On Sunday the 25th of January, Scotland will celebrate the birthday of our nation’s most famous poet. Robert Burns was a poet of the Romantic era who lived in Dumfries between 1759 and 1796, and his birthday is now a more celebrated national festivity that St Andrews Day! Burns, as much as tartan and haggis, has become a symbol of Scotland, not least because much of his work was written in original Scots language as opposed to English. Thus, he became an honorary patron saint, and a emblem of Scottish nationalism during his lifetime and afterwards.
Perhaps his most iconic work is Auld Lang Syne, which continues to be sung at New Year, not just in Scotland, but across the world. Tradition has it that at midnight, everyone crosses their arms to hold hands with their neighbours in a circle, and when the song is finished, the company rush into the middle. The origins of this little “dance” aren’t completely known! The song itself has seeped into the traditions of nations all across the globe, not only in America and Canada, but also in places such as the Maldieves where, until 1972, the tune of Auld Lang Syne was used as their national anthem!
Scottish ex-pats in parts of Canada, significantly Newfoundland and Labrador, continue to celebrate Robbie Burns Day with local events and festivities, and there is even a statue of Burns in Dorchester Square in Montreal. In the US, his influence has permeated into the minds of many of the nation’s great literary and musical figures. John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men, got its title from the end of Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”, and Bob Dylan named “A Red Red Rose” as his greatest lyrical inspiration.
Even astronomers have been influenced by our bard, naming one of the craters on Mercury after him!
Each year, since 1802 we have commemorated Robert Burns with a traditional feast. Much of the ceremony of the dinner has remained the same since it was first introduced: there is a general welcome to the guests, followed by the Selkirk Grace (which, incidentally, wasn’t actually written by Burns!). Next, pipes and drums entertain the guests before the cutting of the haggis, at which time the famous “Address to a Haggis” is recited. Dinner follows, and the event is usually concluded with a toast to Burns and, of course, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
So, whether you’re in Scotland or not, why not have a look for a Burns Night feast near you? It’ll be a fantastic experience!