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By Amy Guertin Licensed Counselor
The Kingdom of Scotland was formed in the 9th century, so the country's traditions have developed over 1200 years. Like most cultures, many of the traditions in Scotland's culture revolve around its extensive history. Food and music play a big part of traditional celebrations, which tend to focus on holidays and festivals.
Scotland has some holidays that are unique to the country, as well as some that are shared with the rest of the world.
Guy Fawkes Night
Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is celebrated on November 5. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up Parliament in the 1600's using gunpowder. He was caught and executed by burning. Every year, before Halloween, Scots make an effigy of Guy Fawkes using clothing stuffed with straw and a pumpkin head. After Halloween, they wheel the scarecrow around the neighborhood calling, "A penny for the Guy," attempting to collect pennies to buy fireworks. On November 5, the effigy is burned over a large bonfire, followed by a fireworks show.
Halloween is similar to Halloween in other parts of world. On October 31, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door, trying to get candy. In Scotland, this is called 'guising' (from the word 'disguising'), whereas in the U.S. it's called trick-or-treating.
St. Andrew's Day
St. Andrew's Day Parade
St. Andrew's Day, the national day of Scotland, is celebrated on November 30. Saint Andrew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ. This holiday is celebrated with traditional Scottish food, music, and dancing. St. Andrew's Day is the start of the winter season, which also includes the holidays of Christmas, Boxing Day, Hogmanay and Burns Night.
Hogmanay means New Year's Eve and is more important to some Scottish people than even Christmas. As having a dirty house at midnight on Hogmanay is considered bad luck, it is common to spend the day cleaning. At midnight, people stand in a circle, cross their arms, hold hands with the people next to them and sing Auld Lang Syne, an original Scottish song. Another Hogmanay tradition is called first-footing. The first person through the door at midnight should be male, with dark hair, bearing a gift of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun or whisky. This is said to ensure that the household will be safe, warm and have enough food for the winter. Some families go first-footing until the wee hours of the morning.
Reciting Robert Burns with Haggis
Burns Supper is a holiday which tributes famous Scottish poet Rabbie (Robert) Burns and is held on January 25, the anniversary of his 1759 death. One of his most famous poems, The Address to the Haggis, has become central to the celebration of Burns Supper. The ritual consists of reading Burns' work and eating a meal that includes, of course, haggis.
Valentine's Day, which is February 14, is similar to Valentine's Day celebrations in other parts of the world. Interesting to note, however, is that the remains of St. Valentine are believed to rest in Glasgow.
Mother's Day - or Mothering Sunday - is on the fourth Sunday of Lent, or three weeks before Easter Sunday. Mother's Day is believed to have begun in a time when children were forced to apprentice and work away from their families. Masters would give children one weekend off in order to return home and visit with their families. Although held at a different time than in other countries, Mother's Day celebrations in Scotland are similar to those in other countries around the world.
Easter Sunday, being a Christian holiday, is similar to Easter Sunday celebrations worldwide. One tradition to note is that Easter dinner in Scotland almost always consists of lamb.
Traditional Food and Drink
There are a number of traditional Scottish foods:
Haggis is made of the minced lungs, heart, and liver of a sheep, encased in the stomach along with beef or lamb, onions, and spices.
Shortbread is a cross between a cracker and cookie made from flour, sugar, and butter.
Scones, similar in appearance to American biscuits, but more of a pastry, can be sweet or savory, depending on the ingredients.
Cullen skink is a fish soup made from smoked haddock.
Scotch broth is a soup made with lamb and vegetables.
A forfar birdie, considered a pie, is a pastry that is filled with finely ground beef and onions.
A scotch pie is a pastry filled with minced beef or pie, bread crumbs, and gravy.
Lorne sausage is sausage made with beef, breadcrumbs and spices and served with any meal.
Christmas pudding is similar to a dense cake with nuts, fruit, spices such as cinnamon, and brandy or rum. When served, brandy is poured over it and then lit.
