Facts about Scotland
On the subject of facts, about Scotland or otherwise, Robert Burns said, in his poem 'A Dream', that 'facts are chiels that winna ding.' It means something like: facts are men that cannot be overturned - that is, can be relied upon. Here are a few Scottish facts I've acquired over the years. I should point out there is one snippet in this list - just one - that I made up, just for fun. Oh, don't worry, I've flagged it up though, as folk had started to write to me about it...
Facts about Scotland - the South
- The Common Ridings are held in early June in many Scottish Borders towns. These are magnificent celebrations of the horse as well as of the Borders communities. The town of Selkirk claims its event is the largest mounted gathering in Europe.
- The highest village in Scotland is not in the Highlands. It is at Wanlockhead (1380ft, 420m) in the Lowther Hills, Dumfries and Galloway.
- In 1860 the golf club at Prestwick in Ayrshire ran an open competition for professionals. It was a huge success and soon became known as the British Open Championship, now one of the world’s most famous golfing competitions.
- As a token of the Scottish people’s gratitude to General Dwight D. Eisenhower after WWII, the National Guest Flat in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, was gifted to him.
- Robert Burns trained as a heckler or flax dresser at a restored house in Irvine, Ayrshire. The venture ended when his partner’s wife carelessly dropped a candle and burned down the premises.
- The founder of the National Parks system in America was John Muir, born in Dunbar, East Lothian in 1838. Today, he is commemorated in his homeland by the John Muir Country Park, his birthplace museum in Dunbar High Street and there is also a new John Muir Trail – launched in April 2014 - from Helensburgh in the west of Scotland to Dunbar in the east (and vice versa of course). Pic shows wide-open spaces of the country park, as well as a misty Bass Rock offshore.
- The world’s first steam-boat was tested on Dalswinton Loch, north of Dumfries, in 1788.
- Smuggling was rife all round the coasts of Scotland in the 18th century. But the master smuggler was a certain John Nisbet who was so good at it that he was able to build a splendid mansion dominating the harbour area of Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders. Gunsgreen House (pictured here) is a fascinating experience, suitable for all the family and easily accessible from the main A1 road. There is also a smuggling trail here - which makes up part of the Berwickshire Coastal Path. Enjoy great walks and cliff scenery.
Facts about Scotland – the bit in the middle.
- The inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was a sailor called Alexander Selkirk, born at Largo in Fife. A Crusoe statue can be seen in the village today.
- The multi-millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Fife. Among many other gifts to the town is Pittencrieff Park, bought because he was once refused entry to it as a child!
- The pleasant little town of Cullen on the Moray Firth coast gave its name to the Cullen skink, a very rare species of lizard found in Scotland only in the countryside around the town. (Coughs significantly and winks...)
- The oldest living tree in Europe is said to be at Fortingall in Glen Lyon, Perthshire. The yew tree (pictured here) is thought to be 3000 years old. Worth seeing if you intend to explore scenic Glen Lyon.
- Angus towns give their name to at least three items of food in Scotland: the Forfar bridie, the Arbroath smokie and Kirriemuir gingerbread. (The first is a pie, the second a fish and the third is, well, just gingerbread.)
- The Lake of Menteith near Aberfoyle is sometimes called Scotland’s only lake. The usual word for an inland body of water in Scotland is, of course, loch. The Lake of Menteith Hotel overlooks the lake - a great location for a meal or a few days' escape. There are one or two other ‘lakes’ in Scotland but, in this case, it was a map-maker’s misunderstanding anyway. The word should be ‘laich’: a low-lying area. (The low ground just to the north of Elgin, principal town in Moray, for instance, is sometimes called ‘The Laich of Moray’.)
- Queen Victoria left at least three ‘Queen’s Views’ – one of Loch Tummel and Schiehallion above Pitlochry in Perthshire, another of Loch Lomond from the A809 road to the north of Glasgow. The less well known view is of the Howe of Cromar, west of Aberdeen and north of Aboyne on Royal Deeside. (A howe in Scots is a stretch of low or favoured ground, sheltered by hills.)
- Loch Lomond is Scotland’s largest loch – not in water volume, not in length – but in surface area. (This is one of the most often repeated facts about Scotland, to be honest.)
- Marischal College in Aberdeen is the second-largest granite building in the world. Only El Escorial in Spain is larger.
- Aberdeen’s Central Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre stand in a row when viewed from Union Terrace. The locals refer to them as ‘Education, Salvation and Damnation’! (This is possibly the oldest Aberdeen joke on record. But still worth a mention in facts about Scotland.)
- ‘The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’ is a famous Scottish song – but the aurora borealis can be seen from plenty of other places in the north of Scotland.
