Some people, on seeing this “January 25: Robbie Burns Day. You should drink whiskey and eat haggis tonight” on the syllabus, must wondered what Robbie Burns day was. Who was Robbie Burns? Why did he have a holiday? And why, why, would you eat haggis and drink whiskey on this day?
So in response, I’m writing this blog post to explain. The website www.robertburns.org Robert Burns is a famous Scottish famer-turned- poet, born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway in County Ayr, Southwest Scotland to a simple tenant farmer (Which, if you are interested in military history, is two months, nine days, and thirteen years since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite forces were defeated at the Battle of Culloden, ending his attempt to reclaim the throne of Scotland). The house Burns was born in is a historic landmark today.
Burns has quite the rags-to-riches story. He spent most of his childhood and young adult in poverty, moving from failing farmstead to failing farmstead, but by the age of twenty-seven his poetry was well-known in the fashionable circles of Edinburgh, and by the time he died in 1796 he had made a place for himself in Scottish History and Culture as the Scottish Bard. His poetry was particularly interesting for its unabashed use of the Scots dialect. Some of his best known poems are “Tam O’Shanter”, the tale of a rather drunk man who finds himself an unfortunate witness to a fairy dance and must ride for the safety afforded by the river (the poem can even be found engraved on a chair in Holyrood House in Edinburgh) “To a Mouse”, “To a Haggis”, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and one of Scotland’s famous patriotic ballads, “Blind Harry” (the tale of William Wallace, of Braveheart fame).
His poetry also makes appearances in many pieces of famous literature today, including Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of which was taken from the following lines from the seventh stanza of Burn’s famous poem “To A Mouse.”
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft angley”
Today, people all over Scotland celebrate Rabbie Burns day as an act of nationalistic pride. The event starts with the organizer welcoming his guests to the feast and explaining the purpose. The Scottish Selkirk grace is then read, and the meal begins with soup.
Nest, the Haggis enters. The entrance of the Haggis to the celebration is traditionally prefaced by a reading of the poem “To a Haggis”, the poem in which Burns professes Haggis to be the “chieftain of the pudding race” (line 2) and a bagpiper playing in an event known as the “Piping of the Haggis”. The reader of the poem then has the honour of cutting the haggis for the assembled company. A toast is then made to the haggis and dinner continued.
*This second image is a haggis up close. It’s delicious, despite how it looks.
A proper Rabbie Burns celebration also includes the reading of the poet’s works and singing of his songs (preferably while enjoying the refreshments, to add to the truly Scottish character of the event) by all involved, in a communal reading that brings the oral culture still largely seen in the Scotland of Burns to inhabit the modern world. Elegies to Burns are also traditionally seen.The evening ends with the singing of one of the most well-known bits of Burn’s work, “Auld Lang Syne.”
So, I encourage you to go forth and celebrate! I know this post comes late, but there’s never a bad time to celebrate the works of a great national poet!
Here are some sites you can visit to learn more about the things I mentioned here:
I also recommend Robert Burns, a Very Peculiar History by Fiona McDonald, and am willing to lend my copy to anyone who is interested!