Almost Burning Night – a date you probably see on your digital calendar every year, but probably know nothing about.
So here’s a look at why we celebrate him, who Robert Burns was and why his legacy lives on more than two centuries after his death.
When is Burning Night?
January 25 – Robert Burns’ birthday.
Who is Robert Burns?
This renowned poet is widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet more than 250 years after his death. He is arguably the most prominent poet ever to write in the Scottish dialect.
Although he died in July 1796, his work is known to have appealed to a wide audience, as it often expressed a desire for a better society and greater equality – so much so that Burns Night is sometimes celebrated around the world.
His literary skills were recognized from the age of 27, but Burns actually struggled to support his family through poetry or the small farm he managed.
He was in poverty most of his life, and died, in debt, at the age of 37.
He is the author behind many poems that are still alive today, such as the New Year’s classics, Auld Lang Syne, A Red, Red Rose, and A Man’s A Man for A’That.
He is known for his enormous and lasting influence on Scottish culture – but is also remembered for his long list of love affairs and radical politics.
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Robert Burns, 1759 –1796
When does Burns Night occur?
According to Scotland.org, Burns’ friends first held an informal dinner on the fifth anniversary of his death, July 21, 1801, at the cottage where he was born in Alloway.
Together, they read his poetry aloud, ate haggis – Scotland’s national dish – and sheep’s heads.
The following year the dinner was moved to his birthday, although his friends initially got the date wrong (they accidentally celebrated Burns four days from the actual date).
However, these gatherings soon developed into a tradition, and today there are Burns clubs around the world that host dinners in memory of the poet.
How is Burns Night celebrated now?
If the community chooses to follow the tradition set by Burns’ friends, a group of people will gather for dinner on January 25.
The meal begins with Scotch broth before the main course of haggis is brought indoors (a piper plays the bagpipes at this point).
This famous dish, made from lamb’s heart, liver and lungs with oatmeal, tallow and spices, was the main course of the evening. However, the participants could not attend until the host read the poet’s famous poem, Address to a Haggis.
When the host uttered the phrase, ‘The knife see dicht Country laborer, And ‘cut ye ready to be cut’, they would stab the haggis dramatically, dragging the knife through the flesh from end to end.
It is then served, along with mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnips (neeps).
The dinner ended with a speech honoring Burns’ memory and a toast, known as the Eternal Memory.
Burns was also known to have a particular interest in women – he was thought to have had a total of 13 children – so sometimes a female guest would deliver a humorous speech in reply to a previous speech.
Sometimes, a rustic dance known as ceilidh follows.
But, these are just general guidelines for marking Burns night, there are no clear rules for paying tribute to the poet.
Most importantly, this occasion is a time to gather and celebrate the poet’s honor.