website: Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
I had to include Arbroath in this list because they usually serve one of my favourite dishes as part of the Burns Night supper – the Arbroath Smokie. If you’re not familiar, an Arbroath Smokie is a specially prepared smoked haddock that’s a speciality of the town, and it’s absolutely delicious. The haddock is often served in a fish pie but is sometimes served as a dish on its own.
Where’s a good place to go? Coast Bar and Restaurant, 4 Gravesend, Arbroath, DD11 1HT
Contact: Tel 01241 437811
Website: Coast Bar and Restaurant
The Big Burns Supper Festival is billed as the world’s biggest Burns Night event which runs for 11 days at the end of January in the capital of South Scotland, Dumfries. The festival takes place in venues, bars, art galleries and museums and includes shows and events for the entire family along with cabaret and music acts.
Where’s a good place to go? Spiegeltent Village, town centre, 38-39 Whitesands, Dumfries, DG1 2RS
Contact: Tel 01387 271 820
Website: Big Burns Supper
As the capital city of Scotland you’d have to expect Edinburgh to throw a really good Burns Night and it doesn’t let us down with a host of events held right across the city. During the second half of January you’ll find celebrations ranging from formal dinners to rowdy pub feasts, but whichever venue you decide to attend you’ll be assured of an evening of fun.
Where’s a good place to go? Ghillie Dhu, 2 Rutland Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2AD
Contact: Tel 0131 222 9930
Website: Ghillie Dhu
Eyemouth in Berwickshire, Scottish borders, is a fantastic place to visit if you want your Burns Night to be a little more laid back than you’d expect in the larger cities. Although this small fishing town has quite a few formal gatherings there are plenty of much more informal affairs going on, so you’re guaranteed to find an event that’s right for you.
Where’s a good place to go? Oblo, 18-20, Harbour Road, Eyemouth, Berwickshire, TD14 5HU
Contact: Tel 018907 52527
If you’re in the Central Lowlands area of Scotland on the 25th January you won’t go far wrong with a visit to Falkirk, home of The Falkirk Wheel and The Kelpies. Falkirk is steeped in history – it’s the home of the Antonine Wall, the largest relic of Roman occupation in Scotland – so it’s a great place to explore after Burns Night.
Where’s a good place to go? Black Tie Burns Supper at Macdonald Inchyra Hotel, Grange Road, Polmont, FK2 0YB
Contact: Tel 0344 879 9044
Website: Macdonald Inchyra Hotel
Scotland’s biggest city is home to some of its biggest Burns Night celebrations, and there’s a dizzying number of events happening during January. The city has a long association with history and its proud Scottish heritage is something that’s at the core of Burns writing. If you’re going to visit at least one Burns night this year you could do a lot worse than making sure it’s in Glasgow.
Where’s a good place to go? Cottiers Theatre, 93-95 Hyndland St, Glasgow, G11 5PU
Contact: Tel 0141 3574000 or email email@example.com
Website: Cottiers Theatre
Although Oban is primarily known as the gateway to the islands its worth spending extra time in this little coastal town because it’s got some really good events happening in January. There are more hotels in Oban than you’d imagine and most of them have got a great Burns Night celebration going on during the last two weeks of the month, plus you’ll be able to try some of the town’s famously fresh seafood.
Where’s a good place to go? Bay Great Western Hotel, Corran Esplanade, Oban, PA34 5PP
Contact: Tel 01631 563 101
Website: Oban Great Western Hotel
Perth is full of history but is often missed by international tourists which is a shame because the city has so much to offer visitors. An often overlooked place to go is The Salutation Hotel which is the oldest hotel in Scotland, having been established in 1699. The hotel famously played host to royalty when Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed there in 1745 at the height of the Jacobite rebellion.
Where’s a good place to go? Salutation Hotel, 34 South Street, Perth, PH2 8PH
Contact: Tel 01738 630066
Website: The Salutation Hotel
Well, I hope this introduction to the best places to celebrate Burns night in Scotland has whetted your appetite for this brilliant Scottish event, and I really hope you’re able to come and visit us in January. Burns Night offers much more than food and whisky as it allows visitors to experience real Scottish culture in a way they might otherwise not have an opportunity to do.
Whatever you decide to do on the 25th January I hope you have a great time, and if you celebrate Burns Night please come back and leave a comment to let us know where you’ve been.
If you want to discover even more Scottish winter attractions you can also check out my guide to The 10 best places to go in Scotland in January.