Burns Night 2023: When is it, who was Robert Burns and what is Burns Night all about?

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Widely seen as Scotland’s national bard, poet Robert Burns is celebrated on January 25 every year - but who was he?

With Christmas and New Year’s out of the way, Scotland prepares to host its first national celebration of 2023, Burns Night. Typically celebrated on January 25 and with the traditional Burns Supper, Scots gather for a night of poetry, whisky and haggis.

Celebrated yearly on the birthday of Robert Burns, the first Burns Night was held in the Burns Cottage on July 21 1801, five years after the poet’s death, as an “in memoriam” service by his friends. Since then the tradition has been moved to January, becoming a yearly celebration.

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Many non-Scots will be familiar with the song Auld Lang Syne, often sung on New Year’s Eve, the lyrics were written by the Scottish bard. And as the people of Scotland and Scots around the world gather to celebrate Robert Burns, we take a look at what Burns Night is, and who the national bard was.

Who was Robert Burns?

The Scottish national bard Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayrshire, and he grew up in poverty and hardship. In fact, Burns spent most of his life in or close to poverty, and had to borrow money from a cousin to bail himself and his wife out on occasions.

Like with so many others, Burns’ work went relatively unnoticed and underappreciated during his lifetime, with his genius recognised first after his death. He died young, only 37 years old on July 21, 1796, but in his short and rather hard life, he managed to write many poems that would cement him as one of the greats.

Often writing in Scots or with a light Scorts dialect, his work includes Auld Lang Syne, Tam o’ Shanter, Ae Fond Kiss, Red, Red Rose, Scots Wha Hae, A Man’s a Man for A’ That and many more. And now, over 250 years after his death, Scots still gather on his birthday every year to honour his work life.

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How is Burns Night celebrated?

Burns Night falls on January 25 and it marks the birthday of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, who died in 1796.Burns Night falls on January 25 and it marks the birthday of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, who died in 1796.
Burns Night falls on January 25 and it marks the birthday of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, who died in 1796.

Burns Night is celebrated with the Burns Supper, which includes iconic Scottish dishes like haggis, tatties and neeps. Whisky is also consumed as poems and songs are recited as tribute.

While many families and gathering celebrate in their own way, the general order of the Burns Supper usually goes:

  • To start – everyone gathers, the host says a few words, everyone sits and the Selkirk Grace is said.
  • The meal – the starter is served, the haggis is piped in, the host performs the famous Burns Night haggis poem Address to a Haggis, everyone toasts the haggis and the main meal is served, followed by dessert
  • After the meal – the first Burns recital is performed after Burns Night food, the Immortal Memory (the main tribute speech to Burns) is given, the second Burns recital is performed, then there’s a Toast to the Lassies, followed by a Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, before the final Burns recital is performed.
  • To end the night – the host gives a vote of thanks, everyone stands and sings Auld Lang Syne, crossing their arms and joining hands at the line ‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!’. (Source: Visit Scotland)
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