January 24th, 2024
Burns Night, a celebration steeped in rich Scottish heritage, is observed every January 25th to mark the birthday of the renowned poet Robert Burns. Known for its spirited festivities, this day honours Scotland’s most beloved bard, blending culture, literature and traditional Scottish customs. However, amidst the revelry and poetic readings, alcohol – particularly Burns’ favourite tipple, whiskey – often plays a significant role in the celebrations.
As we prepare to commemorate this historic literary event, this blog will explore the important balance between responsible celebration, taking care of yourself and others and some useful tips for enjoying the occasion without the risks of excessive drinking.
Understanding Burns Night: Origin and significance
The first Burns Night occurred over two hundred years ago, in July 1802. It was a supper event among nine friends of Robert Burns to honour the fifth anniversary of his death. The group gathered in his cottage in Alloway, ate haggis and performed readings of his most famous works. The evening was such a success that they decided to hold a Burns Supper every year on his birthday, and in the decades and centuries that followed, the occasion evolved into a nationwide celebration of Scottish culture.
Central to the modern celebration is the Burns Supper, where friends and family gather to recite Burns’ most famous works and enjoy a feast of traditional Scottish fare, including haggis, neeps and tatties. Burns Supper opens with the poet’s short prayer “Selkirk Grace”, features the ceremonial cutting of the haggis and a recitation of Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” and ends with a toast to the immortal memory of the bard. These gatherings not only celebrate Burns’ contribution to Scottish literature but also serve as a display of national pride and cultural identity.
More than a drink: Whiskey and celebration
Whiskey, deeply woven into the fabric of Scottish culture, plays a pivotal role in Burns Night celebrations for many people. These festivities often feature toasts with whiskey and other alcoholic drinks are also enjoyed, adding to the spirit of celebration and lowering inhibitions for recitals, singing and dancing.
The tradition of toasting with whiskey, in particular, is more than a matter of taste; it’s an homage to Scottish history and craftsmanship and the immense pride that Scots take in their national drink. As Robert Burns himself penned,
“Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither!”
This quote encapsulates the poet’s affection for whiskey and its significance in Scottish culture. These toasts are often seen as a tribute not just to Burns, who often referenced whiskey in his poetry, but also to the nation’s pride and identity.
Cautionary verses: The social costs of excessive alcohol consumption
While the enjoyment of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages is a longstanding tradition on Burns Night, it is important to recognise the potential dangers of excessive consumption. Overindulgence in alcohol can lead to immediate health risks such as impaired judgement and coordination as well as more serious issues like alcohol-related crime.
Excessive drinking during such celebrations can also overshadow the cultural significance of the event, turning the focus from honouring Scottish heritage to mere alcohol consumption. This is not unique to Burns Night.
In 2023, there were 1,854 incidents with police at Oktoberfest, many of them alcohol-related, while the number of alcohol-driven offences around the holidays in the UK saw authorities order 2,800 previous offenders to wear alcohol tags over the Christmas period last year. As the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk explained:
“The festive season is a time of celebration, but a small minority can take it too far. We’re keeping communities safe by tagging a record number of offenders this Christmas period.”
Whether this approach is the right one is a matter of debate but statistics from the charity Women’s Aid show that around 39% of all UK violent crimes involve alcohol with rates rising dramatically during festive events and celebrations.
Staying safe: The importance of moderation
As well as the social impacts, excessive drinking can also be a pathway to personal issues like alcohol abuse and addiction. While rates of hazardous levels of weekly alcohol use have steadily declined in Scotland from 34% in 2003 to 23% in 2021, these numbers are still worryingly high.
On Burns Night, while it is traditional to enjoy a dram of whiskey or a glass of wine, it is equally important to practise moderation and responsible drinking. Moderation can mean different things to different people. For some, it may involve setting a limit on the number of drinks consumed, while for others, it could mean choosing non-alcoholic alternatives. The key is to enjoy the festivities without compromising anyone’s well-being or overshadowing the event’s cultural significance.
Being mindful of others: The pressures of Burns Night
Burns Night, like any celebration, should be a source of joy and not stress, and it is important not to let the pressure of the occasion impact mental health negatively. This is particularly true for individuals who struggle with alcoholism or who are in recovery. For these people, the pervasive presence of whisky and other alcoholic beverages can create an environment that feels daunting and potentially triggering.
Being mindful and considerate of guests who may be navigating these challenges is crucial. Here are some ways to make Burns Night more inclusive and comfortable for everyone:
Offer non-alcoholic alternatives
This not only helps those in recovery but also caters to others who may choose not to drink alcohol for other reasons.
Respect individual choices
It is important to respect the choices of those who opt not to drink or joke about people being a party pooper. Avoid pressuring anyone to partake in alcohol and be supportive of their decision to abstain.
Be sensitive in toasts and speeches
While toasts are a part of the tradition, they can be conducted in a way that does not emphasise alcohol. Toasts can focus on the spirit of the celebration, the poetry of Robert Burns or the togetherness of friends and family.
Check-in with guests
If you know someone is in recovery, a discreet and private check-in to ensure they feel comfortable can be thoughtful. Just be careful not to single them out or draw attention to their recovery.
Protecting your own well-being: Seeking help with alcohol addiction
If you are struggling with alcohol addiction or you are exhibiting symptoms of alcohol abuse, it may be necessary to avoid Burns Night celebrations altogether and seek professional alcohol help. There are fantastic alcohol detox and rehab services across the UK, including NHS Alcohol Rehab and private alcohol addiction treatment centres like UKAT. You can receive a compassionate, comprehensive assessment, be advised on the best alcohol treatment options available and get started on the journey to recovery.
Burns Night is a time-honoured tradition that brings together the joys of Scottish culture and the communal spirit of celebration. This year, as we pay tribute to the great poet, let us also pay heed to both our own well-being and that of our loved ones. It is entirely possible to enjoy the festivities, savour the traditions and celebrate Scotland’s most beloved bard without the risks of excessive drinking.
So here’s to a Burns Night that honours tradition, prioritises well-being and brings family and friends together – Slàinte Mhath!
(Click here to see works cited)
- GOV.UK. “Record number of offenders facing sober Christmas and New Year.” GOV.UK, 29 December 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/record-number-of-offenders-facing-sober-christmas-and-new-year. Accessed 23 January 2024.
- The Scottish Government. “Chapter 8 Alcohol and Drugs – The Scottish Health Survey 2021: summary report – gov.scot.” The Scottish Government, 8 November 2022, https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-health-survey-2021-summary-report/pages/10/. Accessed 23 January 2024.
- Statista Research Department. “Types of criminal acts at Oktoberfest 2022.” Statista, 10 November 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1333261/criminal-offense-types-oktoberfest-munich/. Accessed 23 January 2024.