Robbie Burns Day, or Burns Night, is an institution of Scottish life. It is celebrated yearly around the poet’s birthday, celebrating his life and contribution to Scottish culture (you may have heard of Auld Lang Syne, his most famous work). In addition to our Scotch Whisky Guide, learn about this classic celebration and ways you can celebrate Burns Day at home this year with some classic Scottish food and Scotch Whisky pairings.
Why celebrate Robbie Burns?
Robbie Burns was a Scottish poet born in Ayrshire on January 25, 1759. Also known as Rabbie Burns, he was a prolific poet and political commentator - he was a pioneer of the Romantic movement, as well as an inspiration for the founders of liberalism and socialism. In 2009, a Scottish poll voted him the “Greatest Scot Ever”. Five years after his death (at the too young age of 37), the first in memoriam Burns supper was held by his friends in 1801, and has been a regular occurrence ever since.
Photo: Scotland Tourism
What is a traditional Burns Night?
Along with celebrating Scotland’s National Bard, Burns Night has evolved to celebrate other aspects of Scottish culture, like the presence of bagpipe music, whisky, and tartans. These, in addition to the traditional food and reciting of Burns’ poetry, have become synonymous with a good Burns Night.
A Burns Supper can be formal or informal. At a more formal gathering, a bagpiper may greet the guests, whereas at a less formal party Scottish music is played in the background. Prior to the first course being served, grace is said, usually the Selkirk Grace, a well known prayer in the Scot’s language recited before eating:
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
The first course is a soup course, usually Cock-a-leekie or Cullen Skink. Following the soup course is the “piping in of the Haggis”, where the Haggis is brought to the table on a large dish while a bagpiper leads the way. This is paired with the reciting of Burns’ poem, “Address to a Haggis”. Guests toast the haggis with a dram of whisky - it is usually served alongside “neeps and tatties”. A traditional Scottish dessert follows the main course, along with coffee.
Photo: Scotland Tourism
The meal is followed by the “toast” portion, where specific poems by Burns are read, recited or sang by guests - complete with a toast of whisky or ale, of course! A Ceilidh dance follows the toast, and the evening is concluded by a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne sang by all the guests together in a circle.
Traditional foods of a Burns Supper
A traditional Burns supper is three courses including the following - but some variations can exist.
Main course: Haggis of course! Haggis is the star of any Burns dinner - meaty, oaty and spicy, this dish is a wonderful winter warmer. You may have your qualms about what haggis is made of - sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, beef fat, spices and salt mixed with stock and served inside an animal’s stomach - but give it a chance! Haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour. Sometimes a dash of whisky is splashed over the haggis - the two flavours complement each other perfectly.
Side: Classic “neeps and tatties” - mashed potatoes and turnips/rutabaga.
Dessert: Clootie Dumpling (a rich fruit pudding made from sultanas, served with cream); Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle); a cheese board, or Cronachan, a dessert made from raspberries, cream, whisky, honey and oats.
Scotland Tourism has a great guide for how to host your own Burns Supper, for when we are allowed to gather again.
And The Bothy, a local Edmonton restaurant, is offering Burns Dinners to go all weekend, if you don’t want to attempt any of the dishes from scratch!
Scotch whisky pairings
Whisky, Scotland’s national beverage, is an essential part of any Burns dinner. You may choose to serve whisky throughout the whole dinner, or choose beer or wine pairings with the meal and save whisky for the toasts. Whisky does go exceptionally well with traditional Scottish foods though, such as haggis!
We have a selection of Scotch Whisky in store that would accompany your at-home Burns night perfectly.
For a milder, softer dram:
GlenKinchie 12 Year Scotch Whisky hails from the Scottish Lowlands near Edinburgh, and showcases the characteristic lightness and grassy elements that the Lowlands whisky region is known for, with nods to Sauternes wine and cooked fruit along the way. Perfect if you’re new to single malt scotch whisky and want a universal crowd pleaser.
The Singleton of Dufftown 12 Year Scotch Whisky hails from the Speyside region and is a smooth, mellow dram crafted to attract new drinkers to the world of scotch. Light bodied, with notes of hazelnut and coffee.
For a bit of fire:
Caol Ila 15 Year Scotch is from the island of Islay, a region known for their smoky, peaty whiskies. The Caol Ila 15 is actually unpeated, unlike the flagship releases from the Caol Ila distillery. But it still retains some signature spicy heat, with a sweet minty-salt taste and a long finish.
For a whisky worth celebrating:
The Dalmore Cigar Malt is worth the bit of a splurge and the bard himself would approve! Its name comes from its ideal pairing with a big cigar, but it’s worthy of evening toasts as well. Notes of caramel, shortbread, biscuits, coffee and chocolates, with more toffee and caramel on the palate and perfectly integrated sherry. Clean finish with a touch of cinnamon, this Highlands region whisky is bound to impress.
Whichever you choose, Burns night is a perfect opportunity to sample the world of Scotch whisky and food - a perfect combination for a cold winter’s night, no matter if you’re in Scotland or elsewhere in the world. As they say in Scots, Sláinte Mhath!