A black bun, used primarily in the Hogmanay ceremony, is a fruitcake made of raisins, currants, and almonds, encased on the top and bottom in pastry. It is square in shape and can be sliced into thick pieces.
A clootie dumpling is another type of fruitcake. It is made by wrapping the mixture into a cloth (also called a clootie) and boiling it in water.
Scotch eggs are hard boiled eggs rolled in flour, breadcrumbs, and sausage meat and then deep-fried.
As NPR points out, "It's no surprise that whisky is the national drink of Scotland." Scotch whisky has been distilled in Scotland for centuries. According to The Scotch Whisky Experience, the word whisky originates "the Gaelic 'uisge beatha', or 'usquebaugh', meaning 'water of life'" and the beverage can be traced back to a 1494 official reference, though some think it was developed way before that.
Toasting with Scotch whisky remains a popular tradition in the country. In Scotland, it is the duty of the host to get the gathering off in the "proper spirit" with a toast - a great place to show off one's brogue.
Non-Alcoholic Irn Bru
Not every traditional drink has to have a centuries' old centurly or contain alcohol. Irn Bru is a bright orange carbonated soft drink that has higher sales than both Coke and Pepsi in Scotland. According to Derek Heron, a native and resident of Scotland, "Irn Bru is regarded as Scotland's other national drink." It is described as tasting sweet like bubble gum with a tingly feeling like popping candy. It has a hint of vanilla/citrus flavor and a slightly metallic aftertaste. Some even claim that it's a hangover cure.
Traditional Scottish attire, including kilts and tartans, can be worn for formal occasions or everyday wear. The more formal the reason for wearing a kilt, the more accessories and the more formal the jacket is that are worn with it. Kilts worn for everyday use are generally worn with fewer accessories and can be worn with any type of shirt.
Men tend to be the ones to wear kilts, although women do wear kilts now, too. Traditional women's kilts tend to be more like calf-length tartan skirts and were traditionally only worn as part of a uniform or by a member of a pipe band. Modern style, however, shows women's kilts more similar to men's kilts in lengths from mini-skirts to ankle-length.
There are plenty of festivals in Scotland, where you can experience the country's rich culutre and traditions for yourself.
T in the Park: According to Heron, T in the Park is the biggest and best annual music festival in Scotland." T in the Park is a three-day summer music festival that attracts over 80,000 people per day and over 70,000 campers. This festival provides music, dancing, comedy, cabaret, and provides opportunities for unsigned artists to play.
Dancing at the Royal National Mod
Royal National Mod: "Also check out the Mod," advises Heron, which is how locals refer to the Royal National Mod. 'Mod' means gathering and The Mod is an annual festival that takes place in October. Organized by the Royal National Mod, the Mod festival focuses on teaching, learning, and use of the Gaelic language and the study of Gaelic literature, history, music and art. The festival consists of recitation of Gaelic literary material, the singing of Gaelic songs, and playing Gaelic songs on Gaelic-designed instruments. Gaelic dancing is also popular at the festival.
Edinburgh International Festival: One of the most significant celebrations of arts in the world, The Edinburgh International Festival has been running for over fifty years. The Fringe, a part of the Edinburgh International Festival, is an open-access festival for all types of performers, ensuring that there is something for everyone. The Fringe alone sells over 1.25 million tickets a year.
The Hogmanay Festival: The Hogmanay Festival is a New Year's Eve street party with music, dancing, and drinking.
Highland Games in Inverness, Scotland
Scottish Highland Games: Competitive sporting events held throughout the year, the Scottish Highland Games are designed to celebrate Scotland's Scottish and Celtic heritage. Along with heavy events, which are tests of brute strength, the Games involve music, dancing, and representative from the different family clans in Scotland.
Hebridean Celtic Festival: The Hebridean Celtic Festival is a four-day celebration of Celtic performers in northern Scotland.
Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival: A ten-day summer festival, the Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival is the largest jazz festival in the U.K.
