Why Do We Celebrate Burns Night?

Photo of Vicky Jessop
26 January 2016

Every year on the 25th of January, Scots and non-Scots the world over will don their tartan, put their haggis in the oven and get ready to celebrate Burns Night. It’s a bizarre tradition, made all the more so by all the quintessentially Scottish things people do for it — the cutting of the haggis, the bagpiper and, of course, the drinking of the whisky. But why do we celebrate Burns Night? It’s not a religious holiday like Christmas, and it’s only really become popular in the rest of the UK in the last decade or so.

Alexander Nasmyth, Robbie Burns, 1787 | © Scottish National Portrait Gallery/WikiCommons

It all starts with the titular Robbie Burns. Born Robert Burns in the south of Ayr in 1759, Burns was a celebrated Scottish Romantic poet — often compared to poets like Keats and Shelley — whose most famous poems include the old classic, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and ‘To A Mouse’. Burns’ life was extremely colourful; quite apart from his almost constant state of poverty, he is also famous for the numerous love affairs he conducted during his lifetime. He is considered today as Scotland’s national poet, whose use of the Scots dialect is preserved in his numerous poems. Burns died in 1796, aged 37, and on the fifth anniversary of his death, his friends held a celebratory dinner at Burns Cottage, which was quickly followed by the establishment of the first Burns Club. The date it is held on — January 25th — is Burns’ birthday, and ever since 1801, suppers have been traditionally held on that date, firstly in Scotland and later in the rest of the UK. Recently, the suppers have even spread to places such as New Zealand and Australia. For those who have really made it in Scottish society, formal dinners are held by organisations such as the Freemasons, Burns Clubs or St Andrews Societies, which are treated like balls with dancing at the end.

Haggis | © Janet Ramsden/Flickr

Over the years, Burns suppers have developed their own peculiar traditions and orders which must be followed. Quite apart from the guests wearing tartan, the dinner is also preceded by the famous Selkirk Grace, after which there comes the ‘piping’ of the haggis. This is followed by the address of the haggis, with its famous line ‘Great Chieftain o’ the Pudding Race’. Burns suppers could also be seen as early practitioners of gender equality, given that the Address to the Lassies and Reply to the Laddies at the end of the meal often include the men and women’s views on the opposite sex! As a rule, Burns Night is a way to celebrate all things Scottish — and coming so soon after Hogmanay, it’s the perfect time to do so.

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