Robert Burns (1759-1796), is Scotland’s National Bard. He was a poet and lyricist who wrote in both Scottish and English, and remains to this day a Scottish cultural icon and a bedrock of Scotland’s national identity. Among his many compositions are Auld Lange Syne, A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’ Shanter and, of course, Address to a Haggis.
Five years after his death, a group of his devoted friends gathered together to celebrate his life and work. The tradition caught on and came to be celebrated on or around his birthday of January 25. That date, often referred to as Robert Burns Day, has become Scotland’s unofficial National Day. In fact, it’s more widely celebrated in Scotland than the official national observance of St Andrew’s Day.
At the heart of the celebration is the Burn’s Supper or Burns Night—a traditional Scottish dinner typically accompanied by numerous drams of Scotland’s whisky.
The traditional Burns Supper begins with a soup course. This is usually a classic Scottish soup like Scotch broth, potato soup, Cullen skink (a thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) or cock-a-leekie (a soup dish consisting of leeks and peppered chicken stock).
Read about Burns Night in Scotland in 2020. Burns Night celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, considered to be the national poet of Scotland.
When is Burns Night?
Burns Night is a cultural event that takes place on 25th January in Scotland.
It celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet who is widely seen as the national poet of Scotland.
While Burns Night is not a national holiday, it is arguably more widely celebrated than St. Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day.
History of Burns Night
Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland. Robert was born into a poor family, but his father ensured that he received a good education and Robert’s interest in reading fuelled his poetic output.
While earning a living as a farm worker, he started composing poetry as he worked. His first collection was published in 1786 and became an instant success, and Burns was seen as a leading light in the Romantic movement.
Only 37, Robert Burns died from a rheumatic condition on 21 July 1796.
The tradition of a Burns night (Burns supper) began shortly after the poet’s death when some of his friends gathered to remember Robert and his poetry on the anniversary of his birth.
As Robert Burns gained prominence as the greatest of Scottish poets, so the tradition of honouring his work on Burns night grew in popularity.
Though they may differ in formality, Burns evenings generally follow a similar pattern. A meal with haggis is served.
What is Haggis?
Haggis is a Scottish dish made from Sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs minced with onion oatmeal, suet and spices. It was traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach, though artificial casings are now more common.
Since 1971 it has been illegal to import haggis into the US from the UK due to a ban on food containing sheep lungs, which can constitute up to 15 percent of some traditional recipes.
A second key element is the drinking of a good Scottish single malt whiskey in honour of the poet.
Finally, the activities of the evening are framed within his poetry. When the haggis is carved, ‘To a Haggis’ is recited, with its famous line, “Great chieftain o’ the pudding race”. Before the meal another of Burns’ poems, the Selkirk Grace is read.
The evening ends aptly with “Auld Lang Syne”. Robert Burns was the first to write down this old Scottish folk song, and its popularity is now global as no New Year’s Eve party is complete without its rendition.
Did you know?
In 1956, the Soviet Union became the first country to honour Robert Burns with a commemorative stamp.
There are more statues, monuments and memorials dedicated to Robert Burns than any other non-religious figure, after Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus.
In 2009, Scottish TV held a public vote on who was “The Greatest Scot” of all time. Robert Burns won, beating William Wallace of ‘Braveheart’ fame.
In 2008, Bob Dylan named Robert Burns’s poem ‘A Red, Red Rose’ his single biggest inspiration.
Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy.
Tonight Scots around the world will celebrate the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796). They’ll eat haggis and drink whiskey; recite poems and make speeches. Just over three weeks ago, renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” were sung to bring in the New Year. “For auld lang syne . . . We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” Arm-in-arm, cheery celebrants probably asked one another, “What does it mean?”
Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy. In the U.S., there are more statues of Burns than there are of any American poet. Abraham Lincoln could recite most of Burns’s work from memory. The naturalist John Muir, who later founded the Sierra Club, carried a book of Burns poems and counted it among his most treasured possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “He [Burns] has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.”
Americans will no doubt be familiar with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. To understand the genius of Burns’ appeal, one need look no further than the poem that inspired this great title: “To a Mouse,” or, “To a Mouse: on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.”If you want to read the full poem — it’s here.
According to tradition, it based on a real-life encounter when, out in the fields, Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest. Consider the opening line, “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie.” From the outset, we have everything we need to understand the mouse. However, it is more than just five-word portrait. This perfectly captures the plowman’s relation to her. We already know, from the title, that the mouse is of the gentler sex. “Wee” an “tim’rous” are distinctly Scottish and full of tenderness. “Beastie” identifies the mouse as an adversary, but it does so in good humor. “Sleeket” has a double meaning – silky or sneaky – and either way invokes admiration. Then there’s the plowman’s implicit pity in “cowran”.
In typical Burns fashion, there’s a swift zooming-out in perspective in stanza two, where we are moved from the local to the universal. The plowman addresses the mouse as an equal: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.” These lines, which justify Burns’ enduring appeal to ecologists and conservationists, like the aforementioned John Muir, relate to Romanticism’s much broader theme, the relation between Man and Nature.
But if this is profound, it is also unexpected. This rural encounter ought to be commonplace. Endearing, perhaps – but it’s hardly the stuff of tragedies. Yet the drama Burns affords it is a testament to his multi-dimensional voice. Burns’ biographer, Robert Crawford, describes it as his “performative impulse” whereby the “innate drama of his life” informs the “reach of his poetry.”
And so there is an undeniable undercurrent of humanitarian warmth as we learn how the plowman is affected by — and complicit in — the mouse’s distress: “At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, / An’ fellow mortal!” Here Burns is also beginning to gather momentum for the poem’s famous denouement.
Then suddenly, Burns flips the guilt back on the mouse and plays to our original expectations. She’s a thief! But then again, who could blame her? “Poor beastie, thou maun live!” Hers is a crime of necessity, of survival. Meanwhile, the plow’s clumsy destruction has caused her “wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!” So the little mouse will have to face “bleak December’s winds ensuing” without any “cozie” shelter. What is surprising is that the cause of her unprecedented woe is not the plowman, but a cruel and inexorable fate, “Till crash! The cruel coluter past,/Out thro’ thy cell.”
Once again, Burns uses the address to the mouse as an opportunity to make a grander claim; that all mortal creatures, mankind included, are victims to chance. He then pens the immortal words: “The best laid schemes o’Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley”. Which later inspired the title of a Steinbeck’s classic and the motif of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In the final stanza, Burns’ teasing tone concludes in clarity. While the mouse and the plowman are united by “Nature’s social union”, they are also distinctive.
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
Ultimately, mankind has it worse.
His consciousness renders the precariousness of life, and the reign of chance, tyrannical.