Edinburgh Harp Festival: although featuring harp music, the Edinburgh Harp Festival has a little something for everyone.
Edinburgh International Science Festival: Growing bigger every year, the Edinburgh International Science Festival delights both inquisitive children and adults alike.
Glasgow Jazz Festival: Held for nine days in June, the Glasgow Jazz Festival has a large international following of musicians and jazz lovers.
Past conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic churches has left such an impact that Scottish schools are still segregated by religion. Politics are generally segregated by religion.
The majority of Scotland that practices religion practices some form of Christianity. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes study, twenty percent of Scots report belonging to the Church of Scotland, the largest protestant church, 12 percent report being Catholic, and 12 percent report being some other form of Christianity. However, 54 percent of Scottish residents claim no religion.
Other religions are also represented, especially the Jewish religion. With the number of immigrants entering Scotland, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are also present. There are also a number of atheists and non-practicing Christians in Scotland.
Traditions of History
Scotland's culture and traditions are deep-rooted and war-ridden. The land that is now Scotland was originally inhabited by a people known as the Picti. Scotland has a long history of battle, including fighting the Romans, the Vikings, and the Norwegians. Scotland was also raided and settled by the Gaels (also called Scoti) in the fifth century and taken over by the English in the 12th century. In 1707, the Acts of Union united Scotland, England, and Wales as Great Britain. With such a rich history, it is easy to see why so many of Scotland's traditions run deep.
Welsh Culture & Traditions
Y Nadolig (Christmas)
As in many other European countries, Christmas and its attendant celebrations came to be the best-loved time of the year in Wales, and there are many traditions connected with it, some religious and some entirely secular. For example, this was the time of the year when a plough was brought into the house and placed under the dining table to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, when work was suspended on the farms. The plough share was ceremoniously wetted with beer to show that even if it wasn't being used for a short while, its services were not forgotten and should be rewarded. Much of the rest of the day was spent in feasting and merry making, but it was also a time for rough and tumble games of football, or squirrel and rabbit hunting.
As in most of the rest of the British Isles, the day after Christmas Day was always most significant in the day-to-day events of Wales. Some activities that took place on this day seem peculiarly Welsh, including that of "holly-beating" or "holming." In this, it was customary for young men and boys to slash the unprotected arms of female domestic servants with holly branches until they bled. In some areas it was the legs that were beaten. In others, it was the custom for the last person to get out of bed in the morning to be beaten with sprigs of holly and made to carry out all the commands of his family. On many farms, horses and other animals were bled in a custom that was thought to be good for the animals' health, even increasing their stamina! Luckily for the livestock, and for the young women of the neighborhood who earned their keep as domestics, not to mention those who stayed in bed of a morning, these customs died out before the end of the 19th century (though there are many, I'm sure, who would welcome their return).
The activities of the Christmas season came to a climax at the New Year. It has been suggested that the detaching of one's self from the events of the immediate past and at the beginning of a new future gave the celebration special significance.
One custom associated with the end of the Christmas season, formerly carried out in all parts of Wales but only surviving the vicissitudes of the centuries in a few villages in Glamorganshire, is that of the Mari Lwyd. This consists of a horse's skull with false ears and eyes attached, along with reins and bells, covered with a white sheet and decorated with colored strips of cloth or bright ribbons and carried around on a pole. The horse's jaw is operated to open and close usually by a young, agile man, disguised under the sheet, who carries the Mari Lwyd from door to door accompanied by his companions, Sergeant, Merryman, Punch and Judy, and various others, all dressed in motley and faces blackened. At the house doors, verses are recited by the team as they beg for admittance. Those inside the house reply, also in verse, refusing entry until the visitors inevitably win the impromptu contest (they usually have prepared a whole list of impromptu verses well in advance). Once inside the house, the Mari chases the young ladies, one person plays the fiddle, Judy pretends to sweep the hearth, Punch engages in all kinds of mischief and so on until it is time for food and drink (the wassail) to be offered to end the nonsense. After feasting, the party goes on to the next house and the verse contest begins anew, continuing in this manner throughout the day. Good news concerning this ancient custom is that it is being revived in many areas where it had formerly died out, especially by students at the University of Wales, whose merry making in the streets of Aberystwyth is carried on entirely through the medium of the Welsh language.
