Think Scottish culture is all haggis and bagpipes? Think again! Guest author Graham is here to share his favourite Scottish traditions and local insights into the country’s heritage and traditions, from the Highlands to the Western Isles.
If you’re planning a trip, Graham recommends 10 wonderful experiences that will give travellers a deeper understanding of Scotland’s history and contemporary culture.
This is a guest post by Graham, who has lived the majority of his life in Scotland. He travels the length and breadth of the country on hiking trips, wild camps, and loves exploring the hidden side of Scotland that is the small towns and villages dotted around the highlands, islands and lowlands. You can keep up to date with him on his blog, My Voyage Scotland.
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The image of Scotland exported abroad is terribly stereotypical.
Think Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons – a red-haired, kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing alcoholic. Bagpipes and whisky are only a small part of the rich, vibrant, inclusive Scottish Culture.
This guide will explore some of the wonderful ways travellers can fully immerse themselves in Scottish traditions.
Basic Scottish etiquette
Before I begin, there are a few things to point out that will make any tourist’s visit to Scotland more enjoyable.
- Never try to impersonate the accent. It can’t be done well, no matter how good people think they are at it. It might also cause offense.
- Do not be alarmed if you’re greeted or smiled at by strangers on the street. This is especially true in Glasgow. It’s a very friendly country where saying ‘hi’ or nodding at passersby is the norm.
- Practice proper parking etiquette. Most of the roads in the north of Scotland are small and local car parks and small community infrastructure has struggled to keep up with the rapid increase in tourist numbers in recent years. Tourists should not leave their cars parked on verges or on main roads where inappropriate.
- If you don’t understand the accent, just ask. It’s always expected, and you won’t be made to feel awkward. There are 10 different dialects spoken in Scotland that are all variations of English. Even some Scots can’t understand different dialects. Everyone can revert to basic English if need be.
10 Scottish traditions tourists can explore
1. Taste Scottish whiskey in Speyside
Whisky is just one of many Scottish traditions – however, for tourists, it’s one of the most easily accessible and fun ways to immerse yourself in Scottish Culture. The best distilleries by far are the Speyside Distilleries.
Single Malt Scotch is more like wine than mass-produced bourbon in terms of variety. There is an abundance of whisky connoisseurs in Scotland. Each single malt is made at a specific distillery and has different notes and colours depending on the method of distilling.
The region of Speyside has an abundant supply of good-quality water, which explains why so many whisky distilleries were set up here. Speyside whisky is usually very well-balanced with sweet notes and floral aromas. You can also find Speyside whiskies that have a medicinal, smokey peat taste to them.
2. Attend a Ceilidh
In Scotland, kids are taught how to dance ceilidh in gym class close to the Christmas holidays. A real mentally scarring experience for most, but something most Scots are eventually glad they learned at a young age. This means that the typical stereotype of Scottish ceilidh dancing is actually quite common.
Historically, a ceilidh was an indoor social gathering. In the long, dark nights of winter, families would gather in one home to recite poetry, tell stories, sing songs, and occasionally dance. Modern ceilidhs ditch the poetry, storytelling and singing and focus solely on the dancing.
The majority of Scottish weddings involve ceilidh dancing, but this is easy to learn. A ceilidh is a fantastic way to meet loads of new people whilst fully immersing yourself in one of the most beloved of all Scottish traditions.
For tourists, the best way to attend a ceilidh is by visiting one of the local ceilidh halls. Tourists should not be intimidated about not knowing the dances. Before every ceilidh is performed, the band or host will explain the steps and will usually include a practice round. Ceilidhs aren’t about getting all of the moves right – they’re about having fun, and tourists won’t be the only ones stumbling about trying to remember the moves. No one gets upset if you forget what you’re doing.
Some popular venues include Sloans in Glasgow on a Friday night and the Burly Ceilidh Club in Edinburgh.
3. Hire a kilt – but only for Hogmanay or a wedding
Nothing says Scottish culture like a kilt. Scots aren’t precious about who wears a kilt either, and it’s extremely common to see non-Scottish people in kilts at weddings and at Hogmanay. Hogmanay is the Scottish word for New Year, an event that is celebrated more fiercely than Christmas.
