Tonight, in cities around the world, people will gather and drink a little more than their fair share of whiskey, sing some very old songs and read poetry to a savory pudding.
The festivities are part of the Burns Supper, a tribute to 18th Century Scottish poet Robert Burns.
“He’s considered today by many to be essentially the national poet of Scotland,” Edgar B. Herwick III of GBH’s Curiosity Desk told Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel. “He's a huge, enormous figure in Scotland and kind of an avatar in ways for Scottish culture. He was sort of a man of the people.”
Burns died in 1796. The tradition of a Burns Supper, sometimes called Burns Night, began five years later.
“Some friends of his got together and in this sort of small cabin where he had grown up, and they did a thing where they were going to celebrate him,” Herwick said. “They read some of his poems and they sang some of his songs, and they drank some whiskey, and they sort of said, this is to you. And this sort of tradition stuck.”
Burns is known for writing the New Year’s anthem "Auld Lang Syne,” which was based on a previous Scottish folk tune. He also wrote about themes of “fairness, justice, liberty, passion, humor,” Herwick said.
“He wrote much of his stuff in the Scots language, the Scots dialect of English, which is sort of a big deal because at the time it was sort of considered a little, like, lower class people would speak in Scots, but the fancy people would speak proper English,” Herwick said. “The fact that he was writing in this more common tongue is also kind of a big deal.”
Despite the messages of freedom and fairness in his work, Burns’ life was not always in line with those values, Herwick said. When his work started garnering attention, he had already signed on to a job working at a plantation in Jamaica, where people were enslaved.
“It turns out he hit fame before he had to go to Jamaica, and he ended up staying in Scotland,” Herwick said. Still, he said, “This is a little bit of a challenging thing for folks when they look back at Burns, because he has this legacy.”
Herwick recommended the 1996 documentary “Angelou on Burns,”in which poet Maya Angelou, who was heavily influenced by Burns, goes to Scotland and talks to scholars about Burns’ legacy.
Burns remains hugely influential today, Herwick said. There are about 60 statues of him worldwide.
“For non-religious people, only Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria have more statues around the world,” Herwick said. “There's more statues of him in America than any American writer. And of course, there is one here in Boston. There's also one in Quincy.”
The Boston statue is located in the Fens.
“It went up in 1920, which is when a lot of these statues went up,” Herwick said. “And then in the 1970s, it just disappeared one night. … It turns out they were redeveloping Winthrop Square, and there was supposed to be a statue of Winthrop that went down there, but that statue got damaged. So somebody was like, grab the Burns statue. And they just, like, took it down there. And it was there for a long time. It came back to the Fens in 2019.”
To celebrate Burns night, people read his works, drink whiskey and dig into some haggis, the Scottish dish Burns memorialized in his work “Addressed to a Haggis:" "His knife see Rustic-labour dight, An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; But then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!”