At the New Year, the following Welsh customs were also observed, many of them until quite recently.
The most popular New Year's custom was one that was carried out in all parts of Wales: the Calennig (small gift). Very early on the morning of January 1st, groups of young boys would visit all the houses in the village carrying an evergreen twig and a cup of cold water drawn from the local well. The boys would then use the twigs to sprinkle the faces of everyone they met. In return, they would receive the Calennig, usually in the form of copper coins. Even the doorways of some houses (when the occupants were still asleep or away) were sprinkled, and all the while a short verse was sung or chanted that celebrated the letting in of the New Year. The custom continued from dawn until noon, (after which it was considered very unlucky indeed), and in certain areas the boy carried apples or oranges into which sprigs of holly or corn were inserted. These offerings later became very fancy, with raisins, hazel nuts, or colored ribbons all helping to decorate the fruit. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War II, at least the chanting of a small verse or two in exchange for small coins.
Twelfth Night (the evening of Jan. 5th)
Twelfth Night was celebrated as the end of Christmastide. The decorations, including holly and mistletoe, were taken down, the burned out Yule Log was removed from the fireplace, and its ashes stored temporarily. These were then buried along with the seeds planted in the ensuing spring to ensure a good harvest.
Each of the twelve days after Christmas was considered, in the countryside at least, to represent the corresponding months of the year, and the weather on these days was carefully observed and noted as a guide as to what could be expected for the rest of the year.
On January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany was an important celebration in Wales. In Glamorganshire, a huge loaf or cake was prepared, which was then divided up into three parts to represent Christ, the Virgin Mary and the three Wise Men. A large company of neighbors was invited to be present at the dividing of the cake in which rings were concealed. Whoever discovered a ring in his piece of cake (or bread) was elected as King or Queen or Misrule and presided over the day's festivities. January 6th, of course, was the date of the old-calendar Christmas Day, and many of the festivities connected with it lasted well over a century after the new calendar was introduced in 1752.
To wassail means to be "whole, healthy", and both Christmas and New Year were marked by wassailing, which included both drinking and singing. The custom seems to have begun as a way of wishing the farmer successful harvests from his fields and the increase of his livestock during the coming year. The wassail bowl itself, which had twelve handles, was filled with cakes, baked apples and sugar into which was poured warm beer and spices. The bowl was then passed around hand to hand in the circle of friends and neighbors gathered round the blazing fire until the beer was consumed. The remaining food was then shared out and eaten. On Twelfth Night, the wassail bowl was taken to the house of newlyweds or to a family which had recently come to live in the district, songs were sung outside the house door. Those inside the house would recited or sing special verses, to be answered by the revelers outside.
Another Welsh custom associated with Twelfth Night. A group of young men would go out into the countryside to capture a wren (the smallest bird in the British Isles). The bird would then be placed in a small, decorated cage or bier and carried around from house to house and shown in exchange for money or gifts of food and drink (if a wren could not be found then a poor unfortunate sparrow would have to undergo the ritual).
It was the last day upon which feasting, drinking and merriment could take place before the solemnities and fasting of Lent began. On this day, the last supplies of butter and fat were made into pancakes (crempog). Naturally, plenty of eggs were used as well, and woe betide the unfortunate hen that failed to lay before noon. It was a custom in the country districts to "thrash the hen," the poor creature being taken out to the village green or large pasture and buried in a hole in the ground with only her head sticking out. Blindfolded youths would then try to hit the hen with a stick. If anyone succeeded, the hen would become his property, to be killed on the following day and cooked and eaten with the proper ceremony.
