Introduction to Scotland

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Introduction to Scotland

(The likelihood is that in Scotland you will be seeing no more than Edinburgh and the Lowland and Southern Upland scenery between there and northern England.)

These days it seems as though the most desirable introduction to Scotland is to show a video of Braveheart on the coach as you drive north. It may not be 100% historically accurate (or even 50% really) but it manages to rouse the group into a sort of vigorous anti-Sassenach patriotism which sets the mood nicely for the Scottish part of your tour. Don't expect to recognise any landscapes — it was filmed in Ireland in the Wicklow Mountains. And don't be fooled into thinking that medieval fighting Scots painted their faces with woad. They gave that up a good 1,000 years before. The passports London office can lend you a copy of the video if you would like one.

There are other ways and other subjects with which you might wish to introduce Scotland. Here are some themes.


Scotland is a small country: about 30,000 square miles, the size of Maine. The population is about 5 million, of whom the vast majority live in the built-up corridor between Glasgow (the biggest city) and Edinburgh, the capital.

Until 1707, Scotland was a separate kingdom. Its national identity is still very strong. (Do not make the mistake of treating Scotland as though it were a part of England. You will please nobody.) Scotland has its own customs, cuisine, established Church, political traditions, legal system, separate dialect, and local literature. A Scottish legal education and licence is necessary to practice law in Scotland. (Among the differences: in Scotland there are three possible verdicts - guilty, not guilty or not proven; in England a defendant is either found guilty or not guilty.) The Church of Scotland is entirely distinct from the Church of England, though both are established and state supported. The Church of Scotland is the mother church of the US Presbyterian Church; the Church of England the mother church of the Episcopal Church. Scottish banks have the right to mint their own banknotes (though the currency is the same as in England and English banknotes are also used)*. Scotland has its own national anthem (Scotland the Brave) and its own national flag, the St. Andrew's Cross (diagonal white cross against a blue background). Only a tiny, and diminishing, population in the far north and some of the western isles speaks Gallic but the language still exists. In 1998 a referendum was held on the subject of devolution (the process of devolving from the Union of 1707). The majority was overwhelmingly in favour. At the time of writing (early 1999) a design and a site have been chosen for the new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Crucial details, such as the degree of autonomy from London, are still not clear - nor is the question of whether this is the 'slippery slope' to the breakup of the United Kingdom - but the process towards a formalised political recognition of Scotland's separate identity is underway.

*This issue sometimes causes unnecessary confusion among groups. English banknotes are just as useable in Scotland as in England, and vice versa. You should have no problem using a Scottish five pound note in London.

But in spite of strong nationalist sentiment, the visitor to Scotland probably won't see too much that's really different from England (at least in the big cities). Few men wear kilts or trews any more, and few Scotsmen identify with any one clan. But at local festivals, especially out in the country, the Scottish spirit re-emerges as people dance, men and boys don kilts, and the tartans (plaids) are draped over everything. The other exception is on occasions of national celebration such as Burns' Night or a football or rugby match, especially against England.

(Incidentally, because of its separateness, Scotland has many very distinct, often archaic, words and names of its own: 'wick,' Old Norse for inlet, appears in Lerwick and Hawick (pronounced 'Hoik'). 'Ness,' meaning peninsula or promontory, is used in Stromness, Loch Ness, Inverness, etc. Common household words are used in Scotland that come from the period of major French influence in the C16-17: gigot (mutton chop), ashet (serving plate) - from the French assiette. You'll find occasional use of Gaelic words - from an ancient language spoken by the early Celts. Pronunciation of Scottish place-names is an arcane law unto itself, on which these notes can throw no light.)

The Two Scotlands  Both geographically and culturally there are really two different Scotlands: the Lowlands and the Highlands. (The chances are that you will not go up as far as the Highlands on your tour, though you may get an idea of their majesty if you are taking an excursion to the Trossachs.) There is a geological fault line running northeast from halfway up Loch Lomond to Aberdeen. Above it are the Highlands; below the Lowlands. (When the geological map of Europe was being formed, Scotland emerged out of the coming together of two land masses: what are now the Highlands belonged to the Scandinavian peninsula, the Lowlands formed part of Britain and the European mainland.) There is really not much difference in height between the two areas - both southern and northern Scotland are mountainous - though the Highland Bens are certainly higher (Ben Nevis at 4,406 feet is the highest mountain in the British Isles). The difference is in the ruggedness and awesome sense of scale of the Highland landscape and the hundreds of lakes (or lochs) that dot it. The Lowlands and Southern Uplands are made up more of rolling heather-clad moorland, similar to the Cheviot Hills of Northumbria or the North Yorkshire moors.

