International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
On 25 January, virtually everyone who has a hint of Scottish ancestry (and a fair few who do not) don a kilt and brush up on the works of Scotland’s greatest poet to celebrate his birthday. The life of 18th-century wordsmith Robert “Rabbie” Burns is celebrated each year across the United Kingdom through traditional Burns Night dinners, dances, poetry recitals and more than a dram or two of the finest Scotch whisky.
Robert Burns was not a poet shy of a challenge. Why waste your time writing verses about flowers or young lovers when you could apply your lyrical talents to the joys of cooked intestines? “Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!” he wrote in an Address to a Haggis, the poem traditionally recited as the famous offal-stuffed sheep's stomach is carried onto the banquet table at most Burns Night dinners, accompanied by the strains of bagpipes.
If nothing else, this wholehearted artistic commitment to the sometimes odd, always proud heritage of Scotland is alone worthy of celebration 253 years after Burns' birth. But when the night that bears your name has turned into one of the biggest annual parties of the year, you really must be doing something right.
Burns was born in 1759 in Ayrshire, and after a lifetime of torrid love affairs and a prodigious literary output, died in his adopted hometown of Dumfries, Scotland in 1796. His poetry and songs continue to be a fierce source of pride for the Scottish diaspora, with his New Years anthem Auld Lang Syne being sung by millions at the start of each 1 January.
A couple of years ago, it was reported that there are now more Burns Nights held in England each 25 January than in Scotland. And the festivities have indeed become incorporated in the general British identity (although it is probably not the best idea to start claiming that in the wee hours inside a Glasgow pub!). There are hundreds of Burns Night events all over the country, with most local pubs having some Burns-related fun planned, but some events are bigger than others.
The Athenaeum, London
One of London's plushest hotels, the Athenaeum is home to an exhaustive Scotch whisky collection, which is certainly made good use of during their Burns Night Whisky Social. Each part of the five course menu is matched with a rare whisky selected by the hotel's whisky sommelier. After the traditional haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes to the uninitiated), the menu stretches its wings a little, giving a modern twist to such Scottish delicacies as Shetland Smoked Salmon and Roast Scottish Rib Eye of Beef.
Òran Mór, Glasgow
You will not find a grander setting for a Burns Night supper than the auditorium at Òran Mór, a huge cultural centre in Glasgow's west end. Under a domed ceiling painted by legendary Glaswegian artist and author Alasdair Gray, surrounded by original pagan-style stained glass windows, a three course menu is served with whisky. Even better, the Sirens of Titan choir will perform Burns' classic cantata The Jolly Beggars (or Love and Liberty), accompanied by a pianist and string quartet.
Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Even the home of William Shakespeare, the only British playwright and poet to beat Burns in the fame stakes, cannot resist a day of infidelity come 25 January. Ettington Park is a wonderfully grand hotel set in 40 acres of Warwickshire countryside, a neo-Gothic mansion packed with antiques, fine paintings and historic friezes. Its Burns Night supper is a gourmet affair, with five courses accompanied by specially chosen wines and whiskies. Accommodation at the hotel is also available for £100 a night.
The Ceilidh Club, London
The best, guilt-free way to get stuck into all that haggis and shortbread is to know that you will be dancing it all off afterward. London's Ceilidh Club hosts Celtic country dance sessions most weeks throughout the year, but really pulls out the stops for Rabbie. The club will be hosting not one, but five Burns-themed ceilidhs throughout January and February – three hours of energetic dance floor action will be interspersed with the traditional Burns menu, as well poetry recitals and bagpipes.