Burns Night is upon us and you know what that means – it’s almost time to have some haggis, a wee dram, an’ ah few lovely tatties. Burns Night is the celebration of Robert Burns’ life and poetry, and it takes place every year on 25 January. The tradition started shortly after Burns’ death, when his friends made a pact to celebrate his life every year on 21 July – the date of his death – but over the years it became tradition to celebrate Burns Night on what would have been his birthday. If you want to get in on the festivities when we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about Rabbie Burns and some classic quotes of his.
Rabbie Burns quotes and poem extracts Burns Night celebrations will usually kick-off with the host saying a few words, and sometimes reciting Burns’ Selkirk Grace. The Selkirk Grace, which is written in the Scottish dialect, as many of Burns’ poems were, goes like this:
‘Some hae meat an canna eat And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.’
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.
James Naughtie’s picks include bashed pillows, sharp stars and sexy spacemen. What are your favourites?
In a week that feels ripe for celebrating the reach of poetry – and just in time for Burns Night – the Scottish Poetry Library has asked James Naughtie to choose his “best of the best” Scottish poems of the past 15 years.
Moving from, as Naughtie puts it, “Edwin Morgan in his last years talking about love” to “Kathleen Jamie catching a sense of national belonging in a few short lines”, it is a soul-quenching selection. There is humour and beauty in Claire Askew’s I Am the Moon, and You Are the Man on Me: “Tonight, I am white and full. / My surface is all curves / and craters,” she opens, later writing, deliciously: “Your compass does not work here, / but you are sexy / in your spaceman suit.” Liz Lochhead’s In the Mid-Midwinter, written after John Donne’s A Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day, feels ever so apt for these bleak days of January: “There’s nothing very much to speak of anything to speak of / in the sky except a gey dreich greyness / rain-laden over Glasgow,” she writes. But “the light comes back / the light always comes back.” Lochhead’s description of the winter moon, “fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars”, is irresistible.
According to Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, which has published all the poems on its site, the poems are “part of the long and colourful history of Scottish poetry that Burns embodied through his life and work”. But the collection also shows how poetry has moved on.
“Someone asked me last week whether Burns wasn’t a little ‘problematic’,” Waters says, “particularly his attitude to women and sex. We’re not blind to that, and with the collection including strong contributions by, among others, Liz Lochhead, JL Williams, Katie Ailes and Jen Hadfield, we can see that contemporary Scottish poetry is at least trying to expand the voices it showcases.”
As Naughtie puts it: “We’re stepping into rich pasture here.” But the broadcaster was only considering the last 15 years of Scottish poetry. As it is indeed Burns Night, let’s see what else we might include if we were allowed to consider the full wealth of Scotland’s rich poetic heritage, whether the poetry of Burns himself – Tam o’ Shanter was voted the nation’s favourite in 2012 – or the glory of Violet Jacob’s The Wild Geese, or my own personal favourite Morgan poem, Strawberries. I’ve no agenda other than reading wonderful poetry from the land of “westlin’ winds and fernie braes, / Northern lights and siller tides,”, as Kathleen Jamie writes in Here Lies Our Land, and I hope you’ll join me