The kilt has deep cultural ties to Scotland due to its history and symbolism. Historically, each clan had its own tartan. Even to this day, descendants of Scottish clans will choose their ancestral kilt over others. This doesn’t mean that no one else can wear that clan’s kilt, however.
Scots are fiercely proud of their kilts. This is partly due to the fact that the kilt was banned in 1746 after the failed Jacobite rebellion. During this rebellion, Scottish Jacobite supporters waged war wearing kilts as it was typically used as a battle uniform. After the rebellion, the English instituted that any Scot outwith the British Army wearing a kilt could be imprisoned for six months on their first offense, or transported overseas for seven years.
The idea behind banning the kilt was to limit its symbolism of Scottish dissent. This did not work, however, and what was once used as an everyday garment by workmen and as a battle uniform to distinguish tribes quickly became a national symbol of Scottish individuality and patriotism that has long outlasted it’s 35-year ban.
All cities in Scotland have a kilt hire shop and you can even order a kilt online.
A serious side note: it goes without saying, but you should never lift or look up someone else’s kilt. This will cause serious offense and is classed as assault.
4. Listen to bagpipers on the Royal Mile or Buchanan Street
Piping in Scotland remains a popular form of cultural expression to this day. Where exactly the bagpipes come from is still a point of argument; popular theories suggest origins in Ireland or as far afield as Egypt. Regardless of the origin, a big noisy instrument was bound to be popular in Scotland.
Bagpipes are culturally important to Scotland as its national instrument. During times of war, highland regiments typically had their own pipers. These shock infantry were often sent in first to intimidate the enemy. The sheer noise of the pipes coupled with the size of the hard, rural-dwelling highlanders usually did the trick.
In modern times, bagpipes play a crucial ceremonial role at weddings, funerals, graduations and other important events.
For tourists, bagpipe music is easily accessible. In Edinburgh, tourists can spot four or five pipers on any given day when strolling down the Royal Mile and Princes Street. In Glasgow, there are typically a couple of pipers at least busking on Buchanan Street.
It’s brilliant taking a ‘wee’ seat, resting for a while and listening to the enchanting and majestic sounds of the bagpipes rolling over the city.
5. Attend the Stonehaven Hogmanay Fireball Ceremony
Stonehaven is a fishing village just outside of Aberdeen. There are plenty of things to do in Stonehaven all year round, but if you can, you should really come for the Stonehaven Fireballs Ceremony.
Fireball ceremonies have been around in Scotland for centuries. They are believed to be a pagan ceremony representing purification and destruction. They’re popular in Scotland as they serve as a reminder of the country’s pre-Christian past.
The ceremony in Stonehaven is the most well-known of its kind and is watched by thousands of people each year. During the ceremony, locals roll giant flaming balls of hay down the high street and into the sea.
This event is an excellent way for tourists to experience Scottish tradition at its finest. The event is also completely free!
6. Don’t hike Ben Nevis
One of the great cultural pastimes in Scotland is hill walking. Nowhere in the world are so many high-quality hikes so easily accessible for the whole population.
Culturally, what Scots consider the ‘real’ Scotland is the Highlands, with its peaks and lochs, glens and waterfalls, and ridges and plateaus.
A large number of Scots partake in ‘munro bagging’, the process of climbing all of Scotland’s Munros. Munros are Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet, of which there are 282.
Munro bagging is also accessible for tourists who are able to hire a car. Tourists based in Glasgow or Edinburgh are only ever one or two hours drive away from a decent hike. Most of the Scottish Munros are easily accessible and don’t take longer than eight to 10 hours to complete.
Tourists should always make sure they’re properly equipped when hiking in Scotland, as the weather can turn rapidly. A map, compass and the knowledge to use them is essential. Also, crampons and an ice axe are required between October and March.
Tourists typically think of Ben Nevis when considering a mountain to hike in Scotland. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain, but not the nicest. Instead, choose from one of the wide variety of Munros to bag: Ben Lomond, Ben Macdui, Liathach or Bidean Nam Bien, to name a few.
If you are interested in hiking, check out this flexibile itinerary for hill walking in Scotland.
