LEGACY OF BURNS NIGHT SUPPERS
This coming Sunday, January 25th is the birth date of Scotland’s famous and beloved poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns. He was a Scottish poet and lyricist and is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, a light Scots dialect and Standard English.
In Scotland on Robert Burns’ birthday, January 25th , is celebrated with what is called The Burns Supper. The tradition began in 1801, the fifth anniversary of Robert “Rabbie” Burns’ death. Nine of his friends met for dinner at Burns’ Cottage, the place of Robert Burns’ birth. There they celebrated his life and his works. Hamilton Paul, a local minister and liberal theologian served as host for the event. It centered on the sharing of a large haggis, recitation and singing of Burns’ works, and toasts (in verse) to his memory.
It was such a special and memorable evening that all agreed to meet again on Rabbie’s birthday January 25th for a birthday dinner which quickly turned into a tradition. Because of Burns’ popularity the supper became a rapidly growing idea. Meeting annually to share poems and songs quickly spread among the general public. Ayrshire merchants in Greenock formed the first Burns Club Supper in January 1802. Other area towns with links to Rabbie joined the new festival including the towns of Paisley, Irvine Kilmarnock and Dumfries.
The celebration we know as the Burns Supper continues to generally follow the Reverend Paul Hamilton’s original plan. In the early days a dozen or more men would meet to dine, sometimes in a bar that Rabbie had frequented. Many of these men were from the working and middle classes, and were linked by the love of the songs and poetry with their messages of love, freedom and the importance of the value of humanity.
As the tradition became popular the suppers were organized by Burns Clubs, many of the early ones still exist today and new clubs have been formed on a regular basis up to the present time. In the early days, the largest boost in participation came when Sir Walter Scott organized the first big Literary Burns Supper in Edinburgh in 1815.
The first Burns Supper outside Scotland was held at Oxford University in 1806, hosted by a few Glasgow students. The global spread of these celebrations was partly due to the fact that during this time period, Scots received their strong education at home and then left to seek a fortune, serve in the military, or help to build the British Empire. They carried the tradition of the Burns Supper with them. Army officers in India had their first supper in about 1812. Between 1812 and 1844, Scots in Canada, Australia and New Zeland began having Burns Suppers on a regular basis.
As time went along Scots had settled in far corners of the world. Where ever they went they brought appreciation of Rabbie Burns’ songs and poetry with them thus spreading Burns’ works and the popularity of Burns Suppers throughout the globe. Scots in all corners of the world have formed clubs that continue to praise, perpetuate and promote the works of Robert Burns, and they still regularly sponsor Burns Suppers, thus sharing a gift that Scotland has given the world.
The format of a Burns Supper has changed little since the original celebration lead by Paul Hamilton. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with The Selkirk Grace. After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, when Burns’ famous “Address to a Haggis” is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. After the meal are two speeches with fixed titles, but variable contents: “To the Immortal Memory” and “To the Lasses.” “The Immortal Memory” offers a serious recollection of Burns, usually with emphasis on him as man rather than as poet. The toast “To the Lasses” is usually short and humorous, paying tribute to Burns’ way with women and to the many descriptive songs he wrote about them. Interspersed among these speeches and other toasts are performances of Burns’ songs and poems. Typically, the event concludes with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” by the assembled company, arrayed in a circle and clasping hands
For those of you who are interested in Robert Burns’ life follow this link to a BBC Documentary.
Click here for information on the Burns Cottage Museum.
HERE ARE A FEW OF RABBIE BURNS’ BELOVED SONGS