For the last few years, we have been invited by a colleague of my husband (who is Scottish) to attend what is known as a Burns Supper at their lovely home in Mosman.
Now, for those who aren’t familiar, a Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns, author of many beautiful Scottish poems.
The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day or Burns Night.
The evening we attend is always very true to formal Burns Supper traditions. It begins with an informal gathering outside, while the piper plays away for the guests.
All suppers then go on to include Haggis, Scotch Whisky and the recitation of Burns’ poetry.
After the guests have arrived and had a chance to mingle, the host says a few words welcoming everyone to the supper and perhaps stating the reason for it. The event is then declared open.
All of the guests are seated and grace is said, usually using the Selkirk Grace, a well-known thanksgiving said before meals, using the Scots language.
The Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
Everyone stands as the main course is brought in.
This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host’s table, where the haggis is laid down.
In our case, the host, then recites the Address to a Haggis.
Address to a Haggis
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 worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
At the line His knife see rustic Labour dicht the host draws and cleans a knife, and at the line An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end.
It is quite a spectacle!
At the end of the poem, a Scotch whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, then the company will stand and wait as the Haggis is then piped out of the main room, back in to the kitchen to be served for the guests.
The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps).
Once the main meal is completed, the host gives a short speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or intensely serious. A good speaker always prepares a speech with his audience in mind, since above all the Burns’ supper should be entertaining.
Everyone then drinks a toast to Robert Burns.
On attending our very first Burns Supper, my husband (who was my fiance at the time) was asked without my knowledge to read a Robert Burns poem called A Red, Red Rose.
Our host thought it was fitting as we were about to be married that year, and I have red hair!
This poem was then included in our wedding ceremony and will always hold a dear place in both of hearts, but tonight was read by a guest whose wife couldn’t be there for the celebrations.
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile
Following on from dessert and a reading of A Red, Red Rose – it is now time for a “Toast to the Lassies”
This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal. However, nowadays it is much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but not offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned.
The men drink a toast to the women’s health.
Now comes the reply. This is occasionally (and humorously) called the “Toast to the Laddies” and, like the previous toast, it is generally quite wide-ranging nowadays. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, this should be amusing, but not offensive. Quite often the speakers giving this toast and the previous one will collaborate so that the two toasts complement each other.
Afterwards it turns to a Scotch Whiskey blind tasting competition. Something I am not too sure that is a big part of the traditional festivities, but it always proves a lot of fun – and I’m sure the Scots would be proud! Sadly I bombed out first round (I was only smelling them, rather than tasting)
It is always such a fabulous evening, and it is nice to be part of a different culture to that here in Australia It also helps that the following day is always a public holiday here in Australia too! From celebrating the Scots, to toasting to our Australian heritage on Australia Day.
If you’re ever given the opportunity to attend a Burns Supper, I highly recommend you do. Haggis is actually quite tasty, and the ceremony and traditions that go along with the evening are ones not to be missed!