In Focus

A guide to Burns Night 2021: the life of Robert Burns and his best-known poems

Scots will raise a glass to their national bard on 25 January - we look at his famous works

Scotland is preparing to celebrate Burns Night on Monday 25 January - the birthday of the country’s national bard, Robert Burns.   

This year will be a little different as celebrations will be held at home, but despite lockdown the traditions will continue. 

We look at some of poems written by Scotland’s favourite son and find out what essential items should be included in a Burns Night supper.

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns (aka Robbie Burns, aka Rabbie Burns, aka Scotland’s Favourite Son) was a Scottish writer and lyricist.

Born into rural poverty in a two-roomed cottage in Alloway, near Ayr, on 25 January 1759, he became a prolific poet who wrote about everyday life using a Scottish vernacular that was already under threat from English in his own lifetime.

On 21 July 1796, Burns died at the age of 37, leaving behind a body of work that “recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration”, says the Poetry Foundation.

Two and a half centuries later his work is still celebrated in Scotland and beyond - although few people now know more than a handful of his poems.

What are his best-known works?

By far the best-known Burns composition is the traditional New Year’s Eve anthem Auld Lang Syne. Other famous works include the epic poem Tam O’Shanter and the romantic A Red, Red Rose

Why was he back in the news?

Speaking in 2018, the Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead outed Burns as a “sex pest”, drawing attention to a 1788 letter to a friend in which bragged of giving his lover Jean Armour a “thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones”, and said he “f***ed her until she rejoiced”.

Her comments received support from Burns biographer Robert Crawford, who said that “feminists are right to subject [him] to scrutiny” when he comes across as “an 18th-century buck showing off [to] his male cronies”.

Yet this reappraisal of Burns was met with a furious backlash from scholars and public alike and provoked a huge controversy that raged in the Scottish press. Burns expert Gerard Carruthers, told The Guardian there was “no good evidence” that the national icon was a rapist, complaining of a retrospective approach that “refracts everything through our 21st-century presentism, essentially judging history by the ephemeral journalistic stories of today”.

Burns Night
How did Burns Night begin?

The traditional Burns Supper began a few years after the poet’s death in 1796 as a way for “Rabbie’s friends and acquaintances to honour his memory”, according to the Manchester Evening News. Today it is has become a celebration of all things Scottish, including whisky, bagpiping and Highland dancing.

How is Burns Night celebrated?

The night’s celebrations follow a reliably scripted order – poetry recitals and haggis-eating, boozy toasts and perhaps a chaotic ceilidh. Through it all “single malt whisky is the toasting tipple of choice, especially during the ceremonial slicing of the haggis”, The Independent says. Most famous of all the traditions is the recitation of Address to A Haggis, a poem written by Burns in 1786. This is usually performed over the intestinal delicacy, before it is cut open and eaten.

What should you eat at a Burns Night supper?

Celebrate Scottish cuisine with the classics on Burns Night: smoked fish soup; haggis; and neeps and tatties (swede/turnip and potatoes). 

According to Great British Chefs, traditional Burns supper recipes include creamy Cullen Skink (thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions), sweet Cranachan (traditional Scottish dessert) and of course haggis. Alternatively, your Burns Night feast could feature a fillet of Scottish beef or spiced Scottish scallops.

For 2021, Gladwin Brothers has created “The Ultimate Burns Night Box” in partnership with Islay’s Bruichladdich Distillery, home to Bruichladdich Whisky and The Botanist Gin. 

This three-course Highland feast can be delivered nationwide and includes Scottish delights such as trout gravlax for starters, a haggis wellington for four served with neaps and tatties for the main, and marmalade Dundee cake for pudding.

Each box includes a 20cl bottle of The Botanist Gin to be enjoyed with a Double Dutch Tonic and Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Malt Scotch Whisky. £150 (feeds four); gladwinbrothers.com

Is haggis good for you?

Haggis - though full of cholesterol - is high in vitamins A, B6, B12 and C, along with minerals like folate, selenium and iron. Whisky too has some surprising health benefits: it contains ellagic acid, an antioxidant that could potentially absorb cancer cells.

What’s more, a study in 1998 found that the antioxidants in a shot of whisky could protect against heart disease, while drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can also apparently lower the odds of dementia.

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