Here at the Scotch Whisky Experience, we’re all about celebrating Scotland and its heritage nearly every single day of the year, but for the rest of the world, there’s one key date when everything about Scotland and its famous (sometimes intriguing) traditions come together in the event of the year: Burns Night.
For those of you who haven’t celebrated it before, Burns Night falls on the 25th of January every year, and is named after the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry – covering everything from whisky to toothache – is famous for its lyrical, oh-so-Scottish witticisms and turns of phrase, and even if you think you’ve never heard a Robert Burns poem before, chance are you’ve probably heard a line or two in passing without even realising it. Robert Burns even wrote Auld Lang Syne, the song traditionally sung at New Year (or Hogmanay, as we call it up in Scotland).
Thinking about hosting a Burns Supper of your own? We asked our team for their tips and advice on the traditions they associate with a classic Burns Night celebration.
Cock-a-leekie soup is usually served as the starter at a Burns Night Supper, a hearty soup made of leeks and chicken stock, thickened with barley and lightly sweetened with prunes.
Scotland’s most famous dish is of course Haggis, and while many people across Scotland (and the world) will eat haggis all year round, for some, Burns Night is the only night of the year that others will eat this delicacy. Haggis is usually served with mashed neeps and tatties (that’s turnip and potato to those who aren’t so familiar with the Scottish lingo), and a whisky cream sauce if you really want to indulge.
Traditionally haggis is made from the diced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, mixed with oats, suet, onions and spices, sewn into the stomach of the animal and then steamed for several hours to cook. Like Robert Burns himself, who started life as a humble farmer, the dish of haggis is very much a simple dish of the people using up everything that was left over from more sophisticated recipes. No doubt this is a key part to the menu being so widely adopted. At a Burns Supper, the haggis is celebrated as the star of the evening. It will be carried to the table by the chef to the tune of ceremonial bagpiping. Nowadays there are plenty of variations on the standard haggis recipes – including vegetarian versions and many unique recipes mostly based around how the dish is spiced. In addition haggis is used as a versatile ingredient to make sausages, canapes, pakoras and even as a filling for ravioli – all using those delicious spiced meaty flavours to give a Scottish twist to a dish.
And of course, if you don’t fancy cooking, many Scottish restaurants serve haggis on their menus. Here in Edinburgh, the best haggis can be found at Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar, at the Scotch Whisky Experience (naturally). Our Executive Chef David Neave worked with famous Scottish haggis producers Campbells to create a haggis recipe that is completely unique to the restaurant, and we have to agree that it is just delicious!
Cranachan is the dessert traditionally served on Burns Night, and is made from oats, raspberries, cream and whisky. Here at Amber, we serve it with a side of Scottish shortbread, and of course a wee dram to go with it! More on that below…
Even if you’re not usually a whisky drinker, Burns Night is a chance to raise a dram to the famous poet – it is Scotland’s most famous drink after all. Here at the Scotch whisky experience, we’ve all got our own opinions on which whiskies we prefer (and remember, there is not right or wrong answer to the question of your favourite whisky), but if you’re still not sure, why not try a whisky tour to find our which Scotch is right for you? Our Silver Tour here at the Scotch Whisky Experience has helped many a whisky novice discover their preferred region, and to realise that not all whisky tastes the same!
Of course, if you’re a seasoned whisky drinker, it’s a great time to treat yourself to a new bottle, much like you would at Christmas or Hogmanay. If you’re hosting a Burns Night supper, try to have a selection of whiskies for your guests to try, to ensure that everyone has one they enjoy when it comes to the toasting part of the evening! Burns Night is the ideal excuse to enjoy your favourite tipple in the company of friends – and it should be perfect way to set you up for the best part of Burns Night…
Some Burns Night celebrations follow the full traditional programme and are framed by poetry readings from guests at the Burns Supper. The meal begins with the simple and poignant Selkirk Grace;
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Poems then follow in running order including the famous Address to a Haggis. With as much drama as the reciter can muster, he stabs the haggis with the sgian dubh (small knife kept in your kilt sock!) to the best-known verse:
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
This is followed later in the meal by the Address to the Lassies and the subsequent response, which is full of wit and humour. Many of the SWE team have memories of composing their own addresses and responses as part of their Burns celebrations at school!
Family gatherings are usually far less formal, but all include the Address to a Haggis, even if not the full eight stanzas.
Often, in advance of the night (but sometimes on the night itself), guests at the supper will be asked by the host to read a poem or two by Robert Burns. Many Scottish children (including several members of the Scotch Whisky Experience team!) have memories of being asked to read poems aloud to a captive audience, either at school or at a family Burns Night gathering. Some are even asked to perform a Scottish jig on the fiddle, or even a Highland dance.
Of course, the most important thing about hosting a Burns Night Supper is the sheer enjoyment of it. There’s nothing like gathering friends and family together to eat drink and be merry for an evening, and even though there are some interesting (often strange) traditions associated with the night, the novelty of the event will be a great conversation point for months to come. Who knows, you might even start your own traditions surrounding Burns Night!