Burns Night: When Is It And Why Do We Celebrate It?

It's all to do with the man behind Auld Lang Syne.
A group re-enact the first ever Burns Supper held in 1801
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images
A group re-enact the first ever Burns Supper held in 1801

It’s almost Burns Night – a date you probably see in your digital calendar every year, but might not know much about at all.

So here’s a quick look at why we celebrate it when we do, who Robert Burns is and why his legacy lives on more than two centuries after his death.

When is Burns Night?

January 25 – Robert Burns’ birthday.

Who was Robert Burns?

The renowned poet is widely considered to be Scotland’s national bard more than 250 years after his death. He is arguably the most prominent poet to have ever written in Scottish dialect.

Although he died in July 1796, his work is known for appealing to a wide audience, because it often expressed a desire for a better society and greater equality – and so Burns Night is sometimes celebrated around the world.

He was recognised for his literary skill from the age of 27, but Burns actually struggled to provide for his family through his poetry or the small farm he ran.

He was in poverty for much of his life, and died, in debt, at 37.

He’s the author behind many poems which still live on today, such as the New Year classic, Auld Lang Syne, A Red, Red Rose and A Man’s A Man for A’That.

He’s recognised for having a huge and long-lasting impact on Scottish culture – but also remembered for his long list of love affairs and radical politics.

Robert Burns, 1759 –1796
Pictures from History via Getty Images
Robert Burns, 1759 –1796

When did Burns Night come about?

According to Scotland.org, Burns’ friends first hosted an informal supper on the fifth anniversary of his death, July 21, 1801, in the cottage where he was born in Alloway.

Together, they read his poems aloud, ate haggis – the Scottish national dish – and sheep’s head.

The following year the supper was moved to his birthday, although his friends initially got the date wrong (they accidentally celebrated Burns four days off the actual date).

But, this get-together soon grew into a tradition, and now there are Burns clubs all around the world which host suppers in the poet’s memory.

How is Burns Night celebrated now?

If people choose to follow tradition set by Burns’ friends, a group will gather for an evening supper on January 25.

The meal starts off with a Scotch broth before the main course of haggis is brought into the room (a piper plays the bagpipes during this part).

This famous dish, made up of sheep heart, liver and lungs with oatmeal, suet and spices, is the centre piece of the evening. But, attendees cannot tuck in until the host recites the bard’s famous poem, Address to a Haggis.

When the host says the line, ‘His knife see rustic Labour dicht, An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht’, they’ll dramatically stab the haggis, dragging the knife through the meat from end to end.

It’s then dished out, alongside mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnips (neeps).

The meal concludes with a speech honouring Burns’ memory and a toast, known as the Immortal Memory.

Burns was also known to have a particular soft spot for women – he is thought to have had 13 children in total – so sometimes a female guest may make a funny speech as a retort to the previous address.

Occasionally, country dancing known as a ceilidh follows.

But, these are just general guidelines to marking Burns night, there are no clear set rules to pay tribute to the poet.

Most importantly, the occasion is a time to come together and celebrate in the poet’s honour.