Scottish culture – hard to define, but it’s how we are

Is there really a Scottish culture? Or is it the same from the English Channel to the far north? No. It’s another country. The Scots are different. 

So how should I define Scottish culture? Is it about an audience of comfortably well-off Edinburgh folk and a sprinkling of equally well-to-do visitors listening to an internationally renowned orchestra at a concert in the Edinburgh International Festival?

Or is it to do with an evening in a hotel by the pier in a little community in the Outer Hebrides when the hotel owner gets together with his musical friends.

They just play a session of Scottish ceilidh music, for the fun of it, and it doesn’t matter if there is an audience or not…

Well, I can’t afford the first scenario very often. But I did have the privilege of enjoying the second, just a few years ago. I expect it still goes on, every Friday night. (Maybe, if you ask me, I’ll tell you the name of the hotel.)

But the point is that both are equally important examples of Scotland’s cultural life – if you define culture as something related to taste and the arts in the broadest sense.

Just to make defintions of culture even more hard to pin down, there is a point where culture overlaps with community practices that we would sometimes call ‘tradition’. 

(You know, I’m wondering if sticking to writing pages like, say, ‘A day out in Edinburgh’ wouldn’t just be easier…)

Oor Wullie outside Dundee McManus Gallery
A faintly disturbing statue of Oor Wullie, a cartoon character embedded in Scottish popular ‘culture’. Probably.
Protective clothing not just for decorating
And you thought disposable boiler suits were just for decorating? Note how the blackening – a traditional and horrible ‘cultural’ practice – is mentioned first.

Scottish Culture Is Different

 But Different From What?

In a more basic sense, is there a distinctively Scottish culture? Or is it much the same from the English Channel to Shetland? After all, the supermarkets and High Street chains share the same names as south of border.

The Scots drive on the same side of the road as England, receive some of the same television programmes (actually, we have to put up with rather a lot of theirs) and use the same money (though Scottish banks have their own bank-note designs).

On the night before your wedding…your friends get hold of you and coat you in various unpleasant, usually sticky, substances, then take you round the town in the back of a pick-up or lorry, all the while banging drums and making as much noise as possible. It’s part of our culture, apparently.

There is the question of language – as a possible marker of cultural differences.

I could take you to a pub or a quayside or a farm in some parts of Scotland and if you listen to the locals speak amongst themselves, unless you were from that ‘neck of the woods’ you wouldn’t get much of it.

But ask them a question or otherwise fall into conversation and there is an immediate ‘modulation’ into something perfectly understandable.

So it all depends on how you define Scotland culture, which seems to shade into custom and heritage (and not just in a linguistic sense) at one end as well as this art and taste idea at the other.

Oh, and there’s that notice I spotted in a shop window in Fraserburgh, on the north-east of Scotland.

Sure, you can use protective clothing if you are doing a spot of home decorating, but disposable boiler suits are also really handy – suggests the notice – should you be subjected to a traditional blackening.

That’s what happens to you on the night before your wedding when your friends get hold of you and coat you in various unpleasant, usually sticky, substances, then take you round the town in the back of a pick-up or lorry, all the while banging drums and making as much noise as possible.

Uhmm, it’s traditional. And goes back a long way (apparently). It’s part of our culture, perhaps.

Haggis eating, whisky drinking, toasts, recitations and so on are a quintessentially winter activity – making Burns’ birthday just an excuse for another party – but also an icon of Scotland culture.

Traditional Winter Events

There’s Hogmanay, of course, when thousands gather in Edinburgh’s streets and make it a major event, and thousands more all over Scotland pop into the neighbours for a dram, or go to a friend’s house and wonder if this really is the very best place to be at 3 am when starting to feel just a little maudlin.

Hogmanay at Killin
Hogmanay at Killin. Fireworks by the Falls of Dochart.

It’s no coincidence that the Scots rather like deep mid-winter festivals – perhaps because they need cheering up most of all at that time of year! 

It’s, well, part of our culture. And those winter nights can seem endless up here…

Furthest north of all, Shetland folk have their Up-Helly-aa, a Viking fire festival on the last Tuesday in January every year.

And these northerners really know how party.

Meanwhile, with commendable stubbornness, the locals at Burghead, on the Moray Firth coast, celebrate their New Year according to the old calendar – which makes their celebration the 11th January.

Their fire ceremony is called ‘The Burning of the Clavie’ – the ‘clavie’ being a barrel shaped container for the fire, first paraded round the town, then the basis for a massive bonfire.

Also included in deep winter festivals has to be Burns Suppers, though this doesn’t usually involve setting fire to anything. (There’s a very bad pun in there but we’ll move on…)

My pet theory is that if our national and much-loved poet Robert Burns had been born in the summer, then these annual get-togethers might not have taken off.

No, the wildly popular haggis eating, whisky drinking, toasts, recitations and so on are a quintessentially winter activity – making Burns’ birthday just an excuse for another party – but also an icon of Scotland culture.

And as Burns Suppers are places that you hear traditional song, you should check out some background info on Scottish music here. (Another aspect of our culture, of course.)

Ben Ledi midsummer sunset
Ben Ledi midsummer sunset

(Pictured here) As well as deep winter activities and celebration in Scotland, summer too used to have its rituals. This picture was taken from the summit of Ben Ledi in the Trossachs, seconds after the sun went down – right between Stobinian and Ben More, in the centre of the picture.

Ben Ledi is associated with old Beltane ceremonies – that is, a kind of sun-welcoming ritual or tradition, on the 1st May.

