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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Wilson

A wee word about Burns – with a musical accompaniment

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Well, I know what I'm cooking tomorrow. Monday is 25 January, so it's got to be haggis, in celebration of what would have been the 262nd birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland's "ploughman poet". As a Scot, I'm pre-programmed to eat haggis at the end of January. I don't need a reminder that the Bard's birthday is coming up, even though it's well documented in the media throughout January. Burns was just 37 when he died, but it's wonderful to think that, despite his short life, his poems and songs moved people to such an extent that even now, 225 years after his death, people around the world still come together to celebrate his life. Traditionally, for Scots all around the world, it's always been one hell of a party. This year, with the current COVID restrictions, it'll have to be a Zoom party!

I've noticed that some calendar apps have a holiday entry for 25 January entitled "Robert Burn's Night". I see these misspelt references to Burns all over the media and, as they say in Glasgow, "it does ma heid in". Robert's surname was Burns, not Burn, which means that calling it a Burn's Supper is just plain wrong. If there is an apostrophe, it should be Burns' Supper: the supper of Burns. But do we need to add an apostrophe at all?


The rule for using apostrophes

When we make something possessive (to indicate that something belongs to another thing), we add 's. Hence:

  • the cat's mat

  • the children's laughter

  • a week's holiday

  • somebody's violin

  • Scotland's poet

This rule applies in most cases, even with a name ending in s. Hence:

  • James's friend

  • the bus's departure

  • the haggis's wee stumpy legs

Some people prefer to use the form James' friend. Although this is acceptable, the above version is better (and correct according to most books on grammar) as it reflects how we pronounce the word: we say James–iz friend.


As with everything in English grammar, there are always exceptions to the rule. Here are two:

1. A plural noun already ending in s takes only an apostrophe (not 's) to show possession:

  • the cats' mat

  • the girls' laughter

  • two weeks' holiday

  • my parents' visit (but a singular parent would be my parent's visit)

This makes sense as we don't pronounce these words with two esses. We don't say the cats–iz mat. When we have a plural that does not end in s (such as men, children, etc.), we use the regular form and add 's to the end, as in women's shoes.

2. A name that ends in s takes only an apostrophe (not 's) if the possessive form is not pronounced with the additional s. Hence, whereas we pronounce the two esses in James's friend, we pronounce only one s in the following:

  • Saint-Saëns' music

  • Socrates' philosophy

Some important reminders about apostrophes

1. Pronouns do not take apostrophes:

  • The cat sat on its mat

  • They raised their glasses

  • She played her fiddle

Many people don't realise there is a difference between its and it's. Its is the possessive form and it's is the shortened form of it is or it has. Don't get them mixed up. It's very common to see this mistake in our world of digital communication – and some of your audience might get slightly miffed if they see this in your writing.

2. Decades do not take apostrophes unless they are being used in the possessive form:

  • Child of the 1960s

  • In the 1970s we listened to 70's music

3. Apostrophes should not be used to indicate plurals. This incorrect use is often referred to as "the greengrocer's apostrophe":

  • lettuces (not lettuce's)

  • videos and CDs (not video's and CD's)

  • the Joneses are coming (not the Jones's are coming)

  • the three Rs (not R's)

But do we need an apostrophe in Burns Night at all?

When we use the terms Burns Night and Burns Supper we are using the word Burns as an adjective to describe the night or the supper; therefore, we don't need to use an apostrophe. Other examples are:

  • Guy Fawkes Night

  • Veterans Day


To wish you a happy Burns Night, I'll leave you with a wee medley called McMozart that we performed a few years ago at the Simonsbath Festival on Exmoor: Eine kleine Nachtmusik – with some added Scottish jigs, reels and famous tunes by Robert Burns.

I hope you enjoy it.

Slàinte! (Cheers!)


Bass clarinet: James Ross

Flutes: Caroline Ross and Barbara Wilson


Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race! Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy of a grace As lang ‘s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill, Your hurdies like a distant hill, Your pin wad help to mend a mill In time o’ need, While thro’ your pores the dews distil Like amber bead.

His knife see Rustic-labour dight, An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive: Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive, Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve Are bent like drums; Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive, Bethankit hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout, Or olio that wad staw a sow, Or fricassee wad mak her spew Wi’ perfect sconner, Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash, As feckless as a wither’d rash, His spindle shank a guid whip-lash, His nieve a nit; Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash, O how unfit!

t mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He’ll make it whissle; An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned, Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care, And dish them out their bill o’ fare, Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware That jaups in luggies; But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a Haggis!

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