Scottish Traditions: From Holidays to Cuisine

Firework Display on Edinburgh

Scotland's culture and traditions stem from the country's rich and storied history, which dates back to the 9th century. Cuisine and music play a big role in traditional Scottish celebrations, which include many jubilant holidays and festivals. Learn more about Scottish culture, food, festivities and more.

Scottish Holidays & Celebrations

Scotland honors many holidays that are unique to the country, and they also celebrate popular holidays that are commemorated worldwide.

Burns Supper

Burns Supper is a holiday that honors famous Scottish poet Rabbie (Robert) Burns and is held on January 25, the anniversary of his death in 1759. 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 the bard's work and eating a meal that includes, of course, haggis.

Plated haggis sweede and potatomeal

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day, February 14, in Scotland 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.

Halloween

Halloween is similar to Halloween in other parts of the 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.

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 1600s using gunpowder. This was done in protest of the persecution of Roman Catholics by the English government. 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.

Bonfire night celebrations

St. Andrew's Day

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, Hogmanay, and Burns Night.

Christmas

There are various ancient Christmas traditions that many Scots still have. One is baking an unleavened Yule bread for each person in the family. Whoever finds a trinket in their loaf is believed to be blessed with good luck for the year. The Yule winter solstice is also celebrated, a Pagan celebration during the longest night of the year; in most traditions, it is celebrated as the rebirth of a Great God. Yet another Christmas tradition is to burn a twig as a way to eliminate bad feelings between friends. Christmas pudding is often consumed; it is similar to a dense cake with nuts, fruit, and spices such as cinnamon, brandy, or rum. When served, brandy is poured over it and then lit.

Today there are also Scottish Christmas traditions similar to those of other western countries, such as caroling, decorating with lights and a Christmas tree, and hanging a wreath on the front door. Children write letters to Santa Claus, and on Christmas Eve leave something for him to eat and drink, like mince pie and whiskey.

Antique teacups on tartan pattern scarf under Christmas tree in front of fireplace

Hogmanay and First Footing

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.

Kirkwall Ba'

Ba' is a traditional game played on Christmas and New Year's Day in the streets of Kirkwall in Scotland. Two teams of hundreds of men battle to move a locally-made leather Ba', a type of ball, to their goal.

Ceilidh

Ceilidh is a tradition during the dark nights of winter during which families would gather and recite poetry, tell stories, sing songs, and dance. Now, modern ceilidhs focus solely on dancing. You can also experience the ceilidh at a local ceilidh hall. Before each dance, the band or host will explain the steps and often have a practice round. However, Ceilidhs are about having fun, not getting all the moves right.

Scottish Music

Music is a significant part of Scottish culture. The bagpipe is a well-known, 600-year-old, Scottish musical instrument, but there is much more to Scottish music. Surprisingly, the bagpipe is actually a newcomer to Scottish music. Other instruments include a lyre, which is a string instrument that dates back to 2300 BCE, and harp-type instruments depicted in carvings from 700 to 900 AD. From the medieval period, one of the most important roles in Scottish communities was that of the bard, who acted as the community's musician, poet, storyteller, and local historian.

Highland bagpiper in kilt

Traditional Scottish Cuisine

There are a number of traditional Scottish foods. Savory dishes include:

  • Haggis - made of the minced lungs, heart, and liver of a sheep, encased in the stomach along with beef or lamb, onions, and spices.
  • Cullen skink - a fish soup made from smoked haddock.
  • Scotch broth - a soup made with lamb and vegetables.
  • Forfar birdie - considered a pie, it is a pastry that is filled with finely ground beef and onions.
  • Scotch pie - a pastry filled with minced beef or lamb, and bread crumbs.
  • Scotch eggs - hard-boiled eggs rolled in flour, breadcrumbs, and sausage meat and then deep-fried.
  • Lorne sausage - a sausage made with beef, breadcrumbs, and spices and served with any meal.

You can also try your hand at making stovies.

