Burn’s Night – What you need to know

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The United Kingdom is home to many quirky festivals and celebrations. Burns Night is one such Scottish event that can brighten the cold winter month of January with a wee dram (a shot of whisky). An institution in its homeland, many Scots in England, and indeed English people, enjoy marking this unique event with its unusual menu and traditions.

The Event

The event is held on the birthday of the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns in recognition of his work and importance. Celebrations range from formal, highly traditional affairs to informal gatherings of friends. It involves many foods that are traditionally Scottish, and not commonplace across England in everyday life.  A traditional menu includes:

  • A soup starter – cockaleekie (chicken and leeks) or cullen skint (haddock, potatoes and onion).
  • Haggis – made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs put in a sheep’s stomach, or sausage skin casing and mixed with spices, onion, oatmeal and suet. It can be a challenging meal for some!
  • This is often served with neeps and tatties (neeps being swede and tatties potato – these are mixed with butter and the like and sometimes also with turnips).
  • A traditional pudding might be Clootie Dumpling (a pudding made with dried fruit and spices often steamed in a linen cloth known as a ‘cloot’) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle).

At a formal celebration, a bagpiper will play to welcome guests and there will be chairman or host leading proceedings. The host will make a speech to celebrate the life and work of Robert Burns and perhaps read some of his poetry. The haggis is the main dish of the night, and is often brought on a silver platter and everyone will raise a glass to it. There will be further traditional music, dancing with many men and women wearing Scottish kilts.

Different Ways to Celebrate

In less formal versions, people are just generally celebrating Scottish culture, perhaps playing some traditional music, enjoying a glass of whisky and a version of the menu. The evening ends singing one of Robert Burn’s most famous poems, Auld Lang Syne. This is also sung across the UK as the clock strikes midday on the 31st December, to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next.