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Rabbie Burns: Scotland’s Greatest Poet

The first major festival of any year comes late in January; it marks one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Yet it is only marked in two countries of the United Kingdom: to Scotland the country of his birth and in Northern Ireland. It is marked in Scottish and Irish communities in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA however.

Who Was Robert “Rabbie” Burns?

Robert (or Rabbie as he is also known) Burns was born on 25th January 1759 and in life because one of the great Romantic poets, not to mention one of the earliest of the movement. He passed away following the removal of an infected tooth and died in July 1796. The death was not sudden, however. He had been ill for quite some time. In his life, he penned many poems – some in his native Gaelic but almost as many in English which has a distinctive Scottish lilt. Despite this strong Scotch flavour, it is accessible to all.

Most of us know Burns by his most famous work, the New Year anthem Auld Lang Syne. He did write it as a Hogmanay song, but today it is synonymous with New Year for almost everybody in the western world. His fame goes beyond the song; his poetry was loaded with political commentary and it is said that his works inspired the early shoots of a political movement we today know as “social liberalism”. He spoke out in favour of the French Revolution and campaigned for political reform in Britain, something that did not go down well with many of his friends and family.

What Does a Burns Supper Look Like?

The tradition of sitting down to eat a commemorative meal was born out of a social gathering of his friends on the first anniversary of his passing. Yet the love that the Scottish people had for Burns meant that the commemorative meal passed into the public sphere. Burns Clubs followed and are all over the world today. Outside of the UK, there is a large Burns Night celebration at Denedin, New Zealand.

Several of his most famous poems concerned the haggis. Today, Address to a Haggis is the traditional reading for the opening of a Burns Night Supper, recited while the food is being presented. A toast of Scotch whisky follows completion of the reading, to which the guests raise a toast to the haggis. Finally, the gathering will then tuck into the haggis which they will eat with turnip and potato. There are several more toasts throughout the evening, further readings, and finally, the night closes with Auld Lang Syne.

What Burns Says We Should Do With a Haggis

Haggis is known as a Scottish national dish and largely because of Burns writings. It is eaten on Burns Night just because of his famous poem Address to a Haggis. It has eight verses, written in English but in a style for a Scottish accent. Why not put on your best Scotch accent and try it? The first verse goes:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Which translates as:

Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

Haggis may be a great winter dish, but eating it is not the only thing you can do with it. There is a Haggis Hurling Competition every year on the 25th January at Burns Cottage in Alloway, for example.