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Robert Burns Day: Haggis, Anyone?

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Robert Burns, Ayr, Scotland. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1890 and 1900.

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!”

(Robert Burns, Address To A Haggis)

I hope you’ve already begun preparing your Burns Supper, because today is Robert Burns Day, and it takes several hours to make a proper haggis! If the prospect of dinner cooked in a sheep’s stomach does not appeal, maybe you could just enjoy the traditional sides of neeps and tatties?  (Those are parsnips Swedes – a type of turnip – and potatoes for those of us not as familiar with Scottish cuisine. Updated: Thanks to Martin in the comments for catching my root vegetable mix-up!)

Robert Burns, national poet of Scotland, was born 253 years ago today, and the occasion is marked around the world with readings of his poems, singing of his songs, and yes, drinking Scotch whisky alongside a traditional Burns Supper. Burns died at the young age of 37, but not before producing hundreds of songs and poems. Credited with preserving more than 300 Scottish songs, Burns wrote his own words or set traditional lyrics to new or revised music. In fact, we have Robert Burns to thank for the classic New Year’s Eve song of Auld Lang Syne.

So, fill your glass, don a kilt (if you’ve got one handy) and raise your voice in lyric or verse to celebrate the life of one of Scotland’s favorite sons, Robert Burns!

Scottish-American Journal. Poster, 1878.

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Comments (13)

  1. There’s no such thing as Robert Burns day in Scotland. We have a Burns Supper, or a Burns Nicht, but we don’t wish each other anything as crass as Happy Burns day. We leave that to the colonials and rest of the world…

  2. As a scotsman, I wish to make a correction.

    Neeps are not parsnips but Swedes!

    • Martin, Thank you for the correction! Those root vegetables are hard to keep straight sometimes. I made the fix!

  3. Your Welcome!

  4. I enjoyed this post very much–what a wealth of interesting Burns-related material so clearly organized and easily accessed. Thank you! -Martha

  5. I was born and raised in the USA, with Scottish Grandparents. We’ve always know it as “Burns Nite” as it is a dinner engagement.

    Is there a historical reference to Burns DAY here in the US or elsewhere?

    • Hello Scott,

      A good question! Certainly, Burns Night and the Burns Supper is how the occasion is traditionally marked and described, especially in Scotland. In my searches, I did find it interesting to hear Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, refer to Burns Day in his address on Jan. 25, 2010 and that the phrase seems to be used routinely on the website of The Scotsman. It doesn’t strike me as an attempt to rename the event, but as an easy way to refer to the entire day on which Burns is celebrated.

      Before I go further back in history, other searches reveal a common usage of Robbie Burns Day in Canada, particularly. A search across Canadian websites, many of which are citing newspapers provides many instances of ‘Robbie Burns Day’. The Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada invited people to celebrate Robbie Burns Day this year with a marathon poetry reading.

      I have not done a comprehensive survey for historical references, but can report there are uses of ‘Robert Burns Day’ in American newspapers from just before and after the turn of the 20th century. The earliest I came across in my limited search was from the Jan. 27, 1891 issue of The Daily Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois. Page one offered these headings to an article: “Robert Burns’ Day. The Highland Association Celebrates the Anniversary of his Birth.” An open access database to digitized newspapers on the Library of Congress website known as Chronicling America, offered a few more examples: the Saint Paul Daily Globe of Dec. 23, 1889 and the January 21, 1909 Washington Herald also mention Robert Burns Day. The January 12, 1918 Anaconda Standard out of Anaconda, Montana tells its readers: “Prepare to Observe Robert Burns Day. Daughters of Scots are Arranging Program.” In most cases, the events marking Robert Burns Day are evening programs like a Burns Supper, but for whatever reason, they chose to refer to the day in that manner. In the interest of keeping my reply somewhat brief, I’ll leave off there, but will happily send these and other specific references to you, if you are interested.

      My personal speculation is far simpler. My guess is that referring to January 25 as Robbie Burns Day or Robert Burns Day comes from the instinct to use his birthday as a day to celebrate his incredible contribution to poetry and song and Scottish heritage, so we give him the whole day!

  6. In Scotland whisky is spelled thus NOT whiskey.

    • You are correct! In America, whiskey has that ‘e’, but when referring to Scotch, I should have used ‘whisky’ instead. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Oh dear, I am sorry to make another correction “your welcome” should be you’re welcome. You’re being the diminutive of You are.

    • The use of ‘your welcome’ rather than the correct ‘you’re welcome’ is in a comment by another reader, but perhaps he will see your correction and take note!

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