Every year on January 25th, people the world over celebrate Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, with food, song and poetry. You can generally find several Burns Night Suppers held around town, but you can also host your own at home! All you need is good friends, good food, and (if you choose) good whisky. Plus, a book of Robert Burns poems and songs.
Love it or loathe it, Haggis is the star of the menu. Several butchers here in Victoria make haggis, so it's usually not a problem to secure one for Burns Night. Haggis is a savoury pudding made from sheep's heart, liver and lungs with oatmeal, onions, suet and spices all tucked neatly into a sheep's stomach. Even for devoted offal eaters, this may sound like a bit much but t's actually very nice. Keep an open mind and maybe buy a small one if it's your first time out. A quick internet search and you'll be rewarded with all sorts of modern ways to serve haggis―from canapes to sophisticated stacks.
Traditionally, the haggis is piped in on a silver platter. And so, that means bagpipes. If your dinner is big enough and if you have the room and the budget, you can hire a piper. If that seems a bit over the top, simply play some bagpipe music via mp3 or CD. A Man’s A Man For A’ That by Burns himself is the song that's usually played and it's not hard to find a quality recording of the song.
If Haggis isn't your thing, consider smoked salmon or lamb stew as a main dish. Other standard Burns Night fare consists of a soup course of cock-a-leekie or Scotch broth; neeps and tatties (rutabaga/swede and potatoes) followed by cranachan (a whisky cream, fruit and oatmeal dessert) and cheese plate. For kids and non-drinkers, it's simple enough to make a batch of cream for the cranachan without the whisky.
You can go simple and elegant with a white tablecloth, your best dishes and fresh heather in small vases. Or for a more rustic look, pull out your favourite tartans and plaids and set the table with brightly coloured Fiestaware in complimentary hues. Either way, you're going to want to have loads of candles. Poetry and whisky is always better by candlelight. Another great idea is to scour second hand book shops for copies of Burns poetry. Place a copy at each guest's seat in lieu of place cards that can double as a take home memento of the evening.
The Scots are renowned for whisky and so it makes sense that this spirit features heavily in many Burns Night celebrations. From toasting the haggis, the piper, the cook, the hosts, the lassies and so on and so on, you're going to want enough whisky for all your guests. Choose as nice a bottle as your budget will allow. It is also customary to have plenty of wine to compliment your menu. For the non-drinkers, sparkling water garnished with fresh raspberries is a sophisticated option. Tea is usually served with the dessert and cheese course along with (you guessed it) more whisky.
It is customary for the host to let guests know what to wear. If you're hosting a very formal gathering, request your guests dress accordingly. Full highland regalia can be rented for the occasion. For a casual evening, it can be fun to advise guests to come as they are with a touch of tartan. Or make boutonnieres and corsages of heather tied with tartan ribbons to give to each guest to wear upon arrival.
The Readings & Toasts & Grace
There are some pretty formal Burn's Night celebrations that follow a strict schedule as to what is said when. For a dinner party at home, you can adhere to tradition as closely or as loosely as you like. If you'd like to keep it simple, it can be fun to include the Address to the Haggis, The Selkirk Grace and end with singing Auld Lang Syne. Or you can even just pass around a book of Burns' poetry and have your guests read something of their choice. There are many resources online to guide you through the traditional order of things, if you're interested. No matter your approach, a Burns Night must have poetry.
Burns wrote many beautiful songs and these can be played or sung throughout the evening. Create a playlist ahead of time to play as ambient music, but take time to play some of his more famous tunes for everyone to listen to together. Green Grow the Rashes, O, My heart's in the Highlands, and Oh My Love is Like a Red Red Rose are good ones to include. Auld Lang Syne, Burns' most famous song, is sung at the end of the evening. Encourage guests to link arms and sing together. Here's where the whisky and wine consumed throughout the evening may help your more shy guests along.
So, here you have the basics for a Burns Supper. It's a great excuse for a party to brighten up the cold and dreary days that can follow Christmas and an excellent way to honour poetry, music and the Scots in your life.