- Among the exhibits at the Grampian Museum of Transport at Alford near Aberdeen is the ‘Craigievar Express’ – a steam-driven cart invented by the local postman to help him on his round.
- The earliest example of written Gaelic ( 11/12th century ) was inscribed in the Book of Deer, a religious manuscript originally written at the first Abbey of Deer, near Old Deer in Buchan, north of Aberdeen. (Oddly enough, this important work is in the University Library, Cambridge, England. How it got there from Scotland, nobody seems to know for sure – possibly looted during the Wars of Independence. I think we should have it back now please.)
- General José san Martin, liberator of Argentina, spent most of his voluntary exile in Banff, on the Moray Firth coast. This attractive little north-east town is remembered by a Plaza Cuidad de Banff in Buenos Aires. Hmmm, one of the more obscure facts about Scotland in this list.
Facts about Scotland – the Highlands
- Loch Ness is Scotland’s largest loch – not in surface area, not in length – but in water volume.
- Loch Awe is Scotland’s longest loch, while Loch Morar is the deepest. (Actually, in this list of facts about Scotland, this ranks as one of the most curious: Loch Morar is 310 m / 1017 ft deep – the sort of depths you’d expect to find out in the Atlantic, off the Continental Shelf.
Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms, at 4296ft (1309m) the second highest mountain in Scotland, is said to be haunted by the Grey Man of Ben Macdui, an apparition that frightens walkers when it looms out of the mist.
- Fort George near Nairn is the finest example in Europe of an 18th-century military fortification. Built as a consequence of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, it has never fired a shot in anger.
- Scotland’s tallest mainland cliffs are the Clo Mor, between Durness and Cape Wrath. More on the scenery of the far north and the Vikings in Scotland on that link.
- The hump-backed bridge connecting Seil Island, south of Oban in Argyll, with the mainland is sometimes called ‘The Bridge over the Atlantic’ since it spans a tiny arm of that ocean.
Facts about Scotland – Islands
- One of the most magnificent prehistoric monuments in the UK, the Callanish Standing Stones (‘Scotland’s Stonehenge’) on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, are a cross-shaped setting dating in part from 3000BC. However, the tallest standing stone in Scotland is the Clach an Trushal, just off the A857 near Barvas on Lewis. It stands 19ft / 5.8m tall. (I don't really need to tell you where to see it on this page, do I?)
- In 1919, the surrendered German Grand Fleet, anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, scuttled itself. Though several vessels were subsequently salvaged, enough remain to make the area arguably one of the finest dive sites in the UK. Wonder if that’s a claim rather than a fact about Scotland?
- In the 12th century, Vikings broke in to the prehistoric Maes Howe chambered cairn in Orkney. They were looking for treasure. They found none – but left graffiti including the famous Maes Howe Dragon carving.
- Sometimes described as the oldest houses in Europe, the Stone Age farmsteads at the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, are an astonishing 5000 years old.
- The most complete surviving broch is on Mousa in Shetland. Some experts believe these curious upturned-flower-pot shaped towers were defences against sea-borne raiders.
- At the narrow neck of Mavis Grind on the A970 north of Brae in Shetland it is possible to throw a stone from the North Sea to the Atlantic (if you are a good thrower!).
- The national nature reserve at Hermaness on Unst, Shetland, is just one place to see bonxies – great skuas – spectacular air pirates. These hefty gull-sized birds attack intruders near their nests. An arm held above head height keeps them at a distance – usually. (Just to clarify: when I say ‘an arm’ I mean your own arm. Obviously you’d be a bit of a woose to use anyone else’s.)
Facts about Scotland – Edinburgh
- Punctually, every day since 1861, the one o’ clock gun has boomed out from Edinburgh Castle. It was originally intended as a time-check for mariners at Leith, the city’s seaport.
- The Royal Botanic Garden has the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.
- Edinburgh Zoo is famous for its Penguin Parade. This daily penguin walk used to take place on the pavement outside the zoo – but had to be stopped as it distracted passing motorists! (Actually, it is said the penguins strolling on the pavement resulted in collisions between motor vehicles.)
- Ben Ledi in the Trossachs can be seen from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. (I only include this as a reminder that Scotland is quite a small place.)
- There is no documentary proof that John Knox ever actually lived in John Knox House. Nevertheless, it is certainly of his time and the tradition has ensured the historic house’s preservation.
- The interior vestibules of houses in the New Town were originally designed to be an exact fit for sedan chairs. (This must have been really convenient for the well-to-do owners when it rained, actually being carried into their homes.)
- The last shot fired in anger from Edinburgh Castle was in 1745, by an unknown soldier of the Hanoverian garrison taking pot-shots at the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie as they rode past.
- The inspiration for the Robert Louis Stevenson tale ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was Edinburgh’s own Deacon Brodie – respectable citizen and locksmith by day, criminal by night!
