8 Scottish phrases to celebrate Burns Night

Burns nightEvery year on 25 January, Scotland and many cities across the UK celebrate Burns night. But what exactly is this celebration, and what are some of its traditions?

What is Burns night?

Burns night is held on the birthday of the 18th-century Scottish poet, Robert Burns. He was famous for writing poems about his home country, and his love for its beautiful landscapes and welcoming people. 

The traditions of Burns night started more than 200 years ago when the poet’s closest friends started meeting every year to celebrate Robert Burns and his work. 

Nowadays, there are hundreds of parties and celebrations on Burns’ anniversary, where people eat traditional Scottish scran (food) with family and friends, get together at traditional Scottish ceilidhs (parties with music and dancing, pronounced ‘kay-lee’), and raise a glass whilst saying Slàinte Mhath! (here’s to good health, pronounced ‘slanj-a-va’). 

Scottish words to use in Scotland 

When celebrating this special day, you may come across some Scottish words or phrases you haven’t heard before. As with many parts of the UK, Scotland has its own dialect, so you’ll likely hear lots of vocabulary you can use on your visit to the country and with your Scottish friends. Here are 8 useful Scottish words and meanings to get you started.

Haggis, neeps and tatties are a traditional Scottish meal eaten on Burns night. It is the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep (haggis), mashed swedes or turnips (neeps), and potatoes (tatties). Delicious! 

Aye (noun, pronounced the same as ‘eye’) means yes, although interestingly, there’s not a Scottish word for no. 

If someone asks you if you’d like to go to a Burns night party, you can say ‘aye, I’d love to go!’

If something is braw (adj, pronounced ‘bror’), it’s fine or lovely. So, if someone asks if you’re enjoying your haggis, neeps and tatties you can say ‘aye, my meal is braw!’

Auld lang syne (pronounced ‘old-lang-zyn’) is a poem by Robert Burns, which is now a traditional song sung on Burns night and at midnight on New Year’s eve around the world. It means the good old times or times gone by. So, when people are singing the famous song, they’re singing about good friends and good times in the past. 

If you dinnae ken, you don’t know. So, if someone asks you what your plans are for Burns night but you’re unsure, you can say ‘I dinnae ken what I’m doing’.

A bonnie lass is a compliment, which means you’re a beautiful girl or woman. In fact, there are many Scottish words for women, including hens and quines (pronounced ‘kwiynes’). Men are sometimes called loons or lads

The weather can be quite unpredictable in Scotland in January, so you may find yourself drookit (adj), or soaking wet, from the rain. For example, ‘It was raining so hard, and I forgot my brolly. I’m drookit!’    

If you’re talking about your Burns celebrations the next day, on January 26th, you might say ‘yestreen was a braw evening’ (last night was a lovely evening).  

Billie Jago is an ELT writer and teacher trainer, specialising in digital & assessments. She is the founder of the professional development podcast ELTcpd and co-founder of the digital ELT content agency, otterelt.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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