A Feast for the Senses: Burns Night
If you’ve never been to a Burns Night Dinner, it really is something to behold. Few dining experiences are as steeped in tradition as this. It is truly a feast for the senses. Listen to bagpipes and addresses by the host, see the guests proudly wearing their Scottish finery, and taste the delicious food and whisky. McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub is hosting our 2018 Burns Night Dinner on January 25, 2018.
So who was Robert Burns (also called Robbie or Rabbie Burns)? Some people may never have heard of him, but they are probably very familiar with his best known work, the poem and song “Auld Lang Syne”. Burns was an 18th century poet and lyricist and is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He wrote in the Scots language, although many of his works were also in English and “Scots light”, which made them accessible and understandable to an audience beyond Scotland.
Fun Fact: In 2009, Burns was chosen as the “Greatest Scot” by the Scottish public in a vote conducted by Scottish television channel STV. He narrowly beat William Wallace for the honor.
“Auld Lang Syne” is very well known and is sung at New Year’s (called “Hogmanay” in Scotland) celebrations around the world. His song “Scots Wha Hae” was for a long time considered to be an unofficial national anthem of Scotland. Burns’ other poems and songs include “A Red, Red Rose”, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, “To a Louise”, “To a Mouse”, “The Battle of Sherramuir”, “Tam o’Shanter” and “Ae Fond Kiss”.
In 1801, the first dinner was held in memoriam at Burns’ cottage on the fifth anniversary of his death. Since 1802, the dinners have been held on or about January 25, Burns’ birthday.
There is much ceremony involved in a Burns Night Dinner, and the meal follows a standard order. A piper will typically greet the guests, or traditional Scottish music may be played at less formal gatherings. Once the guests are seated, grace is said, usually the “Selkirk Grace”. Although widely attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 17th century as the “Galloway Grace”. It came to be known as the Selkirk Grace because Burns was thought to have said this grace at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Selkirk.
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.
The meal begins with a soup course, a Scottish soup such as Scotch broth or cock-a-leekie.
Then comes the main course, haggis, which is given a grand entrance. It is “piped in” on a large platter and brought to the host’s table while all the guests stand. The bagpiper will usually play “A Man’s A Man for A’ That”, “Robbie Burns Medley”, or “The Star O’Robbie Burns”. But the fanfare does not end there. The host or a guest then recites the “Address to a Haggis”. When the line is said, “His knife see rustic Labour dicht”, the speaker will draw and sharpen a knife. Upon saying “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht”, the speaker will plunge the knife into the haggis and slice it from end to end. A whisky toast is proposed to the haggis and the guests will sit to enjoy their meal. Traditionally, haggis is served with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and mashed potatoes).
The dessert course will usually be traditionally Scottish, perhaps cranachan or “Tipsy Laird” (whisky trifle), followed by oatcakes and cheese, all washed down with the “water of life” (uisge beatha), Scotch whisky.
Speeches and Toasts
After dinner, speeches and toasts are usually given, anecdotes about Burns’ life or recitation of his poems or songs. A toast to the “Immortal Memory of Robert Burns” follows.
One man in attendance then gives an “Address to the Lassies”. Traditionally it was to give thanks to the women who prepared the meal. In modern times it is meant to be amusing, especially since it is followed by the “Reply to the Laddies” by the lassies originally addressed.
After the toasts and speeches, some of Burns’ songs may be sung or some of his poetry read. Finally, the guests rise, join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne” to bring the evening to a close.
A Burns Night Dinner is much more than a dining experience; it is a truly interactive, unforgettable cultural event. A feast for the senses.