The Scots are rightly proud of their rich cultural history and many ancient Scottish traditions continue to be enthusiastically celebrated today.
Many of these traditions focus on eating, storytelling and dancing – often accompanied by the skirl of the bagpipes and people wearing kilts and other items of traditional Highland dress.
In this blog post we take a look at some of the most well-known events that make Scottish traditions so unique.
Highland games are a unique way of celebrating Scottish culture and take place every spring and summer in Scotland. They are also held in places where people have Scottish ancestry – such as Canada, the USA and New Zealand, and even Brazil.
Events include heavy athletics such as the famous caber toss, hammer throw, and stone put, as well as Highland dancing and bagpipe competitions. There are also plenty of entertainment and exhibits that celebrate Scottish and Gaelic culture.
The largest event in Scotland is the Cowal Games in Dunoon, which is held every August. There can be up to 3,500 competitors and around 23,000 spectators from all over the world.
Interestingly, a Highland games display at the Paris Exhibition in 1889 is thought to have inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin as he was preparing to revive the Olympic Games.
A distinctive feature of all Highland games is that the competitors wear variations on traditional Highland dress including kilts, hose, flashes and sporrans.
Tartan kilts have become symbolic of Scotland and are an important part of Scottish heritage and culture. Kilts signify patriotism and honour to a Scotsman. You can read more about the history of Scottish tartan and how kilts evolved here.
For men, traditional Highland dress includes a tartan kilt, a sporran, a kilt pin, woollen hose (knee length socks) and flashes, a sgian dubh, (a small dagger) tucked into the hose, ghillie brogues, a jacket or just a ghillie shirt. Sometimes tartan ‘trews’ are worn instead of a kilt. More details on all the elements of a kilt outfit can be found here.
Historically, women and children would not have worn kilts but may have worn ankle-length plaid skirts. But today everyone can wear a kilt. And if you attend any Highland games you will see dancers of all ages and sexes wearing colourful tartan kilts.
If the tartan kilt is the visual symbol of Scotland then the sound – or skirl – of the bagpipes must surely be the aural equivalent. it’s a sound that evokes the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands and the country’s long history.
You’ll hear the bagpipes being played at events all over Scotland. From buskers through to massed pipe-bands in special parades and competitions at Highland games. Bagpipes are a common feature in Scottish weddings – piping the bridal party in and the newly weds out of the venue.
And you can come across the sound of bagpipes in popular music culture too. Everything from Mull of Kintyre by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1977 to the tribute band called the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. And every year in the UK, BBC2 Jools Holland’s Hootenanny brings in the New Year with a bagpipe band playing Auld Lang Syne.
For many Scots, the New Year – or hogmanay – is even more important than Christmas, with festivities spread over three days from New Year’s Eve until 2 January.
The origins of the word are not clear but the most likely seems to be that it came from the French ‘hoginane’ (gala day). The word certainly became popular following the return from France of Mary Queen of Scots in 1561.
Whatever its origin, hogmanay is a direct descendant of the centuries-old Scottish tradition of celebrating at midwinter (or yule) with 'daft days'. Inevitably this involved people eating and drinking, enjoying social gatherings, dancing, and ‘first footing’ - visiting neighbours or family immediately after midnight with symbolic gifts such as a lump of coal, some shortbread, and a dram of whisky to ensure the household will be safe and warm over winter.
At the chime of midnight on New Year’s Eve it is traditional in Scotland – and recently even in many other parts of the world – to link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne. The words are taken from a poem of the same name written by Scotland’s best known poet Robert (Robbie) Burns.
Burns night is celebrated every year to honour the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns on the anniversary of his birthday - 25th January. It’s a Scottish tradition that dates back to 1801.
Burns suppers will always include a dish of haggis (a savoury pudding traditionally made from sheep's heart, lungs and liver), neeps (swede) and tatties (mashed potato). There will also be plenty of Scotch whisky, the recitation of some of Burns’ famous poems, and bagpipes.
At formal events a bagpiper will ‘pipe in’ the haggis as it is brought to the table. This is usually followed by someone reading Burns’ poem Address To A Haggis. After dinner toasts and more poetry readings are another ritual, and the evening usually ends with the signing of Auld Lang Syne.
ROYAL EDINBURGH TATTOO
If you’re lucky enough to be in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh in August you can witness a stirring Scottish tradition – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This unique event takes place at the esplanade in front of the magnificent Edinburgh castle and includes marching pipe bands, Highland dancers, motorcycle stunts, and lots of military pageantry.
The event has been running since 1950 and is part of the famous festival season held in Edinburgh and is usually attended by thousands of people which adds to the atmosphere.
ST ANDREW'S DAY
The patron saint of Scotland is St Andrew and on 30 November every year there is a public holiday to celebrate St Andrew’s Day. It’s an official flag day so if you’re in Scotland at this time you will see Scotland’s iconic flag – the Saltire – flying from lots of buildings.
As you would imagine, it’s a day that is used to celebrate Scottish heritage with cultural events all over Scotland. You’ll find traditional ceilidh (pronounced kaylee) dancing and music and – of course – pipe bands. Traditional food such as cullen skink (a thick soup made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) may also be on offer.
HIGHLAND STORE KILTS
We hope our short list of Scottish traditions will tempt you to visit Scotland and experience some of them yourselves.