Culturally, the Lowlands are more Anglo-Saxon; the Highlands more Celtic. Though the Gallic language has all but died out, the only places where it survives are on the northern and western edges of the Highlands and Islands.


The following is not a detailed or continuous history of Scotland. It just hopes to introduce some of the seminal peoples, names and events from Scotland's early history to the C18.

Picts and Scots  The Celts were the earliest settlers that we know much of in Scotland. They were divided into two tribes, Picts and Scots. The Picts lived in the Lowlands and were mainly farmers. The Scots lived in the Highlands and became sheep herders. The Scots in the mountains plundered the Picts in the Lowlands. The Picts in the Lowlands plundered Roman communities in England. The name "Scot" comes from an old Celtic word meaning wanderer or vagrant. The name had fearful connotations to the Romans and the 'civilised' Britons to the south. The Roman historian Tacitus described the Scots as large-boned, red-haired, and warlike. They went into battle naked, their bodies covered with blue war paint. The Romans thought them cannibals, and used to tell the joke: Scottish plunderers search the woods for an English shepherd and his flock, but when they find them, they eat the shepherd rather than the sheep. Ancient Roman humour.

Romans  The Romans called Scotland Caledonia, a name still used in marketing things Scottish. Julius Caesar didn't even try to conquer Scotland, but his ships explored the coast and brought good maps of the Scottish coast back to Rome. In his Commentaries he says that wives were shared between groups of 10 or 12 men. Who knows. Men shaved their bodies, and wore their hair long. The Romans made only two serious attempts to colonise Scotland: the Roman general Agricola got as far as the Grampian Mountains in the Highlands in the C1 AD, and left some forts behind. The Scots attacked and captured them easily. It proved impractible for the Romans to send in reinforcements over the mountains. General Antoninus (50 years later) built a mud wall between what is now Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the Scottish tribes kept breaking through. The Emperor Hadrian finally wrote off Scotland for good, and had the stone wall built, separating Scotland from the Roman province of Britannia (120 a.D.). The present line between England and Scotland is slightly north of this wall. The Picts in the Lowlands, near Britannia, learned much from the Romans in spite of the wall: fighting methods, house building, roads, and formalised social structures.

So much for the early Scots. Probably of more interest is the medieval period, characterised by constant battle with the English. The Norman kings of England, C11 and early C12, never really recognised Scotland as an independent kingdom, but neither did they actively pursue their claims upon it. It was the action of King David of Scotland that brought the English upon the Scots, beginning a conflict that lasted for centuries.

King David I of Scotland (1124-1153) invited Norman knights who had settled in England to come north and gave them land. These Norman knights brought with them the social and economic impositions of the English feudal system, and forced it on the local Scots. (One of these Normans was named Bruce - his grandson was the famous Robert the Bruce.)

King William the Lion of Scotland (1165-1189) continued the English feudal pattern: the division of land into shires and burghs, of people into magistrates, nobles, vassals, etc. Remember, up to this time, the Scots lived in a kind of tribal organisation, without formal political hierarchies. (In spite of such efforts at feudalisation the Scottish pattern continued strong in the northwest.) But William the Lion saw the Anglo-Norman patterns as merely a blueprint for good economic and social structures, not as a means of alliance. He made raiding forays south into England, on one of which he was captured. This pattern was repeated again and again by subsequent generations of Scottish kings and nobles. The Scots raided English farms, carried off their cattle and women, and the English retaliated.

King Edward I of England, known as "Hammer of the Scots," saw that anarchy in the north threatened his own kingdom. He appointed John Balliol King of Scotland. Balliol rebelled, Edward marched north and captured the Scottish Stone of Destiny or Stone of Scone in 1297, bringing it down to Westminster Abbey in London. Only in 1997 did it return to Scotland. The Stone had been used for Scottish kings to sit on during their coronations and served the same purpose for English kings.

William Wallace, one of Scotland's national heroes, led a "guerilla" war against the governors of Edward I. He defeated the English army twice. But Wallace made a typical Scottish mistake: he marched south into England. He enjoyed a great victory at Stirling Bridge, but was defeated at Falkirk (English archers vs. Scottish spearmen). Wallace fled to the hills and was captured seven years later, and was horribly executed in London. Out of this comes the famous Scottish battle cry, immortalised by Robert Burns: "Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled" (Scots who have with Wallace bled), shortened to "Scots wha hae."

