Burns supper traditions: why do we eat haggis on Burns Night?

Burns Night celebrates that anniversary of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns’ birthday on 25 January each year.

Published 17th Jan 2024
Updated 16 th Jan 2024

But how did we end up with the traditional menu that we’ve come to know and love on Burns night?

The first Burns supper

The very first Burns supper was held in 1801 in July, when nine of Robert Burns’ friends got together to mark the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death.

It took place at Burns Cottage in Alloway and the night included a feast of haggis, performances of Burns’ work and a speech which we now know as the Immortal Memory.

It was such a success that they decided to hold it again the following year, but this time on Burns’ birthday, thus beginning the tradition that we know today.

The traditional menu

The traditional menu that’s served up on Burns Night usually consists of three courses.

A thick creamy soup of smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions - called Cullen skink - is commonly served to guests before the star of the occasion is plated up.

"Cullen skink", a rich soup made with smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race”, as Burns famously called it, is the haggis, and in the main course it is served up alongside neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes).

To round off the meal, Scots of old would have often gorged on a clootie dumpling - a cross between a carrot cake and a fruit cake, filled with raisins, sultanas, cinnamon, and treacle.

• READ MORE: A history of the Clootie Dumpling, including a recipe for making your own

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To wash it all down, the supper would also be accompanied by a glass of Scottish whisky, for true authenticity.

What is haggis?

The best way of describing haggis is as a roughly football-shaped savoury pudding.

Haggises traditionally combine sheep’s offal - like heart, liver, and lung - with onion, oatmeal, suet, and a heady mix of spices, all inside the stomach of the animal.

While it might sound less than appetising, the result is widely considered to have a hearty texture and a deliciously peppery flavour.

Nowadays, haggises, like sausages, usually have an artificial casing - and popular vegetarian and meat-filled versions are sold in Scottish supermarkets all year round.

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Why do we eat haggis on Burns Night?

The reason we eat haggis on Burns Night is likely down to the man himself, Robert Burns.

Scotland's national bard, Robert "Rabbie" Burns. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In his lifetime, haggis would have been a highly nourishing and very cheap meal for poor families to prepare.

In one of his most famous poems - his ‘Address to a Haggis’ - Burns humorously celebrates his love for the humble delicacy.

“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.”

In this first stanza, Burns crowns the haggis as the “chieftain o’ the puddin-race”, and tells it that its place is above all others.

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In the final lines, he tells the haggis that it is very worthy of a grace as long as his arm - and goes on to give it one (the poem is eight stanzas long).

“Burns unwittingly elevated haggis, making it an iconic dish which has been embraced by Scotland,” says James Macsween, managing director of haggis producer Macsween.

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne, whisky and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind is the Food and Drink Editor and whisky writer for The Scotsman, as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.
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