Though it’s only been a month since Christmas, January can sometimes feel like it goes on an eternity (this year more than most!). Just as well then that January 25th is an important date in our calendar – tonight we celebrate Burns Night!
What is Burns Night?
Burns Night celebrates the life of Robert Burns, arguably the most iconic figure of Scottish poetry and literature, who was born on this day in 1759. In a life sadly cut short through illness at just 37, Burns composed an enormous volume of work that endures and inspires to this day.
Both prolific and talented as a writer, Burns was able to use contrasting themes of passion, romance, humour, and tradition and weave them together in ways that appealed to the emotions and senses of all kinds of audiences. But perhaps the key to his popularity lies in his unmistakeable pride in all things Scottish, standing out in his poetry like a Highland cow on the Royal Mile!
Hailing from the Ayrshire village of Alloway in Scotland’s south-west, Burns had no qualms or fears about writing in his native tongue and his impact on the Scots language might be likened to that of Shakespeare on English. Aside from his own creations, our very own national bard spent large parts of his life gathering and commenting on traditional Scottish songs and fables to preserve them for future generations.
Though his writings were initially influenced by the humble rural environment in which he grew up, Burns demonstrated a superb versatility in adapting stories and rhymes from across the country, giving a voice to anybody and everybody from different levels of society. This made him far more than just the local farmer’s boy from Ayrshire – in fact, it was his success among the Edinburgh literary scene that saw his celebrity status raised to a national level and allowed him the freedom to pick his own captivating themes.
More often than not these were indeed related to his background. He frequently returned to his roots, notably highlighting the plight of the rural poor and championing an improvement in social equality, as well as exploring the magnificent beauty of the countryside. Unsurprisingly this led him on adventures, both physical and literary, deep into the wild mountains and valleys of the Highlands.
He was certainly familiar with that beguiling charm we find in our own stunning surroundings, declaring in a letter to the Scottish Musical Museum that a recently heard tune was perfect for singing ‘to the measure of Lochaber’ and promising that he would put to it his ‘very best words’.
Aside from providing a wellspring of material for Burns, the Highlands clearly left an emotional impression on him too and he was always sorry to leave, as demonstrated in his most famous tribute to these lands:
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birth-place of valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands forever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Funnily enough, deer stalking, fishing and other encounters with nature remain some of the best local activities even two centuries on!
It is difficult to speculate just how much more the world may have missed out on through Burns’ untimely passing in 1796, but his friends were determined not to let his memory fade. On the fifth anniversary of his death, they gathered themselves at his home to pay homage to this master of the Scots tongue. An evening filled with performances of Burn’s songs and poetry, combined with the tastiest Scottish scran, was such a success that it became the regular feature in our calendar that we enjoy today!
How can I join in?
In essence, Burns Night continues to follow the same kind of pattern that it has followed for two hundred years. Obviously, this year we can’t enjoy the social aspect quite as much as we would do usually, but that doesn’t stop you throwing your own Burns supper within your household! It all goes something like this…
To begin, the host invites everyone to join in with the Selkirk Grace, using a prayer from Burns that gives thanks for the food. Then in comes the all-important haggis (sometimes accompanied by a piper, though you might not have one of these to hand!), at which point the host pays tribute with a recital of Address to a Haggis.
Everyone toasts this ‘great chieftain o’ the pudding-race’, before it is formally cut and served with side dishes of neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), washed down perhaps with a dram of whisky later on. Afterwards, a series of recitals are performed, typically including the Immortal Memory, a more solemn tribute to Burns, as well as the light-hearted Toast to the Lassies and Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.
The supper is rounded off with everyone crossing arms and singing Burns’ best-known verse, Auld Lang Syne – but the fun doesn’t have to stop there! After such a hearty meal, you may well feel the need to burn off a calorie or two (if you’ll excuse the pun), and what could be better than a bit of ceilidh to do so?
Coming from the Gaelic for ‘visit’, a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) originally referred to any kind of social gathering, but these days it’s all about the dancing. Musicians wield fiddles, pipes, accordions, and maybe even a clarsach (a type of harp) to get the tunes going and encourage everyone to join in with traditional folk songs, such as The Flying Scotsman and Strip the Willow.
And with that we’ll leave you – it’s time for us to pick a partner and dance the night away!