Scotland: A Crash Course

Burns Night has not long been upon us and so I thought a little introduction to Scotland might be enjoyed. By little introduction, I mean lots of little introductions to some of the things that make Scotland what it is. Uh, by the way, I’m Scottish, in case that wasn’t already evident, and I live here, too.

So, are we sitting comfortably?

Burns Night. In Scots, this is Burns Nicht. Held on the 25th of January (Robert Burns’s birthday), we have a Burns supper and celebrate our national bard. A Burns supper usually means a meal of: haggis, mashed neeps (turnip) and mashed tatties (potatoes). Sometimes there will be other food, but the basics are the aforementioned meal. And more often than not: whisky. There are also speeches and poems. And yes, I really did grow up with a Burns supper every year, that involved us listening to our dad do the Address To A Haggis (Every. Single. Verse.). A shorter poem read before the meal itself is The Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae let the Lord be thankit.

Scots and Gaelic. There is a difference, The Selkirk Grace above is in Scots, Gaelic is a different. Only a small percentage of the population speaks Gaelic, but there are moves to bring it back. You’ll often come across it in the Hebrides and the west of Scotland. I’m not one of the percentage who can speak Gaelic, but I can manage in Scots, to an extent. Scots also breaks down into different dialects, like Doric.

Auld Lang Syne. It was written by Robert Burns, and he was the one who brought it to the world at large but it has been around for far longer. Auld Lang Syne is sung at Hogmanay and generally by overly sentimental Scots at other times of year.

Whisky/Whiskey. There is a difference. Whisky is Scottish, Whiskey is Irish. And for those who are fond of a dram now and then, you can do distillery tours around the west coast.

Multiple Sclerosis. We have the highest rate of Multiple Sclerosis in the world. There have been suggestions of adding Vitamin D to water supplies.

Alcohol. Drinking is a massive problem in Scotland, and 25 people die in Scotland every week because of their drinking.

Art. Scottish born artists include Elizabeth Blackadder, the first woman to be elected to both Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy, and the acclaimed Jack Vettriano.

Capital. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland (population just under 500 000), though Glasgow is the larger city (population of approx. 600 000).

Red hair. Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads.

Aberdeen. This city in the northeast of Scotland is often called the Oil Capital of Europe. It’s also home to memorials of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988, an event which is still well remembered in the northeast; it “was the worst offshore oil disaster in terms of lives lost and industry impact.”

Teen pregnancy. The city of Dundee has the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Scotland and has been referred to as the teenage pregnancy capital of Europe.

The Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Parliament is a devolved parliament that resides in Edinburgh. It hasn’t always been this way. The devolved Parliament came into being in 1999 after a referendum in 1997. Power came back to Scotland for the first time since 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland became part of what is now the United Kingdom. We have both MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) in Scottish Parliament and MPs (Members of Parliament) which represent Scotland in Westminster. Out of the 129 MSPs, 44 are women.

The SNP. The SNP (Scottish National Party) are currently in power and Alex Salmond is currently First Minister of Scotland. They won by a landslide in the 2011 elections.

Independence. There is a referendum due to be held in the autumn of 2014, the 700th anniversary of The Battle of Bannockburn. This has been a very contentious issue, with discussion veering from the unpleasant, to the hilarious, with discussion of Alex Salmond’s newspaper article that made the point that there are currently more Giant Pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs.

Bannockburn. The Battle of Bannockburn happened in 1314 and was part of the Wars of Scottish Independence. We won.

Old Firm. Collective name for the Glasgow football clubs: Celtic and Rangers. Sectarian violence has been a problem with significant numbers of  Celtic’s supporters being Catholic and Rangers’ supporters being Protestant.

Mary Queen of Scots. In 1542, at six days old, she became Queen of Scotland until 1567. Was Queen Consort of France from 1559 to 1560 (when her husband, the King of France, died). Was Catholic and married her cousin in 1565 at Holyrood Palace in Scotland. Marriage broke down after her husband murdered her private secretary. Remarried in 1567. That same year, she was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, miscarried twins and was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne. After almost a year of imprisonment, she escaped. Legal happenings and imprisonment, involving her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, came about in 1568 and imprisonment followed. Had her head chopped off (badly) in 1587.

Loch. Not pronounced: lock. Don’t worry about it.

Actors. Scottish-born actors include: Billy Boyd, John Barrowman, Gerard Butler, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Karen Gillan, John Hannah, Ashley Jensen, Deborah Kerr, Kelly Macdonald, James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor and David Tennant.