Scottish sweets include:

  • 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.
  • Scones - similar in appearance to American biscuits, but more of a pastry, can be sweet or savory, depending on the ingredients.
  • Clootie dumpling - another type of fruitcake. It is made by wrapping the mixture into a cloth (also called a clootie) and boiling it in water.
  • Shortbread - a cross between a cracker and cookie made from flour, sugar, and butter.
Worker testing whisky in distillery

Traditional Scottish Beverages

Scotch whisky has been distilled in Scotland for centuries. According to The Scotch Whisky Experience, the word whisky originates from the Gaelic 'uisge beatha', or 'usquebaugh', meaning 'water of life.' The beverage can be traced back to 1494, though some think it was developed long before that. Toasting with Scotch whisky remains a popular tradition in the country; it is the duty of the host to get the gathering off in the "proper spirit" with a toast, a great way to show off one's brogue.

Not every traditional drink has to contain alcohol or be centuries old. Irn Bru is a non-alcoholic, bright orange carbonated soft drink that has higher sales in Scotland than both Coke and Pepsi. 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.

Festivals in Scotland

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

T in the Park

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 opportunities for unsigned artists to play.

Royal National Mod

'Mod' means gathering, and The Royal National Mod is an annual festival that takes place in October. The 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 the recitation of Gaelic literary material and the playing and singing of Gaelic songs. Gaelic dancing is also popular at the festival.

Edinburgh International Festival

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 per year.

The Edinburgh Fringe shop and ticket office on Edinburgh's Royal Mile

The Hogmanay Festival

The Hogmanay Festival is a New Year's Eve street party with music, dancing, and drinking.

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 events that test brute strength, the Games involve music, dancing, and representation 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 the highlight is 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.

Scotland's Fascinating History

The recorded history of Scotland begins with the arrival of the Roman Empire in about 124 AD. The Kingdom of Scotland was formed in the ninth century when the Vikings began migrating from Norway and Denmark and settled in Scotland. At the same time, the Picts were forming the Kingdom of Alba. King Macbeth ruled the Kingdom of Alba from 1040 until his death in battle in 1057. In 1297, the English army planned to cross the River Forth at Stirling Bridge, one of their series of hematic sieges. The Scots took that opportunity to attack the English army, forcing them to retreat. William Wallace, who was depicted in the movie Brave Heart, led this attack, making him one of Scotland's most famous figures.

Though Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom (U.K.), in 2014 a referendum confirmed the Scottish Parliament's power to be respected by both governments.

Religion

The European Reformation, a conflict in the 16th century between Protestants and Catholics, divided Western Europe for more than 150 years. These conflicts have left such an impact that Scotland is still divided as a society by those two denominations, in politics as well as schools.

The majority of Scotland that practices religion practices some form of Christianity. Other religions are also represented, especially the Jewish religion. With the number of immigrants entering Scotland, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and atheism are also present.

Highland Clans

The word "clan" comes from Gaelic and means "children." Members of a clan claimed kinship of their common ancestor whose name they shared. In the 1600's the chief of a clan held his territory with the consent of the clan members who were loyal to him. The clans were distinguished by badges. For example, the Grants wore fir, the MacDonald's a sprig of heather, and the Macintoshes wore holly. Clans often had tartan, or plaid, patterns to designate their ancestry.

Scottish tartan kilts and sporrans

Scottish Wedding Customs

The well-known phrase "tying the knot" came from a medieval Scottish wedding custom. A literal tying of the knot is still practiced in weddings today. Both the bride and groom provide a cloth that is usually their clan tartan, but it can be anything such as scarves or even rope. The bride and groom then put their hands one over the other and the person performing the wedding ceremony ties their wrists together with the fabric. They then have this fabric as a keepsake and physical representation of their marriage. Historically, a marriage would join two Scottish clans.

Traditional Attire

Traditional Scottish attire, including kilts and tartans, can be worn for formal occasions or everyday wear. The more formal the occasion, the more accessories are added, and a more formal jacket is worn with it. Kilts worn for everyday use generally have fewer accessories and can be accompanied by 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 women's kilts vary in length from mini-skirts to ankle-length.

Traditions Rooted in History

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 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 and transformative history, it's easy to see why so many of Scotland's traditions have deep roots and lasting significance.

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Scottish Traditions: From Holidays to Cuisine