Paying Tribute to a Great Scottish Poet: The Burns Supper Tradition

Poet Robert Burns literary assemblage remains a significant part of Scotland’s history. Read on to learn how the country continues to honor their national poet.

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Drawing of Robert Burns in a red coat with flowers behind his shoulder. The name Robert Burns is printed to the left of the page.

Born a farmer in Alloway, Scotland, in 1759, Robert Burns began writing from a very young age, authoring hundreds of works throughout his life. His legacy lies in his preservation of Scottish vernacular and history integrated into his most famous works. Regarded as the National Poet of Scotland, Burns is thought to be the last poet to follow Scottish literary tradition. A centuries old artist, Robert Burns’ significant legacy has not been forgotten. The Burns Supper Tradition is an extravagant feast and party held in remembrance of the great writer.

The Legacy of Robert Burns

Throughout volumes of James Johnston’s Scots Musical Museum, Burns contributed hundreds of songs to old Scottish tunes he discovered on a journey through the Highlands and Scottish Borders in an effort of preservation. As English culture and language began to dominate the world beginning in the 17th century, the language of Burns’ poetry became less and less comprehensible to his audience. Future literary works are thought to only be emulations of Burns, too influenced by the English or Anglo-Scots to be considered traditional Scottish literature.

His poems, songs, and lyrics include many themes ranging from love, friendship, and sexuality to morality, humanity, and cultural identity. An outspoken critic of the church, Robert Burns authored many sympathetically satirical pieces about the social scene. Influenced by the overall societal changes occurring at the time, Burns’ agricultural upbringing connected him to nature, and his emphasis on individualism, freedom, and common romantic themes, Burns is also considered a poet of the pre-Romantic period.

Book cover of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert Burns. A dirt path is bordered by dry grasses and a broken wooden fence leading towards small houses.

His first collection of poems, titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was an immediate success. Yet, it’s his poem Tam o’ Shanter, a mock-heroic, narrative poem about an alcoholic living in the drinking era in the port town of Ayr, that Burns is most famous for. His humble beginnings as a farmer and tenderhearted writings denoted him a voice relatable to the Scottish population.

Book cover of Tam O' Shanter and Souter Johnny, a Poem, by Robert Burns. A dirt path is bordered by dry grasses and a broken wooden fence leading towards small houses.

The Burns Supper Tradition

To pay tribute to the national poet, Scotland celebrates Burns Supper, a 200-year-old holiday observed on Burns’ birthday on January 25th. Although contemporary honors may look different from ones that occurred centuries ago, some key customs remain present at celebrations.

On a plaid table cloth, two cups, one filled with a brown beverage, are featured at the top of the image. A white plate with Scottish foods haggis, neaps, and tatties fills most of the image, with a silver fork and knife on either side.

Traditional food and drink include haggis, neaps, and tatties. Haggis is a seasoned pudding made of sheep heart, liver, and lungs, combined with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal. On the side, neaps are mashed turnips, and tatties are mashed potatoes. Malt whiskey is poured either on top of the meat or served independently. Traditional desserts of Clootie Dumpling or cranachan wrap up the meal.

Modern Scottish music and Burns’ songs and poems serve as entertainment. Poems such as Selkirk Grace and Address to a Haggis are recited by celebrations sporting Scottish tartan fabrics, and his song Auld Lang Syne concludes the night.

Though Robert Burns’ literary greatness was mostly discovered posthumously, his importance to Scottish history, renowned literature, and universal messages remain alive today and are commemorated with fervor.

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