Scottish Traditions

Amy Guertin
Effigy of Guy Fawkes on a Bonfire
Effigy of Guy Fawkes on a Bonfire

The Kingdom of Scotland was formed in the 9th century, so the country's traditions have developed over 1200 years. Like most cultures, many of the traditions in Scotland's culture revolve around its extensive history. Food and music play a big part of traditional celebrations, which tend to focus on holidays and festivals.

Holiday Traditions

Scotland has some holidays that are unique to the country, as well as some that are shared with the rest of the world.

Guy Fawkes Night

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is celebrated on November 5. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up Parliament in the 1600's using gunpowder. He was caught and executed by burning. Every year, before Halloween, Scots make an effigy of Guy Fawkes using clothing stuffed with straw and a pumpkin head. After Halloween, they wheel the scarecrow around the neighborhood calling, "A penny for the Guy," attempting to collect pennies to buy fireworks. On November 5, the effigy is burned over a large bonfire, followed by a fireworks show.

Halloween

Halloween is similar to Halloween in other parts of world. On October 31, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door, trying to get candy. In Scotland, this is called 'guising' (from the word 'disguising'), whereas in the U.S. it's called trick-or-treating.

St. Andrew's Day

Northern Constabulary Pipe Band at 2008 St. Andrew's Day Parade Inverness Castle Scotland
St. Andrew's Day Parade

St. Andrew's Day, the national day of Scotland, is celebrated on November 30. Saint Andrew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ. This holiday is celebrated with traditional Scottish food, music, and dancing. St. Andrew's Day is the start of the winter season, which also includes the holidays of Christmas, Boxing Day, Hogmanay and Burns Night.

Hogmanay

Hogmanay means New Year's Eve and is more important to some Scottish people than even Christmas. As having a dirty house at midnight on Hogmanay is considered bad luck, it is common to spend the day cleaning. At midnight, people stand in a circle, cross their arms, hold hands with the people next to them and sing Auld Lang Syne, an original Scottish song. Another Hogmanay tradition is called first-footing. The first person through the door at midnight should be male, with dark hair, bearing a gift of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun or whisky. This is said to ensure that the household will be safe, warm and have enough food for the winter. Some families go first-footing until the wee hours of the morning.

Reciting Robert Burns with Haggis
Reciting Robert Burns with Haggis

Burns Supper

Burns Supper is a holiday which tributes famous Scottish poet Rabbie (Robert) Burns and is held on January 25, the anniversary of his 1759 death. One of his most famous poems, The Address to the Haggis, has become central to the celebration of Burns Supper. The ritual consists of reading Burns' work and eating a meal that includes, of course, haggis.

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day, which is February 14, is similar to Valentine's Day celebrations in other parts of the world. Interesting to note, however, is that the remains of St. Valentine are believed to rest in Glasgow.

Mother's Day

Mother's Day - or Mothering Sunday - is on the fourth Sunday of Lent, or three weeks before Easter Sunday. Mother's Day is believed to have begun in a time when children were forced to apprentice and work away from their families. Masters would give children one weekend off in order to return home and visit with their families. Although held at a different time than in other countries, Mother's Day celebrations in Scotland are similar to those in other countries around the world.

Easter

Easter Sunday, being a Christian holiday, is similar to Easter Sunday celebrations worldwide. One tradition to note is that Easter dinner in Scotland almost always consists of lamb.

Traditional Food and Drink

There are a number of traditional Scottish foods:

  • Fruit Scones
    Fruit Scones
    Haggis is made of the minced lungs, heart, and liver of a sheep, encased in the stomach along with beef or lamb, onions, and spices.
  • Shortbread is a cross between a cracker and cookie made from flour, sugar, and butter.
  • Scones, similar in appearance to American biscuits, but more of a pastry, can be sweet or savory, depending on the ingredients.
  • Cullen skink is a fish soup made from smoked haddock.
  • Scotch broth is a soup made with lamb and vegetables.
  • A forfar birdie, considered a pie, is a pastry that is filled with finely ground beef and onions.
  • A scotch pie is a pastry filled with minced beef or pie, bread crumbs, and gravy.
  • Lorne sausage is sausage made with beef, breadcrumbs and spices and served with any meal.
  • Christmas Pudding
    Christmas Pudding
    Christmas pudding is similar to a dense cake with nuts, fruit, spices such as cinnamon, and brandy or rum. When served, brandy is poured over it and then lit.
  • A black bun, used primarily in the Hogmanay ceremony, is a fruitcake made of raisins, currants, and almonds, encased on the top and bottom in pastry. It is square in shape and can be sliced into thick pieces.
  • A clootie dumpling is another type of fruitcake. It is made by wrapping the mixture into a cloth (also called a clootie) and boiling it in water.
  • Scotch eggs are hard boiled eggs rolled in flour, breadcrumbs, and sausage meat and then deep-fried.

