Skip to content

Burns Night 2024

Authored by Laura Wales
Published on 25th January, 2024 8 min read

Burns Night

Tonight (25/01/2024) is Burns Night, a tradition observed on the birthday of Robert Burns (1759–1796). Robert, or Rabbie, Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist who wrote over 550 poems and songs before his death at the age of 37. Widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, he is the best known poet to have written in the Scots language. Despite this, much of his writing employed a light Scots dialect of English, making his work accessible to audiences beyond Scotland.

His work has become influential throughout the world: Steinbeck drew upon Burns’ To a Mouse (1785) for the title of his novel Of Mice and Men (1937), and pedestrians in Japan cross the road to the jingle of Comin’ Thro’ the Rye (1782). Burns’ Auld Lang Syne (1788) is sung at midnight each New Year across the UK and beyond. His significance even goes beyond the globe: the astronaut Nick Patrick carried a miniature collection of Burns’ poetry on a space mission in 2010. It orbited the earth 217 times, travelling 5.7 million miles.[1]

Robert Burns was the son of a tenant farmer. The eldest of seven children, he continued his father’s profession for much of his life. Robert and his siblings received irregular schooling as they were often needed for labour during the harvest, so it was his father who taught him to read and write. By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant farm in Alloway, South Ayrshire. He had grown up in poverty at Mount Oliphant, weakened by the strenuous manual labour required of him from a young age.

Mount Oliphant Farm in the time of Robert BurnsHe gained a reputation for his illicit relationships and love affairs, and he began writing poetry for the women he pursued. Nelly Kilpatrick inspired his first attempt, O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass (1774), and he wrote two songs, Now Westlin' Winds (1775) and I Dream'd I Lay (1775) for Peggy Thompson. Though he eventually married Jean Armour, with whom he had nine children, he is said to have had at least 12 children by four different women, only five of which survived. Burns’ youngest child, Maxwell, was born on the same day of his funeral which took place on 25 July 1796. 

Robert Burns and Jean Armour

Dying in debt, a memorial edition of Burns’ complete works was published to support his wife and children. Despite his success as a poet, he was always impoverished. His position among the poor and use of simple language did, however, make his work more accessible. His subject matter also resonated with ordinary people, given that Burns often wrote about his everyday passions, such as love, lust, and drink, as well as inequality and Scottish identity. 

The tradition of Burns Night began on 21 July 1801, when nine of the poet’s friends gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. They held the first Burns Supper in his family home in Alloway, which laid the foundations for many of the traditions that feature in Burns Suppers today. Several informal Burns clubs sprung up in the nearby towns of Paisley and Greenock the following year. They held memorial dinners on his birthday, or at least what they thought was his birthday. In fact, they were four days late—the parish records revealed that Burns’ birthday was actually 25 January, so this date was chosen for future celebrations.

Burns Night is usually marked by a series of poetic readings and a three course supper. As Scottish medical Professor James Drife has explained, “don’t expect to hear anything original. The order of poems, speeches, and songs is fixed”.[2] The evening begins with the Selkirk Grace, which expresses thanks for the food. It is followed by a starter of “Scotch broth” or “cullen skink”, a soup made of smoked haddock, onions, and potatoes. The main course of haggis, “neeps” (turnips) and “tatties” (potatoes) is brought to the table accompanied by bagpipes. Before the guests eat, Burns’ Address to the Haggis (1786) is recited by the host, and the haggis is cut open on the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht”.[3] For dessert, guests might enjoy a “clootie dumpling” (a Scottish pudding made of dried fruits and spices) or “cranachan” (raspberries with cream, oats, and whisky). The meal is followed by a tribute to Burns known as “the Immortal Memory”. While there is no set script for this speech, its purpose is to reflect on the life of the poet and it may include recitals of his work. The only real rule is that it should end with a toast: “To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”. In a nod to Burns’ fondness of women, a humorous toast to the ladies in the room, “The Toast of the Lassies”, usually follows. The women of the room then have the chance to engage in a playful retort, known as the “The Reply to the Toast of the Lassies”. The “Vote of Thanks” concludes the speeches, and drams of Scotch whisky are shared into the night.

The commemorative events held on the centenary of Burns’ birth in 1859 cemented the tradition of Burns Night celebrations. The centenary was marked on such a scale that James Ballentine edited and published his Chronicle of the hundredth birthday of Robert Burns (1859). This supplied detailed accounts of the festivities, including speeches, running orders, and dinner programmes. Ann Rigney, a professor of comparative literature, has noted that, “Ballantine’s chronicle records a mind-boggling total of 872 celebratory events that had taken place in city halls, corn exchanges, local meeting halls, hotels, and private houses on January 25”.[4] The centenary saw over 1,000 Burns Suppers across the globe, with a huge procession even taking place in Chicago. The Illustrated London News reported extensively on the centenary in its issues of 29 January and 5 February 1859, publishing illustrations of the “Procession at Dumfries”, the “Festival at the Crystal Palace”, as well as the “Banquet at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange”.[5]

Illustrated London News, 5 February 1859

 At the banquet at the Edinburgh Music Hall, the Chairman toasted:

“On this day, Burns is to us, not the memory of a departed, but the presence of a living power – […] the electric chain which knits the hearts of Scotchmen in every part of the world, stirring us not only to admiration of the poet’s genius, but to the love of country, of liberty, and of home”.[6]

Celebrating the life and works of their national poet unites the Scottish diaspora and provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the cultural significance of the Scots language. As noted in The Sphere, the Scot “may care little for poetry, but insists that Burns was the greatest poet”. [7] Burns Night is not simply a celebration of the poetry of Robert Burns, but of the Scottish identity that his work represents.

[1] Catriona White, “Nine reasons you should damned well know who Robert Burns is”, BBC Three, 2017, accessed 14 January 2024, available at

[2] James Owen Drife, “Burns Night Dos and Don'ts”, British Medical Journal 314, no. 7076 (1997): 311.

[3] Robert Burns, “Address to the Haggis”, The Complete Works of Robert Burns (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1865), 51, line 14.

[4] Ann Rigney, "Embodied Communities: Commemorating Robert Burns", Representations 115, no. 1 (2011): 71.

[5] Illustrated London News, 5 February 1859.

[6] James Ballantine, ed., Chronicle of the Hundredth Birthday of Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1859), cited in Ann Rigney, "Embodied Communities: Commemorating Robert Burns", Representations 115, no. 1 (2011): 71–101, at 75.

[7] The Sphere, 2 February 1924.

Authored by Laura Wales

Laura Wales

Laura Wales is a Marketing and Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is an English Literature graduate from Durham University. She has a particular interest in the history of the First World War, along with the legacies of historical literature in contemporary writing.

Share this article

Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

Get Social

Back to Top