Burns Night 2021: what is it, why do we celebrate Scottish poet Robert Burns and when is the event this year?

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It is traditional to eat haggis and recite Burns’ poems on the night

Burns Night is a staple celebration in the Scots calendar, and for good reason.

The annual festivities are a welcome excuse for a feast, music, dancing, and boasting about Scotland’s cultural contribution to the world.

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The first Burns Night was celebrated over 200 years ago, but its popularity has only grown over the years, with traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Burns Night festivities are incomplete without a hearty feast of haggis, neeps and tatties (Getty Images)Burns Night festivities are incomplete without a hearty feast of haggis, neeps and tatties (Getty Images)
Burns Night festivities are incomplete without a hearty feast of haggis, neeps and tatties (Getty Images)

In 2021, celebrations will be very different - due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions, large gatherings and physical Burns Night events are completely off the table.

However, you are still able to enjoy the night at home this year - here’s how.

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Why is Burns Night celebrated?

Burns Night is considered to be Scotland’s “other national day”, alongside St Andrew’s Day in November.

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Celebrated on the same date each year, the night gives a nod to the life and work of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

Rabbie Burns lived between 1759 and 1796, and is widely regarded as the national bard of Scotland thanks to his famous works, which were penned in Scots or in the Scots dialect.

Traditional festivities generally include a Burns Supper, which features readings of his poetry throughout the meal.

Burns’ seminal works include To a Mouse, Tam o’Shanter, A Red, Red Rose and, of course, Auld Lang Syne.

When is it this year?

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Burns Night is always celebrated on 25 January, Robert Burns’ birthday.

This year, the date falls on a Monday. Usually, festivities are held on the weekend before so people are able to celebrate when they are off work.

When was Burns Night first celebrated?

After Rabbie Burns died of ill health, nine of the bard’s close friends gathered together to mark the fifth anniversary of his death in July 1801.

That first Burns Club was held in the poet’s family home - Burns Cottage in Alloway - and was very similar to the modern celebrations that take place today.

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It included a haggis supper, performances of Burns’ own poems and songs, and a toast to honour the poet.

The night’s success meant it became an annual tradition, held on Rabbie Burns’ birthday instead.

How is it traditionally celebrated?

The many Burns Night traditions are what makes the celebration so special.

When everyone gathers for their feast, the host says a few words to welcome the guests and the Selkirk Grace is said before the food comes out.

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The festivities are incomplete without a hearty feast of haggis, neeps and tatties (washed down with drams of whisky).

Usually, guests will stand as a bagpiper leads in the haggis, carried by the chef.

It’s thought that the bagpipes are a fairly modern tradition, perhaps introduced sometime in the 20th century.

After the haggis is piped in, someone should read Burns’ Address to a Haggis, with the speaker cutting the haggis as it is mentioned in the poem.

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The slicing open is followed by a toast to the haggis, with whisky.

Once everyone is suitably full, the Immortal Memory (a tribute speech to Burns) is performed, followed by the Toast to the Lassies.

This is a brief, humorous speech made by a male guest, which was intended to thank the women who had prepared the meal - but the tradition has evolved over the years.

When Burns Suppers ceased to be all-male affairs, the toast became more of a gentle ribbing to the women guests in the room.

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The women are then given the chance to give out their own digs and jokes to the male speaker through the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.

To end the night, the host thanks the guests for coming and everyone stands to sing Auld Lang Syne, crossing and joining hands at the line: “And there's a hand, my trusty fere!”

Can I celebrate Burns Night at home?

In normal times, there would be many ticketed Burns Night events and suppers taking place across Scotland, but the traditional celebrations cannot take place this year due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

However, it is easy to host a traditional Burns Night at home, complete with the haggis supper, toasts and recitals – just roughly follow the schedule above.

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If you don’t know the words to the poems, they can be found online.

The Scotsman’s hit food and drink podcast, Scran, is also hosting a virtual Burns Night celebration which you can listen to form home.

There will be special guest appearances from Outlander star Sam Heughan, Scotland’s National Chef Gary Maclean and more from 7pm on Monday 25 January.

You can register for free here.