How to host the perfect Burns Night supper

How to host the perfect Burns Night supper

by Great British Chefs 19 January 2017

Burns Night (25 January) is a whisky- and haggis-fuelled evening of fun. Learn how to host your own dinner true to form and give your guests a night to remember.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Lashings of whisky, traditional Scottish music and the iconic haggis – Burns Night is always an evening full of good fun, great food and fantastic drink. But if you want to host your own dinner, it’s important to know the history behind the celebration and the running order of events. Just make sure your liquor cabinet is well-stocked!

Robert (or Rabbie) Burns is one of Scotland’s most important national heroes. Widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, his life and works have been celebrated in the country since his death in 1796, when his friends and acquaintances would gather at his cottage to remember him. Nowadays, 25 January (Robert Burns’ birthday) is known as Burns Night in Scotland, and the occasion has spread into the rest of the UK and across the globe (thanks to patriotic expats).

The night is a celebration of Scottish culture as a whole, something Burns was incredibly passionate about, so there are certain items of food and drink that you simply have to serve. Haggis is Scotland’s most famous dish, made of oats, spices and sheep offal encased in a stomach lining. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but don’t worry – there are very good quality vegetarian haggis available, too. This is traditionally served with mashed swede (known as neeps) and potatoes (known as tatties). Whisky sauce is poured on top, which can be anything from a simple shot of flambéed whisky to a whisky-infused cream.

Starters and desserts are a little less set in stone; for example, you could begin your meal with a bowl of traditional Cock a leekie soup and end it with Scottish Cranachan, a layered pudding made with cream, raspberries, oats and – of course – whisky.

You’ll certainly need some Scotch whisky to serve to your guests; preferably a few different single malts from the different regions of the country. Plenty of wine and (Scottish) beer should also be on offer. Several rounds of toasting take place throughout the night, so make sure your guests’ glasses are always topped up.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!

Robert Burns, An Address to a Haggis

The night itself

Whether you’re hosting a full-on Highlander extravaganza or just having a few friends over for dinner, you need to set the mood. Big events will have a bagpiper merrily playing traditional Scottish melodies, but for most celebrations at home this might prove a tad over the top. Put on a CD or playlist of traditional Scottish music for the same effect, and ask your guests to add a little tartan to their outfit.

On Burns night, the host is known as The Chair, and once everyone has assembled at the dinner table he or she will introduce the guests one by one and talk about the evening to follow. Before any food or drink is served, The Selkirk Grace is spoken:

Some have meat and cannot eat,

Some cannot eat that want it;

But we have meat, and we can eat,

Sae let the Lord be thankit

Afterwards, the starter (if you’re serving one) should be brought to the table, then the plates cleared in anticipation for the main event. The haggis is traditionally brought to the table on a platter by the chef and The Chair, with more bagpipe music in the background. Everyone should have a large dram of whisky to hand, before the evening’s festivities truly begin.

To the haggis

The Chair (or a nominated reader) now recites Burns’ most famous poem, Address to a Haggis. As they speak the line ‘His knife see rustic Labour dight’, they should cut the haggis open and spoon out some of the filling. During the final line (‘Gie her a haggis!’), the platter should be raised high and applauded, before being toasted.

Once the toast is completed, the haggis can be eaten alongside neeps, tatties and whisky sauce. Serve dessert afterwards, then clear the table, ensure everyone’s drinks are topped up and invite your guests to recite Burns’ other poems or sing Scottish songs. Once everyone is well fed, entertained and possibly well-oiled, the night ends with everyone joining together to sing Auld Lang Syne. Make sure to call your guests a taxi home, before crawling to bed and sleeping off the numerous glasses of whisky consumed throughout the night.