Burns Night 2023: What is it and who was Robert Burns?

The event in honour of the poet brings in more than $245 million a year to Scotland’s economy

A mural on the wall of the Globe Inn showing Burns as an exciseman. Chris Tait / The National
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Robert Burns etched his name into the small Scottish town of Dumfries. He carved a few lines of his poetry into its windows, too, an act of 18th ­century vandalism that has become a source of civic pride and a draw for tourists from around the world.

He used a diamond ring to make his mark on the glass and the engravings are among the jewels scattered along the Burns’ Trail, a walking tour through Dumfries that leads enthusiasts to some of the most important places from the poet’s life.

Burns, who died in 1796, spent the last five years of his life in the town, during which he wrote some of his best-known work, including Auld Lang Syne, Ae Fond Kiss and A Red, Red Rose.

circa 1786:  Scottish poet Robbie Burns (1759 - 1796) in his cottage composing 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'.   Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, the son of a farmer. In 1786 he published 'Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect' with a view to raising funds to emigrate to the West Indies. The success of the volume induced him to stay. He married Jean Armour, the mother of his children in 1788. Burns farmed at Ellisland until 1791 and also worked for the Excise Service to supplement his income. Most of his later literary work consisted of songs and he wrote many of his most famous works for 'A Collection of Original Scottish Airs'  which included 'Auld Lang Syne', 'A Red, Red Rose' and 'Scots Wha Hae'. Burns died on July 21st 1796. His life and work are celebrated on Burns Night, 25th January.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What is Burns Night?

Lines from his poems will be recited across Scotland on Wednesday as the country celebrates Burns Night, an annual event that involves stuffing yourself with haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis, turnip and potato) until you're on the cusp of a Caledonian food coma.

More than nine million ­people participate in the occasion across the world, and Burns's impact can be felt in more than just legacy. A study by the University of Glasgow published in 2020 showed the poet is worth more than £200 million ($247m) a year to Scotland's economy, with the Burns brand worth about £140m a year alone. The study took about 12 months to complete and was funded by the Scottish government.

“More than 250 years after his birth, his life and work still holds a huge fascination for a worldwide audience,” Murray Pittock of the university’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, who led the report, says.

"Burns has universal appeal, with his work being translated into every single major language, including Russian, German, French and Chinese, while Auld Lang Syne is our New Year anthem and has been performed by ­everyone from Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix."

Burns’s mausoleum. Chris Tait / The National

Tourists who make the poetic pilgrimage to Dumfries will also be obliged to utter a few stanzas, depending on where they choose to sit. Burns’s favourite chair is still in The Globe Inn Dumfries, where he stayed regularly after he moved to the south-western town in 1791, and the cost of sitting in it is a few lines of the Scot’s poetry.

The upstairs room where he slept is open to the public, albeit this often requires you to first cajole staff at the bar to unlock it, and remains a rich source of history. A handwritten rhyme from Burns is preserved on one of its windowpanes – he etched another line on to a window at his house about 300 metres away – and the appearance of the room has scarcely changed in the past two centuries.

The new ‘Tam O’Shanter’ mural outside Burns's house. Chris Tait / The National

However, the Globe's original kitchen, the scene of Burns' suppers down the years, is being transformed into a ­museum about the poet, and the inn's hay loft is now a private dining area capable of seating 30 guests. A new mural has also been painted across the road from his house, conveniently found on Burns Street, depicting a scene from the narrative poem Tam O'Shanter.

The buildings are included on the Burns' Trail, a treasure map of Scotland's literary heritage that leads tourists through the town the poet made famous. Among the other stops on the tour are the marble statue of the poet that stares down the length of the High Street, the Theatre Royal, which first opened its doors in 1792, and the mausoleum where the remains of Burns and his family are buried. Its white walls and domed roof set it apart from the sandstone sculptures around it, making it a beacon for those keen to pay their respects.

the kitchen in Burns's house. Chris Tait / The National

The latest renovations carried out along the trail show how the country is continuing to invest in the legacy of one of its favourite sons, but Pittock has called on politicians and groups to do more. "We are very fortunate to have such an iconic Scottish figure like Burns," he says. "We have been able to put a value of more than £200m on the tourism, products and festivals that Burns brings to the country. We hope our research will help to inform and encourage Scotland to continue to ­develop plans to promote Burns at home and abroad."

The poet continues to make his mark on the world, even without that diamond ring.

A version of this story was first published in January 2020