How To Celebrate Burns Night
All over the world men are preparing their tartan kilts and poetry books for one of modern age’s oddest national celebrations. It’s a formal event where the highlight will be partygoers not only tucking into a baked sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal – but reciting a poem in its honour. Burns Night is one of the great enduring celebrations of all things Scottish. The basis of the event is the birthday of the national bard Robert Burns who died more than 200 years ago.
Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall
Banner Image Credit:iStock.com/railelectropower
On and around January 25, you’ll find events across Scotland itself and also gatherings of Scottish nationals and enthusiasts all over the world. You certainly don’t have to be Scottish to take part and with such odd traditions involved it is guaranteed to be a memorable event, wherever you are. The first thing for outsiders to know is that it’s all about ‘Rabbie’ Burns, a colourful Scottish poet and songwriter who lived in the second half of the 1700s. This was the era of the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the start of Britain’s industrial revolution. The last of the highland revolts had been crushed and Scotland was very much under England’s thumb at the time.
This humble farmer’s eloquent poems and songs helped launch the Romantic Movement and were used as inspiration by both liberals and socialists. His works have remained popular all over the world, particularly in Russia. In fact, the USSR was the first country to honour Burns on a postage stamp in 1956. Robert Burns is also extremely popular in communist China – where Scottish societies from both Beijing and Shanghai host celebrations every year. And in the west, modern musical performers like Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Eddie Reader and Paolo Nutini have been big fans of Burns and performed his songs.
Even if you are daunted by a night of haggis and bagpipes, travellers can learn more about Burns’ interesting life at various spots around the world. His humble thatched birthplace in Ayreshire is now a museum, as is his own house in Dumfries. The farm he ran nearby has been restored and is open to visitors too. There are also dozens of Burns monuments around the world, including a replica of his birthplace in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Other than Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Burns has more statues dedicated to him than any other non-religious figure. Canada and Australia each have seven, New Zealand four and the USA boasts fourteen – including one in Central Park, New York. A statue of Rabbie also appears at the Sorbonne in Paris. The oldest statue of Burns is in Victoria, Australia, which also holds an annual Burns Festival.
Most importantly for his longevity, however, the Scots have made Burns part of their national identity. This makes the events held on his birthday each year as much a celebration of all things Scottish as about the Georgian poet himself. So you may stumble upon informal Burns gatherings on and around January 25 that just involve a lot of whisky and talk about Scotland. But it’s worth trying to track down a proper Burns Night ‘Supper’, which has a traditional format. These classic Burns Suppers usually involve bagpipe music, either live or recorded, and at least snippets of Burns’ poems and songs, including the famous Auld Lang Syne. Not forgetting, of course, as soon as the haggis is cut open, his extraordinary ‘Address to a haggis’.
This Caledonian speciality is a dish made of a sheep’s heart, lung and liver stuffed in a sheep’s stomach. It is usually served simply with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). More modern events and kitchens, however, have created versions that include innovations like vegetarian haggis, whisky-glazed turnips and crisp-fried potatoes, along with all sorts of sauces and extra flavourings. Guests usually wear tartan, and some will don full Highland dress. Usually, the evening involves speeches from the ‘laddies’ and, in return, from the ‘lassies’. It’s great fun, with an atmosphere helped by copious amounts of whisky and music.
The best places to join in Burns Nights are in Scotland, of course, but you’ll find that strangers and non-Scots are welcome. In Scotland itself the night is more widely observed than the country’s official national celebration on St Andrews Day, November 30. For example, in the area where Burns lived, Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, the parties associated with his birthday tend to spread across several days. In 2017, they’ve become the world’s biggest Burns celebration so it’s a great place for a real flavour of this major winter festival. In fact, the 2017 Big Burns Supper Festival is being held in Dumfries and Galloway from January 20 to 28, and will consist of a nine-day program of music, theatre, dinners plus Scotland’s biggest street carnival, with more than 5,000 participants parading in costumes. A close second behind Dumfries and Galloway, is Burns’ birthplace in Alloway, Ayreshire. Around this area you’ll find events arranged throughout January, including a chance to take part in the bizarre sport of haggis-hurling while standing on top of whisky barrels.
Around the rest of the world look out for events wherever you are. There will be a big Burns Supper at the Union League Club in Chicago USA on January 30, Burns Supper and Ceilidh in Washington DC on January 24, a wild-sounding Burns Night in the Schlafy Tap Room in St Louis on January 25, and the pipes and drums of the Scots Guards will be the highlight of events in Manassas, Virginia on January 24. It’s not just Scottish communities in the USA, other far-flung Burns celebrations include Burns events in Brisbane, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand on January 24; on January 25 a special Supper in Perth, Australia; a Burns concert in Brussels, Belgium on January 27; and amazingly, on January 31, a Burns Supper in Beijing, China.