The Burns Supper is an institution of Scottish life: a night to celebrate the life and works of the national Bard. Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance. This running order covers all the key elements you need to plan and structure a Burns Supper that suits your intentions.
Piping in the guests
A big-time Burns Night calls for a piper to welcome guests. If you don't want all that baggage, some traditional music will do nicely. For more formal events, the audience should stand to welcome arriving guests: the piper plays until the high table is ready to be seated, at which point a round of applause is due. At a more egalitarian gathering - with no high table - the chair can simply bang on the table to draw attention to the start of the evening's proceedings.
The Chair (host/organiser) warmly welcomes and introduces the assembled guests and the evening's entertainment.
The Selkirk Grace
A short but important prayer read to usher in the meal, The Selkirk Grace is also known as
Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it, But we hae meat and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.
Piping in the haggis
Guests should normally stand to welcome the dinner's star attraction, which should be delivered on a silver platter by a procession comprising the chef, the piper and the person who will address the Haggis. A whisky-bearer should also arrive to ensure the toasts are well lubricated.
During the procession, guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The music stops and everyone is seated in anticipation of the address To a Haggis.
Address to the haggis
The honoured reader now seizes their moment of glory by offering a fluent and entertaining rendition of To a Haggis. The reader should have his knife poised at the ready. On cue (
His knife see Rustic-labour dight), he cuts the casing along its length, making sure to spill out some of the tasty gore within (
trenching its gushing entrails).
Warning: it is wise to have a small cut made in the haggis skin before it is piped in. Instances are recorded of top table guests being scalded by flying pieces of haggis when enthusiastic reciters omitted this precaution! Alternatively, the distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded in some quarters as a part of the fun...
The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line
Gie her a haggis!, which the guests greet with rapturous applause.
Toast to the haggis
Prompted by the speaker, the audience now joins in the toast to the haggis. Raise a glass and shout:
The haggis!Then it's time to serve the main course with its traditional companions, neeps and tatties. In larger events, the piper leads a procession carrying the opened haggis out to the kitchen for serving; audience members should clap as the procession departs.
Served with some suitable background music, the sumptuous Bill o' Fare includes:-
Traditional cock-a-leekie soup;
Haggis, neeps & tatties (
Haggis wi' bashit neeps an' champit tatties);
Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle);
Cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes) and tea/coffee.
Variations do exist: beef lovers can serve the haggis, neeps & tatties as a starter with roast beef or steak pie as the main dish. Vegetarians can of course choose vegetarian haggis, while pescatarians could opt for a seafood main course such as Cullen Skink.
Liberal lashings of wine or ale should be served with dinner and it's often customary to douse the haggis with a splash of whisky sauce, which, with true Scots understatement, is neat whisky.
After the meal, it's time for connoisseurs to compare notes on the wonderful selection of malts served by the generous chair.
The first entertainment
The nervous first entertainer follows immediately after the meal. Often it will be a singer or musician performing Burns songs such as:-
- My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose;
- Rantin', Rovin' Robin;
- John Anderson, my jo; or
- Ae Fond Kiss, and Then We Sever.
Alternatively it could be a moving recital of a Burns poem, with perennial preference for:-
The immortal memory
The keynote speaker takes the stage to deliver a spell-binding oratoration on the life of Robert Burns: his literary genius, his politics, his highs and lows, his human frailty and - most importantly - his nationalism. The speech must bridge the dangerous chasm between serious intent and sparkling wit, painting a colourful picture of Scotland's beloved Bard.
The speaker concludes with a heart-felt toast:
To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!
The second entertainment
The chair introduces more celebration of Burns' work, preferably a poem or song to complement the earlier entertainment.
Toast to the Lassies
The humorous highlight of any Burns Night comes in this toast, which is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This should be done by selective quotation from Burns's works and should build towards a positive note. Particular reference to those present makes for a more meaningful toast.
The toast concludes:
To the Lassies!
The final entertainment
The final course of the evening's entertainment comprises more Burns readings.
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
Revenge for the women present as they get their chance to reply.
Vote of thanks
The chair now climbs to his potentially unsteady feet to thank everyone who has contributed to a wonderful evening and to suggest that taxis will arrive shortly.
Auld Lang Syne
The chair closes the proceedings by inviting guests to stand and belt out a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The company joins hands and sings as one, having made sure to brush up on those difficult later lines.
These can slot into any part of the evening.
Lost Burns manuscripts
Some Burns Night suppers include a lost manuscript reading, where a participant with literary aspirations recites from a fictitious long-lost musing of the great man on a new subject.
Quizzes and/or recitation competitions
Involving the guests - instead of having them sit passively - is key to a fun and successful Burns night. Make up your own activities for best effect.