The haggis arrives

Many countries have a national poet but none has attracted as much international adulation as Scotland’s Robert Burns.

Born on the 25th January 1759 in Ayrshire, the eldest son of a poor farmer and his wife, Burns’s name and prolific writing still inspire affection and admiration in hearts all over the world. Exiled Scots, descendants of Scots and anyone with a passion for Burns gather every year to celebrate the man and his writing.

In his poetry, songs and letters, Burns wrote about universal themes.  He applied his keen observational skills, his creativity and his mischievous sense of humour to the daily struggles of ordinary folk; he ridiculed the arrogance of the upper classes, politicians and the church. Nothing and no-one was too small or insignificant to be the object of his scrutiny.

Burns died on the 21st of July 1796, at the age of 37.  Five years after his death, in 1801, close friends gathered to celebrate his life and work and the idea of  Burns clubs was born. It soon caught on and Burns clubs began to spring up all over Scotland and the rest of the world. The date of the celebration was moved from the day of the poet’s death to the day of his birth, the 25th of January – the Burns Supper as we know it today.

The Toastmasters Burns Supper

Why should Toastmasters clubs hold a Burns Supper? Several reasons:

  1. It’s a challenge and Toastmasters love a challenge (that’s why we join).
  2. A Burns Supper can be dramatic as well as fun.
  3. It’s an excuse to dress up.
  4. Listen to the skirl of the pipes.
  5. Eat haggis, drink whisky and recite poems in a foreign language.  And to help you understand the dialect, you can read the translations of Burns poetry at
  6. Earn credit for speeches (see the Appendix below)

Hosting a Burns Supper is not difficult. Just follow this guide:

  1. Book the venue well in advance and plan the menu. The traditional meal is:
  • Cock a Leekie Soup (chicken and leek soup)
  • Haggis, neeps (mashed swede) and tatties (mashed potatoes)
  • Cranachan (toasted oats, whisky infused double cream and fresh raspberries)
  • Tea/coffee – served with shortbread or tablet ( a crumbly type of fudge only made in Scotland).

For vegetarians, you can substitute leek and potato soup for the cock-a-leekie and  vegetarian haggis for the real thing.

  1. Invite members and their partners (dress code is up to you, but a Burns Supper can be an excuse to dress up and wear tartan).
  2. Find out if any of the members play the bagpipes and try to persuade them to pipe in the haggis on the evening. Failing this, hire a piper or buy CD of Scottish bagpipe music.
  3. Appoint a TME to chair the evening.
  4. Recruit speakers from among the members to deliver the traditional recitations and speeches:
  • The Selkirk Grace
  • The Address to the Haggis
  • The Immortal Memory 
  • Toast to the Lassies
  • The Lassies’ Reply
  1. Ask members to volunteer to recite a Burns poem, sing a Burns song or play an instrument during the evening.
  2. Send out an agenda in advance and let members know what time they are expected to arrive and when they will sit down for dinner.
  3. Sometimes the venue will make place cards and a seating plan if you ask them.
  4. Ask the venue for a small table at the top of the room for the ceremonial haggis, a large knife to cut the haggis and 3 glasses of whisky or whisky-coloured alternative if someone doesn’t drink – one for the member addressing the haggis, one for the chef carrying in the haggis and one for the piper.


Slainte John Wood, member Waverley Communicators

  1. Members and partners enter the dining room – if you have a piper they may be persuaded to pipe the guests in to the room.
  2. When everyone is seated, the TME welcomes the guests with a short introduction.
  3. When the soup or starter has been served, ask the member who is reciting the Selkirk Grace to stand up and deliver the grace. The poem is very short and can easily be memorised or written on a small card as a prompt:





Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit

Moira Beaton, member of Waverley Communicators and Edinburgh Advanced Toastmasters addresses the haggis “Fair fa’ yer honest sonsie face, great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”


  1. Once the first course has been cleared, the drama begins: The member addressing the haggis stands by the small table ready to receive the haggis. Enter a kilted piper  playing the bagpipes. Behind him is the chef  bearing the haggis on a platter. (If you don’t have a piper, switch on the CD you bought, as soon as the chef is about to enter).  The piper and chef walk once round the room to the music then the chef places the haggis on the table in front of the member reciting the address and stands back. The piper stops playing and stands back.  The Address Tae The Haggis is a very dramatic poem and for full effect, the speaker should either have memorised it or be adept at holding the script in one hand and a large knife in the other so they can concentrate on the actions.
  2. At the end of the poem, the speaker asks everyone to charge their glasses, stand and toast the haggis. Once the toast is over, the piper, playing, leads the chef out of the room while everyone stands and claps in time to the music.
  3. After a suitable interval, the haggis reappears as the main course, accompanied by the vegetables (or whatever main course you have chosen).
  4. Dessert is usually served, followed by coffee or tea and shortbread or tablet.