After Wallace's defeat, Robert the Bruce continued the resistance movement, and proclaimed himself King of Scotland in 1306. Edward I's successor, Edward II, was a less formidable opponent than his predecessor. Bruce's famous victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 led eventually to the Treaty of Northampton and independence for Scotland. (The best known story about Robert the Bruce is that he attributed his final success to a lesson he learned when in hiding in a cave. He watched a spider weave its intricate web and realised the crucial importance of patience and perseverance.)

The glory days did not last long, however. Robert the Bruce's son David II made the usual mistake of overreaching and marching south. He was captured and Scottish independence was lost (1346). This event largely put a halt to Scottish insurgence. Even though Scotland never accepted English rule, the English over the next 200 years held a firm upper hand.

After the Bruce dynasty died out, it was followed by the Stuart line. The great name from their early history is Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, daughter of James V, was the most romantic of the Scottish rulers. She was sent as a child to France to marry the French King François II. François ssoon died, and she returned to Scotland, a widow at 19. At this time, Protestantism was gaining pace in Scotland under the imposition of pro-English nobles called "Covenanters" and thanks to the fiery preaching of John Knox. Mary, a devout Catholic, received the brunt of his wrath. Her lifestyle also came under fire. She was nicknamed the "French whore." She married her cousin, Lord Darnley, and their son became the future James VI of Scotland and (in 1603) James I of England. In 1567 she was accused of Darnley's murder. When she married her third husband only two months later, the accusations turned to outright rebellion. Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England. There it was established that she had been plotting with the King of Spain to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her on the English throne. Elizabeth had her tried, imprisoned for 20 years in Fotheringay Castle in Yorkshire, and beheaded in1587 at the age of 45. The Spanish response to this outrage was to launch the Armada against England (in vain). Out of her persistent bad luck and frequent changes of mind has come the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary, quite contrary."

The seeds of union with England were sown in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne as James I, but formal union of the two parliaments came a century later in 1707 with the Act of Union. By this time the English throne had passed out of the hands of the Scottish Stuart dynasty. In a last effort to restore the Scottish line, Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded England in 1745. He reached down south as far as Derby but was driven back to Scotland by the forces of King George until he was finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden. The story of his escape is worth telling. After the battle Bonnie Prince Charlie fled through the Highlands where he was chased unsuccessfully pursued for five months. Finally he reached the Isle of Skye where he was given shelter by a woman called Flora MacDonald. The Prince disguised himself as her maidservant and escaped on a boat to France. He died in Rome. Flora ended up emigrating to North Carolina.

The story of the nineteenth century in Scotland is much more peaceful. It is essentially one of the transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial one. The crofters or smallholders, who had always been the mainstay of the Scottish economy, were superseded in importance by the new industrialists. Glasgow mushroomed from a small city to the so-called "second city of Empire," thanks to industrial expansion and, most significantly, the shipbuilding industry (also coalmines, steelworks and canals). The classic images from the age of Scottish industrial power are the magnificent Victorian aspect of Glasgow city centre and the supremely imposing Forth Bridge just outside Edinburgh.


Clans  The word clan means children. In theory, the members of a clan were all children of a common ancestor. Also in theory, each clan occupied a distinct territory. But wars between clans altered the boundaries of these territories; some clans enlarged their territory (e.g. the Campbells in Argyll). Others, unable to hold their own, like the Comyns and MacGregors, lost almost all their lands. Although in theory, the members of a clan were all related, in fact the founder of a clan was usually an invading chieftan (often from Scandinavia) whose followers were not necessarily related to him by blood. Once established in Scotland, a clan would draw others under its protection. Later, from the C17 and C18, the clansmen would take the surname of the chief as their own, whether or not they were actually related to him. The clan chief was the leader in time of war, and the father figure in time of peace. He held the power of life or death as supreme judge, and was the holder of the clan's lands. But generally the clan system was not well defined, in the same way that tribal systems tend to lack in hierarchical structure.

After the rising of 1745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie, the British central government tried to eliminate the clan system, and forbade the wearing of clan coats-of-arms. The clan chiefs simply became landowners whose lands were worked by peasant sharecroppers. The British were largely successful in wiping out the Highland way of life in that sense. But by the C19 the clans had come into fashion again, mainly as a cultural curiosity: each clan had its own "society" (including some in the US). Today about the only evidence of the clans is at Highland gatherings, where clan clubs or societies have booths and tents full of ancient regalia. The main clans today are the Stuarts, Mackenzies, MacDonalds, MacLeods, Campbells, Sinclairs, Frazers, Gordons and Douglas.