7. Behold Ullapool’s creel net Christmas tree
One of Scotland’s true hidden cultural gems is the creel net Christmas tree in Ullapool, a semi-busy tourist town situated on the northwest coast of Scotland.
The town is very much a working fishing village, as are many of the coastal towns in Scotland. Their Christmas tree is constructed from no less than 340 creels, which on a normal day are used to catch lobsters.
This ritual is a nod to Scotland’s close cultural relationship with the sea. Outwith the industrial central belt, most of Scotland’s rural population survived on either farming or fishing.
This is a relatively new tradition, however, dating back to 2016. Tourists can visit Ullapool all year round. The town is a fantastic base for exploring Wester Ross, Sutherland and Torridon.
8. Go island hopping in the Western Isles
There’s no better way to experience true Scottish culture than by visiting the Western Isles.
The Western Isles is probably the only place in the world where tourists can walk into a pub or other social setting and hear locals conversing in Gaelic. It is estimated that 52 percent of the population of Na h-Eileanan Siar (the Outer Hebrides) speak fluent Gaelic. This is in contrast to the proportion of Gaelic speakers in tourist hot spots like Glasgow or Edinburgh, where less than one percent of people use the tongue.
Aside from the prevalence of Gaelic language, the Western Isles is bursting full of Scottish traditions. It’s important to understand that most Scottish culture is a mix of Scot, Norse and Celtic (Irish). The Western Isles is where many of the Norsemen first settled in Scotland, and it was the main landing point for Celts arriving from Ireland. The area has a vibrant Celtic and Norse heritage as a result, reflected in the music, art and readily available Celtic jewellery.
Recent government intervention has slashed the cost of ferry prices making the Western Isles easily accessible to tourists. Multi-journey ‘island hopping’ tickets are available for just £7.25.
Tourists interested in visiting the Western Isles should read the following:
9. Experience Scotland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Scotland is home to a whole host of Neolithic, Celtic, Medieval, Pictish, Roman and modern cultural sites. A handful have been nominated, and as of the time of writing, there are now six official UNESCO World Heritage sites in Scotland.
The Antonine Wall
The cultural shift in Scotland gradually moved from paganism to Christianity with the arrival of the Romans, who first invaded Britain in 55BC. Caledonia (as Scotland was known to the Romans) was never truly conquered. Nonetheless, the country still moved closer towards Christianity in the centuries that followed.
During the Roman invasion of Britain, the Antonine Wall became the frontier of the Roman Empire in Northern Europe. It’s not as well-known to tourists as Hadrian’s Wall, and that’s because the Antonine Wall was predominantly made of turf and wood. Hadrian’s Wall, by contrast, was made of stone, which has weathered much better.
The Antonine Wall is one of Scotland’s most accessible UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to its close proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
New Lanark is an 18th-century mill village almost entirely protected from the wheels of time.
The mill is symbolic to Scotland because it captures the industrial working conditions of the Scottish textile industry, once a world leader.
At New Lanark, you can explore the historic architecture and get a glimpse at what life was like over 200 years ago. There are also several amazing walks nearby, most notably The Falls of Lanark. The area is easily accessible from either Glasgow or Edinburgh by car, train or bus.
Edinburgh Old and New Town
Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital and a cultural beacon for Scots the world over. The city centre comprises two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Old Town and the New Town.
Both parts of the town sit in stark contrast to one another. The Victorian ‘New Town’ inspired many of Europe’s city planners, while the Medieval ‘Old Town’ has classic Gothic architecture.
These are Scotland’s most accessible UNESCO World Heritage Sites as they are smack bang in the middle of the capital city.
Edinburgh Old Town
Edinburgh Old Town is of cultural significance to Scots for five main reasons: it’s the capital of Scotland, it’s home to Scotland’s crown jewels, it holds the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace, and it is simply hands-down stunning.
The Old Town is bursting with Gothic architecture, eerie alleyways and traditional pubs. The centrepiece is the Royal Mile, where hundreds of thousands of tourists flock every year for the largest arts festival in the world; the Fringe Festival.
The Fringe Festival is Scotland’s (maybe even the UK’s) largest cultural showcase with music, comedy and, of course, theatre performances.
