Literary Landmarks: Robbie Burns Suppers (a guide to hosting)

Burns said it best – your Robbie Burns Supper may seem like a lot of work, but fear not! We’ve got you covered.

This Saturday is Robbie Burns Day, an increasingly universal celebration of all things Scottish. Named for the famous 18th-century poet and lyricist, Scotland’s “favourite son” Robert Burns, the day has been adopted around the world as a chance to eat some strange (or delicious, depending whom you are asking) food and share humorous speeches.

The official Scotland website has all the facts you need to know about who Robert Burns was and why we still celebrate his legacy (as well as some traditional recipes), but for a guide to hosting the ultimate Robbie Burns supper you needn’t look any further. By following the twelve steps below, your Robbie Burns Supper will run as smoothly as the richest Scottish brogue. Have fun!

1) Pipe in the Top Table

The seating arrangement at a formal Robbie Burns Supper is almost as important as that at a wedding. There should be a “top” table of the host and the most honoured guests, and then the “general” seating. At such a gathering, it is traditional for the top table guests to be piped in. However, at a smaller and less formal gathering, simply playing Scottish music – whether it be traditional bagpipe music or your favourite Scottish band – is an appropriate welcome as your guests arrive.

2) Official Welcome

The evening’s Master of Ceremonies (likely, but not necessarily, the host) officially welcomes the guests by introducing the top table and/or any speakers and entertainers before reciting the “Selkirk Grace.” Although often attributed to Burns, the “Selkirk Grace” is actually a 17th-century grace that Burns popularised after he delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it,
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

3) Pipe in the Haggis

The haggis is the most important part of a Burns Supper and must be honoured by being piped in to a standing audience. If you don’t actually have a friend with bagpipes, the music could just be played on a computer or record player.  The chef then follows the piper, carrying the haggis on a silver platter and accompanied by the person who will address the haggis (yes, really). Don’t be turned off by the idea of this traditional Scottish dish made from sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lung), as many vegetarian and easier-to-digest recipe options are now available.

4) “Address to a Haggis”

Fair fa’ yer honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!

The full text of this, one of Burns’ most famous poems, is a wordy eight stanzas long, but the recital of it is an integral part of a Burns Supper. The speaker orates a dramatic rendition of the Address with a knife at the ready to carve up the dish for serving. After apologising for “killing” the haggis, the speaker slices it open during the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight” (meaning, “And cut you up with skill”). The Address ends with the speaker raising the platter above his or her head while exclaiming the triumphant words “Gie her a Haggis” to thunderous applause (you may want to warn your guests about the expectations on the audience).

5) Toast to the Haggis

Because the haggis truly is the most important part of the Burns Supper, the honouring of it does not end with the Address. When the applause dies down, a Scotch whiskey toast must be proposed to the haggis, after which all Burns Supper participants can sit down to the meal.

6) The Actual Supper

Spicy haggis, meat or vegetarian, is traditionally served with buttery mashed turnips (“neeps”) and potatoes (“tatties”) and a whiskey cream sauce. A cheese course and dessert may also be part of the meal but it is imperative that you serve only traditional Scottish recipes and, for all those drinking, the meal should be washed down with Scotch whiskey (“uisge beatha” or “water of life”). When the food courses are done and the coffee is served, the speeches may begin.

7) First Performance

The evening’s Chairman introduces the first entertainer who performs one of Burns’ songs or poems, such as “A Red, Red Rose” or “Tam O’ Shanter.” More entertainers can follow, offering poetry or music, over the course of the evening as appropriate.

8) The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

The main speaker of the evening is then introduced by the Chairman to give an elaborate account of Burns’ life, covering his literary prowess, nationalistic pride and even his faults, in a humorous fashion. The speech should conclude with an invitation to join in another heartfelt toast, this time “To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.”

9) Toast to the Lassies

The “Toast to the Lassies” was originally a short speech given by a male guest to thank the women for preparing the meal. However, as gender roles have evolved and everyone tends to take part in cooking, this part of the meal has become a humorous speech gently ridiculing the fairer sex. However, the man giving the speech should be forewarned – it is intended to amuse both sides of the audience, as the “lassies” will have a chance to respond and get the final word. At the end of the speech, all the male dinner guests drink a toast to the women’s health.

10) Reply to the Toast to the Lassies (a.k.a. the Toast to the Laddies)

This part of the evening is a chance for a female speaker to respond to the “Toast to the Lassies” with some good-natured ribbing of her own, beginning with a sarcastic “thank you” to the men for their kind words. As with the previous speech, this should be good natured in tone and end with a toast to the men’s health. It is often helpful to select the male and female speech-givers ahead of time so that they can collaborate on their toasts for maximum comedic effect.

11) Vote of Thanks

This is a time for the host, Master of Ceremonies, chef and speakers to be thanked by those who attended the supper and enjoyed their offerings. The guests can select a speaker of their own or celebrate with a thunderous applause, but the gratitude must be genuine and given freely. It should be given at the end of the night, directly before the closing song, meaning it does not have to follow directly after the Reply if there is still coffee and whiskey to drink.

12) Auld Lang Syne

Every Burns Supper ends the same way, with the singing of Burns’ famous song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Not just for New Year’s Eve, this famous song about parting should be sung while everyone joins hands in a large circle.

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