Get to Know Glasgow: A Short Guide to Burns Night for Fans

Growing up in Scotland I was aware of Burns Night, but my only experience of organising a Burns supper was as part of the bidding for the 1995 Glasgow Worldcon, when we ‘piped in the haggis’ during one of the bid parties at the 1992 Worldcon Magicon in Orlando! It was fun introducing various elements of Scottish culture to fans worldwide at the time. Some of the elements, such as Whisky, Kilts & Tartan, Haggis, Bagpipes, etc., are so well known that they can be caricatured so we balanced those with other themes for the later Glasgow bids. Burns Night and Burns suppers are less well known, so we thought it would be good to provide an introduction for fans coming to Glasgow 2024.

Starting with ‘Burns’. Of course this doesn’t refer to famous names from the genre such as Jim Burns, but rather to Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, who lived at the end of the 18th century, south of Glasgow, and produced a number of enduring works of poetry and song in Scots, English, and his local dialect, of which ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is probably the most widely known. He had a hard and short life, although he produced a large volume of work and was a keen reader, but his family’s financial circumstances meant he had to spend much of his life in hard farming work, which possibly contributed to his early death. He did achieve some financial success in his final years by selling books of his work, which became influential in the following Romantic period of the 19th century. He also became a Scottish cultural icon, with celebrations of his life and work continuing to this day, and is often referred to as ‘Scotland’s national poet’.

Burns Night is an annual celebration held on January 25th, Burns’ birthdate. The tradition started just five years after his death, in 1801, when a group of his friends met at the cottage where Burns was born, (though they got the date slightly wrong!) and raised a glass to his memory, dined on haggis, and recited his poem ‘Address to a Haggis’. Others picked up the tradition, which spread widely, helped by the diaspora of Scots worldwide; Burns Nights are now celebrated in many countries.

A Burns supper can be formal or informal, and will typically have a running order beginning with the host welcoming everyone and delivering the ‘Selkirk Grace’ before the dinner is served. During the meal, the haggis is brought in, usually on a large dish by the cook, with a bagpiper in highland dress leading the way while playing a traditional Scottish tune (‘piping-in’). The host performs ‘Address to a Haggis’, including theatrical cutting of the haggis with a ceremonial knife, (this is perhaps one of the more memorable examples!), then everyone toasts the haggis. Various other speeches and toasts follow, and the event concludes with a vote of thanks and everyone standing and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, followed by a night of singing and dancing.

You can run a Burns supper any time of year and choose the format and running order to your liking. There is a strong tradition of whimsy, dressing up, partying, and poetry and song in the SF&F genre and fandom, so I encourage you to be particularly imaginative in your approach! (I wonder if anyone has ever made Armadillo Haggis . . . ?)

Vincent Docherty is a fan and con-runner, who co-chaired the Glasgow Worldcons in 1995 & 2005. He grew up in Glasgow, where he also studied and researched in Chemistry. His career in the energy industry has taken him to London, Muscat (Oman), and The Hague, where he currently lives. He had an early interest in SF&F, Space and Science, and at 16, he attended the first SF convention in Glasgow, quickly becoming involved in organizing SF societies and conventions, including British National Eastercons and Worldcons. He has been Fan Guest of Honour at the UK Eastercon and other cons and was presented with the Big Heart Award in 2014. He remains an active con-runner and programme participant, chairing the 2011 & 2021 SMOFcons, member of the Hugo Award Subcommittee several times, running the music program & symphonic concerts for the 2014 & 2019 Worldcons, and Chair’s advisor and a Division Head for the Dublin 2019 and Glasgow 2024 Worldcons.

The 82nd Worldcon will take place in Glasgow, August 8–12, 2024. We can’t wait to welcome you to Glasgow and the SEC/Armadillo for a Worldcon for Our Futures.