KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Americans and Scots love a good party. Perhaps it’s in our DNA. Nearly 25 million Americans are of Scottish descent — that’s about 8 percent of this country’s population.
On January 25, Scots and people of Scottish ancestry pay tribute to the life and legacy of an 18th Century bard named Robert Burns on what would be his birthday. Born Jan. 25 1759, in Ayrshire near the First of Clyde in western Scotland, Burns is as famous for his written words as he is for his rebellious attitude against orthodox religion and morality.
Burns lived during a time called the Scottish Enlightenment during the second half of the 18th Century when Edinburgh was the intellectual capital of the world. A farmer by trade, but not a very successful one, Burns was an occasional poet who turned to verse to express his thoughts on love and friendship or share his ironic views of society. When the family farm failed and romantic entanglements became troublesome, Burns responded by publishing a volume of poetry titled “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” in July 1786. Success was immediate, so the young poet set out for Edinburgh.
Among his life’s work are “To a Mouse,” “A Red, Red Rose,” and “Address to a Haggis.” Americans often sing words believed to have been written, at least in part, by Burns. The tune of “Auld Lang Syne” has changed over time, but the words attributed to Burns are belted out at the dawn of each new year.
What is Burns Night?
Burns died in July 1796 and is remembered as a champion of the Scots language. The first Burns Night was held by friends in his memory in 1801 to honor him for raising awareness of the cultural significance of the Scots language. It has become a regular event ever since, with the Scottish Parliament calling the celebration “a key cultural heritage event.” Burns Night is celebrated with food, drinks and reciting the works of Robert Burns. Yes, out loud and in front of people.
While Burns Night is often celebrated at Irish restaurants and among Scottish society groups, most have postponed or canceled 2022 events due to COVID. But it’s still Burns Night, so here’s a rundown of what it is, why it is celebrated, and how you can mark the Bard’s birthday at home.
What is eaten at a Burns Supper?
Burns suppers can be formal or informal. Tradition calls for a soup to be served, followed by traditional haggis. Haggis, a traditional Scottish sausage typically made of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with sheep’s liver, lungs, heart, oatmeal, onion and seasonings. Burns celebrated with the dish in the poem “Address to a Haggis.” Menus often include neeps and tatties, cullen skink, and cranachan for dessert. Toasts with Scottish whisky is also on the menu.
How Burns Night is celebrated
While the main focus of Burns Night is the supper, the point is to raise awareness of Scots history and culture. Most attending dinner wear Tartan, listen to bagpipes and recite works by Burns. Read poetry from Robert Burns. The Selkirk Grace, a prayer Burns is said to have recited before eating, is recited before a modern Burns Supper as well. A piper plays as the haggis is brought into the room where an honored guest will then plunge a dagger into it. There are toasts, the reading of Burns works, and then finally the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at the close of the evening.