“Some hae meat and canna eat And some wad eat that want it: But we hae meat and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit. (The Selkirk Grace)”
The Selkirk Grace is said at tables around the world on Burns Night. It is a national holiday that celebrates the life and achievements of Robert Burns, one of Scotland’s most famous poets.
It is celebrated every year on his birthday on January 25th but the first Burns Night was held in July on the anniversary on his death. It started as a memorial dinner so arguably this was not a Burns Night as we know it but it was still a distinctly Scottish affair remembering Burns with haggis and sheep’s head for dinner.
The joint efforts of John Ballantine and Reverend Hamilton Paul brought the first Burns Night to fruition. Held in Ayr in 1801 The next year, a Burns Club emerged in Greenock and had their own Burns Night. Only a few years later, a Burns Club in Paisley had theirs in 1805. The first Burns Clubs are still in existence today and going strong!
In 1806, Oxford University joined in the fun and only 4 years later, Burns Night had come to London. The far reaching and long lasting legacy of Burns was soon to be commemorated by Burns Clubs and Burns fans all over the world. Burns Clubs were created in America, New Zealand, Ukraine and many other locations. To this day, every child in Ayrshire (and beyond) are invited to learn and recite a Burns poem and compete for the Burns Federation Recitation Certificate. Burns Suppers weren’t exclusive to the Clubs, they were formal and informal and could be hosted by anyone, which was great news to the female fans of Burns as for 100 years after the first Burns Night, the Clubs would still be male only.
The traditional Burns Supper nowadays has a number of core elements and the sequence they’re done in is vital for it to have been “done properly”. A typical evening would run like this:
The Guests are Piped in
The Selkirk Grace
Piping in the Haggis (Yes the haggis gets it’s own fanfare!)
“To a Haggis” The poem is recited as the speaker cuts open the haggis, usually very dramatically. At the closing line of “Gie’s a Haggis!” guests raise their glasses and toast before eating.
Toasts and Entertainment There are many toasts that take place, most notably “The Immortal Memory” which talks about the life, achievements and works of Burns and “Toast to the Lasses” which is done regardless of the gender of those at the Supper.
“Auld Lang Syne”
A lot of a Burns Supper is left up to the hosts and by visiting a Burns Night, you can tell a lot about a community. At many Burns nights, there are guest speakers who will give their own renditions of some of his most famous poems, most commonly “Tam O’ Shanter” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer” all in celebration of the life and works of Rabbie Burns. What they choose to share, highlight or joke about, whether they discuss the political moments, the humorous moments or the blocks that popped up in Burns’ life, or their own. What they choose to express says a lot about who they are.
Burns Night is a quintessentially Scottish night about celebrating the poetry and songs that speak to us. Perhaps Burns’ most renowned attribute is his egalitarianism …
“Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”