Scottish people around the globe celebrate their national poet’s birthday on 25 January. The traditional Burns Night involves the theatre of a supper of haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnip and potato), washed down with malt whisky to the accompaniment of a bagpiper, poetry readings and toasts. In more recent times, this has evolved into a broader cultural programme of Scots language poetry, storytelling and traditional music. The first Burns Supper was organised by Burns’ friends at his birthplace cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire in July 1801 – only five years after his death at the tender age of 37.
The first vegetarian haggis produced by Macsween in 1984 was
dedicated to the launch of the Scottish Poetry Library initiative.
You can delve into the work and life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, on our poet’s page. Here you will find well-kent poems and songs, including Address to A Haggis, an essential component of traditional Burns Suppers. Below, you can watch Ally Heather‘s version commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library in 2021.
Many primary schools across Scotland recite Burns poems in competitions run by local branches of the Robert Burns World Federation. The bard’s most popular works include:
Tam o’ Shanter
To a Mouse
A Man’s a Man for a’ That
To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church
Scots Wha Hae, or, Robert Bruce’s Address to His Troops at Bannockburn
The Twa Dogs. A Tale.
Burns is rightly regarded as one of the founders of European Romanticism, and his nature writing helped forge this reputation. Scotland’s present national poet, our Makar, Kathleen Jamie reads Burns’ poem To a Mountain Daisy, followed by a poem of her own, Daisies.
This year, we commissioned four women poets to respond to the life and work of Robert Burns. The group, known as The Trysting Thorns, produced nearly a dozen new works, many of which give voice to the women in the bard’s life and work including:
Agnes Wilson in The Unheard Testimony of Agnes Wilson by Morag Anderson
Agnes MacIlhose in A Love Letter From One of Burns Women by Janette Ayachi, and
Muirland Meg in Atween the Lines o Muirland Meg by Susi Briggs.
One of the commissioned poets, Victoria McNulty, also read Burns’ poem, The Gallant Weaver, which some have interpreted as Burns hiding his radicalism in plain sight in support of the Paisley weavers.
Len Pennie gives a stirring rendition of Rantin Rovin Robin. In this poem Burns celebrates his own 28th birthday in 1787. The work harks back to the momentous and, the poet half-jokingly suggests, portentous storm that damaged the cottage he was born in as well as many other properties in Alloway.
Burns is recognised as having played, perhaps, the most significant role in the preservation and recognition of Scots as one of our mother-tongues, along with Scottish Gaelic and English. Sheena Blackhall is a leading contemporary writer in the Doric form of Scots, which is mainly spoken in the North East of Scotland. Here is Sheena singing Burns’ Up In the Morning Early.
Places of Interest
You will find a host of places and organisations to visit and online resources to further develop your interest in Burns. These include:
Burns Birthplace Museum: Burns was born in Alloway in 1759 in a cottage that his father had built. Nearby stands the Burns Birthplace Museum managed by the National Trust for Scotland, which houses the world’s largest collection of Burns artifacts.
Ellisland Museum & Farm: The home of Robert Burns from 1788 to 1791. Some of Burns’ best-loved poems and songs were inspired by the tranquil setting of Ellisland Farm on the River Nith, including Auld Lang Syne and Tam o’ Shanter.
In the Footsteps of Burns: a project showcasing Robert Burns’ life in and around Dumfries.
The Writers’ Museum and Makars Court: based off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the museum celebrates the lives of three giants of Scottish Literature – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Home to portraits, rare books and personal objects, including Burns’ writing desk.
Scots Language Centre: advice on addressing the haggis and content related to Burns, his poetry and songs.
Ultimate Guide to Burns Night: Learn how to host the perfect Burns supper.
Visit Scotland: presenting the major attractions and initiatives commemorating the life and work of our national poet.
Robert Burns World Federation: supporting schools recitation and music activity.
BBC: Burns Night Teaching Resources: a collection of themed resources supporting classroom activities.
Poems on the Underground: Four posters featuring Burns’ writing can be downloaded from the Poems on the Underground website.