Tartans and Clan Emblems  Each clan nowadays is identified by various badges. Each clan, for example, has its own crest and its own plant, to be worn on the bonnet together with a set of eagle feathers. The Scots pine, for instance, is the plant of the MacGregor clan. The most obvious badge, however, is the tartan. Tartan or plaid is as old as Scotland, going back at least as far as the C13. But the identification of specific plaids with clans is much more recent, and probably comes from the tendency of weavers in various districts to develop their own patterns. (E.g. Argyll weavers evolved theirs, Perth weavers developed Black Watch, weavers in Bariff, Aberdeen had theirs, etc.) Much care was taken over the basic "sett" that gave the pattern, but there was no consistency over the size of the pattern. After the rising of 1745 and the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the tartan was banned by the British central government as a symbol of Scottish rebellion. Ignoring the ban could result in exile for up to seven years. But the ban was lifted in 1782. The modern popularity of the tartans is largely due to the impetus first of Sir Walter Scott and then of Queen Victoria, who developed a fondness for all things Scottish and especially the lore of the Highlands. In fact it was Victoria who put the Highlands on the map as a popular holiday area, when she bought Balmoral Castle in 1852, and made Scottish plaid a fashionable dress design. (All Scottish speciality stores have an overwhelming collection of tartans from all over the country and are able to tell you the particular history associated with it.)

Kilts and Highland Dress  The kilt is no longer the ordinary dress of the Highlander. However, up north around Inverness you'll find some old timers still wearing it. Otherwise the wearing of traditional dress tends to be confined to occasions of national ceremony, international sports matches, weddings etc, Highland Games or to Edinburgh guides desparartely hoping for a bigger tip. The kilt in its present form is known as the philibeg, from the Gaelic feileadh beag, and is a separate garment, made like a woman's skirt with the pleats sewn and pressed in. The older kilt (used until the C18) was called the feileadh mor, and was not a separate garment but a length of cloth (15 feet long) slung over the shoulder and gathered around the waist by a belt. This garment was popularly called a plaide, Gaelic for blanket, which is where our word plaid comes from. later, the kilt became the separate skirt-like garment familiar today. The tartan trousers you sometimes see are known as trews. The other elements of traditional Scottish highland dress are the sporran (a pouch made of badger's skin), the bonnet with eagle's feathers mentioned above and the dirk or dagger. It is an eternal mystery never to be solved what the Scotsman wears underneath his kilt.

Scotch Whisky  (NB. As always when on the subject of alcohol, tread carefully. Some teachers balk at the mere thought of alcohol and do not want you corrupting their students, and even some adult groups disapprove heartily of the evil drink.)

The brew is spelled "whisky" in Scotland and "whiskey" (with an "e") only if it's made in Ireland. The name comes from the Gaelic words wisge-beatha, meaning water of life. In the Middle Ages, whisky was officially called aquavita, water of life in Latin. There are many distilleries in the Highlands and Islands, with a much greater variety of whiskies available there than are to be found down in England. Brands in England will go up to 70o proof; in Scotland you will find whiskies up to100o proof. There are three types of whisky: malts, grains and blends. Malt is the oldest type, distilled from fermented barley, and generally considered the best. It varies immensely in taste according to the peat content in the soil and the characteristics of the stream water. Grain whisky is distilled from unmalted barley and is popular because of the large quantities it can yield in a short period of time, but lacks the quality of pure malt whisky. Most brands of whisky are blends of grain and malt. Blended whiskies are made from a mixture of up to 50 different malts. The only other ingredients should be yeast and water from streams. Specifics of the manufacturing process differ slightly but in general whisky takes about three weeks to make. The barley is malted (ie. left in water to germinate); dried; mashed; fermented with the addition of yeast, and distilled. The whisky is then left, normally in oak barrels, for a period of at least three years to mature. Et voilà. (Incidentally, the word "Scotch" applies only to whisky. Otherwise the word is "Scottish.")

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties  Someone will undoubtedly ask you what haggis is made of. It is spiced sheep's intestines mixed together normally with oatmeal. In the circumstances, it tastes strangely good. It is generally served with turnips ('neeps') and potatoes ('tatties'). For the fainter-hearted there is such a thing as vegetarian haggis.

Some Scottish Writers

Robert ("Rabbie") Burns (1759-96)

Scotland's "poet laureate" and one of the greatest poets in the English language. He was born a farmer's son in the town of Alloway in the Lowland county of Ayrshire. He was a somewhat dissolute character with an extreme penchant for women and drink, a Scottish patriot and lover of liberty. He had a brilliant ear for the sounds and rhythms of the Scots dialect. As a poet he was immensely versatile, with subjects ranging from the most moving love poetry to political verses and charmingly whimsical sallies into the fields of wit and wisdom. His first volume of verses was published in Edinburgh (1786): Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It is difficult to read Burns effectively unless you are Scottish or can do a convincing Scottish accent but it is a must. Perhaps you might be able to persuade your bus driver to do a little recitation. An example:

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly spring in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune!

