A Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns, author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day (or Robbie Burns Day) or Burns Night, although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.
Burns suppers are most common in Scotland and Northern Ireland but occur wherever there are Burns Clubs, Scottish Societies, expatriate Scots, or aficionados of Burns’ poetry. There is a particularly strong tradition of them in southern New Zealand’s main city Dunedin, of which Burns’ nephew Thomas Burns was a founding father.
The first suppers were held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by Robert Burns’ friends on the anniversary of his death, 21 July, In Memoriam and they have been a regular occurrence ever since. The first Burns club, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. They held the first Burns supper on what they thought was his birthday on 29 January 1802, but in 1803 discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was 25 January 1759, and since then suppers have been held on 25 January, Burns’ birthday.
Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in Address to a Haggis), Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organisations such as Burns clubs, the Freemasons or St Andrews Societies and occasionally end with dancing when ladies are present.