This semester marked my first encounter with Robert Burns, though my introduction to this poet came not from assigned class readings, but instead a much stranger source. During the first week of this semester, just by chance, I happened upon a Burns Night celebration being held at another college’s international dorm. The celebration had been organized by a Scottish exchange student and involved a feast of traditional Scottish foods (including haggis and an especially delicious berry pudding), readings of a variety of Burns’s poetry, a witty toast to the “lassies” (to which the lassies had an equally witty reply), and a very strange reenactment of “Tam O’Shanter” as performed by one student wearing a horse mask being ridden around by another student. After this very entertaining chance encounter with Burns and after my reintroduction to him in class, I decided to look into the history of Burns Night.
I found that Burns Night is an annual celebration of Scotland’s national poet that occurs on January 25th and has been celebrated since the very beginning of the 19th century. Even more interestingly, I found that the celebration organized by a bunch of rowdy college kids really did live up to the traditional celebrations. A traditional Burns Night opens with a speech from the host, a saying of the Selkirk Grace, and then a “[bag]piping-in” of the first course of the feast—the haggis, after which the host recites Burns’s address to this famous Scottish food. The night then proceeds to include the aforementioned toast to the lassies, the lassies’ reply, and readings or singings of Burns’s works. The night then ends with the guests all taking part in singing Burns’s “Auld Lang Synge.” While some aspects of the college students’ celebration were slightly unorthodox, particularly the horse mask bit, this Burns Night exposed students from a number of countries and backgrounds to Scottish culture and the poetry of Robert Burns.