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Robert Burns

Robert Burns


Click on this link to read and download Robert Burns Poem

The first gatherings to celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns were held by a group of his friends on the anniversary of his death on 21 July. In the early 1800s the first Burns Clubs were set up with Burns Night celebrations the focus of their year. By 1885 there were 51 clubs and a central organisation and ‘The Burns Federation’ was set up. Nowadays Burns Night is on 25 January, the anniversary of his birth, and is a time to link people regardless of race, religion, colour or creed in a common bond of friendship. Though he died in 1796 at the age of 37 in the direst poverty, his poetic genius articulated the rich and strange wonder of life in everything he wrote, from the fun of ‘Tam O’Shanter’ to the tender love song ‘A Red, Red Rose’.

Burns honoured the haggis with a poem, celebrating its sense and worth, which was about using the odds and ends (lungs, liver and heart) of the sheep, seasoned with onions and oatmeal stuffed into the stomach bag. He made the plea not to judge anything by appearances. He also, unwittingly, provided Scots with a strong national food image.
For, in the haggis there is peasant virtue and strength, as well as images of slaughter. It stands for honest, hearty, wholesome, unsophisticated, comforting food. Burns chose it for its striking contrast with a French ‘fricassée’ or ‘ragoût’ which he thought poor substitutes for such a worthy native dish.

Today, the night varies from extremely formal – with a traditional running order – to a less formal and more impromptu event. For the most formal dinner there are men in kilts and women in evening dresses. For a formal night, the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race’ is carried in on a large ashet (serving plate) by the chef, led by a piper and followed by a waiter carrying a tray with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. Chef and piper are poured a dram, while the haggis is ‘addressed’ with a spirited recitation of Burns’ famous ‘Address to the Haggis’ and a dramatic slashing with a dirk, releasing wafts of haggis, ‘warm-reekin, rich!’. The meal begins with ‘Selkirk Grace’, an old Scots grace often wrongly attributed to Burns but always recited at national celebrations: ‘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’. After, there are formal toasts. First, ‘To Burns’ Immortal Memory’ (fairly serious), then ‘To The Lassies’ (lighthearted and frequently irreverent) followed by a ‘Reply’ (a suitably spirited defence), by one of the lassies. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ signals the night’s end.

Some would argue that this is a ‘true’ Burns Night. But the truth is that there are many different permutations – including simple suppers at home with friends – which are no less meaningful.
Anyone can celebrate Burns Night, but there are some essential elements. The haggis, with neeps (yellow turnips) and tatties (potatoes) are a must. Yellow turnips are known in England as swedes and in the US as rutabaga. They are either boiled and mashed with butter and seasoning, or they may be mixed in equal quantities with boiled potatoes to make an Orkney clapshot.
The tatties, for a fluffy, buttery mash, should be old floury varieties with a high dry-matter content such as Kerr’s Pink, Golden Wonder, British Queen, Edzell Blue, Shetland Black, Arran Victory, Dunbar Rover or Standard.

For emotional nostalgia a favourite Burns song or poem adds to the atmosphere. The toasting routine is essential at the formal event, but unplanned informal toasting, as the night deepens, encourages Burns-lovers to get to their feet and raise their glass (usually whisky) to something, Burns or otherwise, they really care about.

‘Burn’s Night’ Recipes

Cock-a-leekie Soup

For the stock:

1kg/2¼lb knuckle or shin of veal, or boiling beef
3½ litres/6 pints water
bunch fresh herbs of your liking
1 boiling fowl or roast chicken carcass, some meat left on

To finish the soup:

2 onions, finely chopped
1kg/2¼lb leeks, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:

125g/4½oz prunes, cooked in stock, stones removed
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Bashed Neeps – Mashed Swede

500g/1lb 2oz yellow turnips (swede), trimmed and peeled
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp freshly grated ginger or pinch ground ginger
salt and freshly ground white pepper
handful fresh chives, chopped, to serve

Chappit Tatties – Mashed Potatoes with Greens

For the greens – either:

1 large handful nettle tops, chopped, OR
1 small handful fresh chives, chopped, OR
6 spring onions, finely chopped, OR
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, OR
1 large handful fresh peas, or frozen (defrosted) peas
300ml/½ pint milk

For the mashed potatoes:

1kg/2¼lb floury potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed
125g/4½oz butter, plus extra, to serve
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cranachan with fresh Raspberries

250ml/½ pint fresh double cream
1 tbsp thick heather honey.
1 generous tbsp of Talisker whisky
1 heaped tbsp of toasted oatmeal
2 punnets raspberries


100g butter, 100g plain flour, 50g icing sugar and 50g cornflour


1. Heat the oven to 180C/375F/Gas 5
2. Fold all ingredients until they resemble breadcrumbs
3. Turn on to a work surface and gently roll out until the paste is 1cm/½in thick
4. Cut into rounds or fingers and sprinkle with a little extra caster sugar. Put on a baking sheet and chill for 20 minutes. Bake in the oven for 8/9 minutes until pale golden. Cool on a wire rack and sprinkle with castor sugar

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