Burns Night takes place every year on the 25th of January in honour of Scotland’s national poet, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. This is a quintessential Scottish celebration, haggis, whiskey and all. If you go to a Scottish university, there will no doubt be lots of different events organised to celebrate Burns Night. Or you might have Scottish housemates wanting to throw their own dinner or party. So it’s a good idea to know more about it if you’re new to it. Such as what is Burns Night, what do you eat, and – most importantly – what to wear on Burns Night? Read on for some inspiration on Burns Night outfit ideas and all the traditional elements to remember.
What is Burns Night?
Burns Night is typically celebrated on the 25th of January each year, though celebrations can take place throughout the year. This is in honour of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), as a celebration of his life and poetry. He wrote in both Scots and English, and his work like poems like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Tam o’ Shanter,” have become integral to Scottish culture.
The celebration of Burns Night primarily consists of a supper. The genesis of Burns Night dates back to the early 19th century, a few years after the poet’s death. It began as a simple memorial dinner organised by his friends and has since evolved into a nationwide celebration. This night is not just about remembering Burns himself but also about celebrating Scottish heritage and the enduring power of poetry.
The traditional Burns Supper is the centrepiece of the celebration. It typically starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed by the Selkirk Grace, a thanksgiving prayer attributed to Burns. The supper starts with a Scottish soup as a starter, followed by haggis (sheep’s offal mixed with oats, onions, and spices), neeps (mashed swede turnip) and tatties (mashed potatoes). A dessert like cranachan or tipsy laird with whiskey may follow.
Beyond the supper, the evening is filled with performances of Burns’ poetry and songs, and often includes Scottish music and dancing. The night usually concludes with a heartfelt rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” uniting everyone in a moment of camaraderie and reflection.
Traditional Scottish clothes for Burns Night
When it comes to Burns Night, the traditional Scottish attire is clearly a key part of the celebration. And what’s more traditionally Scottish than the kilt; an iconic symbol of Scottish heritage. Originally worn by Highlanders in the 16th century, the kilt has evolved from a full-body garment, the “great kilt,” to the modern knee-length version we recognise today. Made from wool and featuring a tartan pattern, the kilt is not just a piece of clothing but a representation of Scottish history and identity.
In case you didn’t know it, tartan has crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. It’s actually very symbolic, where each tartan pattern can represent different Scottish clans, families, or regions, with certain patterns holding historical significance. The Act of Proscription in 1746, which aimed to suppress Highland culture, even banned tartans for a time. But today, wearing a tartan is like a way for lots of people to connect with one’s Scottish roots or to show affinity with the country. That’s why it’s often worn at weddings and other important celebrations and events too. So if you’re thinking about what to wear to Burns Night, make sure you have tartan in some form or another.
Accompanying the kilt are several key accessories, each with its own history and function. The sporran, a small pouch made of leather or fur, hangs from the waist and serves as a pocket, a necessary addition since traditional kilts lack storage space. The sgian-dubh, a small dagger, is traditionally tucked into the top of the kilt hose (socks), visible only by its hilt. This custom has its roots in the times when carrying weapons was common, and revealing the sgian-dubh was a gesture of trust and peace.
Kilt hose and garters are also integral to traditional Scottish clothes often worn on Burns Night. The hose, knee-length socks, are often worn with decorative garters and can feature patterns that complement the kilt. Footwear typically consists of ghillie brogues, distinctive shoes with long laces that are tied around the ankle. These brogues, originally designed without tongues to allow water to drain when walking through wet terrain, are now a formal part of Scottish dress.
For formal occasions, men might also wear a tailored jacket, such as the Prince Charlie or Argyll jacket, along with a waistcoat. A winged collar shirt, bow tie, or ruched tie completes the ensemble, adding a touch of elegance suitable for a Burns Night celebration.
What to wear on Burns Night: 0utfit ideas for men
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the main element of a Burns night outfit is tartan. For men, this means wearing a kilt or trews (tartan trousers), often in a dress tartan. This is a more formal version of a kilt which contains more white than average. For those with clan ties, you’d wear the tartan specific to your clan. For non-Scots or those without clan ties, you can wear one of the universal tartans: royal stewart or black watch. This is paired with a dress shirt and a Prince Charlie jacket, a waist-length black dress jacket, to complete the main part of the outfit.
In terms of accessories, there are several additional things to wear. Alongside the kilt/trews, dress shirt and Prince Charlie Jacket, you’ll wear a bow tie and garter socks, either plain or in a tartan pattern that matches the kilt. This is alongside a kilt pin, a sporran, which is a leather or fur pouch to compensate for the lack of pockets in a kilt, a sgian dubh, a small knife that sits inside the garter sock, as well as two ghillie brogues to complete the look. Additionally, you can also wear clan badges and other heraldic accessories, and a full plaid, a full sweep of pleated tartan worn across the shoulder, or its less full version, a fly plaid.
What to wear on Burns Night: 0utfit ideas for women
What to wear on Burns Night for women is similar, but simpler, compared to men. Usually, the Burns night outfit consists of a full-length tartan skirt, in clan tartan, a universal tartan or to match your partner’s kilt, if appropriate. This kilt is worn with a blouse and a matching tartan sash, held in place with a Clan brooch.
Informal Burns Night outfits
If you’re having a more informal Burns Night celebration, you can still get into the spirit of Burns Night by wearing tartan. This can be as much or as little as you’d like, but it is generally considered to wear at least a little bit of tartan, especially if you’re not a Scot. This can be as little as just a tartan ribbon pinned to your chest, or a lapel.
So, this is what to wear on Burns Night. Whether you’re Scottish or not, Burns Night can be an exciting celebration. You’re with your friends and family singing songs, dining on haggis and celebrating everything there is about Scotland. It’s a country that know’s how to go big when it comes to parties, tradition, culture and celebrations, which is why Scottish unis also came out as the most Christmassy in the UK.
A student from University of Nottingham.