What is Burns Night?

Where did this celebration come from?
24 January 2020

Interview with 

Robert Irvine, University of Edinburgh


The two century old Scottish holiday of Burns Night honours the memory of the great Scots poet Robbie Burns. And on the show we’re hosting our very own Burns Supper, with a special twist of science. But we need to know what we’re actually celebrating - where does this event come from, and what’s behind the various traditions? With Chris Smith and Phil Sansom is Robert Irvine, reader in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh...

Robert - The first Burns Supper happened only a few years, maybe six or seven years, after Burns' death, and it was simply his friends gathering on the anniversary of what they thought was his birthday to toast his memory. Now these men were all Freemasons, and Burns was a Freemason. Freemasons like inventing rituals and making speeches and drinking, and I think that is the basic kind of recipe that then was developed and sophisticated over the decades into the Burns' Supper that we're used to today, which can be a very complex event.

Chris - What can you tell us about Robert Burns, the man?

Robert - Well, Burns was born into fairly humble circumstances. His father was a tenant farmer. Burns himself, when his father died, he took over responsibility for the family farm. The science angle here, if I can introduce that, is that this was at the height of the Scottish agricultural revolution. All sorts of new techniques, and methods, and livestock breeds, and crops, and crop rotation, and enclosure, and all those sorts of things were being introduced.

Now, the problem here for people like Burns and his father was that landlords charged rent on farms according to the productivity the farmers would be capable of once they were improved, but they expected the tenants to border the money and invest in those improvements themselves. This left lots of farmers permanently in debt, and in some ways we have the agricultural revolution to thank for Burns' career, because once he was in charge of the family farm, Burns thinks "God, I want to out of this." And his talent as a writer, as a poet, as a songwriter, is the thing that lets him get out of farming.

Chris - Most people say though that you go into the arts at your peril because they're notoriously poorly paid. Did he actually make money during his working lifetime as a poet or is it only in death that he became more famous?

Robert - What Burns was able to do was, once you became famous that gave you contacts in the upper classes, in the aristocracy, and then you used your contacts in the aristocracy to get yourself a job. And that's what Burns did. So he got himself a patron, aristocratic patrons who were able to get him a job in the excise service as a customs man. And that was the way in which he rescued himself from his economic insecurity.

Phil - And then the night itself and the Supper, to what extent is that an accurate reflection of him or his legacy?

Robert - I think it's quite an accurate reflection of his tastes. He was, you know, because this has kind of Masonic roots. It was originally an all male event and Burns loved all male society. He loved being a Mason and he loved drinking clubs. He loved the literary societies and reading clubs and so on. I think he would have loved Burns Suppers. But the actual having bagpipes to pipe in the haggis, the various exchanges of speeches and so on; these are all things that came long after Burns.

Chris - Speaking of which, would you mind doing us the honour? Kicking off our Burns' Supper here on the Naked Scientists with the famous Selkirk Grace.

Robert - I would love to:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanket.

Phil - Thank you very much Robert.

Robert - I should perhaps just explain there, that meat in Scots just means food. So this is a vegetarian-friendly grace, not just for meat-eaters.


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