Real English: Robert Burns and Burns Night

In our Real English video this month we are talking about the poet Robert Burns, what Burns’ Night is, and how we celebrate it.

Our language focus this month is modifiers and collocations. Watch the video and then look at our interactive blog about Burns to work on your reading skills too!

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Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet born in Alloway on the 25th January 1759. His father William Burns was a tenant farmer, which means he didn’t own the land he farmed. William was also pretty bad at his job, which meant the family often struggled for money. However, he did value education and made sure that his son had the best possible education through private tutors, the parish school and teaching him himself. The result was that Robert (or Rabbie, as he is fondly known in Scotland) was highly educated. 

Photo of Robert Burn's childhood home in Ayrshire.
Robert Burn’s childhood home

Despite going on to hang out with aristocrats, he never forgot his origins and a lot of his poems and songs talk about both nature and the countryside as well as express egalitarian views.
When his father died, Robert tried to take over the family farming business, but he was as bad as his father. He was also in need of money as thanks to being popular with the ladies he already had a number of children from various women.

How did Robert Burns become a poet?

Looking for options for work, he was offered a position as a bookkeeper in Jamaica. At the time, Jamaica was a British colony producing sugar through slave labour. The position of “book-keeper” was misleading as the job really entailed over-seeing slaves. In order to take the job he needed to raise money for the ticket there, so he published a collection of poems. This collection is known as the Kilmarnock edition. It was published on the 31st July 1786 and quickly became a hit all over the country. This is now a holy grail for Burns fans, and a first edition of the book sold for £40,000 in 2012!
Rabbie was all set to head off to Jamaica and had said goodbye to his friends and family when his publisher suggested a second expanded edition, and went to Edinburgh instead. Here he fell in with the literati, those at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment and became a big hit. Here’s what Walter Scott, who met him when he was 16 years old, had to say about him:
“His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”
This popularity wouldn’t last though, as Burns would go on to write a great many poems with egalitarianism as their theme. These ideals, along with his interest in the American and French revolutions did not sit well with his upper class friends, and they eventually cut ties. 

Why is Robert Burns so popular?  
However it is these egalitarian ideals that have made Burns so popular, even today. He was chosen as Poet of the People in Russia during the communist regime, and remains extremely popular. His song “A Man’s a Man for a’That”, celebrating unity between mankind and highlighting the importance of good character over riches, was sung at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament in Holyrood.
After Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns is the non-religious with most statues in the world! His poems also have environmental themes, making him very much ahead of his time. 
In his song Westlin’ Winds he criticises man for disrupting nature’s social union, and John Steinback’ novel “of Mice and Men” got its title from Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”. And of course his love poems and songs are extremely popular. Bob Dylan said the song “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” has been his greatest inspiration.
He died young at only 37 on the 27th July 1796, and his 13th child was born on the day of his funeral. 5 years after his death 9 of his friends decided to meet at his old cottage and celebrate his life. They made a toast to him and sang his songs and read his poems. And they had a delicious meal which included haggis!
They decided to do it again on his birthday, and this is how the Burns’ Supper began. It was also around this time that the first Burns Club was formed. The Robert Burns World Federation had 250 clubs on their books in 2013 all over the globe, so you can see that they were popular!

Why do we celebrate Burns Night?

 To celebrate Robert Burns of course! Burns’ Night is when we celebrate Rabbie Burns much in the same way as his 9 friends did in 1801. What you do on the night depends on how formal the meal is, but there is one thing in common and that’s the food! 

What do you eat at a Burn’s supper?

You normally start with a soup course, usually a traditional Scottish soup such as Scotch brothleek and potatocullen skink, or cock-a-leekie. Second course is of course haggis, neeps and tatties! 

Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish (not a wild animal like we sometimes like to tell tourists). ​It’s made with oats and the cheap cuts of meat like the heart, lungs and liver. It’s mixed up with lots of spices and then traditionally wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. It sounds horrible, but it’s delicious! Ig it’s not your thing, you can also get some delicious vegetarian haggis as well these days. Neeps are turnips, and tatties are potatoes. Sometimes they are mixed together and mashed, and then it’s called clapshot.
Finally, for dessert, it’s again usually a traditional Scottish sweet like cranachan (raspberries with whipped cream, whisky and honey), and there is often a cheese board too.

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What do you do at a Burn’s Supper?

An informal supper will mainly consist of eating a meal and reading Burns poems or singing his songs, but a more formal supper has an established order. 

Piping in the guests – You’ll be welcomed to your Burns’ Supper but a bagpiper leading you into the room

The Host’s Welcome – Here the host will give a welcome speech

The Selkirk Grace Although this poem is attributed to Burns he probably didn’t write it. He did however recite it when he was at a dinner in Selkirk, hence the name. It is read out before the start of the meal

Some hae meat and canna eat,
   And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
   Sae let the Lord be thankit.
(in English it means)
Some have meat and cannot eat,
   Some cannot eat that want it;
But we have meat and we can eat,
   So let the Lord be thankit.

Address to a Haggis – Before the main course, the poem “Address to a Haggis” is read. It’s a poem basically talking about how brilliant haggis is, and that Burns would eat it before other posh food. It includes a line about sharpening a knife and cutting the haggis open, and when the (usually) host reads these they also take out and sharpen a knife, then cut the haggis. 

The Toasts – After the food, the speeches and toasts begin. There are 3 toasts you need to do: The Immortal memory, Address to the Lassies, and Reply to the Laddies.

The Immortal Memory – this is a speech which celebrates the life of Burns, includes anecdotes about him and generally talks about how brilliant he is.

Address to the Lassies – originally, this was just a thank you for the women who had prepared the meal, but now it’s wide-ranging and gives the speaker’s view on women. It’s meant to be funny and tongue in cheek, but not offensive. 

Reply to the Laddies – the follow on is this toast which replies to the comments the speaker of Address to the Lassies made. It’s also supposed to be funny, and again not offensive. Both speakers usually work together so the speeches compliment each other, and some are even written in verse!

Works by Burns – After all the speeches, it’s time to celebrate the bard. If you’re lucky enough to have musicians at your supper you might get some songs as well as poems. At a really big Burns supper there is sometimes ceilidh dancing, a party with traditional Scottish dances. 

However you choose to celebrate, we hope that you have a brilliant time and raise a glass to our national bard! Wishing you a very happy Burns’ night.

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