Facts about Scotland – Glasgow
- Glasgow has the only subway system in Scotland.
- The Mitchell Library is the largest public reference library in Europe.
- Glasgow was once the home of the North British Locomotive Company, the second largest railway locomotive builder in the world (after Baldwins in the USA).
- The wide bridge over Argyle Street for the railway tracks connecting Central Station is known as the ‘Hielan’man’s Umbrella’ (Highlander’s Umbrella) as it formerly was a meeting place for the many Highlanders who came to the city looking for work.
- Just one of many interesting architectural features in Glasgow is 142-144 St Vincent Street, built in 1899 and called ‘The Hatrack’ because it is ten stories high but only three bays wide.
- The best surviving example of a Roman bath house in Scotland was uncovered at Bearsden in Glasgow. Finds from the excavation can be seen in the Hunterian Museum.
- Glasgow has plenty of trees in its parks – and more parks than any other British city. It also has a Fossil Grove – fossil stumps and roots of trees 330 million years old – in Victoria Park.
There's tons more Scottish facts on this page further down as well...oh, decisions, decisions....!
Some more facts about Scotland
How big is it – and will they understand me there?
Scotland – it’s quite small and it’s on the edge of Europe.
The first of these Scotland facts is that it’s 29,796 square miles (7.2 million hectares) in area – just over one-third of the total area of the United Kingdom. It lies between 55 and 60 degrees north, with central Scotland on approximately the same latitude as Moscow, though warmer because of the North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream).
Shetland, the most northerly group of islands, is closer to the Arctic Circle than to the south of England. (This is a situation that most Shetlanders are very happy about.) At the other end of the country, Ireland is only 12 miles away from Scotland at the nearest point.
This is the usual couple of paras you get on the size of Scotland. That and the slightly weird statistic about the length of its coastline, usually given as 8197 miles (13,115km). Obviously, this counts all the indentations and presumably the coastline of every island and probably sticking up reefs and rocks as well – especially as the western seaboard is only 260 miles (416km) long in a straight line. Anyway, there are over 700 islands, and more than 100 are inhabited.
That’s quite enough statistics. And don’t get the wrong impression. Just remember that if you cross the Border at Carlisle, another five hours of steady driving will take you to the shores of the Moray Firth, somewhere east of Inverness, as in the picture below. (It’s a place called Findochty.) You’ll get out of the car and say ‘That’s funny. Where did we miss the turn for Edinburgh?’
Important in any list of Scotland facts is some information on the weather in Scotland.
(Pictured here) Scotland facts: Findochty, on the sunny Moray Firth. Yes, the weather can be good along the Firth, especially west of the River Spey, along the coast.
Among many Scotland facts, here’s one you should know: it’s sometimes sunny. Here’s Findochty on the Moray Firth, looking north-west to the hills of Caithness and Sutherland on the right-hand distant horizon. I once used this image in a picture quiz for some tourism trade people in Scotland and someone thought it was the Seychelles. Och, really….
How do we speak in Scotland?
Here’s another Scotland fact. There are three languages spoken here. Englsh, Scots and Gaelic. English, naturally, is prevalent. It is spoken by English people in Scotland, of which there are lots, in every part of the country. It is also used by many native Scots on a sort of sliding scale towards the denser forms of the Scots language. It all depends on the context or the occasion.
Scots is a northern form of English and differs from it more subtly than even many Scots realise. It has its own vocabulary and constructions. Even while speaking what they think is English, Scots tend to drop in the odd Scots construction or pronunciation. (Test: ask a Scot to pronounce ‘tortoise’. ‘Wednesday’ is another giveaway. An example of a Scottish ‘construction’ would be,‘I’ll see you the length of the bus-stop', ie in English ‘as far as the bus-stop’.) And if a Scots garage mechanic says ‘Aye, I doubt you’ll need a new tyre’, he’s giving you bad news, not good. In Scots, in many contexts, doubt means exactly the opposite in English in this context. Yes, trust me.
On a visit, you’ll easily tune into those Scots who pepper the conversation with Scots words – so the weather becomes ‘dreich’ , rather than just dull. Finally, you can still find guid (good) Scots in full flood in some parts of Scotland – and certainly in ‘Finn-echty’ – (which is how Findochty, pictured on this page, is pronounced) and, because of accent and pronunciation, as well as vocabulary and, to some extent, construction, an outsider won’t get much of it at first. (And vive la difference!)
And the third language? Well, that’s Gaelic. You’ll most likely encounter it in the north and west on bi-lingual road-signs, if you see what I mean. It is ancient, honoured, and has a huge culture of its own. But no-one in Scotland now speaks only Gaelic.
If you need even more reassurance about Scottish accent – then follow that link for even more information about how we speak.