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Robert Burns, A red, red Rose

Among his other best known works are The Ballad of Tam O'Shanter, Auld Lang Syne, Scots wha' hae wi' Wallace bled, John Anderson my Jo, Green grow the Rashes O' and Ode to a Mouse (from which last come the immortal lines: The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley and Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie). Burns' Night is on January 25.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

He was the son of a lawyer, and well educated. He started out like Burns, translating old Scottish ballads. It was a great financial success. He then started to write long historical novels and popular romances, full of such medievalising elements as knights in shining armour, fair maidens and impregnable castles, and such romanticising elements as windswept Highland landscapes, viz. Waverley, Ivanhoe, and Kenilworth. He converted Rob Roy MacGregor in the popular imagination from a cattle rustler into a romantic hero, defender of the Highland way of life. His later work, on similar themes but somewhat rushed to pay off debts, is not in the same class. Scott was a passionate collector of all things Scottish and was instrumental in resurrecting the paraphernalia of Scottishness in the public mind. He was even more revered as a man than as a writer. His statue stands dominant over Princes' Street in Edinburgh.

Sir James Barrie (1860-1937)

The son of a weaver, he sought his fortune in London, and wrote entertaining plays that became big successes in London and New York. He was known for his love of children. His most famous play is Peter Pan, the eternal story about the boy who never grew up. He was a great benefactor of children's charities, perhaps because in spirit, he remained a child all his life.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)

He was born and brought up in Edinburgh but moved to Samoa in his forties for his health. He died there of TB. Stevenson was the author of several great children's classics like Kidnapped and Treasure Island. On a different theme, but with his same characteristic imagination, drama and fast-moving style, is probably his most famous work, and one of the best known stories of all time, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Among other famous Scottish writers are John Buchan, author of The Thirty Nine Steps, Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Some More Great Scots

Please don't just regurgitate this list. It's really only for reasons of curiosity. The names appear in random order.

Adam Smith, economnist, the "Father of Modern Capitalism" and author of Wealth of Nations. He was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Smith argued in favour of unfettered free trade, claiming that by each man pursuing his economic self-interest, an "unseen hand" of economic law would bring about prosperity for all. The doctrine is known as laissez-faire, famously encapsulated in his phrase "Private vices bring public virtues."

John Paul Jones from Dumfriesshire, father of the US Navy.

Andrew Carnegie from Dunfermline, rose from telegraph boy to superintendent of a railroad when his parents moved to Pittsburgh. He made a fortune in railroads (introduced the sleeping car), oil, and iron and steel. He was one of the founders of modern US industry, of free public libraries, and he endowed many universities and the famous Carnegie Hall in New York. He also endowed 10,000 Scottish churches with new church organs.

Allan Pinkerton from Glasgow. The first of the private eyes. He once minded Abraham Lincoln.

Captain Kidd Pirate, plunderer of West Indies trade. From Greenock in Renfrewshire. Finally arrested in Boston, Mass. and hanged in London.

John Logie Baird, pioneer of television in the 1920s. In 1941 he developed the principles of colour TV. (These ideas were put into practice by fellow-Scotsman John Charles Reith who founded the British Broadcasting Corporation and British Airways (then called B.O.A.C.).

James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Alexander Graham Bell Inventor of the telephone (1876). He was educated in Edinburgh before emigrating to Canada and then Boston.

John McAdam, inventor of modern road paving, which is called "tar macadam" or tarmac for short - an honour to his name.

John Dunlop, inventor of the pneumatic tyre, and founder of the Dunlop Tyre Co., one of the world's largest.

Charles Macintosh, inventor of the rubber raincoat or "Mackintosh" or mac. Simple but brilliant.

Joseph Lister, doctor who introduced sanitation into medical practice.

Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, Nobel Laureate 1946.

Sheena Eastonm, Scottish diva from Glasgow, once clean cut, now raunchy.

Sean Connery needs no introduction, James Bond, countless others, fervent supporter of Scottish nationalism, born in Edinburgh, lives in Marbella on the Costa del Sol.

Rod Stewart Do ya think I'm sexy?, Sailing, Maggie May, Hot Legs, etc. Ardent fan of Scottish football team.


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