Don’t Get Egg on Your Face! Full English Exposé – Burns’ Night (Hard)

The Full English Exposé teaches you more about the English speaking world, so you can be confident you know what you are doing, and you don’t do or say the wrong thing, and don’t get egg on your face.

This edition of the podcast we’re helping make sure you don’t get egg on your face, with the Full English Exposé, all about Burns’ Night.

For the easy version, click here.

Why do we celebrate Burns’ Night?

Burns Night falls on January the 25th, the birthday of the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns (also known as ‘Rabbie’ and ‘Robin’). His life and works are traditionally celebrated with a Burns Supper, a custom started in 1801, 5 years after Burns’ death, by his friends. Burns’ Night has become a major celebration with thousands of Burns Suppers held the world over, not only in Scotland.

Although Burns penned hundreds of poems and songs and re-worked and collected many existing works, his fame came not only from the quality of his poetry, but also from his appeal to ordinary people. He wrote for normal people about his experiences of living in a poor household and about everyday occurrences. At a time when poets generally wrote in standard English, a language that many normal Scottish people wouldn’t have spoken, Burns often wrote either in the Scots language, or with a Scots dialect.

Later he wrote satirical political poems against the power of the wealthy over the poor and was involved in political activism that earned him the reputation as a liberal and a political radical. Many Scottish people are proud of this legacy and it appeals to foreigners too.

His appeal is strengthened by his interesting and tough life, by his wit and arrogance, and by his weaknesses (he was fond of a drink, and also of women, fathering 12 children by 4 women). This romantic picture was completed by his short life. Dying at the age of 37, Burns wrote all his works over a period of just 22 years.

How do we celebrate Burns’ Night?

Since the custom began, the main elements of a Burns Supper have been:

• firstly, food, including haggis, a traditional Scottish sausage made from lamb’s innards, oats and spices and served with tatties and neeps (Scots for ‘potatoes’ and ‘turnips’);
• secondly, an address to the haggis (a poem about haggis, written by Burns himself);
• thirdly, drink, mostly whisky;
• fourthly, A toast to Robert Burns’ Immortal Memory; and
• lastly, Burns’ poetry.

A traditional Burns Supper is often also a celebration of Scottish culture, full of Scottish music, kilts, tartan, flags, dancing, and food.

A typical Burns Supper might start with a short grace to say thank you for the meal, usually this is the ‘Selkirk Grace’:

“Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it
But we hae meat and we can eat
An sae the lord be thankit.”

An English translation would be:

“Some people have meat but cannot eat
Some have no meat that can
But we have meat, and we can eat
Lord, we give our thanks.”

Afterwards a traditional Scottish starter of soup, or perhaps smoked salmon is served.

This is followed by the haggis, which is ‘piped in’, it is brought into the room to music, played preferably by bagpipers. Then the haggis is ‘addressed’, where someone, preferably with a Scottish accent, theatrically recites Burns’ ‘Address to the Haggis’. The haggis is cut up during the address and then eaten with whisky sauce, which is just a euphemism for whisky.

Sometimes there is a main course (which could be any traditional Scottish fish, meat or game dish) served after the haggis course, although sometimes the haggis course is the main course. After this there are puddings of maybe Scotch trifle (made of sherry, custard, cream and fruit served on a bed of sponge fingers) or cranachan (made of oatmeal, cream, raspberries and honey) and then a cheese course.

After coffee someone may do a speech about Burns, or that uses Burns’ quotes and poetry. This speech is finished by asking the audience to stand up and drink a toast to the ‘Immortal Memory of Robert Burns’. Then, someone representing the men will give a lighthearted and amusing speech known as the ‘toast to the lassies’ (a toast to the women). This speech shouldn’t be too insulting, because it is followed by the ‘reply to the toast to the lassies’ or the ‘toast to the laddies’ (a toast to the men), where the women have a chance to thank, or get revenge on, the men for their earlier toast.

Sometimes there are more toasts and formal poetry recitations but usually at this point it’s time to party, although you may hear Burns’ poetry and songs, or those inspired by Burns, throughout the night. There may also be dancing, the wild and dangerous Scottish Country Dancing if you are lucky, and you might also be asked to stand and hold hands for a rousing rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Everyone must go to at least one Burns Supper. With all its rituals, poetry, food and whisky, the evening will be one of the best you’ll ever have, even though the morning after will be one of the worst.

Burns’ Night Notes:

Penned – wrote.

Re-work – make changes to something, especially to bring it up to date.

Satirical – sarcastic, critical and mocking, often humorous.

Radical – someone who wants complete or thorough political or social reform. Also someone who supports an extreme political party.

Legacy – what a person leaves behind them after their death.

Wit – the ability to quickly think of something clever and funny to say.

Arrogance – someone’s belief that they are more important than they actually are.

Immortal – something that will always exist, something that cannot die.

Address – a formal speech given to an audience.

Toast – a request for people to raise their glasses and drink together in honour of something, also the speech that is made before the toast.

Kilts – a pleated skirt made of tartan cloth, traditionally worn by men in Scotland.

Tartan – a cloth woven to make patterns of coloured squares and lines. Certain designs are associated with particular Scottish ‘clans’ (groups of people who are connected by family ties).

Euphemism – a way of saying something unpleasant or embarrassing that makes it sound less unpleasant or embarrassing.

Light-hearted – not serious.

Recitation – a poem or story said aloud and from memory.

Rousing – exciting, stirring.

Rendition – performance.

Auld Lang Syne – this roughly means ‘days gone by’, it is a song that Burns wrote, based on a much older song, that reminds listeners to remember old friends.

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