A top tip for tourists not too involved with the arts is to attend the free shows. You can keep busy for days during the Fringe Festival only seeing only the free stuff. These shows are usually run by indie companies and are often the best performances of the festival. The paid shows tend to be heavier content-wise and aimed towards the upper echelons of society.
Edinburgh New Town
Edinburgh New Town is an architectural masterpiece. Planned by James Craig (an architect without any qualifications) in the 18th century, the New Town, with it’s gridiron plan, showcases Georgian architecture at its finest.
This part of Edinburgh holds such cultural icons as the National Gallery of Scotland, the Royal Scottish Academy Building, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Assembly Rooms, the Balmoral Hotel, Waverly Station, and the Scott Monument.
The Forth Bridge
Measuring 1.5 miles and weighing 53,000 tons, the Forth Road Bridge was the most ambitious project ever attempted at the time of its conception.
The bridge is culturally important for Scots as it’s a reminder of Scotland’s industrial past, something many people are proud of. During the 1800s and early 1900s, Scotland was known as the ‘Workshop of the World’, dominating the playing field in shipbuilding, coal mining and railways.
Central belt industry declined in the late 1900s, but the Forth Bridge endures as a monument to a time when one-fifth of all ships in the world were built in Scotland.
The Forth Bridge is easily accessible from both Edinburgh and Glasgow by car. The best place to view the bridge is at South Queensferry, or driving over the Queensferry Bridge, which runs parallel to the Forth Road Bridge.
The Queensferry Bridge is a modern engineering marvel itself and opens the door to the Kingdom of Fife, which features quaint towns like St Andrews and Anstruther – both excellent day trips from either Glasgow or Edinburgh.
St Kilda is an important cultural landmark situated 40 miles offshore. This makes it fairly inaccessible to most tourists.
St Kilda is culturally important because it features a Neolithic site and traces of a Norse settlement that dates back to the time of the Gaelic-speaking Scots.
Tourists who wish to venture to the Island can do so via a single day boat trip from the Isle of Harris.
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Going back to Scotland’s ancient roots, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is not as accessible to tourists due to its location on an island off the very northern tip of Scotland. Getting to the ferry terminal to reach Orkney is a five-hour drive from the main Central Belt.
Nevertheless, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a fantastic cultural icon dedicated to Scotland’s pagan past. The site consists of a large tomb, two standing stones and the settlement of Skara Brae.
10. Try Scottish cuisine – you might be surprised (or disgusted)
Scottish cuisine is interesting to say the least. Yes, haggis is always on the menu, and tourists who want to do their homework can find fried Mars Bars. However, you should also explore some of the other available options.
Culturally, Scotland has welcomed immigration en-mass over the past few centuries. Cities like Glasgow welcomed tens of thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, plus Indian and Pakistani migrants throughout the mid to late 20th century. Scotland’s membership in the European Union has also meant welcoming hundreds of thousands of European nationals to our shores.
All of this has contributed to a culture of inclusion that Scots are fiercely proud of, and a cuisine that is second to none in terms of variety.
Curry is famous across the country. Chicken korma itself is thought to have originated in Glasgow. Most villages have at least one fish and chip shop, too. There are also Polish, German and Hungarian restaurants everywhere. Not to mention the abundance of French and Italian cuisine, and options from as far afield as Mongolia and Libya.
Focusing solely on Scottish cuisine, the menu is firmly focused on seafood, rich beef stews and gamey meat. The most notorious options are haggis and the deep fried Mars Bar.
Haggis is a traditional offal mixture that is traditionally cooked in a sheep’s stomach. It sounds disgusting, and tourists are often put off by the idea – but haggis is actually delicious. Traditionally it’s served with ‘neeps’ (turnips) and ‘tatties’ (mashed potato).
Haggis is traditionally eaten on Burns Night, a celebration of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. At a ‘Burns Supper’ the haggis is ceremoniously piped in. Most restaurants in the country offer a Burns Night Supper that tourists are welcome to attend.
Moving on to the deep fried Mars Bar… There is no real cultural depth to this delicacy, but the city of Glasgow is famous for them.
A deep fried Mars Bar is both as delicious and as disgusting as it sounds – chocolate and nougat covered in beer batter and deep fried. Yes, tourists should adopt an open mind when exploring Scottish cuisine!