Written by Susan Calman

In The News

Sae let the lord be thankit – Burns that night, eh no?

Sunday night is Burns Night, so we asked Susan Calman to give us the lowdown on what, why and how. She didn’t disappoint.

Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth is displayed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, displayed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

And so the season approaches! Haggis suppliers around the country rub their hands together at the prospect of selling lorry loads of assorted offal to celebrate the birth of our National Bard.

Yes, Burns Night is near! It’s a concept that many of you may be familiar with, but it’s entirely possible that you haven’t attended one. In an effort to disseminate the culture of my homeland to you all, here is my guide to a night of haggis and havering.

Please note that this is not a definitive guide; there are more ways to host a Burns Supper than there are to leave your lover.

The Man
Robert Burns is a man who looms large in the mind of most Scots. This is partly because the majority of us, while at school, will have memorised and performed at least one of his poems.

When January time comes around, all over the country, swathes of children struggle to remember To a Mouse in preparation for a hesitant performance at assembly.

What this means is that from a very early age Burns’ language and ideas are implanted in our brains. Burns Night is a chance to celebrate his writing and read his poetry. He was a remarkable man who, if alive today, would probably be a regular on the standup circuit discussing politics, religion and the difference between men and women.

The date
The Burns Supper season is quite long these days. January 25 is the Bard’s birthday, but you’ll find evenings being hosted from the middle of January onwards. Sometimes people have a lunch, but for me the only way is dinner. You need a full evening to enjoy the full excitement of a Burns Supper.

What do you do?
The first thing to say is that you can do anything you want to at a Burns Supper as long as you read his poetry. That’s the point. The traditions that have grown up around the evening are brilliant but sometimes quite stuffy. For example, for many years the more traditional Burns Suppers didn’t allow women to attend. That’s clearly not on, but matters are progressing somewhat. If you want to give it a go, I’ve put together some of the more important ingredients as a guide.

a) What to wear? Entirely up to you. The more formal evenings are a black tie event with lots and lots of kilts. I love a man in a kilt and my experience is that most men enjoy the freedom it brings. Do what you want, but I think go for it. Encourage the men to make an effort. I make kilts mandatory when I can, simply because I like to see a bit of ankle when having dinner.

b) After the guests are seated the Selkirk Grace is usually said.

“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.”

Enjoy saying that after a couple of pints.

c) The next part of the evening is perhaps the most fun. The piping of the haggis. Let me be clear: I do not enjoy haggis (I know, I know, I’m a disgrace). Have a haggis there but maybe have something else in case everyone realises what’s in it. Basically someone carries the haggis on a large plate to the table. I always cry at this bit because I love the sound of the pipes. If you don’t have access to bagpipes then a recorder will do, or just clap along. You’ll also find pipe music available on line. It’s an honour to carry the haggis, so enjoy it – do a few laps of the dining room.

d) Next is the address to the haggis; it’s too long to reprint here but look it up and choose a friend to read it out. The most important thing to remember is at the lines “His knife see rustic Labour dicht/An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht” cut the haggis. Everyone will be really impressed that you’ve understood the poem.

f) Eat and drink. This is a good bit. Have some neeps and tatties as well. That’s very important.

g) Immortal Memory. This is the part of the evening that celebrates the man himself. The speaker would usually talk about Burns and his poetry and read out some examples of his work. If you’re having a supper at home, give this to someone who will take it seriously. Because if you don’t, I’ll know. Have a look at the poem A Man’s A Man For A‘ That. It’s a cracker.

h) The toast to the lassies is next, followed by the reply from the lassies to the laddies. I know. It sounds like an episode of Take the High Road. Now this is where things get a bit interesting. Some take the tack of “take my mother in law” jokes, some actually make positive and witty comments. Personally I think it’s a lovely opportunity in a group of friends to say something nice about each other. If you don’t it’ll end up like an episode of Celebrity Big Brother and none of us want that. Pick a guy and a girl to toast each other – it can be very sweet.

i) After that there’s sometimes a bit of a sing-song. Eddi Reader’s versions of Burns songs, especially Ae Fond Kiss, are a real treat and can lead to some slow dancing fun. And it is fun if everyone is in kilts.

What happens after that is up to you. If you want to try a bit of cèilidh dancing, please do, but only if you have a big enough flat and aren’t too drunk. One of the most common injuries at A&E in January is a broken wrist, mostly suffered by women when their enthusiastic partners have thrown them across the room.

The main thing is to enjoy it. In Scotland, we are tremendously proud of Rabbie and his work and want as many people as possible to experience it. So go formal or go casual. Have haggis or have vegetable lasagna. Whatever you do make sure you enjoy his poems and songs. For me, the best thing about a Burns Supper is spending time with friends and family, having a good meal and a few drams. Oh, and make sure you send us pictures of men in kilts… I love them.


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Written by Susan Calman

Susan is a comedian and writer who sometimes appears on things like the News Quiz and QI.