(Reprinted from a World Burns Club article, 2008)
The singularly most important element of any Burns Supper must surely be Fun ! In this article, we explain the traditions of a Burns Supper and also show you how to host your own, perhaps less formal event, in your own home.
Many would argue that there are strict guidelines and observances that must be followed to create a “true” Burns Supper. Whilst in practice this may be true for the most dedicated Burns celebrations, it may not be wholly representative of a modern society comprising those who would rightly choose to celebrate Robert Burns, their Scottish Culture & Heritage in a less formal manner.
The first recorded Burns celebration was held in July 1801 on the anniversary of his Death comprising a group of friends and acquaintances. Later the date was to change to the evening of the anniversary of his Birth (25th January) and would become “Burns Night” with the focal point being the “Burns Supper” These gatherings were the origins of the Celebration of Burns as seen today. Similarly, Robert Burns would now be celebrated on St. Andrews Day, and at any other social occasion in the Calendar, for those with a link to Scottish Heritage.
Many of the long standing Burns Suppers are strictly “men only” affairs reflecting the historic nature of the celebration, and this is no doubt a proud tradition that will continue. Increasingly however, many organised Burns Suppers are “mixed company” which is helping to introduce more women to Burns and brings a greater social balance to the proceedings. (Do I hear howls of derision from the Burns purists?) The “all male” domain has been diluted so much over the years that women now play an important role in the Burns Supper, giving balance & female perspective through their toasts, recitals and song…….. not to mention the vast improvement in the visual content !.
So what is the purpose of a Burns Supper?
In simplistic terms, a Burns Supper is one of the most celebrated events in the Scottish cultural calendar, not just here in Scotland……but throughout the entire world. Whilst some of the component parts of a “Burns Supper” are used in other Scottish cultural celebrations, like St Andrews Day celebrations, “Tartan Day” events, Caledonian Society gatherings etc, the true Burns Supper follows a common agenda, specific to the celebration of the life, works & cultural heritage of Robert Burns. In addition, as Robert Burns has evolved over more than 200 years to become an icon of Scotland & Scottish identity, the Burns Supper is also an important celebration of Scotland itself.
The main objective of a Burns Supper therefore is to celebrate the memory of Robert Burns and your Scottish heritage.
What are the principle components of a Traditional Burns Supper?
The following is a broad list of the key elements of a Burns Supper:
- Guests !
- A traditional Burns Supper menu
- A Chairman or Chairwoman
- The Address to the Haggis
- The Immortal Memory
- Toast to the Lassies
- Reply from the Lassies
- Piper (or appropriate music)
- Recitals of Burns poetry
- Singers – ballads & songs of Burns
- Musicians – playing traditional Scottish music
The running order of a Traditional Burns Supper
Piping In: “Piping in” of the top table guests, (if the event is of significant size) during which time, the audience stands and claps in time to the music whilst the guests enter the room in single file, and take their seats. When ready to be seated, the piper stops playing his bagpipes and the assembled crowd applauds the top table to welcome them.
Chairman’s Welcome:- The Chairman welcomes everyone and introduces the top table guests , speakers & entertainers.
Selkirk Grace (prayer before meal): A small, but none the less important part for someone to carry out, with a rendition of The Selkirk Grace
“Piping in The Haggis”: Chairman asks the guests to be upstanding to receive the Haggis. The piper (or to the accompaniment of appropriate music) leads a small procession comprising, the Chef, presenting the Haggis on a silver platter; the person who will “Address the Haggis”; and sometimes a third person carrying a tray with a “tot” of whisky for each in the procession to “toast” the Haggis. During the procession, the guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The music stops and everyone is seated in anticipation of the Address to the Haggis!
The Address to the Haggis: The appointed person now gives a resounding and animated recital of the Address to a Haggis . At the appropriate time (during the line “An cut you up wi ready slight” meaning “and cut you up with skill”) the speaker takes his knife, and with a great flourish, cuts the length of the haggis, “trenching its gushing entrails” (digging its innards) in a visible and dramatic fashion. The recital concludes with the speaker presenting aloft the Haggis in triumphant praise during the final line “Gie her a Haggis!” (Give her a Haggis!) The assembled audience applaud.
