Did You Know?
- How to Organise a Burns Supper
BackgroundRobert Burns> was born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway> in Scotland and died on 21 July 1796. In his short life he made a tremendous impression on many people in Scotland, so it was only natural that they should want to mark his life and works with some sort of celebration. The first recorded Burns supper was in 1801 in Alloway when a group of his friends gathered, not in January but in July to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. Some of the traditions which have grown up were established on that first occasion - haggis as the main course and whisky with which to mark the many toasts. The haggis was addressed at that first meal, after all the poet himself had provided the perfect words with which to do so in his poem "Address to a Haggis".
Since those early beginnings, the custom of holding a "supper" to the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns has become a world-wide phenomenon - anywhere that lovers of Scotland and its culture are gathered. Certain traditions have grown up around the event but individual organisations can also establish their own way of doing things. After all, celebrating someone who believed in the equality of man should not be a regimented affair!
Things to Consider
While the event is to mark the birth of Burns on 25 January, 1759, it is not essential to have your Burns Supper exactly on that date. Indeed, some of the better events are arranged before or after so that they can obtain the most popular speakers and entertainers.
You need to consider numbers attending, catering facilities and where the guests will be travelling from (and returning to, at the end of the event). Remember also to book the venue well in advance - a year ahead is not unusual. Also, allow enough space not just for the diners but also for the entertainers. And the top table guests will require a pathway to walk in procession to their seats.
The Chairman's role as "Master of Ceremonies" is a very important both at the start and during the entertainment to control "who does what, when". He may also be the person to give the address to the haggis and it certainly helps to have someone with authority since he may have to quieten down garrulous, tipsy and noisy guests, especially when the entertainers are performing.
So that guests know what to expect, the Chairman may well run over the sequence of events (a printed menu and toast list at each table can help here). Either the Chairman or someone else appropriate will also ensure that the "Selkirk Grace" is said before the meal begins.
Some hae meat and canna eat;
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thankit.Bill of Fare (Menu)
The haggis (usually carried on high by the chef) will be piped in (with the guests all standing at this time) and the Chairman or someone designated by him will deliver the Burns' "Address to a Haggis". You need someone who can not only speak the Scots words (it doesn't have to be off by heart but it certainly helps) but also someone who can add a bit of acting to the performance - especially when he gets to the "An, cut you up wi' ready slight; Trenching your gushing entrails bright". Make sure whoever is giving the address has a knife for that bit! The piper and the chef will be offered a dram of whisky at the end. While whisky should really be sipped, most recipients drink it quickly, in part so that the proceedings may continue! Guests can of course join in the toast if they wish!
You have to decide whether the haggis, accompanied by champit tatties and bashed neeps (mashed potatoes and turnip/swedes), is to be the main course or the starter. When catering for those who are not perhaps used to the richness of haggis, a small portion as a starter may be the appropriate choice. In which case the haggis would be followed a simple Scottish soup (such as Cock-a-Leekie or Scotch broth) and a main course of your choice. Some annual Burns Suppers stick to the same bill of fare each year, others will vary. Something with a Scottish flavour is probably appropriate such as Roastit Bubbly-Jock (roast turkey) or Aberdeen Angus beef. Your caterer may be able to advise.
If you are having a dessert, again something with a Scottish element is appropriate - recipes for Caledonian Cream, Cranachan, Edinburgh Fog and Scotch Trifle are all in the Traditional Scottish Recipes> section.
This should be the next highlight of the evening, once the meal is finished. The Chairman should ensure that the serving staff are finished before the speeches begin as nothing spoils a speech more than the noise of dishes being cleared away! He will also introduce each of the speakers in turn. The Chairman will probably allow a "comfort break" at the end of the meal before the speeches and again before the entertainers get going.
The obligatory speeches are an appreciation of "The Immortal Memory" of Rabbie Burns and "To the Lassies". Many traditional Burns Suppers are men-only affairs, in which case there may be no lady to give a "Response from the Lassies".
Speakers come in all shapes and sizes but at a Burns Supper it is hoped that they not only include plenty of humour (Burns would have appreciated that) and quotations but they should also give an insight into the man, his life and his works. If the audience is inspired to look out the poems of Burns the next day, the speakers will have done their job well.
Entertainment - "The Sangs and Clatter"
Who you have will depend on availability but the singing of Burns' songs and/or reciting of his poems will undoubtedly be included and if you can get a fiddler, so much the better. While the performers will no doubt include some of the gentle Burns love songs, it is worth remembering that by this time the audience may well be "unca fu" as they may have consumed a fair quantity of Scotch whisky. Consequently they may not be in a mood to sit quietly and listen attentively. So getting the guests to join in a rousing chorus of "The Star o' Rabbie Burns"> may be a good move. Reciting "Tam O' Shanter" is a frequent occurrence at Burns Suppers but it needs a good actor/performer to hold the attention of the audience during such a long item. If the entertainment is going to last a long time, an interval break may be appropriate.
The Conclusion - "Auld Lang Syne"
At the end of the evening there should be short votes of thanks - to the speakers, the entertainers, the catering staff, the organiser(s) of the event. And don't forget a vote of thanks to the Chairman too!
The formal part of the evening is brought to a close with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne"> - a song which is known around the world. Sometimes each main verse is sung by one of the entertainers but it is also an opportunity to get individual guests to take one verse. Everyone joins in the chorus, standing and joining hands at the last verse.
A nice touch, if it can be arranged, is to have a large pot of hot soup, served in cups to guests before they depart. Alcohol is very dehydrating and a cup of warm liquid (especially before going out into a cold January night in northern parts of the world) is very welcome!
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