This Is How to Celebrate Burns Night

A definitive guide to commemorating the famed Scottish poet with some whisky and haggis

January 22, 2024 7:21 am
Andrew Weir (right) celebrating Burns Night with haggis
Andrew Weir (right) celebrating Burns Night with haggis
Burns Distilled

If you’re a whisky fan, you may have heard about Burns Night (or Burns supper), which was first held in 1801. But beyond drinking a few drams and listening to poetry and music, the meaning of the night might be lost on you. And that’s fine! It’s quite an old celebration. Burns Night (Jan. 25) commemorates the birthday of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796), who was born 265 years ago this month.

If his most famous poems (“Scots Wha Hae,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “Tam o’ Shanter”) don’t ring a bell, one song might. “You know that song you hear at New Year’s, ‘Auld Lang Syne’? The most-sung song in the English language? Robert Burns wrote it,” says Andrew Weir, a long-time Burns Night performer, drinks professional and Braveheart actor, who this year is hosting the second Burns Distilled event in New York at the McKittrick Hotel. “Every year on the 25th of January, we celebrate this guy’s work in a way that we don’t with Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Tennessee Williams or Oscar Wilde. This doesn’t exist for other figures of literature.”  

Weir has been reciting and performing the works of the famed Scottish poet since he was five (and in a more professional manner since he was 18). His Burns events have taken place at the residence of the British Counsel General, on the Orient Express, in castles, at Epcot in Florida and even in Australia. I attended a virtual Burns event in 2022 that Weir hosted; his live celebration/dinner is now in its second year at Manhattan’s McKittrick Hotel. 

If there’s anyone to explain the appeal of Burns Night, it’s Weir, who Zoom-ed in with us earlier this month to explain how to take a night about a semi-obscure poet and Scottish traditions and make it for everyone. He even successfully defended haggis. “Burns is a hero of mine,” Weir says. “I was born three miles from where he was born.” 

The over 100 year old statue of poet Robbie Burns sits in The Octagon
A statue of Robert Burns, the famed Scottish poet (interestingly, this statue is in New Zealand)
filippo_jean/Wiki Creative Commons

Who Is Robert Burns?

The site Historic UK describes Burns as “the best loved Scottish poet, admired not only for his verse and great love songs but also for his character, his high spirits, ‘kirk-defying,’ hard-drinking and womanizing!” (Turns out “kirk” means “church” and Burns wasn’t confronting this writer from the grave.)

“He had a reputation for being a ladies man and fathering children with multiple women,” Weir says. “I’m not going to say he was an angel, right? But I like to think that if he had lived in 2024, he’d be a pretty progressive character.”

What Is a Burns Night Celebration Like? 

“The funny glib response is that it’s a distillery set to music because there’s usually a lot of whisky,” Weir says. “But I don’t think there’s anything to compare it to. Until recently, they were all male, which I always thought was strange. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.” 

For Weir, it involves not only performing poetry but also music, drinks, dinner and a celebration of Scottish traditions. It doesn’t involve getting too much in the weeds about Burns’s creative output. “Some people might like the idea of going out on a Friday night and listening to a lecture on an 18th-century figure from literature,” he says. “That wouldn’t be my idea of a Friday night out.

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Do You Have to Be Scottish to Enjoy Burns Night?

“For our event, I don’t think we’ve sold a single ticket to a Scottish person yet,” Weir says. This is a shame because the night truly does celebrate the accomplishments of more than just Robert Burns — it’s a celebration of the people of Scotland and their accomplishments. “Forget about whisky,” he adds. “We can talk about the telephone, television, steam trains, radar, bicycles. Even the whole modern concept of capitalism, whether you like it or not, came from a Scotsman, Adam Smith. I think for a country of five million people, we’ve made massive contributions.”

Drinking whisky at Burns Distilled
A scene from NYC’s Burns Distilled. A good Burns Night celebration will be full of whisky.
Burns Distilled

Will I Like Robert Burns’s Poetry?

Look, if you’re going to enjoy 18th-century poetry, whisky helps. But so does keeping a modern perspective and knowing what the audience wants. “It’s like that LCD Soundsystem film, Shut Up and Play the Hits,” Weir says. “Don’t do the B sides. I’m not here to educate people or be an academic. I’ve been speaking his work since I was five years old. His work was written to be performed and shared, not necessarily analyzed.”

With that in mind, at a good Burns supper celebration like Burns Distilled, you’ll find musicians, celebrities and a lot of people from the whisky and alcohol industry, where Weir still works (a longtime drinks professional, Weir recently helped launch a Cognac called Martingale.) The key here is to have fun.

“I wish more Burns suppers were enjoyable” Weir says. “Many of them are not. I think I’m helping — we’ve done hip-hop versions, a kind of Hamilton-ization of his work. We get all kinds of people to read; we might even have some Proclaimers music in our show. I truly believe Burns would appreciate what we’re doing. We’re widening the circle and bringing people in.” 

Andrew Weir cutting a haggis at Burns Distilled
Because you really, really need to see more haggis.
Burns Distilled

What Is the Appeal of Haggis? 

Burns wrote a famous poem called “Address to a Haggis,” which you’ll undoubtedly be served at any proper Burns Night meal. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a savory pudding ​​composed of the offal (liver, heart and lungs) of a sheep, minced with suet and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper and other spices. It’s all packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. 

Yum? “Well, what’s the appeal of a hot dog?” Weir argues, laughing. “It’s an interesting comparison. Like many delicacies around the world, I just don’t want to know what’s in it. It’s tasty, very rich and a bit spicy.” That said, Weir rarely orders it in the United States. “There are a couple of ingredients banned by the FDA, so it’s not real haggis,” he adds.

Besides haggis, there are plenty of other delicacies to try, including neeps (turnips), tatties (potatoes) and cock-a-leekie soup, plus dessert. And, of course, plenty of Scotch. Because, to paraphrase a famous Burns verse, the modern Burns Night is about “freedom an’ whisky gang thegither.”


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