About Robert Burns
Known in medieval Celtic culture as a story teller, verse maker and composer, the word ‘Bard’ has become synonymous with the world’s greatest poets. However, few are as celebrated as Scotland’s own ‘National Bard’, Robert Burns, who we pay tribute to on 25 January each year.
Burns Night brings to mind forkfuls of peppery haggis and wee drams of whisky but the history of the festivities is often taken for granted.
The Burns Supper is a celebration of the life and legacy of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. While it was first organised by his close friends and family as a memorial dinner, the night has since evolved into an event for Scots at home and around the world.
It is celebrated with traditional Scottish fare, folk music and renditions of Burns’s poetry.
Who was Robert Burns?
‘Rabbie’ Burns penned more than 550 poems and songs before his death in 1796.
A massive source of inspiration to the founders of Liberalism and Socialism, the 18th-century writer is known for his astute social commentary and focus on all things political. Scotland’s national poet is considered a revolutionary figure, both in his homeland and beyond.
The “greatest Scot of all time”, the writer from Ayrshire died of rheumatic fever at the age of just 37.
When is Burns Night?
Burns Night falls on 25 January every year.
The date was chosen to coincide with the poet's birthday, who was born on 25 January 1759.
The first Burns supper hosted by the Burns Club was held on 29 January 1802, on what was thought to be Burns' birthday.
However, the following year the discovery of parish records revealed that the late poet's birthday was actually four days prior.
How is it celebrated?
At the heart of the celebration is the Burn’s Supper or Burns Night—a traditional Scottish dinner typically accompanied by numerous drams of Scotland’s whisky. This traditionally involves participants donning tartan, listening to bagpipes, crooning Auld Lang Syne – also sung at New Year’s Eve – and reciting the great writer’s songs and poems.
The song Auld Lang Syne was derived from a poem penned by Burns in 1788, which he originally sent to the Scots Musical Museum.
Burns Night celebrations commonly incorporate the Saltire, the national flag of Scotland.
While the first Burns Supper was first held way back in 1801 and new rituals have since been appended, the crux of the celebration remains unchanged and revolves around paying tribute to Burns in whatever way feels most fitting.
What’s in the traditional dinner?
The jewel in the crown of any Burns Supper is always haggis, a savoury ‘pudding’ containing minced sheep’s heart, liver and lungs bound with onion, oatmeal, suet, stock and a selection of spices. It is traditionally bound in the animal’s stomach.
Burns describes haggis as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-‘race” and a traditional Burns Night kicks off with a host reading his “Address to a Haggis”.
Haggis is served with the classic side of mashed neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes). The food is, of course, accompanied by the finest domestic whisky.
Whisky to celebrate Burn’s Night.
Any Scotch whisky will do, although if you want to be historically accurate then look to single malt, cask strength offerings, ideally ones that were Sherry cask matured and that included some peated malt in their mash bills.
Neither blended whisky nor vatted malts existed in 1796. Blended whisky wasn’t legalized till Gladstone’s Spirits Act of 1865. For that matter, outside of a few Lowland Distilleries, most of which would have been undrinkable anyway, virtually all of the single malt whisky in Scotland would have been bootleg. It wasn’t until the enactment of the Excise Tax in 1823 that widespread legal Scotch whisky production was born.
Bottled Scotch Whisky
Scotch was bottled at cask strength until WW I. The British government reduced the bottling proof to 40% ABV/80 proof to reduce drunkenness among munitions workers following their lunch or dinner breaks.
There aren’t a lot of options that meet all three criteria, but several do and there are a few more that come close.
Consider Aberlour A’bunadh. This whisky isn’t peated but it is bottled at cask strength, usually around 60% ABV, plus or minus, and is matured entirely in a Sherry cask. It’s a style of Scotch whisky that 19th century participants in a Burn’s Supper would find quite familiar.
The Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve (70cl, 40%)
Glenlivet 15yo is finished, as the name suggests, in Limousin French Oak (the same kind that is used for many Cognacs). Expect rich notes of fruit, almonds and sweet spice.
Tamnavulin Sherry Cask Edition (70cl, 40%)
A wonderfully well-sherried single malt from the Tamnavulin Distillery, which begins its life in American oak barrels before being finished in three different types of sherry casks! Three of 'em! Shouldn't come as a surprise, but if you're a fan of all those Christmas cakey, chocolatey, red berry-y notes, you'll probably be into this one from the Speyside-based distillery.
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