Burns Night: The Who, What, When and Why

Burns Night

Grab your winter woollens and find a tartan scarf because if there’s one place to be in the dark month of January, it’s Scotland.

Every year on the 25th of January, Scots gather together on a cold winter evening to recognise the life of famed Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Burns’ Night is an event steeped in ceremony and tradition, celebrating the spirit of the country with an unusual culinary experience.

Songs are sung, poems recited and the ultimate Scottish dish of haggis is roundly appreciated. If you’re going to visit Scotland, this is an excellent event for thoroughly experiencing the culture.

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns was born in 1759 in the West of Scotland. His father was a poor farmer who despite their situation, ensured that his son received a good education. Burns began writing poems at fifteen, mostly to successfully impress his various female love interests. When he was 25 his father died, and he took charge of the farm, a lifestyle that greatly influenced his poetry.

Fortunately when his first poetry book was published it was a hit but after the royalties ran out, Burns worked as a customs officer. In his later life he was influenced by the French revolution and his work reflected much of his personal struggles with the issues of class and wealth. When Burns died at age 37 due to ill health, large crowds attended his funeral. He also left behind nine children, as well as quite a lot of illegitimate offspring from his various dalliances.

Yet whether you’d class him as a philanderer, a farmer, a clerk or a romantic, Robert Burns was first and foremost an exceptional poet whose work has stood the test of time. 

Auld Lang Syne

That nostalgic song you sing on New Year’s Eve? Well you’ve got Robert Burns to thank for it! Unabashedly romantic, the song reminds us to recognise the past and embrace our belonging in the present. Although the tune has changed since Burns’ time, the beautiful words remain his.

The ceremony

Scots will celebrate the night in various styles, from a small dinner with friends to a large public gathering in town. With the larger gatherings, the ceremony is often most rigidly adhered to.

The Selkrik Grace
Photo: pagzzzi.com

The traditional ceremony begins once people have taken their seats, with a recital of Burns’ poem The Selkirk Grace. A soup course follows of home made Scots Broth, made of lamb, barley and vegetables. Whisky is normally the tipple of choice, although many drink wine or beer as a slightly lighter alternative.


The haggis

The famous Scottish dish of haggis then usually enters the room with a flourish on its own grand plate, accompanied by a bagpiper playing a (very loud) tune. Before the next course, someone will recite another of Burns’ poems ‘Address to a Haggis’, wryly celebrating the strange little dish.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

The haggis is then served as the main course with ‘neeps’ (mashed turnip) and ‘tatties’ (mashed potatoes). Dessert is often the traditional Scottish pudding cranachan, a tasty mix of whipped cream, whiskey, honey and fresh raspberries.

Once everyone is starting to get a little sleepy after their dinner the entertainment begins. Burns songs are sung, more recitals of his work are performed and a speech on his life and work is given before the inevitable round of Auld Lang Syne brings the room together.

The entertainment

Tram O Shanter
Photo: south-ayshire.co.uk

A particular favourite to feature on Burns’ Night is ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, a narrative poem written in 1790. Vivid and inventive, it tells the tale of a farmer (the ‘Tam’ of the title), riding home bleary-eyed on Halloween after a long night at the local pub. Tam comes across a church where malicious spirits of ghouls and witches are dancing and celebrating All Hallows Eve, and after an enthusiastic Tam drunkenly cheers, he finds himself being chased across the fields.

The poem is often done by someone with strong skills in drama, who can convey the poem’s spooky topics, increasing pace and grand finale with an atmospheric tone. If done well, a recital of Tam o’ Shanter on Burns’ Night can be a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.

Ready to start packing?

If you’re visiting the capital during Burns Night, the Edinburgh Tourist website has an excellent list of some of the ticketed celebrations this year. For other cities and locations, it’s best to start on their individual tourisms websites. If you’re lucky enough to have Scottish connections, don’t hesitate to suggest a gathering- they might be planning one already!


Jen Scouler is a masters student and budding journalist in Glasgow. She loves movies, horses and fantasy literature. You can see more samples of her writing at www.jenscouler.com.

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