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Burns Night: A Guide from Scots Connection

Robert Burns, Oil on Canvas, 
Alexander Nasmyth, 1787.
Robert Burns, Oil on Canvas, Alexander Nasmyth, 1787.

Burns Night celebrates the life and work of Scotland's national bard, 18th century poet Robert 'Rabbie' Burns. Taking place every year, on or around, January 25th, it is an occasion that is steeped in tradition and is widely celebrated throughout the country and around the world. The bard's birthday is traditionally marked with a supper, where family and friends get together to enjoy fine food, whisky and entertainment. Burns Night is one of the most highly anticipated dates in the Scottish calendar with suppers varying from informal get-togethers to full blown formal events.

What to wear to on Burns Night

If you have never been to a Burns Night gathering before, bear in mind that it is about dressing up and celebrating Scotland. Traditional Scottish attire is a must at any Burns Night celebration - it is one of the events where people get the opportunity to express their cultural identity through the wearing of a Clan or family tartan. If you don't have connections to any of the major Scottish Clans or families, don't worry, you can wear one of the universal tartans, such as the Royal Stewart, Black Watch, Holyrood, Patriot or Caledonia, these designs can be worn and enjoyed by anyone.

Formalwear is customary at most organised celebrations. Men, for example, are often encouraged to wear their full kilt outfit. If you don't own a kilt you can still look the part with a classic tartan cummerbund set or tartan waistcoat, even a simple bow tie will add the required touch of tartan. A set of fine Scottish silver cufflinks will add the perfect finishing touch to your Burns night attire.

Burns Night tartans
Burns Night tartans.

Women can also join in the celebrations by wearing the traditional clothing associated with Burns Night. There are all sorts of examples of tartan wear available for ladies, ranging from tartan sashes and handbags to scarves and shawls. Those who really want to make an impression and celebrate their Scottish heritage may even choose to wear serapes and stoles, which are a classy addition to any evening outfit. Not to be outdone by the men, women can also wear traditional kilted tartan skirts to celebrate Burns Night in style.

Families throughout Scotland often host their own Burns Nicht celebrations, adding their own modern day twists to age-old traditions and often come up with their own unique ways of celebrating. If you're having an informal celebration at home you can take a more relaxed approach to dress, however it's recommended that you include some tartan in your outfit! You could wear a tartan scarf, tie, braces, cufflinks, skirt, or a full Highland Dress outfit, whatever you decide to wear make sure that it's made from an authentic Scottish woven tartan and not a fake copy from the far east or sub continent!!

Food and Drink

Haggis, neeps and 
tatties.
Haggis, neeps and tatties.

Food is an integral part of any Burns Night celebration. Most suppers start with Cock-a-leekie soup or Scotch broth, then it's the haggis which is traditionally accompanied by bashed neeps and chappit tatties - otherwise known as mashed swedes and potatoes. This is followed by a pudding of either Clootie Dumpling, Cranachan or Tipsy Laird. The supper ends with a cheese board and oat cakes or bannocks.

Whisky tends to be the tipple of choice on Burns Night - both malts and blends are typically served at the table. There is some debate over whether whisky should be poured over the haggis, with some people arguing that it hides the unique taste of the dish. Alternatively, those who do not like whisky might want to try red wine with their meal. The flavour and texture of haggis tends to make this a better option than white or other varieties.

Music, Poems, Toasts and Entertainment

The programme at organised Burns Suppers includes traditional music, toasts, songs, poetry and can be followed by a ceilidh dance.

Cutting the haggis with a sgian dubh.
Cutting the haggis with a sgian dubh.

One of the highlights of the evening is the build up to the main course. The guests all stand to attention, while a piper leads in the haggis, which is carried aloft by the chef on a large platter, to the electrifying skirl of the pipes. The 'Address to the Haggis' is then recited and the “great chieftain of the pudding race” is cut and served.

The first entertainment is normally a performance of one of Burns’ famous songs or poems such as Ae Fond Kiss, A Red, Red Rose or Tam O’ Shanter. Throughout the evening further moving recitals and traditional songs are performed. These include a toast to the bard, which is known as the 'Immortal Memory ' and the humourous 'Address to the Lassies' and 'The Reply from the Lassies'.

Burns Night ceilidh dance.
Burns Night ceilidh dance.

The evening concludes with a vote of thanks and a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne. At the larger gatherings the evening may well be rounded off with Scottish dancing to a ceilidh band.

No matter how you decide to mark the event, remember to raise a glass to the bard who wrote that “Freedom and Whisky Gang Thegither”. Slàinte mhath!

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