The day Muhammad Ali met Robert Burns – a curious tale for Burns Night gatherings

Celebrate Burns Night with Muhammad Ali’s unexpected ode to Robert Burns, plus our three-step Burns supper

Muhammad Ali is greeted by pipers from plane in Scotland
Muhammad Ali touches down in Glasgow in 1965
(Image credit: The Herald and Times archive)

Whisky, served in the kind of weighty lead-crystal glasses that billionaires prefer, will be flowing at Burns Suppers across the world tonight (25 January). Robert Burns’ most popular Scottish-dialect poems will be awkwardly garbled by many, a few drams in. But there is one Burns-related verse that is unlikely to be performed by anyone this evening – the one Muhammad Ali scribbled down during his little-known visit to Burns Cottage in Alloway, west Scotland, in 1965:

I’d heard of a man named Burns – supposed to be a poet;

But, if he was, how come I didn’t know it?

They told me his work was very, very neat,

So I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?‘

– Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali 1965 in Burns Cottage watched by crowd

Who’s the greatest? Muhammad Ali visits Burns Cottage in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1965

(Image credit: Newsquest)

Ali, who had just become heavyweight champion of the world, had touched down in Glasgow for a show fight with his friend Jimmy Ellis in Paisley, as part of an international tour. Scotland was so honoured by his visit, they sent the Braemar Ladies Pipe Band of Coatbridge in all their tartan finery to welcome him.

With a little bit of pre-fight downtime to kill, who knows why Ali ended up leaving the city for the hour’s drive to the historic county of Ayrshire, Burns’ birthplace, to the tiny museum containing the writer’s life’s work. Ali’s poem, perhaps, has the answer – Robert Burns, the handsome young ploughman-turned-literary-hero was hailed as Scotland’s ‘greatest’ even in his own lifetime, and, by then, Ali had made it a noun all his own. The sportsman, of course, was also a gifted linguist, while ‘poetry’ was another word Ali trailed in his wake.

The visit shimmered with symbolism. Roped off, a formidable velvet-seated wooden chair, made in 1858 from the printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’ Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, is a museum highlight. On seeing it, Ali swiftly ducked under the red cord and geared up for his finest literary bout. The next moment is captured in the photograph above: a theatrically pensive Ali, pen and notebook in hand, regaling the mesmerised locals with his brazen tribute to their most famous son.

A Burns supper in three easy steps

The haggis

Packaged haggis

(Image credit: Courtesy Fortnum & Mason)

A dinner consisting mainly of peppery oatmeal and offal wrapped in sheep’s bladder sounds like the kind of gnarly endurance test with which Succession’s Dundee-born Logan Roy would blindside the younger Kendall, Roman and Shiv when they were promised pizza. But the Scottish delicacy, so revered that Burns penned an ode to it, is now so widely celebrated that it’s not just made in Scotland. English Rare-breed butchery Fruit Pig Haggis offers an oat-rich, meatier variety, and a haggis recipe booklet for the uninitiated, with five awesome, different recipes.

Also available from Fortnum & Mason

The whisky

Bottle of whisky beside packaging

(Image credit: Courtesy The Whisky Exchange)

A Burns Supper demands the best of the best whisky, says Wallpaper* entertaining director Melina Keays, whose dram of choice is the Speyside Tamdhu 18 Year Old. It’s the American and European oak Oloroso casks that the sherry is matured in that give the Tamdhu 18 Year Old its magnificent coppery tone and rich red-fruit flavour. And, as Keays points out, it’s not just for sipping: ‘I’d serve it poured over a plateful of haggis,’ she offers. 

Speyside Tamdhu 18 Year Old, £169, from

The glassware

whisky decanter and two glasses on drinks trolley

(Image credit: Courtesy LSA)

A copper-tone whisky glistening with fiery warmth deserves a barely-there receptacle all the better to admire its superior qualities. The pure lines of this LSA mouth-blown decanter and two tumblers will do nicely. Each glass has a satisfyingly weighty base, and all three will make a sleek, modernist glassware set to grace any bar cart.

Cask Whisky Glasses and Decanter Set, £150, from

Caragh McKay is a contributing editor at Wallpaper* and was watches & jewellery director at the magazine between 2011 and 2019. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese Martin film revived a forgotten Osage art.