Scotland's culture is part of our identity
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 Scotland 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 ferry terminal in a little community in the Outer Hebrides when the hotel owner gets together with his friends and just plays a session of Scottish ceilidh music, just 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 culture – if you define culture as something related to taste and the arts in the broadest sense.
Scotland 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 get a lot of theirs) and use the same money (though Scottish banks have their own bank-note designs).
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 here's a 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).
I reckon we’d be better to stick to a few cultural icons……
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. 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. The 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 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.)
(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.
(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, such as tree-trunks (cabers), river-worn boulders (shot put) and heavy hammers (uhmm, heavy hammers).
This is also why 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. And in spite of the prevalence of long whippy poles in the Highlands of old, pole-vaulting in Highland dress is also uncommon. 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.)
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. 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. Click the family tree link below for some practical advice on this topic. Finally, as an icon of Highland culture, often taken to represent Scottish culture in its broadest sense, here is some information on the origins of tartan.