Will you give us a pancake please,
With a large lump of yellow butter
To let us swallow it with ease.
If you are a kind woman,
Put a lump of treacle on it.
If you are a nasty woman,
Only put a lump of butter on it,
Some for the cat, and a bit for the dog.
And a pancake in the frying pan.
In yet another part of the same county, in Northwest Wales, the following verse was sung:
Please give me a pancake.
If you have no butter in the house,
Then may I have a large spoon of treacle.
My Mam is too poor to buy flour,
And my Dad is too lazy to go to work.
Y Crochon Crewys (The Lenten Crock)
Food always played a big part in country traditions. In Carmarthenshire, a crochon crewys was "secretly" placed on the window sill of a farm house or village house under cover of darkness, and a verse was recited. The crochon was usually a scooped-out turnip of other large vegetable. It was filled with crusts of bread, with salt, leeks and other vegetables added as available. The verse, translated from the Welsh, went as follows, but varied in different localities.
Lenten crock in the window sill.
Bread, salt, leek, broth.
If I am not back before Easter Monday
Then a fine of 100 pounds.
At that point in the proceedings the kitchen door would open, and the singers (usually a gang of young boys) would run away. In one was caught, he would be brought back to the house and there he would have to clean and polish all the best boots. When he had finished this task, he would be given a reward of pancakes.
Sul y Blodau (Sunday of the Flowers)
Palm Sunday is known in the Welsh-speaking districts of Wales as Sul y Blodau, for on this day it is the custom to decorate the graves in the churchyards with beautiful and fanciful flower arrangements as a preparation for Easter, the festival of the Resurrection. After the darkness and drabness of winter, as well as the solemnity of Lent, it was also the time to put on new clothes. Graves are often cleaned, weeded, and whitewashed before being decked with garlands of such plants as rosemary, rue, crocuses, daffodils and primroses in fanciful displays and patterns. Sul y Blodau is also the name given to a well-known Welsh lullaby, based on a poem by "Eifion Wyn" in which the death of a younger brother, Goronwy Wyn, is lamented by his mother.
Y Groglith (Good Friday)
Various customs are associated with Good Friday in Wales. Some of the more well documented ones come from the town of Tenby, in Southwest Wales. Here, business of every kind was totally suspended on this day, with no horse or cart (and very few people) to be seen on the streets at any hour. People also walked barefoot to church, so as not to "disturb the earth" the sacred burial ground of Christ. On the same day, also in Tenby, the custom was long held of "making Christ's bed." A quantity of long reeds was gathered from the river bank and woven by young people into the shape of a human figure. The woven "Christ" was then laid on a wooden cross and left in a quiet part of a field or pasture to rest in peace.
Hills and mountains have played a great part in the observance of Welsh customs throughout the centuries and the festivities on Easter Day are no exception. In many parts of the country, the celebrations for this most joyful of days begins before sunrise with a procession to the top of the nearby mountain. Crowds of people climb up to the highest point in the area to watch the sun "dance" as it rises through the clouds in honor of the resurrection of Christ. In Llangollen, in the Vale of Clwyd, villagers used to greet the arrival of the sun's rays on the top of Dinas Bran (a location famous for its inclusion in many medieval Welsh folk tales) by dancing three somersaults. Nowadays, a pilgrimage to the top of the mountain is sufficient celebration.In other areas, a basin of water was taken to the top of the nearest hill to catch the reflection of the sun "dancing" on the horizon. Another favorite spot in Northeast Wales for this Easter festivity is still the summit of Moel Fammau, in the Clwydian hills.
