How to Celebrate A Virtual Burns Night Supper

Whisky lovers around the world might already be familiar with the long beloved Scottish tradition of Burns Supper. Named for the bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, this annual fete is held on Burns’ birthday, January 25th. Since there’s no traveling abroad this year, let’s recreate this magical feast at home with a virtual recreation of a Burns Party. We chatted with Jessica Rideout with Visit Scotland to learn all about this fantastic event and how to pull it off from afar. 

The Whiskey Wash: To those who are unfamiliar, what is a Burns Supper?

Jessica Rideout:  25 January is known worldwide as Burns Night – the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard – and is traditionally celebrated with a meal of haggis, turnip (‘neeps’) and potatoes (‘tatties’), and a wee dram of whisky, a Burns Supper.

A Burns Supper is the perfect antidote to a cold, dark January night. They are usually warm and merry affairs, filled with speeches, poetry recitals and plenty of food and drink. The first Burns supper was held in 1801 and while new traditions have been added, the sentiment remains the same: to pay tribute to Scotland’s national poet.

Burns Supper

A Burns Supper (image via via Visit Scotland)

TWW: What are the absolute must haves to recreate a Burns Supper at home?

JR: Good food, good company and good fun- with a topping of poetry and a wee dram of whisky! The centrepiece of any good Burns Supper menu is the iconic haggis with whisky being the usual drink of choice. Poetry recitals over the course of the evening should include the “Selkirk Grace” and the “Address to a Haggis”.

For those who can’t get a traditional haggis, there are great alternatives such as vegetarian haggis which is a combination of oats, vegetables, pulses and seeds. You can always swap out the haggis for a steak pie which is also a popular alternative. Also, you can also view a full list of recipes from the Visit Scotland team by clicking here

TWW: Are there any other tips or anything else the Visit Scotland team would want readers to know?

JR: The beauty of a Burns Supper is that it can be as formal or informal as you like, and you can adapt many of the components to suit you and your guests. At this time the guest list may just be your household, but the celebrations are flexible which means they can work on a large or small scale. Perhaps bring a little piece of Scotland into your home by decorating with tartan or Scottish flowers such as thistle and heather.

You could even ask your guests to wear something Scottish like Harris Tweed or a tartan bow tie. To really add to the atmosphere, maybe light candles and enjoy a candlelit Burns Supper. You can also add in extra entertainment throughout the evening, try a learning a ceilidh dance or listening to some of your favourite Scottish music too. There is lots of advice online about hosting your own Burns Supper and VisitScotland has its very own guide which can be accessed here: Burns Night Guide. This includes recipes, poetry and plenty of top tips!

TWW: Is there any place in Scotland specifically known for hosting Burns Supper or is it a nationwide celebration? (In case readers want to visit for the event in the future!)

JR:  Burns Night is a worldwide celebration, but it has its origins at Burns Cottage in Alloway in Ayrshire, Scotland. The first Burns Supper was held in July 1801 when nine of Burns’ close friends got together to mark the fifth anniversary of their friend’s death. The night was such a success they decided to hold it again in honour of his birthday (25 January) thus beginning the tradition that is still celebrated today.

The south west of Scotland, Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway, is known as Burns Country as this is where he was born, where he spent time writing his legendary poetry and where he died. The Big Burns Supper, held annually in Dumfries, pays homage to this connection and is Scotland’s largest contemporary celebration of Burns.

In 2021 the event goes online for the first time with a very special broadcast connecting Scotland to the world with contributions from local, national and international artists. Normally, 25 January is a great time to be in Scotland with many restaurants, bars, hotels and attractions hosting special events, meals and tastings in honour of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns.

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Additionally, we tapped Phil Scott, general manager of the luxe Links House at Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, for his take on this special evening. He shared that “Burns Night is traditionally a great celebration here in Scotland, marking the birthday of the ‘Baird’, Rabbie Burns.  The most important part of the evening is addressing your guests and the beast with ‘To a Haggis’, written by Burns in 1787.”

Scott added that there are other classic factors in delivering a successful and memorable Burns Supper, so these are more applicable for a traditional Scottish celebration and not the virtual option available to many of us this year. 

“Ensure the Haggis has been caught on a hill/mountain within 20 miles of your location since provenance is key. The Haggis must be humanely dispatched and hung since at least Hogmanay. Whomever is addressing the Haggis must be wearing tartan and have a sufficient level of malt whisky inside them. Given that Burns Night is the first calendar event for most Scots since Hogmanay, we’re mostly raring to go and with the right company, cuisine and drams, we always have a great time!”, shared the GM. 

So to sum both of our expert sources, first set the tone with tartan decor and/or dress. Then, focus on the food and drink (traditional Scottish fare and Scottish whisky). Pro tip: for great info and reviews on whisky, check out our Scottish whisky content. Be sure to embrace Scotland’s national dish, haggis. We can’t legally import it to the United States, but some outfits, perhaps even your local butcher, are crafting American versions. Though it’s not the same traditional recipe necessarily, it’s as close as we can get in a virtual version. Next, read Address to a Haggis with the main course and toast to all your guests. End the meal on a high note, with a dessert cheese board featuring Scottish goodies like Dunsyre Blue, Red Anster and Caboc, which your local cheesemonger can help source or suggest alternative options. 

Finally, help enhance the ambiance with a great soundtrack to your evening. To expand on what was mentioned above, the Big Burns Supper celebration, which includes special tracks for the occasion and readings of Burns’ poetry, can be viewed for free on Facebook or YouTube. Artists like KT Tunstall, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and the aptly named musical group Le Haggis are all on deck to provide virtual musical stylings on January 25th. For a folksier option, consider the Nest Collective’s virtual Burns Supper is another great pick. There’s even a Scotland’s Sounds playlist on Spotify if the timing of your dinner doesn’t line up with the live musical offerings. 

For even more information, check out Visit Britain’s story about how to Celebrate Burns Night like the Scottish at Home. And, add Scotland during January to your travel bucket list, because it’s clear that a Burns Supper in his native land would truly be a sight to behold.