As folk memory passes on perhaps it gets confused, so that these days, a lot of folk climb this hill to the north of Callander on midsummer, 21st June, as I did, some years ago.

Piping in the rain at Killin Highland Games
Piping in the rain at Killin Highland Games

Highland Games

(Pictured here) A keen young piper (at Killin Highland Games) hoping his bagpipes are waterproof.

Two items to notice in the background. Firstly, on the left, an ever optimistic ice-cream sales van, and second, on the right, an abandoned, though genuine, caber.

Don’t know if this is just me, but, if you stare at the caber long enough, it seems to be floating in the foreground, as though someone, out of frame, was trying to poke the piper with his walking-stick, or ‘crummock’ since this is in the Highlands.

It’s a weird optical illusion…..still, maybe I should get out more.

The standard paragraph on Highland Games always explains that they were trials of strength and skill organised by clan chieftains in olden times to test for potential members of their court or bodyguard.

This is the Highland Games as talent show theory – a kind of tartan ‘X-Factor’.

The events are given an air of authenticity by the further explanation that the trials of strength involve the use of sports equipment that have evolved from everyday objects

These include everyday things, such as tree-trunks (cabers), river-worn boulders (shot-put) and heavy hammers (uhmm, heavy hammers).

Formerly, on this page, I used to say you never see cycling events at Highland Games, as men cycling while wearing kilts always look so, well, impractical. I think the sporrans sit awkwardly or something.

However, silly me, a correspondent pointed out that statement is in error. Not only do you get cycling events such as those at Crieff Highland Games but the (non-kilted) competitors use bikes with no brakes, no gears and have to clip their feet into special pedals. (To be honest, this is all beyond me and I should never have started this…)

And in spite of the prevalence of long whippy poles in the Highlands of old, pole-vaulting in Highland dress is also uncommon. But I’m even having my doubts about this now.

Anyway, there are plenty of Games to see right through the tourist season and they definitely make their contribution to the Scotland culture theme.

(What’s that you say? Nope. You’re right. I really can’t take them seriously.)

Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott gazing out from his plinth in the centre of the Scott Monument – the mighty Gothic stone skyrocket built as a memorial to his contribution to Scottish culture.

Summarising Scottish culture

Observe the Common Ridings in some of the Border towns if you want to see what a Scottish community does to assert its sense of place and its pride in belonging.

Catch a concert at, say, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections for an insight into how Scotland’s musical heritage can be interpreted.

Take in an agricultural show, even if you personally don’t own a cow, and listen in to the locals as they meet.

Watch a shinty match in the Highlands. Shinty is a kind of specially dangerous hockey beloved by Celtic folk and it’s played with passion.

These are just a few ways of experiencing aspects of real Scotland culture. There’s a lot of it about.

Even the old myths and stories about Scotland’s flag, the saltire are part of the nation’s culture, in its broadest sense.

And I should outline at some point at least some of the classic Scottish authors who are an important aspect of Scotland’s cultural heritage, for example Robert Louis Stevenson

Remember, too, that the Scots and their sense of heritage and community is an important aspect of Scotland culture. You’ll discover this for yourself if you undertake any kind of Scottish ancestry research.

Finally, as an icon of Highland culture, often taken to represent Scottish culture in its broadest sense, here is some information on the story of tartan.


Some culturally significant places to visit

Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian

So it took a blockbuster novel by Dan Brown to catapult this interesting but sleepy little religious site on the edge of Edinburgh into a kind of must see with soaring visitor numbers and a new visitor centre.

But Rosslyn Chapel is a most interesting place for all that. 

Roslin Chapel, Midlothian.
Roslin Chapel, Midlothian. Easy to reach from Edinburgh

From a cultural and artistic angle, you can see the finest mediaeval stone carving in all of Scotlnd. And there is an excellent guided tour plus the cafe does a mean hot chocolate!

Lothian Bus no. 37 will take you very near from Edinburgh city centre if you don’t want to drive.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Kelvingrove Art Gallery And Museum, Glasgow

Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a great repository of culture and recreation for Scotland’s largest city: visited by generations of local folk and hence an important feature of the city’s cultural life.

Plus it has one of Europe’s great art collections. There are over 8000 objects across 22 galleries! And, it’s free – as well as being one of the most visited museums in the UK outside of London. Definitely worth a look amongst the other Glasgow (nearly) must sees.

Highland Folk Museum
Highland Folk Museum

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

this is just about the most illuminating and fascinating museum anywhere in Scotland – an immersive and realistic experience evoking what life was really like in the Highlands.

(By the way – life was miserable – some of the time!) This was Britain’s first open air museum. A total must see if you are on the A9 road near Newtonmore. Oh – and it is free entry!

Kinnaird Head - castle converted to lighthouse
Castle at Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, converted into a lighthouse, now part of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

Museum Of Scottish Lighthouses, Fraserburgh

A whole lot more interesting than it at first sounds – this is the real deal – not just a collection of lighthouse artefacts, amazing lenses etc, but a tour of a real historic lighthouse, originally built up through the middle of an equally real 16th-century tower house (castle).

And, wait, there’s more – this also qualifies as somewhere off the beaten track. Take in the Loch of Strathbeg (see our wildlife page) as well, if you are of the slightest birdy inclination.

Also, take a look at the information on the music of Scotland – that’s certainly a strong part of our culture. And so are some of the idiosyncratic clocks and time signals you might come across if you want to know what time it is in Scotland.

Here’s a very negative aspect of Scottish culture. We found it on an otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoon in Glasgow.

Finally, the story of an ancient shipwreck that underlined the differences in culture between Scotland and England.