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Tipping in Scotland

Some visitors get anxious about the conventions of tipping in Scotland but it’s pretty simple. Also, find out here what the word ‘tip’ actually means.

Tipping in Scotland

Tipping in Scotland is quite a concern for many visitors, especially those from across the Atlantic. The first point to bear in mind is that, overall, there is less of a tipping culture in Scotland than in, say, the USA.  After conversations with clients anxious to get it right,  here are some observations and advice.

When to tip in Scotland

Broadly speaking, there are just a few defined areas where tipping is the norm.

First of all, taxis. It is usual to tip around 10%, or at the very least round up the fare to a whole number of £s. It’s so widespread that it must be some kind of long established assumption that the displayed fare is only a starting point for further reward. Odd, when you think about it. There also has been research done by psychologists that suggests people do not want to be disapproved of in certain social contexts, even by people whom they will never see again – such as that taxi driver who takes you to the airport for the homeward flight!

The 10% tipping 'rule'

In restaurants, the 10% rule also applies. It is not that common to see a service charge applied to the bill at source in Scotland. However, it is quite usual to see an option to add a gratuity if paying electronically by card (which to my mind always raises the issue of where that sort of tip is going. Just saying.) Some places have a notice explaining that tips are distributed equally amongst all staff. Naturally, these comments apply to restaurants (and even smaller cafes) where waiting staff are serving you at table.

A pub meal may also merit a tip for attentive and friendly serving staff. Sometimes at smaller cafes you find a little dish by the till by way of an opportunity to tip, if you must. At self-service cafes etc staff are not expecting to be tipped. 

Johanna says that ladies’ hairdressing is another tipping area. A gent’s haircut is another matter. I never tip the lady who cuts my hair, although we always have a good chat and compare notes about our families. But on the other hand, it isn’t one of these poncy wash-your-hair-first places. It’s more of a hair-cutting conveyor belt for us no-nonsense chaps. On the other hand again, Johanna tells me she gets a head massage. What?

Uniformed doorman, G&V Royal Mile Hotel

Uniformed doorman, G&V Royal Mile Hotel

Tipping in Scotland is fairly usual for hotel porters and concierges, depending on the level of service. In the picture left, that’s a doorman (posing with a guest) at the very nice G & V Royal Mile Hotel (formerly the Hotel Missoni) in Edinburgh. He might well deserve a tip, especially having to wear a kilt like thatI must say she looks as though she is about to put her hand into his sporran to check his tips.

Anyway, Coach drivers/guides of private touring parties are often tipped, but there is a merit element here as well.

When you don’t need to tip in Scotland

There is no expectation of tipping in Scotland of, for example, serving staff in pubs, when only drinks are being ordered at the bar. (At least, there is no expectation of a tip, though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.) Serving staff in shops are generally not tipped.

And sometimes - with the Scots at any rate - there is just a hint of pride that makes them slightly ambivalent about some of the situations where you might be tempted to tip.

What do I mean? Well, just the other day (or in October of 2016 if I don’t change the copy) I was on a Megabus that had just taken me from Glasgow to Perth. From my seat I looked out to see the bus driver assisting an elderly couple retrieve their luggage from the, uhmm, hold, boot or trunk or wherever luggage goes on Scottish buses. The driver hauled out their cases, and the old man fumbled in his wallet and produced some coins. These were waved away with a smile. No tip was accepted. So, well done the Megabus driver for being helpful and courteous. (I was kinda proud to be Scottish at that moment.)

So, don’t get anxious about tipping in Scotland – it’s not a difficult code. Nevertheless, my daughter, who worked as a waitress in her last year at school, is to this day an assiduous tipper wherever possible – she appreciated that for some serving staff in restaurants especially, it can make a difference to a weekly wage. 

And that reminds me: here's some background on the food you may encounter in Scotland:

OK, that’s all about tipping as it will affect you today as a traveller in Scotland. The rest is background. You could pour a coffee and read on.

3-Day Rail Trip to Edinburgh, Loch Ness and the Highlands from London - $532.52

All aboard the Edinburgh Express on a three-day tour from London! You'll tour Edinburgh at your own pace on this partially guided rail tour, and take a drive north to Loch Ness and the Highlands.

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What does the word 'tip' really mean?

At first, it seems straightforward, possibly from Low German tippen – a light blow; or Scandinavian tippa, meaning to tap and hence the sound of a coin against a table (or against a glass to attract a waiter’s attention). But then things start to get murky. What about the possibility that tipping first started in 17th-century London, England, in its new-fangled coffee houses? It is said it became the custom for the proprietor to place a large urn in a prominent place, labelled ‘To Insure Promptness’ – ie an upfront TIP to ensure good service.

The problem is that the acronym given with this explanation is sometimes said to be ‘To Improve Performance', with the whole thing beginning to sound like a modern ‘folk etymology’. Especially as there are other examples of short words explained (probably wrongly) by way of an acronym. Most famous perhaps is 'posh'. There are other explanations as well, including thieves' slang, Romany or even that it is related to ‘stipend’ from the Latin, or has a connection to tipple, as in drink.

A very short history of tipping in Scotland and England

Certainly, by the 18th century, tipping in Scotland and England was well established. In Boswell’s monumental ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson LLD’ (1791) he recounts the young Dr Johnson first coming to London, England, long before he became a famous lexicographer and man of letters. Johnson himself narrates how he lived at first near The Strand and used to dine with other newly-arrived acquaintances nearby at ‘The Pine-Apple’. "It used to cost the rest a shilling for they drank wine; but I had a cut of meat for sixpence, and bread for a penny, and gave the waiter a penny; so that I was quite as well served, nay, better than the rest, for they gave the waiter nothing.” Clearly, Johnson  saw a direct correlation between reward and service.

Then again, centuries back in the houses of ‘high society’ in both Scotland and England, it became the custom for guests at grand houses to give a sum of money to the host’s servants at the end of their stay. This was called ‘vails’ – etymologically linked to ‘avail’. (I admit I cannot ever recall encountering this word until I researched tipping in Scotland.) ‘Vails’ soon became expected by footmen, valets, butlers and other staff. An altruistic gesture thus became a social norm. So much so, apparently, that by 1757, the whole business of tipping in Scotland in these circumstances was under discussion by the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Science, Manufactures and Agriculture (one of the societies that flourished in the Scottish Age of Enlightenment). They proposed an essay topic: ‘What is the proper method to abolish the practice of giving vails?'

Now, I absolutely do not subscribe to the Aberdonian ‘grippy’ or mean stereotype, which I think came about by the coincident rhyming of ‘mean’ with ‘Aberdeen’ in a music hall song. However, it is recorded that at the end of 1759 the ‘freeholders and commissioners’ of the land tax for the County of Aberdeen decided to do all they could to end the practice of rewarding servants in this way and within a month the Edinburgh-based Company of Scots Hunters (who they?) had followed suit, according to the Scots Magazine account of the time.

So, the Scots attempted to stamp out one form of tipping before the end of the 18th century. Amusingly, according to “The Domestic Servant in Eighteenth-Century England” (J Jean Hecht, 1955), south of the Scottish Border, ‘prejudice caused many to oppose a reform that the Scots had been the first to introduce’. So, we did our best but things just didn’t work out....

Finally, it is thought that because of the prevalence of tipping throughout Europe before the end of the 19th century, it was introduced to the USA by wealthy travellers who wished to tip as a means of showing they were experienced voyagers who knew European ways. Up to that point, in the USA, a sense of equality and a perception of waiters or domestics as valued employees meant that tipping was not a social norm.

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