Toast to the Haggis: The Speaker now asks the audience to share in a toast to the Haggis. Everyone, including the other members of the procession stands and raises their glass to “The Haggis!” The Piper once again begins to play and leads the procession, bearing the “cut” Haggis, out of the room in readiness for the meal. Again the audience clap in time to the music until the procession has left.
The Meal: The meal is now served (usually with appropriate background music).
The “Bill O Fare” (menu) comprises “Cock-a-leekie” Soup,(an old Scottish recipe): The main course of “Haggis wi bashit neeps an’ champit tatties” ( Haggis, mashed turnip/swede and mashed potatoes); Sweet course of “Clootie Dumplin” (Dumpling pudding prepared in a linen cloth or “cloot”) or Scottish trifle; Final course of “Bannocks an Cheese” (Traditional Scottish Oatcakes and cheese board) finishing off with Coffee or Tea. Other variations exist and often the Haggis, Neeps an Tatties are served as a starter, with a main course of a Beef dish or Steak Pie. A custom has also developed where a “wee splash of Whisky Sauce”, (which is straight whisky) is poured over the haggis giving it added flavour. Wine is often served with the meal and of course generous quantities of the finest Scottish malt whisky is consumed after the meal.
First Entertainer: The Chairman introduces the first entertainer which could be a singer, a Burns recital, or musician. Favourite recitals include Tam O Shanter – Holly – Willie’s Prayer – To A Louse – A Man’s A Man For A’ That. Songs include My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose – Rantin, Rovin Robin – John Anderson, My Jo – Ae Fond Kiss
The Immortal Memory: The Chairman introduces the keynote speaker who delivers a passionate speech on the life of Robert Burns during which he might inform the audience of Burns’s great contribution to literature, of his Nationalistic pride in Scotland, his politics & principles, his humanity, his failings and his triumphs. This speech is normally both witty & humorous yet delivered with serious content and comment in praise of Burns. The objective is to give a rounded and informed but positive appraisal of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous Son, National Bard, and representative of Common Man. The speech concludes with an invitation to the audience to join the speaker and raise your glass to drink a toast to “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”
Second Entertainer: Further appropriate entertainment.
Toast to “The Lassies”: Always a very humorous part in the proceedings where a toast is proposed to “The Lassies” (Women) . The object of this toast is to deliver a speech about the importance of women in our lives, drawing reference to Burns, the women in his life, his attitudes and views on Women, and concluding on a complimentary and positive note. At “male only” celebrations, the content is often a bit more “pointed” than if it were “mixed company”, exaggerating the male chauvinist view of women in a very funny way. During “mixed company” celebrations, this is clearly toned down a little, still humorous, but much more complimentary. Either way, the challenge is to deliver a balanced witty and sincere toast which concludes with the speaker inviting all the men of the company, to stand and raise their glasses in a toast “To the Lassies”
Third Entertainer: Suitable entertainment as before.
The “Reply” to the Toast to the Lassies: In mixed company, a woman will prose a suitable “reply” to the previous toast..…thanking the speaker on behalf of the women for his “kind” words! Again, this will be humorous, using reference to Robert Burns and the women in Burns’s life. This is a chance for the women to “get their own back” on the men! Again, the challenge is to find a balance between humour and sincerity concluding on a suitably positive note.
Final entertainment: Vote of Thanks – A short speech thanking everyone who has made the event a success, from Chairman to Chef etc. Auld Lang Syne – The Chairman concludes the evening by asking everyone to stand and join in a robust rendition of the famous song “Auld Lang Syne” The company join hands and sing together. At the line “And here’s a hand…etc”….everyone’s hands are “crossed in front” re-joining the hands of the people on either side. (Hope you follow that!)
How do I organise my own less formal Burns Supper?
As pointed out before, there is no need to stick with strict formalities and traditions to enjoy your Own Burns Supper. Hosting a small informal gathering in your own home is now extremely popular and proves to be great fun for all attending. In fact, its one of the best “parties” you’ll ever have! (Note: You can buy absolutely everything you need for the “Complete Burns Supper” in the Laird’s Castle shopping area!)
Where? ………in my house!
