The Most Scottish Night of the Year

One of the most valuable aspects of going to University in a different country is something that I can't learn from writing an essay. In fact, it's something I can't learn from a lecture in my Scottish Studies class.

The cultural insight that I've gained from living abroad and immersing myself in the traditions and idiosyncrasies of Scottish life is unmatched by any learning experience I've ever had.

But at times I do feel as if I'm just living here without fully taking advantage of Scotland's distinctive customs. And as much as people like to assume that Scotland isn't much different from the United States in its culture, I'd like to point out one particular tradition that sets Scotland apart from the rest of the world: the famous (or is it infamous?) Burns Supper.

Going to a traditional Burns Supper has been on my mental bucket list since the moment I touched down in Edinburgh. A celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, this night to remember (or forget, in some cases) is a highlight of the year for many living in Scotland. Anyone who's been to this event before will probably tell you that it's an incredibly unique and equally messy affair.

The Burns Supper I attended was fairly formal, as it was affiliated with Edinburgh's Officer Training Corps- okay, it was black tie so I guess it was really formal. However, it's important to note that a Burns Supper can range in formality from a simple flat dinner to a fancy three course dinner at a hotel. Either way, though, the night is sure to be a blast- particularly because there's a lot of alcohol involved (sorry, Mom).

Because the dinner is particularly traditional- and very strange from an outsiders perspective if you ask me- I'll use this post to run through what generally goes down, step by step. I hope that if you're not Scottish you find this event as fascinating as I do, and if you are Scottish, I hope you find my take as an American on the Burns Supper to be entertaining at the very least.

First off, let's talk about tartan- a fabric which both men and women will wear to a Burns Supper either in the form of a kilt, a pair of trousers, or a shawl. There are so many different types of the traditional plaid print and they all have different meanings- for example, there are "family" tartans, as well as "regimental" tartans if you're in the military. Not only are the colors different, but the sizes and patterns of the plaid vary depending on the type.

Alright, you caught me- I don't have any Scottish heritage and I certainly am not in the military. So what tartan can I get away with wearing without being labeled as a poser? Well you know how American colleges have official logos, colors, and merchandise? The University of Edinburgh has it's own official tartan- and that's exactly what I wore over my shoulders. This beautiful blue, red, and black shawl was custom made for me because I'm special (just kidding- it's because I'm too small to wear the standard size).

It wouldn't be a Burns Supper (or really any truly Scottish event) without some whiskey. An intimidating liquor to say the least, I generally associate whiskey with the prospect of burning my throat. But it was on the table, so it was imperative that we must drink it after the first toast. Despite the pain that my throat endured during that toast, the floral notes of the whiskey were actually fairly pleasant.

As always, the food was my favorite part of the night. And as expected, all of the food served that night was very traditionally Scottish. We started off with a bowl of "cocker leeky" soup- literally "chicken and leek" soup-  and moved onto the obvious main course of haggis, neeps, and tatties (neeps and tatties meaning turnips and potatoes, respectively). The dessert we were served was quite confusing, and no one at my table seemed to know the name of it- but a quick Google search tells me that this raspberry and cream-based dessert is called Cranachan.

Image credit: Jamie Oliver

Perhaps the most traditional aspect of a Burns Supper is the "address to the haggis"- a sort of ceremonial blessing of Scotland's national pride. In this tradition, the chef presents the haggis (sheep stomach and all) on a plate, and parades it around the room, swinging by each table, accompanied by a bagpiper. The two approach one table, setting down the haggis, after which a third person reads a poem by Robert Burns which expresses the poet's appreciation of the delicacy.

In addition to the address to the haggis, a few other poems by Burns were read- poems which celebrated love, friendship, and the country of Scotland itself. If I'm honest, though, I really couldn't understand any of these readings due to everyone's heavy Scottish accents (I swear most of them put their accent on stronger to emphasize the Scottishness of the evening).

The funniest moment of the night was the "toast to the lassies" and the "reply from the lassies" in which one guy would poke fun at the girls, and vice versa. I won't say much more on this aspect as most of it was pretty NSFW, but I did find it hilarious, despite being a guest and not knowing so many people at the dinner.

Of course, the night was topped off with a few more trips to the bar and some ceilidh dancing to work off all the calories from the haggis. As I've said before, I absolutely love to ceilidh dance. However, I've been getting much more into reeling lately (a different style of Scottish dancing) so my love for traditional dance is currently being equally distributed between the two.

Some of my friends from home joke that I'm "becoming more Scottish" as I spend more time here. I'm not sure if I completely agree with that statement since I’ll always be an American. But it sure is fun to pretend to be Scottish sometimes ;)


  1. Burns poems are written in the Scots language (not English) so this is probably also why you couldn't understand them! But don't worry, I am Scottish and I can only understand about 50% of what is said. Scots has all but died out, with just a few words in regular use nowadays.

    I am really glad you enjoyed the night! I love all the traditional Scottish things. I live in London at the moment but still made sure to seek out a ceilidh to celebrate Burns night! Cranachan is boufin (a cheeky wee Scottishism there!) though.

    Elaine. =)

    1. Hi Elaine,

      I honestly couldn't tell whether or not they were being spoken in Scots or just in a heavy Scottish accent! I kinda hope it was Scots so at least I have an excuse ;) It's too bad it's practically a dead language as it's very unique, I'd have to say.

      That's great that you were able to celebrate Burns night in London! I'm sure it was good fun even though you were so far away. I love little Scottish-isms, haha. So thanks for teaching me that one!

      Leda x


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