Robert Burns Dinners
The tradition of hosting a Burns Dinner on January 25th, the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, was started in Scotland and has become a worldwide phenomenon for people of Scottish heritage, people who love all things Scottish and people who appreciate the pleasure of a good single-malt scotch.
Hard to say why this particular poet evokes such loyalty around the world, but it probably has to do with the populist nature of his poetry, the lively ring of a Scottish brogue and the good fun that can be had dressing up in kilts and plaids. One can image Edgar Allen Poe Soirees or Marcel Proust Brunches but there is no other writer who is celebrated so widely in this manner. Perhaps it's just an excuse to entertain a small group of friends in a way that is more interesting and fun than your ordinary dinner party.
What you need to host a Robert Burns Dinner: Because these dinners derive from customs in old Scotland, the dinner tends to be a bit more formal than what we're accustomed to. The dining table should be large enough to seat all your guests because there are various toasts and readings throughout the dinner. You should accumulate some Rabbie Burns gear (framed pictures of the poet which you can copy from the Internet, sprigs of thistle, Scottish flags, bits of plaid) to decorate the table and the mantle. Bottles of scotch strategically placed add to the ambiance. You need several books of Burns poetry so that people can leaf through them and find poems to read in front of the fireplace after dinner. If you have travelled in Scotland, photographs from the trip can also add to the décor. There are a number of CDs with Burns' songs for background music. Not everyone has or wants to buy a kilt or other traditional Scottish clothing, though it is easily available on the Internet. But the evening is more festive if people dress up and the host and hostess should encourage their guests to do so and should have some Scottish dress of their own. Having a bagpiper play as the guests enter (or during the formal entry of the haggis dish into the dining room) is a nice touch but certainly not essential.
The Invitation: An old fashioned formal invitation, which you can create on your computer, sets the tone for the evening. A similar format can be used for your place cards.
The food: The menu is made up of traditional Scottish dishes. We have always shared food preparation responsibilities among the group, accessing international recipe collections. It's fun to print out a menu and set it at each place. We follow a traditional menu from the family of one of our members: appetizers including oat cakes and Scottish cheeses, cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties, Alloway peas and a trifle. The haggis is available online, from British specialty shops, frozen or canned. It is essential to have a haggis for the ceremony and for tasting, but since many people don't care for it, we have taken to supplementing with some salmon or other main dish. Courses can be paired with single malt whiskies or wines.
Formal welcome by the host.
Reading of the Selkirk Grace (assigned to one of the participants):
Some hae meat and canna eat
And some would eat that want it
But we hae meat and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
Entrance of the haggis: An assigned reader reads Ode to a Haggis as the haggis is carried into the dining room on your best silver platter. All guests stand as the haggis is brought in. The host makes a ceremonial cut of the haggis at the appropriate time in the reading of the poem.
Additional speeches, toasts and readings: These additional toasts can be worked into the dinner as appropriate, generally between courses or at the end of the meal but while still seated at the table. Each presentation concludes with a toast.
The Immortal Memory: A guest is assigned the responsibility to prepare a brief speech about Burns' life or his poetry, ending in a toast to the poet.
Toast to the lassies: This is a tongue-in-cheek toast by one of the male guests to the ladies present. Click here for a sample.
Response of the lassies: A similar tongue-in-cheek response by one of the ladies. Click here for a sample.
We like to end the evening with scotch and chocolates in front of the fireplace while various guests read aloud their favorite Burns poems.