Unicorns. Unicorns feature in the royal coat of arms of Scotland, and they’re a national symbol.

Nessie. Nessie is the resident monster of Loch Ness. The story I was brought up with, was that when Scotland was being formed and two pieces of land came together, Loch Ness was formed and Nessie got caught in the middle. There are speculations that Nessie might in fact be a Kelpie.

Macbeth. Mac Bethad mac Findlaich was King of the Scots from 1040 to 1057. Subject of the tragedy Macbeth, by Shakespeare.

Callanish. The Callanish Stones are on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. They’re standing stones that were erected around 2000 B.C. The Lewis Chessmen are from the Isle of Lewis, too.

Columba. Saint Columba, or Colum Cille, was a monk who brought Christianity to Scotland. Born in Ireland in 521 A.D., he came to Scotland in 563. He settled on Iona, in the Hebrides. He died in 597 and was buried at Iona Abbey.

Iona Abbey. On the Isle of Iona, it’s one of the oldest religious centres in Western Europe. The burial place of kings from around Scotland, Ireland, Norway and France, as well as Lords of the Isles. Has had violent moments in history involving Vikings.

Science and engineering. Scottish scientists and engineers have: invented the television, the telephone, radar, the pedal bicycle, the pneumatic tyre, created the world’s first oil refinery, discovered penicillin and formulated classical electromagnetic theory, among other things.

Musicians. Annie Lennox, KT Tunstall, Shirley Manson and Sharleen Spiteri are from Scotland and are all round awesome ladies.

Ceilidh. Time for folk music and dancing. Get your dancing shoes on and you’d find yourself doing the Gay Gordons and Strip The Willow before you know it. Most children in Scotland start to learn these dances in primary school, but if you find yourself at a ceilidh, go for it and have a spectacular time. We also have Highland dancing.

Demographics. Population of just over five million and is approximately 98% white. To put that into perspective, London has a population of almost eight million.

Pretty places. Holyrood Palace and Balmoral Castle are current Royal residences, and we are, in fact, a country with a lot of castles.

Tartan. Personal thing for a lot of people. There is more etiquette than rules surrounding tartan. Highland dress is the traditional dress of Scotland.

Volcanoes. Edinburgh Castle sits atop an extinct volcano and Arthur’s Seat is just a stones throw away.

Hogmanay. Scotland is known for its Hogmanay celebrations, especially the big street parties in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Older traditions are still clinging on like first-footing and the fireballs. Renditions of Auld Lang Syne are a massive part of tradition, too.

Fossils. A fossil of the oldest known creature to have lived on land was discovered in Stonehaven.

Literature. Scottish writers include Arthur Conan Doyle, Iain M. Banks, Robert Burns, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Val McDiarmid, Ian Rankin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louise Welsh, Irvine Welsh, J. M. Barrie and Muriel Spark. A lot of crime writers in there…

Golf. There are times when my country confounds me. This is one of them. Modern game originated here in the 15th century. We also have shinty, curling and Highland Games.

Mountain ranges. Get your hiking boots! Ben Nevis is the highest peak, and among the mountain ranges we have, the Cuillin and Cairngorms are quite spectacular.

Food. Haggis is one we’re well known for. Wild Haggis can be hunted in the Highlands, but most go straight to the butcher or supermarket. Very tasty dish. Vegan version is very, very yummy, too. The deep-fried Mars bar originated here. Have never eaten one, never intend to. Irn-Bru is the non-alcoholic drink that has been around since 1901. A beverage I may have drunk once, though if I did, it was the first and last time. Porage is also spectacular. May I recommend one cup of oats to two cups of milk and a very lazy five minutes in the microwave. If you want to get creative with oats, however, Cranachan is your friend.

Language. Scots, Gaelic and English. Scots has given us some beautiful words. Eejit and crabbit are particular favourites.

Braveheart. Considered to be highly inaccurate, from what I’ve read, in its portrayals of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

Hogwarts. The school was voted 36th best educational establishment in Scotland.

So there you have it, Persephoneers: a whirlwind tour of just a handful of the things that make Scotland what it is.

By Juniper

Rarely to be found without herbal tea nearby. Team Unicorn. Often in pyjamas. Also: TEAM KATNISS!

46 replies on “Scotland: A Crash Course”

Cool! Thanks for all the info! I really loved learning a little bit about everything. Before this, most of what I knew about Scotland was from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (which brownwyrm23 mentioned above). :) It sounds like a great place to visit and hike!