Firstly of course, you need to arrange “where” it will be held. You certainly do not need a large house, unless of course you are inviting a few hundred people! If you have a dining room…great….. if not, simply clear some space in an appropriate room and set up your table there. Foldaway bench tables do just fine and can be covered with a suitable tablecloth. Nothing much more is needed, although you may wish to try and decorate the room in a suitable manner, (candles, tartan, heather etc) to add to the “mood.”
Well ….anytime! Of course Burns Day is 25th January, being the anniversary of his birth. In practice however, Burns events run throughout the whole year, although most organised events are focussed during mid January through to late February. DO NOT LET THIS BE A LIMITING FACTOR! Originally, following Burns death, the celebration was held on that anniversary, 21st July, and this is also an appropriate date. Similarly, Burns Suppers are held as part of any number of celebrations throughout the year. St. Andrews Day, Caledonian society events, Tartan Day and New Year (Hogmanay). Why not give “Thanksgiving” a “Scottish touch”, or as a special Birthday celebration for a special friend or loved one who is of Scottish Heritage….the list goes on. Any time…any place, is the clear message!
How many people are needed?
To be honest, not that many people are needed….its up to you. A small group of 8 or 10 friends makes for a superb evening of fun. If your home can hold 20…then why not….or equally 4 to 6 people can easily share in the Burns celebration. So do not let numbers be an issue!
What needs to be organised?
At one end of the spectrum, you should plan your guest list and decide which of them will be asked to “contribute” through providing a short speech, toast, song or recital. Alternatively, you do not have to go to this extent. Simply enjoy your Burns Supper meal, play some appropriate music, and read out a few lines from a book of Burns poetry. Remember, there are no rights or wrongs…and don’t let people tell you otherwise…… ….It’s Your Burns Supper!
That being said, the more of your guests who get involved, the better the event will be. Often, some people will feel embarrassed about their role, and no one should be forced into it. If they do make a mess of it….so what….you’re all friends after all! Remember the golden rule….Have Fun! Try and plan the event well in advance to allow your guests to prepare. Tell them to visit us here at The World Burns Club for information and assistance. Finally, you need to organise the meal itself…and most people will tell you….preparation of this very special meal is quite straightforward.
Note: We are aware that unless you live here in Scotland, getting the truly authentic Scottish ingredients for your Burns Supper can be a problem. Of course, here at the World Burns Club, we have thought of that, and offer you a complete solution with our authentic Burns Supper package which can be found in the Burns shop.
What should be the Agenda?
As best as possible, follow the running order of the traditional Burns Supper (described earlier in this article), and include as many of the component parts as possible. However, change it to suit your preferences.
As host, you could be Chairman (or chairwoman). If you are unable to have someone carry out the “The Immortal Memory”, simply propose the toast alone…and miss out the speech. If none of your friends plays the bagpipes! ….play a recording of Scottish music. If no one can recite a poem from memory….read it! If you do not know how to pronounce the words in Burns writings……don’t worry…..just give it a go. You do not need to develop Sean Connery’s accent or employ Mel Gibson’s voice coach. I’ve heard recitals by Japanese and French people….and its brilliant that they give it a go! It all adds to the fun. So whether The Selkirk Grace is spoken slowly in a Texan accent……the address to the Haggis recited rhythmically by a good ol’ New Yorker…. My Luve’s Like a Red Red Rose presented in delicate Australian or Tam O’Shanter in French Canadian…..it’s just great!
As a minimum, all guests should wear clothes! ….although a naked Burns Supper might add an interesting dimension! (photographs please) If you want to enter into the spirit….go for full “Highland Dress”…or tuxedos and cocktail dresses with the odd tartan bow tie, heather buttonhole, or tartan sash. Jeans and t-shirt are just fine too. Its what you do, and the fun you have, that is important.
Why do it at all!
Ask this question after your event. I bet it will be one of the most pleasurable evenings of fun you’ve ever had! Your friends will talk about it for years to come. It will probably become an annual event! In addition, you may just learn a little more about that truly remarkable man, Rabbie Burns, and that is important for us here at The World Burns Club. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, we can all learn more about Robert Burns, and in doing so, enrich our lives. Join in the greatest celebration of Scotland, Scottish culture and proud Scottish heritage.