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The Scots are a sentimental bunch. Imprinted into the social psyche, Scotland’s heritage is woven into the cultural fabric through customs still practiced today. Here, we highlight some key idiosyncrasies only Scots will understand.
An annual event, Burns Night is swaddled in tartan and riddled with tradition. This merry evening is dedicated to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns and takes place on or around his birthday (25th January). Across Scotland, people of all ages pay homage to Burns through renditions of his works, ceilidh dancing and indulging in traditional Scottish dishes like cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties, cranachan and shortbread. And yes, whisky is involved!
Scotland and kilts make quite the dynamic duo. As the national dress of Scotland, the history of the kilt goes all the way back to the 16th century Highlands when it was a huge wad of heavy cloth. Tartan back then was not used to identify clans but instead indicated the natural dyes found in the area. Today, full kilt attire involves a belt, sporran (bag that hangs at the front at the waist), kilt pin, kilt socks and a sgian-dubh (knife) in the sock. Kilts in the family or clan tartan are typically worn on major occasions like weddings, fancy shindigs, funerals and graduations. They can also be worn casually with a T-shirt for events like football matches and rugby games.
It’s common knowledge that haggis — a concoction of sheep pluck (sheep heart, liver and lungs) minced together with a potion of spices, oatmeal, onion and salt, served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) — is Scotland’s national dish. Surrounding the haggis, however, are a series of important rituals that, to some, may seem quite the spectacle. During Burns Suppers and other important occasions, the haggis is exalted upon high and piped in to the room by a bagpiper in Highland dress. Before served, a talented speaker, also in national tartan-clad regalia, will recite an animated rendition of ‘Address To A Haggis’, a famous poem by Robert Burns honouring this evocative dish. To whit, ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race! Aboon them a’ ye tak your place.’
Hogmanay is the term given to New Year’s Eve in Scotland. People from far and near celebrate with a string of parties, many of which involve a ceilidh and Scottish dishes like haggis, neeps and tatties, and shortbread. Like any good knees-up event, barrels of booze (including Scottish whisky and gin) are involved! Edinburgh’s iconic Hogmanay festivities are praised as being the largest New Year’s Eve celebration in the world. Every year, the street party accommodates thousands of people while live big-name bands and entertainers pop up on multiple stages across the city centre. A resplendent fireworks display paints the sky on the hour every hour. In the Old Town, a giant ceilidh takes place. When the clock strikes midnight, crowds and groups link arms and belt out ‘Auld Lang Syne’, usually accompanied by bagpipes, before running in and out of the circle at the last verse.
Speaking of New Year’s Eve, first-footing is perhaps the most widely practiced social ritual linked with Hogmanay. After the clocks strike midnight, people start making their way to the homes of loved ones and pals, bearing gifts and endless banter-filled vibes. In a nutshell, the purpose of first-footing (being the first foot to cross the threshold into a loved one’s house after midnight), is to bring warm wishes for the new year. The gifts, a symbol of good luck and a sign of prosperity, can range from a tin of shortbread to a bottle of whisky, or anything left over in the kitchen cupboard. Traditionally, coal was brought for warmth, a black bun or shortbread for food, and salt for health. Due to busy schedules and the natural ebb and flow of life, many Scots first-foot friends and families throughout the month of January. The old wives’ tale goes that the best first footer is a tall, handsome and dashing male!
Located in Edinburgh close to the west door of St Gile’s Cathedral sits an unassuming granite heart on the ground. Blink and you will most likely miss it. What you may not miss, however, is a curious trend of people spitting on it as they pass. Don’t worry, this is just a deeply-ingrained Scottish tradition and the said heart is actually The Heart Of Midlothian. This heart-shaped mosaic marks the spot of the Old Tolbooth, an entrance to a prison and a public execution site from the 15th century. The act of spitting on it originated as a sign of contempt for the prison. And yet today, it’s often viewed as a sign of good luck.
Before football, there was Ba’ Game! Arduous and epic, Ba’ Game, which is essentially a medieval take on football or ‘mob football’, is still played across many Scottish communities today. In great Scots style, there are no rules. Just two teams of men, the uppies or doonies, chosen by geographical location. The aim is to get the ba’ or ball into the goal — which can range from the harbor water to a wall! Free from a referee, the game is self-regulating and can include anywhere up to 350 men or more. It involves a great deal of community camaraderie. Some games can last up to five hours with no breaks. Since Ba’ Game is typically an annual affair, communities prepare by barricading shops and buildings to prevent any damage from the impending mammoth scrum of players frantically reaching for the ba’.
Infused with determined flurries of fire and inundated with music, Up Helly Aa is an annual fire festival in the Shetland Islands. Held on the last Tuesday of January, this momentous occasion is centred around the main guizer or ‘Jarl’, a title of great honour. During the procession, which in Lerwick can include around 1,000 guizers or people, an ocean of fire-drenched torches illuminate the land while the people boast all manner of outfits from Viking regalia to satirical costumes. After meandering through the town and the singing of the Up Helly Aa song, the swathes of torches encompass the replica galley or Viking longship as waves of flames dramatically dance away. From there, the respective squads visit various locations and perform an act, which can range from singing and dancing to a skit about pop-culture.
A most curious sight of contrasting colours, clootie wells are ancient pilgrimage sites steeped in Celtic tradition. Surrounded by trees, these holy wells or springs have long served as places for people to make offerings to deities, gods or spirits as part of a healing ritual. ‘Clootie’ or ‘cloot’ is Scots for a rag or strip of cloth. The act of wrapping clooties to tree branches is an integral part of the healing ritual. It’s worth noting that nowadays visitors are encouraged to leave biodegradable cloth!