Glad you enjoyed it! Scotland really is a wonderful place and, clichéd as the sentiment is, there really is something for everyone. That goes for hiking, too; there are routes for the everyone, no matter their experience of hill-walking.

What a great article!  My husband is of Scottish ancestry and he has a kilt in his clan tartan, copies of a crest, etc.  We also volunteer at the Chicago Highland Games every year (in the beer tent, where else!).

I would be interested in a future article on the wearing of tartans, use of the crest (they sell “clan crests” here, but I’ve read online that each crests is actually personal) and other aspects of the traditional Scottish dress.

Ah, the beer tent! A classic feature! It’s wonderful reading about people embracing their ancestry.

What a wonderful article idea! I wanted to do more on Highland dress in the article, but wanted to keep things short and sweet. Will see what I can rustle up on Highland dress for the future!

That’d be awesome!

One question about the Mary, Q of S paragraph.  QE1 took the thone in 1558; what do you mean when you say “came about” in 1568?  Is that a typo or did QE1 do something in Scotland in ’68?

Also, I’m a huge Diana Gabaldon fan.  She’s an American author, but wrote a VERY long series called Outlander that partially takes place in Scotland during the Jacobean-“Bonnie Prince Charlie” era.  Do you recommend any Scottish historical fiction or non-fiction writers for us non-Scots who have an interest in Scottish history?

Ah, just seen the rest of your reply!

The “coming about” wasn’t about QE1 taking the throne (Scotland and England were still separate nations at that point) but QE1 made life very difficult for Mary. It gets pretty complicated, but there’s a run down here: Escape and imprisonment in England

Hmn. Would Persephoneers be interested in a bigger look at Mary? (Just put away a stack of books on Mary the other day!)

Will get back to you with book recommendations – my mother is constantly recommending books, so I’ll get recommendations straight from her!

So, recommendations! For most of these authors, there are several of their books that were suggested, so possible worth a further browse on Amazon (or other book store of choice!).

Magnus Magnusson (“Scotland: The Story of a Nation” among lots of Scottish historical non-fiction), Nigel Tranter (“The Story of Scotland” being non-fiction, he has written a lot of Scottish historical fiction, too), T.C. Smout (“A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830” amongst many others), Antonia Fraser (“Mary Queen of Scots” is amongst lots of super non-fiction, and her bibliography is worth checking out), Bruce Lenman (“A History of Scotland”), D.K. Broster (“The Jacobite Trilogy” in particular, was recommended as great historical fiction), Alistair Moffat (again, several non-fiction books worth reading) and John Prebble (“The Highland Clearances” in particular).

I love Scottish Gaelic. It’s so familiar and yet I can’t quite understand it properly. Delicious.

Also, Scots is amazing but I don’t know anyone who speaks it. Is it dying out, do you think, in favour of closer-to-standard Scottish English?

I love listening to Gaelic, but goodness, I don’t understand it. Great fun going to some of the Hebridean Islands and hearing it, as well as the accent!

I think Scots is … declining. I can read/speak/write Scots but only to an extent. What’s interesting is how Scots is finding its way into, as you say, Scottish English. What’s interesting is when I speak Scots without realising, such as the other day, I asked Juniper Junior to “whisht” and my (English) husband didn’t have a clue what I’d said.

However, there are Scots texts still being taught, like Sunset Song. Though in contrast to that, I remember at secondary school, there were requests made not to speak Scots (or, rather, Doric).

Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) is my second language, hence the almost-but-not-quite understanding:)

My Irish boyfriend lives in England, and he has a very standard accent, but still English people sometimes don’t get what he means. Ah, dialects.

I think it’s only relatively recently that the institutional suppression of the non-standard dialects has lifted somewhat.

Oh my goodness! That’s amazing that you have Irish Gaelic as a second language! Scottish Gaelic is certainly gaining awareness, but from what I know, is one of the harder languages to learn. It’s also so rare here on the east coast, compared to the west coast. Dialects! Oh, there are times my poor husband is left utterly confused by local dialects.

Out of interest, what’s it like in Ireland, in terms of how language is a part of life and education, these days?

This post is a short, entertaining intro to Gaeilge and how it’s easy in some ways (only 11 irregular verbs!) and tricky in others (the beginning of words change sounds!) : I think they mostly apply to Gaidhlig too.

