My family got into celebrating Burns Supper when our neighborhood gastropub, the Queen Vic, offered various holiday meals during the pandemic. We read the Wikipedia page while eating, that first year, and improvised some speeches and sang Auld Lang Syne, got a little more serious the second year, and then this year devoted quite a bit of time and preparation.
- How to Host a Burns Supper
- The Life of Robert Burns, by Catherine Carswell. I downloaded the Kindle edition and hurriedly read it the weekend before. Seems like a great biography, though it is famously controversial due to its “warts and all” depiction of Burns with a frankness that had apparently not been similarly true of previous efforts.
- Our program. This wasn’t given to guests, it was just where we kept track of our plans.
Address to a Haggis
- Address to a Haggis read aloud by David Sibbald: This rendition is a good reference on pronunciation, and has better-than-average interpretation. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the other live examples I found, which can be a little weak in how much they convey their understanding of the text.
- Translation & “Free” Translation: I like the idea of the free translation, with some humor, presented here. I used it as a reference to compose a personalized version (which I recommend doing) along with my ten-year-old son, which he read after each stanza. I think for people who are doing Burns Night for the first time, some help with the Scots is useful.
- If you have time, memorize the poem! It frees you up to have a lot of fun presenting it. There are some traditional actions that go along with the recitation, like cutting open the haggis at the right moment, pantomiming weak and under-developed haggis-haters, &c, and all of that’s easier without paper in your hand.
- Shipping up to Boston / Enter Sandman cover by the Goddesses of Bagpipes, which we used to pipe in the haggis. Obviously not the most traditional option, but my opinion is that Rabbie would have approved.
- I had a thirteen-year-old guest play two roles during the poem: first, I had him burp on cue at the line, “The old guidman, maist like to rive–” because I know virtually every thirteen-year-old boy prides himself on his ability to burp on command. Second, I had him stand up for the “But mark the rustic, haggis-fed!” part and act the part of a mighty Scots warrior. I handed him a toy sword for “clap in his walie nieve a blade” and had him pretend to cut off my leg, arm, and head at the appropriate parts in the line following. He did great.
Toast to the Immortal Memory
Toast to the Lassies
- Toast to the Lassies. Composed and delivered by my friend Conrad. He completed it in advance and provided it to Vickie, who composed and delivered the response toast to the laddies.
Toast to the Laddies
- Toast to the Laddies. Composed and delivered by my mother-in-law Vickie.
Auld Lang Syne
- Lyrics printout with some translation. If you’re not going to do the Scots version, why even bother? My son helped point out all the words that he would appreciate having translated. They are placed beneath the original text so that it’s easy to get some helpful context while singing.
- Cock-a-Leekie Soup: Maybe my favorite food from the night. Rebekah said the only hard part of making this recipe was finding barley: she ultimately found it in the international aisle at Safeway.
- Neeps and Tatties
- Whisky cream sauce: There are a bunch of recipes on the linked page: you’ll have to scroll down a bit for the whisky cream sauce.
- Haggis: Didn’t even bother to investigate making my own. This one, from Scottish Gourmet USA, was really tasty: lots of people I wouldn’t have expected asked for seconds. That said, we have a bunch left over (we had eleven people, two of them kids), and haggis definitely doesn’t taste as good the day after. (That distinctive organ-meat smell is more noticeable.) So it might be worth it to order a smaller one. But this one sure looked great during the presentation.
- Green Beans: Burns Supper tradition basically calls for “a vegetable.”
- Cranachan: Delicious. Note the need to start the oats soaking in whisky the night before.
Rebekah handled all the food except for the haggis and cranachan.
We had these whiskies on offer:
- Gordon Graham’s Black Bottle (blended)
- Monkey Shoulder (blended)
- Timorous Beastie (blended)
- Ardbeg Wee Beastie (single malt)
- Kilkerran Heavily Peated (single malt)
Judging by the bottle levels after the event, the Kilkerran Heavily Peated was the clear favorite. “Now that’s what a scotch should taste like,” one attendee said. For me, the Ardbeg Wee Beastie was a very close second. My friend Josh brought the Ardbeg and said it had been specifically recommended as suitable for Burns Suppers (the name certainly lends credence to that intention).
I wasn’t a big fan of the Timorous Beastie, but I’m a single malt fan, so that’s not a huge surprise. I mainly bought it because of the obvious Burns marketing.
This year, we read:
- To a Mouse
- Address to the Deil: A great podcast episode about the poem: Ear Read This
- Tam o’ Shanter: Podcast episode: Ear Read This, Fun video version: Tam o’ Shanter: The Comic
- The Haggis Song: This contribution came from my friend Josh Lee, who worked with ChatGPT to generate a song based on the style of Robert Burns.
…and some other, non-Burns poetry. In general, the reader would stop between stanzas or even between phrases to explain certain words or phrases, which I think helps folks who aren’t familiar with the poems.
All of the poems benefit from spending some time learning the Scots vocabulary beforehand.