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Teachers: Literacy: Text

Last Updated: Thursday January 18 2007 13:30 GMT

Burns' Night and dialect


January 25 is Burns' Night.

Students take a quiz about Burns' Night, learn about the poet and understand dialect.


Robert Burns cottage in Dumfries (Scottish Tourist Board)

Students test their knowledge about Burns' Night by taking our quiz. They can do this online or by printing out a version.

Answers to the quiz:

1a, 2b, 3c, 4b, 5b, 6c.

Ask students: What else do you know about Burns' Night and how people celebrate it?

Make a class list of their ideas.

Here are some prompts:

  • Tribute to Robert Burns also known as Robbie or Rabbie Burns.
  • He was a famous 18th century Scottish poet and writer of ballads.
  • Burns' Night is celebrated on January 25 - Burns' birthday.
  • He was born in 1759 in the Scottish village of Alloway near Ayr.
  • Burns loved poetry and could barely write a shopping list or letter without putting it in verse.
  • He often wrote in Scottish dialect.
  • He often wrote about animals and nature.
  • Some of his most famous poems are "To a Mouse" and "Tam O'Shanter."
  • His ballad "Auld Lang Syne" is sung at New Year and during Burns' Suppers.
  • The Suppers were started by friends of Burns, a few years after his death in 1796.
  • People traditionally eat haggis served with neeps and tatties on Burns' Night.
  • Burns' Night has become a celebration of Scottishness.
Main activity

Explain to the class that much of Burns' poetry was written in Scottish dialect.

A dialect is a form of a language which has most of the characteristics of the parent language but which differs in some ways.

So, Burns' Scottish dialect looks quite similar to English (the parent language) but some grammar and words are different.

Ask the class if they know any Scottish dialect. E.g. wee (little), ay (yes).

Piper with bagpipes

Distribute copies of this Burns' poem to the class. Don't tell them that the title of the poem is "To a Mouse."

Read out the first verse to the class. Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an chase thee,
Wi murdering pattle!

Ask students to write what they think these words mean?


Ask students:

  • What type of animal do you think Burns is describing? Mouse. The title of the poem is "To a Mouse."
  • What words or lines make you think this?
  • What is the mouse doing? Trying to run away.
  • The mouse is scared of the "murdering pattle." What do you think this might be? Plough-scraper which is a small, long-handled spade for removing clay from the ploughshare.
Read out the rest of the poem to the class.

Divide the class into seven groups and give each of them a verse from 2 to 8.

Ask them to work out what is happening in their verse. They may need to refer to the glossary.

Some groups may find it easier to draw a picture, especially those working on verses 4, 5 and 6.

One member of each group reads out their verse and another member explains what they think is happening.

The poem is about a mouse which carefully builds a winter nest in a wheat field, only for it to be destroyed by a ploughman.

Write your own poems

Tell students they are going to write a Burns style poem about an animal.

Each student writes down the name of an animal and something that happens to it. E.g. a hungry rabbit finds food.

Then they write down three or four adjectives or phrases to describe their animal. E.g. A hungry rabbit might be starving, cold and weary.

Using these words to form the first line of their poem, students write a one or two verses about what happens to their animal.

Some students may want to follow the AAABAB rhyme scheme of "To a Mouse" while others may prefer to use free verse.

They then alter words or phrases to make them sound like Burns. For example:

To a rabbit

You starving, cold and weary, beast,

Looking to the sun rising in the east,

Wondering where to find your next feast.

With many a feeble bound and then a hop,
You know your hunger pangs have ceased,

As you stumble on a mammoth carrot crop.

To a rabbit

Ye starvin, cauld and wearisome beastie,

A-lookin afore the sun arising int' eastie,

Wonderin where to find thy next wee feastie.
With monny a feeble bound and aft an hopit,
Thy're sure ye henger pangs will ceasedy,

As ye tumble ont' mammoth carrotty cropit.

Extension activity

Students run a spell check on one of Robert Burns' poems. There are a selection on the BBC Burns' Night page -

They replace highlighted words with the most appropriate suggestion given by the spell checker.

What have students learnt from this? Is the Scottish dialect used by Burns closer to modern English than they imagined?


Students read out their poems to the class, explaining how they made their poem sound like Burns.

What have they learnt about dialects?

Teachers' background

Piper with bagpipes
Burns lived through an age of revolution. The late 18th century witnessed two of the most important international events in modern history - the first "liberal" revolutions in America (1775) and France (1789). Burns would also have seen the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, although he would not have lived to see the mass migration to the cities' factories.

International celebrations of Burns aren't just held by Scotland's many ex-pat communities, the states of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries have long held the tradition of hosting Burns Nights.

Burns' Supper

Burns' Suppers can be an informal gathering of friends or a huge, formal dinner. This is the running order for a traditional Burns' Supper:

  • A piper welcomes the guests.
  • Everyone takes a seat at the table and the chairman welcomes the guests.
  • The meal is ushered in with a short prayer called "The Selkirk Grace" or "Burns' Grace at Kirkcudbright."
  • The piper plays and guests clap as the haggis is brought to the table on a silver platter.
  • The reader recites Burns' poem "To a Haggis." When they reach the line "His knife see Rustic-labour dight," they cut the haggis with a knife. On the final line "Gie her a Haggis!" the reader raises the haggis in triumph and all the guests clap.
  • The guests toast the haggis by raising their glasses and shouting "The Haggis!"
  • The haggis is served with turnips and potatoes or neeps and tatties.
  • The starter is often cock-a-leekie soup, made of chicken, leeks, bacon and prunes.
  • The pudding is often Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle).
  • Cheese is served with bannocks (traditional oat-cakes) and tea or coffee.
  • After the meal, guests take turns to perform Burns' songs or poems.
  • The speaker tells the guests about the life of Robert Burns, ending with the toast: "To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!"
  • Women are also praised on Burns' Night with someone shouting a toast: "To the Lassies!"
  • The host thanks his guests for coming but before they leave, everyone joins hands to sing "Auld Lang Syne."
Of Mice and Men

Students may be studying John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." The title comes from Burns' poem "To a Mouse"

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,

An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

For promised joy!

(The best laid schemes of mice and men

Often go wrong
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

Instead of promised joy!)

The mouse had dreamed of a safe, warm winter and is now faced with the harsh reality of cold, loneliness and possible death.

There is a parallel here with the two central characters' of the book, their joyful fantasy of a farm of their own and its all-too-predictable destruction at the end of the story.

Perhaps it is also meant to suggest how unpredictable our lives are, and how vulnerable to tragedy.

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