Gaeilge is the first official language (the Irish version of the Constitution is the primary one) and a compulsory subject right throughout school (along with English and Maths) but this isn’t reflected in fluency levels, unfortunately. It’s a chicken-egg thing: the standard of Irish I’ve heard from lots of primary-school teachers isn’t great, plus the teaching emphasis isn’t on speaking at first, which is completely the wrong way to teach a language to children.  Irish-language schools are quite popular in Dublin but the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas in the west) is becoming more English-dominant. It’s a multi-faceted question that gets a lot of steam going over here…

That’s a great article, thank you!

What a difference to here in Scotland. Perhaps, dare I say it, the difference of us being in the UK? So much of this is going to be coming up with the Independence debates. There are a few Gaelic schools around but by no means is it a compulsory subject. Interesting how much relates to the teaching. Scotland really seems to be behind in this, compared to yourselves and the Welsh (who, having just checked out on Wikipedia, have Welsh as a compulsory subject, too).

I wish I still remembered any of my Irish. I did Honours at the Junior Cert level but then dropped down to Pass because the standard seemed so high. But then at the lower level the standard is absurd – I don’t think I did a single night’s study in two years and still managed an A2 (it would have been an A1 but for the oral exam). Basically it seems like they’re totally reluctant to fail anyone. I regret that now that my Irish has sunk to the ‘an bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas?’ level.

There’s a giant gap between pass and honours standard in Irish, as in maths. It’s another problem with the teaching of Irish…


I’d say you probably understand more than you might think, but there’s always some passive exposure in Ireland (the news, radio, etc) that there obviously isn’t in England…

Oh yeah, the gap is enormous. I’ll never forget the Leaving paper 1 – finished after 45 minutes and sat back, looking around, wondering who’d be the first to get up and leave. Once one person did, we all did, except for the few poor Honours students scribbling furiously away. We had to wait like two more hours for them to finish so that we could all do the Aural together, but the questions were so easy that we spent the entire time laughing.

All together now, the one line as Gaeilge that I guarantee any Irish person can recite from memory: ‘Léigh anois go cúramach ar do schrúdpháipéar, na treoracha agus na ceistenna a ghabhann le Cuid A.’ Beeeeep!

Hahaha yes. If one person starts with “Léigh anois…” everyone else will join in, chorus-like.

II had a brain fart on the LC Irish paper 2 and I thought we had to finish half an hour before we really did. So I was really pleased with myself for getting it all done and then left, only to discover the only people out were the pass class. I would have read over it one more time if I’d realised…!

For the benefit of all the non-Irish Persephoneers, the meaning of the phrase above is something to the effect of, ‘Carefully read your exam paper, the tasks and questions associated with Section A.’ It’s the phrase that starts off every listening comprehension exam in Irish (and every mock listening comprehension) so we’ve all heard it about a thousand times by the time we finish school. And yes, if one person starts reciting it, the entire group will join in!

I was frightened away from Honours by the long stories. I was way too lazy and thought I’d be better off focusing on Honours Maths. Which, of course, I barely passed due to the fact that the only subjects I ever put even the tiniest bit of effort into were English, Art and History.

Oh yes, providing a translation is a good idea. They made you read a whole novel for one essay. And Gafa was gruesome, severed heads left on doorsteps and so on, I can’t say you missed much.

gafa means ‘hooked’ or ‘addicted’ and it was a story about teenage heroin abuse and drug dealers, which ended up with severed heads on doorsteps. I think I would’ve preferred a good Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach re-telling, myself:)

The olde-Irish-legends story that used to creep me out most was the one about Étain, where people get pregnant by drinking magical flies in their wine. There’s no contraceptive for that!!

Woo Scotland! Mr. Cesy is a Scotophile (is that even a word? It is now!). His ancestry is mostly Scottish, he plays the bagpipes and he’d wear his kilt all the time if it was more socially acceptable. We’re actually off to Glasgow in August next year for the World Bagpipe Champs, Mr Cesy’s band intends to go. I also want to go to Edinburgh for the Festival since we’ll be there in August.

Also the Gay Gordons is the best dance ever. The only “old” dance I know where 17 year olds will gleefully do it. I once polkaed out the door of the gym with my partner, rang up the side, polkaed back in the other door and rejoined the group. So much fun.


The Gay Gordons is amazingly good fun, and definitely one for all ages. Love that story of polka-ing in and out of the gym! It’s always one to be enjoyed at ceilidhs, though for sheer hilarity, Strip The Willow is excellent fun!

Hope you have an ace time at the Championships! Glasgow and Edinburgh are also wonderful, wonderful places and I love being able to visit them (will, in fact, be in Glasgow this weekend!).

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