Every year, millions of people celebrate Burns night: an evening of revelry to honour the life and work of the great Robert Burns. And yet, search the internet for tips on crafting a Burns speech, and you’d be surprised how little information is out there. If you’re not familiar with the unwritten rules of the evening, this lack of clear-cut advice might seem daunting. On the other hand, it’s a golden opportunity. Because although there are conventions, traditions, and a fairly rigid running order, the content of the speeches are not enshrined. In the spirit of Burns himself, creativity and originality reign supreme.
For those unfamiliar with the structure of the night, here’s a rough guide to proceedings.
- The Chairman’s welcome. The host welcomes the guests with a short introductory speech.
- The Selkirk Grace – a short, four-line prayer before the food, attributed to Burns.
- Piping in of the Haggis. The star of the show gets the welcome it deserves!
- Address to the Haggis – The chosen speaker gives a rendition of Burns’ To a Haggis. One of the great love poems of all time.
- Toast to the Haggis. Exactly what it sounds like.
- Food! And drink. Lots of drink.
- Toast to the Lassies – A witty, amusing speech delivered by a male guest that honours (and teases, affectionately) the fairer sex.
- Response to the Laddies – a cheeky response/rebuttal to the previous speech.
- The Immortal Memory – arguably the most anticipated speech of the evening. A tribute to Burns, in all his immortality.
You’ve been asked to deliver one of the speeches. Maybe you have an idea what you want to say. Maybe you don’t. So let’s have a think about how to approach each one respectively.
Toast to The Lassies
The Burns night tradition began in 1801, several years after the eponymous poet’s death. When the toast to the Lassie’s became a permanent fixture, however, is uncertain, but we can be sure that whenever it was, gender roles were greatly different to today. They say the tradition began as a thanks to the women for preparing the feast all the men had have enjoyed. Which, thankfully, is unlikely to be the case in the modern world. As such, the toast to the lassies is a balancing act. A playful throwback to a bygone era, and a modern reinterpretation of the differences between the sexes.
If it isn’t good natured, fun, and affectionate (without being patronising), you’d be advised to watch out for any stray bits of haggis flying in your direction. Remember, the traditions is old fashioned. Your job is to provide a fresh take on it but although it’s nice to quote a verse or two, you don’t need to worry about dissecting poetry or becoming an expert on Burns himself!
The Response to The Laddies
It would appear impossible to formulate a response to what hasn’t yet been said. But don’t worry. The ‘response’ isn’t so much a direct riposte as a continuation of the banter. In much the same spirit as the Toast the Lassies, this should be good-spirited, witty, and original. As to the content, the absence of a formula gives you creative license to be taken advantage of. Why not write a poem in the style of Burns? If you feel up to it, that is. Whatever form, or style, your ‘response’ will take, go with it, and inject as much humour as possible. And remember, the Lassie’s speech can afford to be even cheekier than the laddies’. The tradition is born out of old-fashioned patriarchy. You don’t need to go too easy on them!
The Immortal Memory
By far the most challenging of all the speeches. Not only is likely to be the longest (between 15-20 minutes, if you’re brave), but also the most research intensive. It is a tribute to Burns, his work, and ultimately, a personal take on his greatness. His immortality. Everyone has their own view on the sexes, but not everyone knows much, if anything, about Robert Burns. It’s unlikely you’ll have been asked to deliver the Immortal Memory if you’re unfamiliar with his life and work. If you do find yourself in this position, you’ll need to do your homework. It’s customary to include examples of his work. Not in a lecture-style, but in appreciation. In celebration. You’ll want to be familiar with as much of it as possible in order to choose examples that best serve your purpose, whilst still keeping your approach light and fun. And don’t forget to end with a toast, ‘to the immortal memory of Robert Burns!’
The speeches are expected to entertain as much as to inform. And if you’ve never been to a Burns night before, you’re in for a treat. They are enormous fun. Burns lived life to the full. Which might be why his wasn’t a very long one. There can be no better way to honour his legacy than by enjoying yourself as much as possible. Guests are likely to be well oiled and in high spirits. Which gives you, a speaker, a head start. They want to have fun just as much as you do. It is an occasion to be enjoyed. And your speech can play an integral part in the memories which guests will leave with. If the copious Scotch allows them to form, that is.
It goes without saying that we are well versed in Burns Night speeches (see, the puns come naturally!) so please call us right away if you need a helping hand!