“Fortune! if thou'll but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an' whisky gill,
An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a' the rest,
An' deal't about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.”
It has become a tradition on January 25 to celebrate the memory of beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 - 1796) by taking part in what has become known as a “Burns Supper.”
What started in 18th century Ayshire has grown to an annual celebration of his life and works, celebrated by people with love for Scotch all over the world. While this does involve partaking in that daring Scottish delicacy known as haggis (sheep offal minced with onions, oatmeal, broth and spices and cooked in sheep’s stomach, broken open at the table), it also involves sharing a few drams of fine Scotch whisky. This is often seen as an opportunity to open a bottle that’s been saved and share it with those who would appreciate it.
While many of these are informal drink gatherings, there is a traditional ceremony for those who take it seriously. Think of it as Scottish Passover.
Once everyone has gathered, the host of the Burns Supper says a few words of welcome and declares the festivity to be open. Very formal suppers begin with a recitation of the Selkirk Grace, which some say is attributed to Burns, although it may have predated him:
'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 thanket.''
The first course of the meal is served, traditionally cock-a-leekie soup and other assorted goodies liked smoked salmon and Scotch eggs. Then there is the “Parade of the Haggis.” When this is done right, a bagpiper leads the cook to the host’s table with a large platter of the dish. There is even a formal “Address to Haggis” (too long to print here) recited by either the host or a guest before another toast. Then everyone digs in. Throughout the meal, people take turns reciting or even singing their favorite bits of Burns’ poetry and toasting to his memory. It is the host’s duty to state his appreciation for each entertainer as well as deliver the “Immortal Memory” address in Burns’ honor before the night is through.
At some point there is the “Toast to the Lassies,” which was originally made as thanks for those who prepared the meal. In modern society, this has become a more liberal-minded (though tastefully cheeky) cheers for the general appreciation of women whisky drinkers. This also has a call and response tradition with several speakers, male and female.
The host then closes the ceremony by calling on the guests to join hands and sing Burns’ most recognizable cultural contribution, Auld Lang Syne.
Whether or not your Burns Night involves kilts, haggis, bagpipes or drunken Gaelic recitations, this is the perfect night to “tak a cup o’ kindness yet” and reflect with friends and great Scotch. What will you be cracking open this Burns Night? We’d love to hear.