When the meal is over and glasses replenished, it’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy the other traditional recitations:

  1. The Immortal Memory – a short speech about Burns’s life and work. This usually involves some research but there’s a lot of information on the internet.
  2. The Toast to the Lassiesa short humorous speech given by a man. It’s sometimes directed at the ladies present or at women, in general. At the end of the speech, the speaker asks the men to stand, raise their glasses and toast ‘the lassies’.
  3. The Lassies’ Reply – another short, humorous speech delivered by one of the ladies. This can be prepared or answer, off the cuff, what the previous speaker has already said.  At the end of the speech, the speaker asks the ladies to stand, raise their glasses and toast ‘the laddies.’
  4. No Burns Supper is complete without these ‘official’ speeches. But, there are other Burns poems which are also traditionally recited such as Tam O’Shanter, Holy Willy’s Prayer and Tae a Mouse.  These are long and usually involve actions but there are shorter Burns poems that may be read from a book of Burns poetry.
  5. If there are any members who sing or play an instrument, they might be persuaded to perform one of the Burns poems that have been set to music, e.g. Ae Fond Kiss, My Luv Is Like A Red, Red Rose, or Ye Banks And Braes O’ Bonny Doon.

After the entertainment, the evening usually ends with everyone standing, joining hands and singing the Burns song that nearly everyone, all round the world, knows – Auld Lang Syne.

A Burns supper involves some organisation the first time you host one.  It should be an evening of fun, laughter and good fellowship with everyone entering into the spirit of the event and reciting Burns’s verses with as much feeling as possible.

Once you have hosted or attended your first Burns Supper, you will want to do it again.  But, be warned – they can become addictive, just like Burns and his poetry.


NB: You can give 2 speeches per manual outside the club meeting* with the approval of the club’s VPE as long as they are evaluated orally and in writing. The oral evaluation can be given after the dinner.

*According to Toastmasters International, a club meeting is “the standard gathering of members for a club in which normal club activities are conducted. This includes meeting roles being filled, speakers giving speeches or completing speech projects, and evaluations being given”. A Burns Supper is, therefore, outside a club meeting.

Help organise a Burns Supper

  • CL manual: Project 6 – Help organise a club special event

Chair the Burns Supper

  • CL manual: Project 10 – Chair a club special event

The Address to the Haggis

  • Interpretive Reading manual: Project 2 – Interpreting Poetry (6-8 mins)

The Immortal Memory

  • CC manual: Project 8- Research Your Topic
  • Special Occasion Speeches manual: Project 2 – Speaking in Praise (5-7 mins)
  • Storytelling manual: Project 5 – Bringing History to Life
  • Speciality Speeches manual: Project 2 – Uplift The Spirit (8-10 mins)
  • The Entertaining Speaker manual: Projects – A Dramatic Talk (5 -7 mins) and Project 5 – Speaking After Dinner (8-10 mins)

Toast to the Lassies

  • Humorously Speaking manual: Projects 2-5 (5-7 mins)
  • The Entertaining Speaker manual: Projects 1-3 (5-7 mins)

The Lassies’ Reply

  • Humorously Speaking manual: Projects 2-5 (5-7 mins)
  • The Entertaining Speaker manual: Projects 1-3 (5-7 mins)

Burns Poetry

  • Interpretive Reading manual: Project 2 – Interpreting Poetry
  • Speciality Speeches manual: Project 4 – Read Out Loud (12-15 mins)

A Toast to Robert Burns

  • Special Occasion Speeches Manual: Project 1 – Mastering the Toast (2-3 mins)

For a list of the Advanced Manuals and their objectives visit:

Post written by Moira Beaton