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Explainer: Robert Burns & Burns Night

Explainer: Robert Burns & Burns Night

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Originally a Scottish folksong, Robert Burns claimed this poem as his own by writing further verses and giving it a platform to become a song synonymous with the farewell of jovial gatherings, most notably Hogmanay. The sentiment throughout Auld Lang Syne recognises the value of old friendships, the nostalgia for times gone by and the celebration of sharing a dram together. 

On 25th January 1759, Robert Burns was born. 

It is a remarkable story how the eldest son of tenant farmers William Burnes and Agnes Broun became an internationally celebrated figurehead of Scottish culture. Rabbie, as he was known to his friends and family, was born in Alloway (South Ayrshire). Despite his family’s humble standing, Rabbie was encouraged to read from an early age and his love of language developed into a career as a poet. Such was the power and emotional depth of his work – along with his determination to preserve the Scottish culture and traditions – that he was (and still is) unofficially embraced as Scotland’s National Poet.  

Whisky featured regularly throughout his poetry and he frequently used his verse to rally against legislation that he perceived as a slight against the poor Scotch distiller. More often than not, however, his poems simply celebrated the story of Scotch with much of his poetry intrinsically linked to the enjoyment of a dram. 

The becoming of Burns Night.

How did the celebration of this man’s life initiate one of the biggest nights in the Scottish cultural diary on such a global scale? In 1801, four years after Rabbie’s death, a group of his friends gathered on his birthday to celebrate his life and legacy. The haggis was addressed and eaten, many of his poems were recited and shared along with numerous drams to complement the buoyant mood. And thus, the first Burns Supper was realised.  

Other Burns clubs and suppers were soon established and enjoyed throughout Scotland. It wasn’t long before such an evening had global appeal due to the amount of Scots travelling around the British Empire. 

It’s likely that thousands of Burns Suppers will take place across the world this year. Burns Night has become a celebration of Scotland and Scottish culture with Rabbie’s poetry, tartan, kilts, bagpipes, haggis and, not forgetting the main attraction, Scotch whisky!

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1 comment

  • Ellijay is in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia, USA
    I am co-founder of the Gilmer Scotch Whisky Society and we have just entered our 13th year, having already tasted and graded hundreds of single malts. We have sponsored several Burns dinners in the past, until that silly Covid business, and we’re having one tomorrow night.
    We like to stay informed on new expressions even if they are not from Scotland. I lived in the UK for several years am a FSA Scot, and I have an academy of Malt Scotch Whisky certificate from October 1977. Love the gig!

    George G. McClellan

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