What is Burns Night about and how should you celebrate?

A glass of whiskey in a man hand. Blur burning fireplace background.
The most important bit? The whisky. (Getty Images)

We don't have many days of celebration for poets, it's fair to say – but today, Scotland's beloved Robbie Burns takes centre stage.

January 25th is Burns Night, traditionally celebrated with Haggis, neeps, tatties and a wee dram or two.

But while the event originated North of the border, there's nothing to stop the rest of the nation bringing a little light to a dark January night with a celebration of our own.

First, however, you'll need to know what you're actually celebrating.

What is Burns Night?

January 25th is Scottish bard Robert Burns' birthdate.

Born in 1759, the poet went on to become generally regarded as Scotland's national poet, often writing in Scots dialect – though he wrote in English too.

After his death in 1796, his life and work became a source of inspiration and strength to the founders of socialism and liberalism, and Burns grew into an iconic figure in Scotland.

Burns Night commemorates the birth of poet Robert Burns. (
Burns Night commemorates the birth of poet Robert Burns. (Getty Images)

Burns Night is celebrated by more people across the world than St Andrew's Day, which celebrates the patron saint of Scotland.

The annual celebration was begun by Burns' friends after his death, to highlight his legacy (and drink whisky).

What's a Burns Supper?

There isn't much leeway when it comes to food choices and running order. It starts with a welcome – and traditionally, the Selkirk Grace is spoken:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it,

But we hae meat and we can eat,

Sae let the Lord be thankit.

(Some have meat and cannot eat, And some would eat that want it, But we have meat and we can eat, So let God be thanked.)

Haggis and turnip and potato mash and sweet potato mash presented in a plate with a cooked half haggis and a lamb's leaf lettuce, traditional food of Scotland presented in a modern way
Haggis, neeps and tatties. (Getty Images)

The company is then treated to skirling bagpipes, when the haggis is brought in. Someone reads aloud the Burns poem, "address to a haggis" ("Great chieftain o' the puddin' race') as it's cut.

It's always served with neeps (mashed turnips), tatties (potatoes) and perhaps a whisky sauce. There may be the traditional Scottish dessert cranachan served afterwards.

After the food, there's several toasts, including one to "the immortal memory", of Burns' life and work. And before everyone goes home, 'Auld Lang Syne' – written by Burns – is sung.

Throughout the night, Burns poems and songs may be recited.

ALLOWAY, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 23:  A group re-enact the first ever Burns Supper held in 1801 on the fifth anniversary of his death inside the cottage where he was born in 1759 on January 23, 2014 in Alloway,Scotland. People around the world will mark the 255th Birthday Celebration of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns, born on January 25, 1759. Burns suppers, when the poem 'Address to a Haggis' is recited, are held on or near his birthday to commemorate the life of the poet and celebrate his contribution to Scottish culture. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A group re-enact the first ever Burns Supper, inside the cottage where he was born in 1759 in Alloway. (Getty Images)

What exactly is a haggis again...?

Brace yourself. It's "a savoury pudding containing sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal's stomach, though now an artificial casing is often used instead."

Traditional Scottish Haggis, Neeps, Tatties and Whisky shot against a dark rustic background with generous accommodation for copy space.
A dramatic haggis. (Getty Images)

You can also now purchase vegetarian haggis, made with nuts and oatmeal, which more squeamish guests might prefer.

The Tatties are served two ways – boiled and mashed – and the 'neeps' can be mashed with cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg. (Swede is often used nowadays.)

What should I serve?

Start with cullen skink, a traditional Scottish fish soup, with haddock, potatoes, onions and milk, then the main event – the haggis, neeps and tatties with cream whisky sauce.

Follow with cranachan, a Scottish dessert made with oatmeal, cream, whisky, raspberries and honey.

Of course, you'll want to accompany your supper with a good single malt.

Cranachan - Traditional Scottish dessert with raspberry, whipped cream, roasted oatmeal and whisky on a table.
Cranachan - Scottish and delicious. (Getty Images)

What should I wear?

Be careful wearing tartan – there are strict rules about this, and only those who belong to the clan may wear its unique tartan.

For those who don't, Queen Victoria launched the Stewart Tartan, which can be worn by anyone. You can also choose from Black Watch, Flower of Scotland, and Patriot or Caledonia tartans.

No tartan to hand? Formal dress and a sprig of heather should do the trick.

Slàinte mhath!

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