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How to Host the Perfect Burns Night

4th January 2019

You don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy Burns Night. It's an event that celebrates good food, drink and Scotland’s favourite poet, Robert Burns. Take a look at our guide which covers all of the key elements you need to throw the perfect Burns Night.

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns is also referred to as ‘Rabbie Burns’ or ‘The Bard of Ayrshire’. He was a Scottish poet and lyricist, born in 1759. He is widely celebrated as being the national poet of Scotland. He produced over 550 poems during his lifetime - the most famous of which is ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

What is Burns Night?

The very first Burns Nicht (Burns Night) took place in 1801. It was five years after Robert Burns’ death, and consisted of a simple memorial supper attended by his closest friends. Since then, Burns Night has become an extremely popular event, not just in Scotland but all over the world. It is an evening spent enjoying traditional Scottish food and celebrating the life and work of Scotland’s Bard.

A traditional Burns Night supper involves reading aloud songs, poems and stories. These include works by Robert Burns. Plus, it all happens in a very specific order.

Others, however, encourage their guests to write their own poems or bring works by their favourite author. It all depends on you and your guests.

Burns Night Activities

When to Host Burns Night

Burns night is traditionally held on or around the 25th of January, which is Robert Burns’ birthday. Although, many people choose to host it on a weekend to allow time for recovery from all the merriment. If you want to go the whole hog and hire bagpipers, Scottish dancers or a céilidh band, your date may depend on when they’re available.

Burns Night Table Decorations

Make sure your dinner table is equipped to deal with your Burns Night feast. If you’re only hosting a few close friends, choose a round table for a more intimate and social feel. If there’s quite a group of you, a large rectangular table is best. You should ensure your host sits at the head to direct the evening’s agenda.

Tartan is widely considered the pattern of Scotland, so ensure you feature lots of it in your evening. Tartan napkins, table runners and cushions will create a warm and comfortable feel. It will also please any Scottish guests you have!

Burns Night Activities
Burns Night Activities
Burns Night Activities

Burns Night Music

Burns Night usually begins with the ‘Piping in of the Guests’ which consists of someone playing the bagpipes as your guests enter. If you cannot recruit a bagpiper, a CD or playlist will do just as good a job of setting the scene.

Burns Night Speeches

Traditionally, Burns Night is interspersed with a variety of poems and songs, including ‘The Selkirk Grace’, which is read before the first course to give thanks for the good food and company. The ‘Address to the Haggis’, a poem by Robert Burns in which he celebrates this famous Scottish dish, is also read by The Chair (the host) before the main course is served. The ‘Toast to the Lassies’ is made later on in the evening, and should praise the role of women in both Robert Burns’ life and today’s society, with references to the female guests present at the dinner for a more personal touch. There is then the ‘Reply to the Toast to the Lassies’, which is an opportunity for the ladies to respond to the previous speech. These two toasts are widely regarded as being a way for both sexes to light-heartedly poke fun at one another and should always be carried out and received with tact and good-humour!

Burns Night Activities
Burns Night Activities
Burns Night Activities
Burns Night Activities

Burns Night Drinks

Whisky is generally considered the drink of choice for a Burns Night. A splash is often added to the haggis as well as serving a wee dram with each course. Talisker ten year old whisky is praised as being an excellent match for haggis as its peppery taste complements the meatiness of this Scottish dish.

A full bodied red wine or ale can also be served for those who do not like whisky.

Don't Forget Rabbie Burns Himself

A proper Burns Night is an opportunity to learn more about the man himself. Take time to read up on his life and works, and prepare a few poems to read throughout the evening. Encourage your guests to do the same and you’ll never be short of a conversation starter.

The Finale

Ensure you have a cosy room (roaring fire preferable), where your guests can relax and recline after dinner to share their poems and possibly a few more glasses of whisky. At the end of the evening, thank The Chair for hosting and the guests for coming along. Then join hands and sing 'Auld Lang Syne' to complete your perfect Burns Night.

Useful Resources:

The official Robert Burns site contains a vast amount of information on the man himself. This includes his complete works translated from Scottish into English. There's also a Burns encyclopaedia and a detailed itinerary (all speeches included) for a traditional Burns supper.

This site has a plethora of fascinating Burns trivia, including an animated video telling the story of Robert Burns. There's various quizzes on his life and works, and even a worldwide rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne'!

Scotland’s National Tourism Organisation has an excellent section on Robert Burns. This includes traditional Scottish recipes and a long list of Burns festivals and attractions. It also lists a number of visitor trails across Ayrshire, Arran, Dumfries, and Galloway. You can explore the many places Burns lived and worked throughout his lifetime.

Image credits: Header:, 1. "Robert burns". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -, 2. "Tam o' Shanter and Souter Johnny at Kirkton Jean's" by Unknown - Scanned from an old book. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -, 3. Collage -, 4. From L to R:

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