Burns died relatively young, possibly of a heart condition, at the age of 37. He had been expressing staunch support for two unpopular causes, the French revolution and Scotting political reform. As a result, his work had fallen in popularity.
Shortly before his death, his cottage at Alloway in Ayrshire had been sold to a local shoemaker's guild. Later, one of its members turned into an alehouse. It opened in early 1801 and the band of the local militia played on what they thought was Burns' birthday, 29th of January.
The original Burns supper was not on the date of his birthday, but of his death, in the same year. Because of his relative youth, he left many friends who were disappointed by his diminishing popularity. Nine of them - eight men and a woman - held the first supper at the Alloway cottage to celebrate his life and work. They ate sheep's head and haggis, speaking Burns' famous poem "Address to a Haggis" before consuming the latter, and drank wine and ale.
Several of the attendees were, like Burns, members of the Masons. As a result, the evening was designed to proceed a little bit like a Masonic ritual with a set running order and recitations of verse.
The evening was felt to be such a success by the participants that they decided to make in bi-annual event, celebrated on the anniversaries of both his birth and death. Celebrants discovered that according to parish records his birthday was, in fact, the 25th of January, not the 29th. After five years of this, it was changed to a single date, the 25th of January, because this was during the least busy time of the agricultural year.
During this time, the popularity of the event had spread. "Burns clubs" sprang up, loose organisations who held a supper every year. Paisley and Greenock were among early places to create such a club, with their record books dating back to around 1802-1805. In 1806 the first supper was held in England, by Glaswegian students at Oxford University.
After mentions in the press, the popularity of the celebration skyrocketed between 1810 and 1830. 1812 was the earliest record of a supper outside of Britain, held by Scottish army officers in India. In 1844 a great festival in Ayrshire spread knowledge of the celebration internationally, leading to the foundation of Burns clubs in expat colonies of Scots. In 1885 the Burns Federation was founded, bringing many of the clubs together under one organisation.
- Scotland: A Very Short Introduction, Prof. Rab Houston
- The Ultimate Burns Supper Book, Clark McGinn