Celebrating a Burns Supper

by Keith Savage · 5 comments

Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland

The weeks and months following the holidays are a dark, drear time where the world, at least in the northern hemisphere, is full of freezing, shuffling zombies. But in Scotland and in many other places around the globe, people gather for a particularly Scottish celebration that brings a bit of light and frivolity to January’s cold darkness.

I’m talking about Burns Supper.

No, it’s not an evening of ritual scarification. Burns Supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, on or around his birthday of January 25. What began in 1801 as a small gathering to memorialize the death of a well-loved poet has become something of a national holiday celebrated by Scots and Scotophiles. I’m all in favor of a holiday that celebrates a writer, but how in the world did it happen?

Robert Burns is one of those rare souls whose enormous talent blossomed at the right moment in the history. For much of his life Burns was a tenant farmer (and not a particularly successful one) and exciseman. These careers neither suited his romanticism nor his penchant for whisky, and as the years wore on he became renown for his poetry. His works are direct and sincere, humorous and satirical, and brilliantly topical, filled with commentary on class inequalities, gender roles, patriotism, sexuality, poverty, and the Scottish church. Considered by many to be the pioneer of the Romantic movement, Burns influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley among others. That’s quite a CV, and he did it all with panache in Scots, Scottish English, and English. He spoke to everyone.

A Burns Supper can be formal or informal, but it always entails a meal of Scottish classics like haggis, neeps, and tatties, recitations of Burns’s poetry, and healthy ministrations of single malt whisky. The supper is also about celebrating Scottish culture and socializing with like-minded friends, things old Rabbie would certainly condone.

For the past four years I’ve had the distinct pleasure of attending (even hosting, once) a Burns Supper in my neck of the woods here in Wisconsin. We’re mostly a group of friends who happen to love all things Scottish, but the supper is officially the main event of our whisky club. Our group tends to seize the moment and don kilts, break out the bagpipes, and display some beautiful decorations.

Our most recent Burns Supper began with drams and some of Wisconsin’s best cheese as we warmed up and finished the last of the supper’s preparations. I’ve taken to bringing the neeps & tatties — a mixture of mashed turnips and potatoes laden with butter and cream — and this year I brought a quadruple batch for our 16 guests. Meanwhile, our glorious hosts finished the final touches on the homemade haggis. Indeed, our haggis comes not from the can. Some of our members have connections to local farms where we get the sheep offal. All you need then is a meat grinder and a little fortitude.

Before too long our happy gathering was seated at the dining table eagerly awaiting supper. Beyond the haggis, neeps, and tatties were a selection of salads, bread and homemade butter, and a delicious beef tenderloin in whisky peppercorn sauce. The drams did not stop flowing, of course. It’s our whisky club’s mission to polish off any half-consumed bottles so we start the year afresh. The Selkirk Grace is read:

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

Some years we enjoy a soup course before the moment arrives. The melodious twang of bagpipes sounds from the kitchen and out comes the haggis, chieftain o’ the puddin-race. The “piping” of the haggis is a traditional element of Burns Supper quickly followed by the Address to a Haggis (which can be quite long). It’s important to pay tribute to such a fine creature.

Look, I understand. Haggis sounds scary, even gross to some people, but trust me when I say it is delicious. Traditionally, sheep organs such as lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys are ground into a hash and mixed with oats, onions, salt, and pepper before going into a sheep’s stomach for boiling. The flavor is mild, savory, and couples beautifully with neeps and tatties. It is so good, in fact, that in my zeal I forgot to photograph my dinner plate!

During supper the diner’s take turns reading Burns’s poems, and if you want to stick to tradition there should be an Address to the Lassies by one of the gentlemen followed by a Reply to the Laddies by one of the ladies.

Our supper ended with a delicious bread pudding in whisky sauce. The entire meal was so authentic and delectable it could have come from a fine restaurant in Scotland. We cleared the tables and withdrew to the adjoining room where a miniature ceilidh broke out. It helps that many of our party are musically inclined — professional musicians, in fact — and of course the whisky did not end though by this point we were down a few bottles.

It was a fantastic celebration of Robert Burns and my first chance to wear my new kilt that I commissioned in Argyll last year. The tartan is the ancient Stewart hunting tartan, chosen because Stewart is my grandmother’s maiden name (and my middle name). What a night. And the best part? No hangover the next day. Did you know haggis is the cure for too much whisky?

Interested in holding your own Burns Supper? VisitScotland has a handy ebook that will help get you started. Sláinte!

Joanie MurrayNo Gravatar March 2, 2016 at 7:56 AM

Sounds fantastic! I could get on board with everything but the haggis, sorry, though I may be convinced to try it after a wee dram (or several). Maybe when we’re there I’ll give it a chance. Good, informative post, as always.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 2, 2016 at 8:23 AM

You ought to, Joanie. Haggis really is pretty tasty and it’s such a crucial part of Scots’ culinary history.

BlakeNo Gravatar February 23, 2016 at 11:21 AM

I attended a Burns night supper in Hong Kong with the Highlanders in 1969, which I vaguely remember, although I was very quiet on dawn patrol! With enough whiskey the Haggis is wonderful!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 23, 2016 at 1:34 PM

That’s harsh, Blake. Haggis is delicious even when sober as a judge!

KenNo Gravatar February 17, 2016 at 4:22 PM

Ah, what fun! How I wish I could have been there and how fortunate that your group has so many good and talented people. You look marvelous in that kilt, laddie!

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