Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, was born in 1759 into a humble Ayrshire family. Aged seven, he moved south-eastwards to Mount Oliphant Farm, where the Ploughman’s Poet was inspired by a fellow labourer to pen ‘O once I lov'd a bonnie lass’, his first attempt at poetry. The rest as they say, is history.
Burns passed away in 1796 some 550 songs and poems later, though it wasn’t until the fifth anniversary of his death in 1801, that nine of ‘Rabbie’s’ dearest friends gathered in his childhood home in Alloway to mark the wordsmith’s legacy with rituals that would endure the ages.
The Burns Night Supper, as it came to be known, was filled with dramatic performances of his works, a hearty meal of haggis and tatties, and an earnest toast to the man himself, christened ‘The Immortal Memory’.
This year, on January 25th, households will be celebrating a pandemic-proof evening of entertainment. However, we would argue there has never been a better time to hold the most traditional of Burns Nights in the comfort of your home.
Addressing the haggis
Haggis is crucial to hosting the quintessential Burns Night. The meaty, oaty yet spicy delicacy started life as the offal passed from lairds to their slaughterman as payment for an animal killed for a feast.
These cheap cuts of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs have since earned national dish status and are celebrated across Scotland and beyond, no more so than on the 25th January. Today, hosts may opt for a vegetarian offering made from oats, onions and seeds. For the very best quality haggis Macsween’s award-winning recipe is a natural choice.
During a traditional Burns Night Supper, the haggis is welcomed in extraordinary fashion with guests rising to their feet to welcome the great feast. As the sound of bagpipes settles, attention turns to the night’s elected speaker to deliver a rendition of Burns’ Address to a Haggis – a poetic apology for ‘killing’ the haggis – before a knife is dramatically plunged into the meaty pudding while the speaker declares 'An' cut you up wi' ready slight'.
The platter should then be raised above the head with the exultant cry 'Gie her a Haggis!' to rapturous applause, and the feast may begin.
Preparing the performances
Plucking a poem from Burns’ extensive library can be a daunting task, with options as varied as the epic tale of a drunken farmer’s encounters with witches and warlocks, to a sentimental ode to a fieldmouse. All of which demand a committed performance and challenge the speaker to master the quirks of the Ayrshire dialect.
The most important entertainment of the night is one that all the family should enjoy – a call and response activity delivered in the best of humour with each member of the family gently mocking the quirks and habits of another in rhyme. It is a tradition designed to amuse everyone in attendance before the room raises their glasses and calls a truce.
Sandwiched between these performances is The Immortal Memory, perhaps the most thoughtful speech in the proceedings. This is a speech dedicated in memory of the poet, providing the audience with an entertaining, often anecdotal summary of how his life has touched and inspired them. Of course, if you are not too familiar with the works of Robert Burns, you can always take this opportunity to dedicate the speech to a loved one who cannot be with you to celebrate.
Getting the children involved
While the supper’s traditional running order isn’t particularly child-friendly, hosting a haggis-themed highland games is a great way to involve the little ones. A game of hunting the haggis has become increasingly popular and is easy to recreate in the home. By hiding a ball of wool in a nook or cranny and calling out ‘hotter’ and ‘colder’ all the family can be a part of the frantic but fun search.
Haggis throwing is another simple competition where a bucket is placed inside a circle on the floor before the little ones take turns to hurl a hairy creation (a stuffed pair of fluffy socks will do) at the target. Five points for landing in the circle and 10 for the bucket should ensure a riveting race to glory.
Why not let the bairns unleash their inner Burns by composing a poem of their own? An ode to the mythical haggis is an inspired topic and should make for an unforgettable performance on the night.
Traditional Scottish fare
When it comes to recreating a true Scottish spirit, it all comes down to details. Whether it’s a tartan tie or an outfit that uses the patterned cloth, encouraging the family to wear the distinctive design will help to set the tone. And of course, no other occasion could better suited to a wee dram of whisky.
Music is also a vital part of proceedings, and while bagpipe players in the home might be thin on a ground, a carefully curated playlist of Ceilidh sounds is essential.
A few online tutorials in traditional jigs such as Gay Gordons, Strip the Willow and The Dashing White Sergeant should help bring the family up to speed on dancing basics and give everyone the confidence to move with the most accomplished Ceilidh dancers.
To conclude the evening, participants should be invited to sing Auld Lang Syne. Burns’ most famous song provides a fitting end to proceedings, inviting everyone to cross arms and clasp each other’s hands as they sing into the night.
Browse our estates, farms and land for sale in Scotland, perfect for hosting a quintessential Burns’ Night.