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Why we celebrate Burns Night

Burns Night is a Scottish tradition to celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns. So why has this man captured the imagination of the whole world too?

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Robert Burns lived from 1759 to 1796 and is regarded as the national poet of Scotland even today. Also known as the Bard of Ayrshire – among many other names – he became legendary both in Scotland and across the world. His most famous work is Auld Lang Syne, the poem and song traditionally sung annually on New Year’s Eve. However, Burns’ work is far more extensive, as he wrote poetry and songs on a range of topics from the romantic to the political, both in Scots dialects and in English. He’s as much a national and international treasure today as he was in the 1700s, and was even voted as the greatest Scot in 2009 in a public vote run by the Scottish television channel STV.

Burns Night is an annual celebration of Robert Burns held on 25th January every year – Burns’ birthday. It’s a tradition that started in 1801, when a small group of Burns’ closest friends got together at Burns Cottage – Robert Burns’ first home – to observe the fifth anniversary of his death in July. The following year a group decided to host a Burns supper again on 29th January, which is the date they believed to be Burns’ birthday. However, the following year in 1803, they realised his birthday was actually on 25th January, so the date of the annual Burns Night celebrations changed for a final time!

A Burns Night supper typically involves a meal of a soup starter – either Scotch broth, potato soup or cock-a-leekie soup, followed by a main dish of haggis. Burns even wrote a poem called Address to Haggis – which is often recited as the haggis is brought into the dining room. Burns Nights also tend to include plenty of Scotch whisky, used in a number of toasts, plus plenty more recitations of Burns’ poetry. The evening usually ends with everyone singing Auld Lang Syne together.

The influence of Robert Burns across the world cannot be underestimated. Many nations host annual Burns Nights with traditional meals and poems. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to attend a Burns Night celebration. Although he couldn’t attend, he composed a toast to be read at the event nevertheless. Bob Dylan said that a lyric by Robert Burns had the greatest effect on his life, while J.D. Salinger was inspired by one of Burns’ poems in his novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

A legendary figure who will continue to be celebrated for the foreseeable future, Robert Burns is the reason 25th January is filled with festivities around the world each year.

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