Robert Burns is a key figure in the Scottish national character. Although Scotland has no national holiday, the traditional celebration of his birthday is seen as a celebration of Scottish culture as well. But in addition to the celebration of traditional Scottish foods and culture, the traditional program of a "Burns supper" is a celebration of poetry.
While the menu includes traditional Scottish dishes ranging from haggis to tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips), there is a traditional program as well with poems accompanying each momentous event of the night.
The night opens with the Selkirk Grace, a prayer in Scots:
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.
Some have meat and cannot eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we have meat, and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankèd.
Other traditional poems read throughout the night include the "Auld Lang Syne" (usually sung at the end of the supper), as well as a reading of several Burns poems, often including "To a Mouse" (the source of the famous line "The best laid schemes o' mice and men / Gang aft agley" or "oft go awry"), "To a Louse," "Tam O'Shanter," and "Holy Willie's Prayer."
But the highlight of the night is the dramatic reading of Burns's poem "Address to a Haggis." The haggis is brought in with ceremony, which may include bagpipes. Then a speaker addresses the haggis with the traditional Scots poem. At specific times in the recital, which correspond to lines in the text, the speaker draws a knife, polishes it, and cuts the haggis casing.
While the Burns supper is a night celebrating Scottish culture, it is steeped in the language of poetry. The night encourages original compositions (specifically in the Toast to the Lassies and the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies), and any poetic work that would please the audience. For a night of fun, poetry and culture, find a Burns supper in your area!
To learn more about Robert Burns, read his collected poetry or Understanding Robert Burns:Verse, Explanation and Glossary by Robert Burns and George Scott Wilkie.