The 25th of January brings round an important moment in the Scottish events calendar, Burns Night. A celebration of the national bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, a Burns Supper traditionally consists of good poetry, good friends, and good food. Burns was born on the 25th of January 1759, and this much-loved poet was known for his fondness of a good party, so the revelry we now see at Burns Suppers seems to be a fitting tribute.
Robert Burns is known as Scotland’s national bard, with many of his poems and songs still known and loved today. The first Burns Supper was held in July 1801, when some of Burns’ close friends came together to mark the 5th anniversary of his death, and it has since developed into the annual tradition we see now. The night usually consists of performances of Burns’ work, speeches in his honour, generous toasts of whiskey, and a ceremonial appreciation for the classic meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties.
‘The Immortal Memory’ is perhaps the most important speech that is performed on Burns Night, as the host pays tribute to Burns himself and usually recites some of his work.
Other well-known speeches include the ‘Toast to the Lassies’ which is given by a male guest, light-heartedly praising the women in attendance and usually drawing on more of Burns’ work. This is then followed by the ‘Reply to the Toast to the Lassies’, allowing a female guest to respond and poke fun at the men in the room. The evening ends with the guests singing “Auld Lang Syne” and paying tribute to the legacy of Robert Burns.
Many colleges at Durham host Burns Night formals, which are notoriously difficult to get a ticket for, as they are so popular. Some feature the addition of a ceilidh, which, while not traditional, nonetheless provides a lot of fun.
As suggested by the name, though the Burns Supper is a celebration of Robert Burns and Scotland’s legacy of creativity, it is also a fantastic moment to highlight traditional Scottish cuisine.
Here we have an example of some traditional menu options that you could use if you wanted to host your own Burns Supper:
Visit Scotland suggests a starter of Cullen skink or Cock-a-leekie soup, both traditional broths. Cullen skink is a hearty smoked haddock chowder-style soup, which gets its name from its hometown of Cullen in northeast Scotland, while Cock-a-leekie is a chicken and leek soup topped with prunes for a sweet touch.
Of course, the heart of the meal is the haggis. The ‘Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!’ as Burns called it in his famous ‘Address to a Haggis’, which is usually performed on the night, culminating in the speaker using a ceremonial knife to slice open the meat pudding.
Haggis is traditionally made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs which have been minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and seasonings. In more recent years, vegetarian and vegan versions have become more widely available, allowing more people to join in on the tradition. To accompany the haggis, sides of mashed neeps (turnips or swedes) and tatties (potatoes) are served, perhaps with the more modern addition of a whiskey cream sauce.
There are several classic dessert options to choose from for your Burns Supper. The ‘King of Scottish desserts’, Cranachan was traditionally made to celebrate the Scottish raspberry harvest in June, but the year-round availability of fresh fruit means it can now be enjoyed in January. Toasted oats are mixed through a whiskey and honey-spiked whipped cream and layered with crushed raspberries to make this refreshing dessert.
Another option is a Clootie Dumpling. This steamed Scottish pudding is similar to Christmas pudding, but toes the line between sweet and savoury, meaning it can be served with cream and custard or on a cheeseboard along with crackers and oat cakes. ‘Cloot’ is Scots for cloth, referencing the floured cloth that the pudding is boiled in, in order to create the skin that is quintessential to a Clootie Dumpling. Charms can be added in Clootie Dumplings to create some excitement around the dinner table, with some being more desirable to find than others. While a horseshoe signifies protection from evil and a wishbone predicts receiving your heart’s desire, if a man finds a button or a woman a thimble they will supposedly remain single.
Illustration: Carly Tait