Celebrated on January 25th, Burns Night in London is increasingly popular. But in spite of its working-class roots, the traditional three-course meal and live music can make for a surprisingly expensive evening. That said, there are a few cheap spots if you’re looking to dust off your Tam o’ Shanter and hit the town. Looking for more to do this month? Check our events page for our top picks.
Who was Rabbie Burns?
Robert Burns, affectionately known as “Rabbie Burns”, is generally regarded as Scotland’s national poet. It’s hard to overstate the impact Burns’ poetry has had on British arts and politics—he’s comfortably Scotland’s (and possibly the UK’s) most well-known poet. If you don’t know him for his straightforward, hopeful, man-of-the-people style, you’ll almost certainly know his work. Every New Year, you’ll hear people around the world bellowing out the first verse of Auld Land Syne—Burns’ most enduring piece.
What is Burns night?
After Burns’ death in 1796, friends and family gathered annually on his birthday to celebrate him with a formal dinner. Evidently Burns was a popular guy, because in time all of Scotland got on board and joined the party. These days, Burns Night celebrations vary a lot—but there are a few key features to expect:
Bagpipe and traditional Scottish folk music are the standards. Fancier events might hire a live piper, while smaller venues often stick with recordings—bagpipes can get pretty loud. Live poetry readings of Burns’ work are another staple, either among friends or from professional readers.
Dinner is usually haggis, the Scottish national dish. For the uninitiated that’s a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with oatmeal, onions and spices. It’s significantly more delicious than it sounds. That’s usually served with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes). Scotch whisky is of course the go-to drink.
Often the night will end with a ceilidh (pronounced Kay-lee), where people dance to Scottish folk music. Sometimes a “caller” will help get dancers into the swing of things with specific moves for certain songs.
Where to Celebrate Burns Night in London
Whether you’re looking for a quiet night or an all-out knees up, there are a few options that won’t break the bank:
Celebrate Burns night in style on the huge rooftop bar above East London’s Tobacco Dock. One of the city’s most reasonably priced ticketed events, you can expect DJs and surprise guests throughout the night. Apparently there’ll be a “ceilidh caller with a twist”, so bring your dancing shoes. Tickets are £10.00 booked in advance, or £15.00 on the door. Tickets come with a welcome cocktail, made (predictably) with a generous dose of Scotch Whisky. The event finishes at 11 pm, but if you’re staying out, be mindful that the DLR isn’t on the night tube.
Hip underground cocktail bar Bourne and Hollingworth is hosting its own take on Burns night. DJs will be spinning Scottish classics old and new well into the wee hours, with themed cocktails on the menu all week. It’s a free event, but it’s well worth calling ahead to reserve yourself a spot. The cocktails are well thought out, but at around £9.00 a pop they’re definitely slow sippers.
Head to Flatiron Square’s Alpine Whisky Lodge for a free night of live music. In terms of food and drink there’s a variety of pop-up traders around, covering just about any food craving you can think of. But there’s also a special menu for the night with a Vietnamese fusion twist. The haggis (and vegan haggis) banh mi is especially good value at just £6.50. Things kick off at 6.30 pm and wrap up at 10 pm.
The Nest Collective hosts a raucous evening of music from The Ceilidh Liberation Front every few months—so it’s only natural they push the boat out for Burns Night. Expect a night of music and dancing from one of London’s most explosive live acts. Naturally there’s also a haggis supper on offer. Sadly, tickets are now sold out. But if you’re feeling the Scottish spirit, tickets are now up for the Spring ceilidh in March.
Hosting your own party
Good company is the real key to Burns Night—so why not host an evening of revelry yourself? Encourage your friends to bring whisky to share, fire up a Scottish playlist and let the good times roll. Feeling especially sophisticated? Be sure to encourage occasional poetry readings!
For the supper, most larger supermarkets stock some form of haggis, though it’s well worth checking your local butcher. They’re likely to have better-quality examples (and you can ask them for cooking advice, too).