Beyond Haggis and Whisky: A Short History of Burns Night

Beyond Haggis and Whisky: A Short History of Burns Night

Photo by Mike Stephen on Flickr

As a researcher, I often find myself hidden away in the library or holed up at home desperately trying to work my way through never-ending piles of books and rewrites. But, as I discovered when researching for my post about Hogmanay, Scotland is full of fun and interesting deep rooted traditions. And I want to experience and learn about those traditions as much as I can while I’m lucky enough to be in the very place they were created. Burns Night is one such tradition. Though not as old as Hogmanay, Burns Night (the celebration of eighteenth-century poet Robert Burns’ birthday) is every bit as popular and celebrated.

[Image Description: Portrait painting of a young Robert Burns.]

Photo by Alexander Nasmyth, National Portrait Gallery, London on British Library Online

Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759, in the village of Alloway in Ayrshire and died in 1796 in Dumfries. Unlike several poets before and after his time, Burns and his work were met with popularity and acclaim while the poet was still alive. This only increased after his death, leaving him still to this day as Scotland’s National Poet. His influence reached across boundaries and barriers to other countries and poets such as Maya Angelou, who dedicated part of her personal documentary to a visit to Burns’ childhood home. With poems such as Is There for Honest Poverty (which was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament) and Auld Lang Syne (still sung during New Year’s Eve across the world), Burns continues to live on in the heart of Scotland, a fact most clearly seen in the yearly celebration of Burns Night.

[Image Description: A vast selection of Whisky arranged in a half-circle around a dram of whisky, sitting on a wooden surface.]

Photo by Dennis Wilkinson on Flickr

The first ‘Burns Night’ actually took place on the one year anniversary of the poet’s death. His close friends gathered together for a dinner in celebration of the life Burns had lived. They ate Haggis and tatties, drank whisky and recited from his large collection of work. The celebration gradually became popular with those who didn’t know Burns personally, but who certainly knew of him and his work. The date of the yearly celebration then changed to mark date of his birth, 25 January, and is still celebrated in this way today.

During my first year in Glasgow, I celebrated Burns Night with the Glasgow Women’s Library at their own annual ‘Herland: Alternative Burns Night’. The event focused on the women Burns interacted with in his own life as well as the influence he has had on female artists, such as Maya Angelou, throughout the world. I’d only been in Glasgow for four months at this time, and I can honestly say that the Alternative Burns Night made me incredibly welcome and taught me much more about Scotland’s pride in its heritage as a whole.

[Image Description: Ice cream dessert in a tea cup surrounded by Scottish biscuits and a tartan napkin to end a Burns Night celebration at the Glasgow Women’s Library.]

Photo by Danielle Schwertner at the Glasgow Women’s Library’s ‘Alternative Burns Night’, 2018

I encourage anyone who’s never attended a Burns Night celebration to consider doing so this year. Whether it’s a massive dinner party or a small gathering with friends, traditional or alternative (Glasgow offers several different options for celebrating this night, and the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow will have original Burns manuscripts on display for four hours), Burns Night isn’t just a celebration of one man two centuries in the past. Burns Night is a celebration of Scotland’s past, present and future. Just don’t forget to recite Burns’ Address to a Haggis!

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye worthy o' a grace

As lang's my arm.

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