What is Burns Night and why is it celebrated? Jen explains more…
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. Now including further offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – the company has a proud tradition of serving a variety of communities. In the interest of continuing to learn more about those around us, the team will be blogging this year on a variety of cultural practices. Today, Funeral Support Assistant Jennifer Bolt gives and insight into Burns Night, which was celebrated earlier this week…
Everyone knows that the best kind of party combines good food, free-flowing drinks, music and laughter, but in late January – when the weather is grey, pockets are empty and the positivity of the new year has seriously ebbed – it can be hard to maintain the festive spirit. In Scotland however, a great effort is made and the resultant celebration rarely disappoints.
Burns Night – celebrated on or around 25th January – is a national celebration, honouring the birth of one of Scotland’s greatest exports: the poet, Robert Burns. Known affectionately as ‘Rabbie’ to his fans, Burns is credited as one of the greatest exponents of Scottish culture and language through his writing, which often involved overt and insightful commentary on political issues and civil concerns.
Though now largely synonymous with the new year, the tradition actually started in the summer (in July 1801) when nine of Burns’ closest friends got together to mark the fifth year of his passing. A dinner was held – featuring the now-infamous haggis, served with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) – and a eulogy was delivered, as well as recitations of some of Burns’ most beloved works. The evening was deemed to be such a success that it was agreed they would repeat it the following year, with one notable alteration: that it occur on the date of his birth rather than his death. Over the two centuries that followed, the celebration grew, developed and was refined into the national celebration we know today, taking place in every corner of the world where Scots gather to honour their national hero and take pride in an extraordinary cultural heritage.
Nowadays, a typical Burns Night party is an altogether more formal affair, with a generally-accepted format for the evening, though the party atmosphere still remains true. The gathering typically begins with a few words of welcome from the host, followed by a recitation of the Selkirk Grace:
‘Some hae meat an canna eat, And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.’
This Scots prayer, written in the lowland Lallans dialect, was attributed to Burns after he offered it at a dinner party hosted by the Earl of Selkirk in 1794. Though this is where the prayer’s modern name originated, historians believe that the text existed in the 17th century (long before Burns’ birth) when it was known as the ‘Covenanter’s grace’. The prayer itself reminds those assembled for a wild and indulgent party of their good fortune and encourages gratitude for the simple necessities of life. Given the straightforward message, native language and underlying humility of the text, it’s not surprising that – whether authored or appropriated – the Selkirk grace has become a core feature of the Burns canon.
Following the prayer, the meal begins with a starter, which is normally a soup – Scotch broth, cullen skink (made with haddock) or cock-a-leekie (chicken and leeks) are popular choices – before the haggis is ‘piped’ in. After the bagpipes, another recitation – the Address to the Haggis – is delivered by the host:
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 wordy o’ a grace As lang’s my arm.
Trans: Good luck to you and your honest, plump face, Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place, Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace As long as my arm.
In the great tradition of odes, Burns’ eight-stanza poem speaks directly to the haggis, exhorting the dish’s many great qualities and superiority over other foodstuffs. At times comical in its hyperbole, it features visceral imagery intended to stir the senses and whet the appetite. Ever political, Burns also doesn’t skip the opportunity to emphasise the greatness of the Scots, implying that the haggis-fed “Rustics” make for fearsome and deadly warriors compared to Scotland’s enemies and their more-delicate cuisines. Though the general ‘mighty’ tone could be considered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s little doubt that Burns can take much of the credit for making this unusual dish seem much more palatable, and its popularity hasn’t waned since.
Once the haggis is toasted and enjoyed, a dessert is served and guests settle down to enjoy the evening’s entertainment: a series of recitals in Burns’ honour.
The Immortal Memory – a speech of tribute to Burns’ enduring spirit – is a mainstay of this recitation, offered by the host or a nominated guest. Traditionally, this speech venerates Burns and his unmatched efforts in immortalising Scottish history and culture. It also serves to highlight the unity and friendship that celebrating a common cultural heritage can bring and, more recently, how far-reaching that universal understanding has grown. As Edwin Millar, former President of the Halifax Burns Club, said in his Immortal Memory speech of 2010:
“When the Burns Supper in Dunedin in finishing, it is still underway in Perth in Western Australia. And meantime they are sitting down in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore. And an hour or two later they are seated in Calcutta. And this chain of friendship follows the setting sun westward, through Asia, the Middle East, Africa and across the Mediterranean to Europe and then over the Atlantic and across these great continents of North and South America to the Western seaboard and beyond. And so on, right around the world and right around the clock. On 25th January of each year and for many days before it and after it there is not an hour in the day or night when a Burns Supper is not taking place somewhere on this earth. And there is no other institution of man of which that can be said.”
Though the concept of a shared, collective memorial is certainly not a new one, and many of our clients value the warmth and camaraderie a traditional memorial wake can bring, few can boast the scale and longevity that Burns Night can. It seems though that far from its humble origins – the nine faithful friends joining together in a humble cottage in Alloway – the significance of this tradition has taken on a far higher power. Though Burns remains at its crux, the celebration now stands as an expression of Scottish pride in all her strength, successes and qualities, preserved in the work of one poetic farmer.
Nevertheless, as a figurehead of shared collective identity, Robert Burns is hard to beat. As the 19th century scholar, J. S. Blackie, wrote: ‘When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland.’
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