The giving of hand-made wooden love-spoons to one's sweetheart (or intended lover) seems to be a peculiarly Welsh custom, though the custom of presenting various wooden articles as gifts was widespread in many countries of Europe from the end of the 17th century. In Wales, the wooden articles took the form of intricately decorated spoons, given by the suitor as a prelude to courtship and a token of his interest. Like the making of the rush candles on Pilnos, the carving of love spoons from a single piece of wood became a special pastime enjoyed by the peasantry in the long, idle winter months. As in many other customs, the eating of food seems to have a lot to do with the choice of a spoon as a gift. The practice of using a particular utensil to eat led perhaps to the spoon's being chosen, first for its utilitarian use, but then as a symbol of a desire to help one's lover. No longer to be used for eating, the spoons were given long handles and could be hung on the wall as reminders or as decorations. Elaborate patterns and intricate designs began to proliferate, and Welsh love spoons began to appear in every conceivable size and shape, and in different kinds of wood. Many produced today are made by a number of craftsmen anxious to show off their skills and imagination. Some of the designs can be interpreted as follows: two bowls sprouting from one handle signifies "we two are united;" keys or keyholes mean "my house is also yours;" an anchor signifies that the donor has found "a place to stay and settle down" and so on. Many spoons are carved with a swivel or chain attachment with the number of links showing the number of children desired. Naturally, many spoons were given as Valentines, and have the heart or entwined hearts motif; some have initials of the lovers. Some were made as puzzle spoons, with captive spheres or balls being carved in the handles. The finest display of love-spoons is now on permanent display, along with their history and areas of manufacture, at the Welsh Folk Museum, St. Ffagan.
Expectant mothers in many parts of Wales had to be very careful what they did before the baby was born. For example, if she stepped over a grave, it was believed that the baby would die soon after birth or would be still-born. If she dipped her hands into dirty water, the child would grow up having coarse hands. If the child was born under a new moon, it would grow up to be eloquent in speech. If born at night, it would be able to see visions, ghosts and phantom funerals. During the christening ceremony, if the baby held up its head, it would live to be very old. If, however, it allowed its head to fall back or to rest on the arm of the person holding it, the child would die an early death. At some christening ceremonies, specially designed drinking glasses were used to consume prodigious amounts of liquor in toasts to the newly baptized infant. (to be fair, it has to be remembered that it is only in this century that most of the water supplies in Wales have become fit to drink, and beer was always not only considered a safe drink, but was also thought to confer strength).
Traditions and customs of Northern Ireland
Much of the Irish calendar still today reflects the old pagan customs, with later Christian traditions also having significant influence. Christmas in Ireland has several local traditions, some in no way connected with Christianity. On 26 December (St. Stephen's Day), there is a custom of "Wrenboys" who call door to door with an arrangement of assorted material (which changes in different localities) to represent a dead wren "caught in the furze", as their rhyme goes.
The national holiday in the Republic of Ireland is Saint Patrick's Day, 17 March and is marked by parades and festivals in cities and towns across the island of Ireland, and by the Irish diaspora around the world. The festival is in remembrance to Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Pious legend credits Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, and legend also credits Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a 3-leaved clover, using it to highlight the Christian belief of 'three divine persons in the one God'.
In Northern Ireland the The Twelfth of July, which commemorates William III's victory at the Battle of the Boyne is a public holiday. The holiday is celebrated by Irish Protestants the vast majority of whom live in Northern Ireland and is notable for the numerous parades organized by the Orange Order which take place throughout Northern Ireland. These parades are colourful affairs with Orange Banners and sashes on display and include music in the form of traditional songs such as The Sash and Derry's Walls performed by a mixture of Pipe, Flute, Accordion, and Brass marching bands.
Brigid's Day (1 February, known as Imbolc or Candlemas) also does not have its origins in Christianity, being instead another religious observance superimposed at the beginning of spring. The Brigid's cross made from rushes on this day represents a pre-Christian solar wheel.
Other pre-Christian festivals, whose names survive as Irish month names, are Bealtaine (May), Lúnasa (August) and Samhain (November). The last is still widely observed as Halloween which is celebrated all over the world, including in the United States followed by All Saints' Day, another Christian holiday associated with a traditional one. Important church holidays include Easter, and various Marian observances.