What is Burns Night? Every year at the end of January, Scots get together for a night of feasting, drinking, dancing, and poetry reciting in honor of their most celebrated poet and lyricist Robert Burns. If you want to know more about this fun Scottish tradition, this guest post from Vicky will help you follow the traditional Burns Night itinerary, amazing Scottish grub and all. 

Known as Scotland’s second national day (and arguably celebrated much more widely than St. Andrew’s day, its first), Burns Night is a celebration of all things Scottish, all tied together by the works of Scotland’s most famous son: Robert Burns (or Rabbie Burns if you’re a local!). Burns Night, celebrated on Rabbie’s birthday, has its origins in the 18th century, and now every January 25th Scotland comes alive with celebration and tradition in order to celebrate the words and life of the poet, known as ‘The Bard’ in his native country.


Who Was Robert Burns?



Voted as the greatest Scot in history in a national poll, Robert Burns was a poet and song writer who wrote in the Scots dialect. His most famous writings include Auld Lang Syne (traditionally sung at Hogmanay), Scots Wha Hee (an alternative Scottish national anthem), A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’Shanter and Ae fond Kiss. He lived in various parts of Scotland and had a busy life where he, amongst his many other achievements, fathered 13 children. His messages of friendship, respect and good humour have made him a beacon and figurehead for Scotland’s unique culture.

A Burns Night Itinerary

A typical Burns Night has followed the same structure for over 100 years, and is filled with tradition and ritual, including a lot of toasts, which only adds to the fun.


Burns Night Supper

Traditional Burns Night Meal via mnem

Piping in the guests

If you’re attending a more formal Burns Night, the guests will enter the main room to the sound of a piper, who plays traditional Burns songs. Less formal Burns Nights settle with traditional folk music playing in the background.

The Selkirk Grace

After the guests have mingled (and possibly a dram of whisky), they will sit down to a starter of traditional cock-a-leekie soup (recipe below) and perform the Selkirk Grace, which some say was written by burns himself, though there is evidence of its existence before Burns’ birth.

“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.”

Piping in the Haggis

Now it’s time for the main course, a giant plate of a freshly prepared haggis, served with neeps and tatties (or mashed turnips and potatoes) and whisky sauce. Haggis is a mix of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet and herbs served in a sheep’s stomach lining. It’s not for everyone, but you have to try a proper Scottish haggis before you can pass judgement. The haggis is ‘piped’ into the room with a musical accompaniment.

(Check out a traditional ‘Piping in the Haggis’ below.)


Address to a Haggis

Before the haggis is served, the host of the party recites Burns’ popular poem ‘Address to a Haggis’, his ode to the ‘Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!’ On the final line, ‘Gie her a haggis!’, the host stabs his knife into the centre of the haggis as guests drink to the dish.



After the food is finished (popular Burns desserts include oaty, creamy cranachan or a tipsy triple), the entertainment can begin. This can include poetry readings, performances of Burns’ songs on traditional instruments, or maybe even some classic Scottish dancing!


Immortal Memory

A guest toasts to the memory of Robert Burns with a small speech about an aspect of Burns’ life and his continuing inspiration and legacy across Scotland.


Toast to the Lassies

An important part of Burns night is the ‘toast to the lassies’, where the host or a male attendee makes a humorous speech about the women attending (who traditionally would have prepared the meal). The speaker talks about women in general in a light-hearted way (without being too offensive, of course!) and finishes his speech with the toast ‘to the lassies!’


Reply to the Toast to the Lassies

This is a chance for the women in the audience to speak up with an amusing response to the toast to the lassies.


Auld Lang Syne

[audio http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e3/Auld_Lang_Syne.ogg]

Finally, the crowd comes together to hold hands, dance and sing Auld Lang Syne. With all of those whisky toasts, the crowd is usually very jolly by this point!

Burns Night is celebrated across Scotland, from Gretna Green to John o’Groats, with the biggest suppers happening in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Why not host your own Burns Night in January and serve up the traditional starter…


Cock-a-Leekie Recipe


Cock-a-leekie Soup

Cock-a-leekie Soup via Wikipedia Commons


This traditional Scottish soup is slow cooked for a warming, filling dish that’s filled with flavour and is cheap to make.

You will need (for 4):

Chicken Quarter (around 300g)

3 Large Leeks

1.5 litres of water

30g of white rice

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

Make your stock by adding the chicken, bay leaves and the green parts of the leeks to a pan of water and bringing to the boil. Reduce heat and let the covered pot simmer for around 2.5 hours

Remove the chicken and bay leaves from the stock and add the rice, the white parts of the leeks and salt and pepper. Keep on simmering until the rice is cooked through.

Shred your chicken and add back into the pot.

Warm through and season with extra salt and pepper to taste.


Bio: Vicky works with the Altnaharra Hotel located in the Scottish highlands. She is a keen travel and culture writer who enjoys reading classic novels and watching black and white movies in her spare time.