How To Host A Fuss-Free Burns Night
Piping in the haggis in the restaurant at the Savoy Hotel, London. Photograph by Evening Standard/Getty Images
Wherever you’re from, here’s how to join in with the Scottish celebration in style.
I know what you’re thinking. Burns Night is that weird annual tartan tradition where professional Scotsmen rampage through the heather on wild haggis hunts, snort whisky, shout poetry, eat kilts, ritually torch effigies of Mr Calvin Harris (hence the celebration’s name) and generally proclaim their superiority to the English and every other race. Right?
As a Scotsman – and several years’ exile in London has rendered me even more professionally Celtic – I’m here to dispel those myths. We don’t burn effigies of our countryman who’s the world’s highest paid DJ, only singe them. The rest, though, is true.
Well, kind of. Burns Night is on 25 January, and marks the birthday in 1759 of Mr Robert “Rabbie” Burns, Scotland’s national poet. This dashing ploughman was famed for his political, polemical and comical versifying, his drinking and his enthusiastic pursuit of 18th-century ladyfolk. Our People’s Poet lived fast, died young and left a beautiful body of work that was the toast of Ayrshire fields, Edinburgh high society and Scots’ national sense of self. No wonder we love him still.
But everyone, whatever their background, can share that love, courtesy of a Burns Supper. This is a dinner-cum-party-cum-hootenanny ostensibly freighted with ritual and rote. But, equally, as it’s also lubricated and liberated by whisky, you can feel wholly free to have fun with the evening. Because, after all, freedom and fun are what Rabbie the iconoclast was all about.
What to wear
Frankly, you can wear whatever you like; Burns Night has no dress code. Toffs, misty-eyed expats and cultural carpetbaggers might try to persuade you that full Highland regalia is the order of the evening. But it’s worth remembering that Rabbie, for all his literary accomplishment, was more jock ’n’ roll than fine ’n’ dandy, equally at home in roistering drinking house and genteel parlour.
That said: requesting that all your guests wear a tartan item – any tartan item – is a nice, inclusive, easy touch. From personal experience, most of your female guests will own, or can secure, a Black Watch tartan mini-skirt, Royal Stewart tartan Alice band, plaid tights, Argyle hosiery or some permutation thereof. And so can the men.
But by all means, if you can, wear a kilt. No matter how stick-thin, football-battered or bandy your legs, everyone looks good in a kilt. Also worth noting: ladies love a chap in a kilt. Especially if, as kilted tradition does dictate, his caber is swinging free underneath.
What to serve
Fun fact: the haggis is not an animal native to the misty, rain-lashed mountains of Caledonia. It is a lamb-based dish that is also, at base, peppery and oaty. Reassuring fact: no, it is not, these days, encased in a sheep stomach. Imagine the inside of a spicy, lamby sausage with a pleasing, chewy bite and you’re almost there.
If you can, buy your haggis from Macsween (available in many supermarkets, and online). The Edinburgh butchers are so skilled that even their vegetarian version is considered kosher rather than sacrilegious.
Then, as it’s supplied cooked, all you have to do is reheat the haggis. Side dishes: piles of mashed tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). You can obviously sex up the mashes with cream, herbs, etc, but don’t get carried away. You don’t want to go all foodie on this perfectly simple meal.
And that, pretty much, is it. Save your energy and resources for the whisky, which is drunk in toast to The (Other) Bard, and to help everyone relax into the evening’s other elements. We’ll follow the lead of recent MR PORTER guest Mr James McAvoy and recommend peaty Talisker or Laphroaig.
What to do
This is a tradition of two halves. Firstly, strictly speaking, the steaming haggis should be brought to the table accompanied by the strains of a bagpiper. If you can’t find a real piper, crank up the Spotify. Then, one of Burns’ foundational poems, “Address To A Haggis”, should be recited by a Scottish, eager and/or naïve guest. At verse three (“His knife see rustic Labour dight/An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight/Trenching your gushing entrails bright”) the haggis should be ritually pierced. Then, once the recitation is complete, dinner is served.
There endeth the sole bit of actual ceremony. Now the real fun can begin. Every attendee should take the floor to read some Burns. Full disclosure: his old-time Scots dialect is challenging stuff to wrap your tongue around, even if you can really roll your “r’s”. But so what? No highfalutin poet laureate he: reciting Burns’ poems is all about having a go, and having a laugh. Especially when comes the turn of the guest who’s been given one of Burns’ greatest compositions, “Cock Up Your Beaver”. It’s about a hat. But you knew that.
And then it’s all over, bar the postprandial dancing – which, of course, should go late, loud and involve The Proclaimers.