The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to the greatest Scottish literature collection outside of Great Britain, and much of this material centers around the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns. Most well-known for works such as “To a Mouse,” “Highland Mary,” “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” Tan O’Shanter,” and “Auld Lang Syne,” Burns is famous for publishing poetry in Scottish dialect and for compiling and anthologizing Scottish folk tunes. This Thursday is Burns Day, a celebration of the Scottish poet, who was born on 25 January 1759. Originally held as a memoriam, the first supper was held by Burns’ friends on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death. That same year, the first still extant Burns Club was founded in Greenock by Ayrshire merchants, and in the following year they changed the day of their observance to Burns’ birthday. Since then, Burns suppers have been held on January 25th and have spread across the globe.
Traditional Burns suppers typically include haggis, Scotch whisky, and the recitations of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are generally hosted by Burns Clubs or St. Andrews Societies and follow a standard order. Guests are first piped in by a bagpiper, and the host will give a welcoming speech then lead the recitation of the “Selkirk Grace,” a prayer of thanks attributed to Burns.
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 supper begins with a traditional soup, such as Scotch broth, cullen skink, or cock-a-leekie. After the soup course, everyone stands as the haggis is piped into the hall, generally to the tune of “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” and lead to the host’s table. The host then recites the Burns’ poem, “Address to a Haggis.”
The recitation is often dramatized by a ritualistic carving of the haggis. At the beginning of the third stanza, which reads “His knife see Rustic-Labour dight,” the speaker draws and sharpens a knife, then at the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,” he plunges the knife into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end.
After the meal, a guest gives a speech in honor and memory of Burns. Then a man will give a “toast to the lassies.” Historically, this toast was intended to thank the women who cooked the meal, but has since evolved to a humorous commentary on women in the group and in life in general, and if the toaster can manage to quote from Burns’ poems then all the more bragging right for him. However, whatever brave soul chooses to toast the lassies must speak with care, for he is then followed by a reply from the women. The call and response nature of the two toasts are meant to be lighthearted jests that establish a repartee.
The rest of the evening is filled with general conversation, guests reciting other poems by Burns, and a vote of thanks. The evening is then closed with the entire group joining in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”
So, if you’re in the mood for some good cheer this Thursday, invite some friends, raise a glass, and sing a toast to Robert Burns.
Michael C. Weisenburg
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections