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What Not to Do

The Dos and Don’ts of Burns Night

Robert Burns

Robert Burns. © John Sinclair

This Saturday, homes all over Scotland will fill with the scent of haggis in celebration of the country’s patron poet, Robert Burns (known as Rabbie to his friends). Burns, who died in 1796, is so revered in Scotland that he's known there as the Bard, but you don't need to know anything about him to hold a Burns Night supper. You just need to like Scotch, appreciate a good poem and be open to eating some offal. Here, a few dos and don’ts to ensure a successful Burns Night.

Do eat haggis. There’s no Burns Night without haggis. The centerpiece poem of the evening is Burns’s "Address to a Haggis," which calls the sausage-esque dish of sheep stomach, suet and oatmeal "the chieftan of the pudding-race."

Don’t try and make your own haggis. Unless you are well versed in offal dishes and DIY sausage, you should leave this dish to the professionals. Haggis can be purchased online or even found in a can at specialty stores.

Do elect an emcee. This is an important roll. The speaker is the one who will pace the meal, introduce the haggis, read poems (although this can also be divvied up amongst guests), tell the tale of Burns’s life and recite the Selkirk Grace (a traditional pre-dinner grace attributed to Burns): “Some hae meat and canna eat, and some would eat that want it. But we hae meat, and we can eat, sae let the Lord be thankit.”

Don’t let the emcee pre-game the meal. There’s a lot of reading to be done during this whisky-soaked evening, and a too-drunk host could even be dangerous. At one point during "Address to a Haggis," the emcee takes a sharp knife and stabs the oatmeal-stuffed stomach. You'll want this person to be alert enough to hit the intended target.

Do play bagpipe music. If someone in your party has mastery over the pipes, then all the better. But if not, a recording of bagpipes is acceptable and should be played during grace and as the haggis is brought in.

Don’t go overboard with the bagpipes. Bagpipes are an acquired taste, and their sound has been described to be like that of dying cats. So keep the piping to a minimum for the sake of those who were not brought up in a Scottish bog.

Do drink Scotch. The drink of choice in Scotland is, of course, Scotch. Consider this a chance to break out the good stuff.

Don’t drink too much Scotch. You'll toast after saying grace, you'll toast after the haggis is presented, you'll toast after the host gives a speech about Burns, and you'll toast many times more before the night is through. So pace yourself. You want to keep that haggis down.

For a complete guide to the perfect Burns night, visit Scotland.org.

Related: Delicious Scottish Dishes
Cocktails Made with Scotch

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