Traditional Beverages

Scotch Whisky

As NPR points out, "It's no surprise that whisky is the national drink of Scotland." Scotch whisky has been distilled in Scotland for centuries. According to The Scotch Whisky Experience, the word whisky originates "the Gaelic 'uisge beatha', or 'usquebaugh', meaning 'water of life'" and the beverage can be traced back to a 1494 official reference, though some think it was developed way before that.

Toasting with Scotch whisky remains a popular tradition in the country. In Scotland, it is the duty of the host to get the gathering off in the "proper spirit" with a toast - a great place to show off one's brogue.

Non-Alcoholic Irn Bru

Not every traditional drink has to have a centuries' old centurly or contain alcohol. Irn Bru is a bright orange carbonated soft drink that has higher sales than both Coke and Pepsi in Scotland. According to Derek Heron, a native and resident of Scotland, "Irn Bru is regarded as Scotland's other national drink." It is described as tasting sweet like bubble gum with a tingly feeling like popping candy. It has a hint of vanilla/citrus flavor and a slightly metallic aftertaste. Some even claim that it's a hangover cure.

Traditional Attire

Scottish Kilts
Scottish Kilts

Traditional Scottish attire, including kilts and tartans, can be worn for formal occasions or everyday wear. The more formal the reason for wearing a kilt, the more accessories and the more formal the jacket is that are worn with it. Kilts worn for everyday use are generally worn with fewer accessories and can be worn with any type of shirt.

Men tend to be the ones to wear kilts, although women do wear kilts now, too. Traditional women's kilts tend to be more like calf-length tartan skirts and were traditionally only worn as part of a uniform or by a member of a pipe band. Modern style, however, shows women's kilts more similar to men's kilts in lengths from mini-skirts to ankle-length.

Festival Celebrations

There are plenty of festivals in Scotland, where you can experience the country's rich culutre and traditions for yourself.

  • T in the Park: According to Heron, T in the Park is the biggest and best annual music festival in Scotland." T in the Park is a three-day summer music festival that attracts over 80,000 people per day and over 70,000 campers. This festival provides music, dancing, comedy, cabaret, and provides opportunities for unsigned artists to play.
  • The Royal National Mod
    Dancing at the Royal National Mod

    Royal National Mod: "Also check out the Mod," advises Heron, which is how locals refer to the Royal National Mod. 'Mod' means gathering and The Mod is an annual festival that takes place in October. Organized by the Royal National Mod, the Mod festival focuses on teaching, learning, and use of the Gaelic language and the study of Gaelic literature, history, music and art. The festival consists of recitation of Gaelic literary material, the singing of Gaelic songs, and playing Gaelic songs on Gaelic-designed instruments. Gaelic dancing is also popular at the festival.

  • Edinburgh International Festival: One of the most significant celebrations of arts in the world, The Edinburgh International Festival has been running for over fifty years. The Fringe, a part of the Edinburgh International Festival, is an open-access festival for all types of performers, ensuring that there is something for everyone. The Fringe alone sells over 1.25 million tickets a year.
  • The Hogmanay Festival: The Hogmanay Festival is a New Year's Eve street party with music, dancing, and drinking.
  • Testing Brute Strength at Highland Games in Inverness, Scotland
    Highland Games in Inverness, Scotland
    Scottish Highland Games: Competitive sporting events held throughout the year, the Scottish Highland Games are designed to celebrate Scotland's Scottish and Celtic heritage. Along with heavy events, which are tests of brute strength, the Games involve music, dancing, and representative from the different family clans in Scotland.
  • Hebridean Celtic Festival: The Hebridean Celtic Festival is a four-day celebration of Celtic performers in northern Scotland.
  • Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival: A ten-day summer festival, the Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival is the largest jazz festival in the U.K.
  • Edinburgh Harp Festival: although featuring harp music, the Edinburgh Harp Festival has a little something for everyone.
  • Edinburgh International Science Festival: Growing bigger every year, the Edinburgh International Science Festival delights both inquisitive children and adults alike.
  • Glasgow Jazz Festival: Held for nine days in June, the Glasgow Jazz Festival has a large international following of musicians and jazz lovers.

Religion

Past conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic churches has left such an impact that Scottish schools are still segregated by religion. Politics are generally segregated by religion.

The majority of Scotland that practices religion practices some form of Christianity. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes study, twenty percent of Scots report belonging to the Church of Scotland, the largest protestant church, 12 percent report being Catholic, and 12 percent report being some other form of Christianity. However, 54 percent of Scottish residents claim no religion.

Other religions are also represented, especially the Jewish religion. With the number of immigrants entering Scotland, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are also present. There are also a number of atheists and non-practicing Christians in Scotland.

Traditions of History

Scotland's culture and traditions are deep-rooted and war-ridden. The land that is now Scotland was originally inhabited by a people known as the Picti. Scotland has a long history of battle, including fighting the Romans, the Vikings, and the Norwegians. Scotland was also raided and settled by the Gaels (also called Scoti) in the fifth century and taken over by the English in the 12th century. In 1707, the Acts of Union united Scotland, England, and Wales as Great Britain. With such a rich history, it is easy to see why so many of Scotland's traditions run deep.

Scottish Traditions