When you think of Scotland, pictures of beautiful mountains, wild nature, and of the mythical Highlands that still hold the essence of the noble Scotsmen, clans and fight for independence comes to your mind. Scotland is a 78,000 km2 land, neighbour to England and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
Incarnating mystery, passion and glory with a rich history and a unique culture, Scotland still fascinates travelers from all around the world. Called Alba by the Scots and renamed Caledonia by Romans, Scotland holds the image of the strong and fierce rebel, ready to stand her land against any of her enemies.
Discovering Scotland means to discover a welcoming wilderness ; from the impressive Highlands to the surprising archipelagos of Orkney, the Hebrides or the Shetlands, it’s a country proud of its orgins. Scotland can be identified as « the Queen of Europe » with sheep, oceanic climate, her reputation to be stormy and rainy, funny cows with strange haircuts (called Highland cattle), and great historical sites, like Edinburgh or Culloden battlefield.
History of Scotland : from Roman Invasion to Brexit
Set of the famous TV show Outlander, Scotland represents freedom and wilderness. Involving Roman soldiers, Vikings, noble clansmen, monarchs and enlightneed philosophers, Scotland’s history is so rich and epic that you could almost hear the cry of fierce clansmen in the glens of the Highlands.
The first occupation of Scotland dates from the Palaeolithic era. Those occupants were nomadic hunter-gatherers, hunting for wild animals and gathering fruits, plants and berries. The very first settlement in Scotland happened around 3000 BC, in the Neolithic period.
Roman invasion led to the recording of Scotland history. They renamed the land Caledonia and considered it as a low advanced land, compared to the greatness the Mediterranean world. They tried to conquer this Northern land, building Hadrian’s Wall to defend the northern border and the Antonine Wall across Central Scotland. Unfortunately for them, they never succeeded to take control over Caledonia. In the 5th century, Roman retreated from Scotland, their enemies being too strong to be defeated.
Around 800 AD, Vikings began to migrate from Norway and Denmark, to trade and settle in Scotland. These accomplished seamen settled in the west, while the Picts and Scots forged a new kingdom to the north of River Forth : the kingdom of Alba.
As we all know, Scotland’s relationships with her closest neighbor, England, were rarely friendly. In the 13th century, the fight for independence began. When Alexander III of Scotland died, Edward I, king of England, considered himself as the new king of Scotland. His troops marched towards North, generating bloody sieges. In 1297, Scots attacked English troops at Stirling Bridge, causing their retreat. Among them was one of the strongest characters of Scotland history : William Wallace. Notorious warriors in wars for independence included Robert the Bruce, crowned king of Scotland in 1306. His troops defeated Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It led to the Declaration of Arbroath, in 1320, considering Scotland as an independent sovereign state.
In the 15th century, another great character faced England for the sovereignty of Scotland : it was Mary, the Queen of Scots, Stuart. When her father, James V died, she was six days old and became Queen of Scotland. Due to the Catholic-Protestant conflict, England feared an uprising by Catholics. Plus, Mary represented a threat for Elizabeth I, and her recognition as the one and only queen. She therefore kept Mary in captivity for 19 years, before having her executed in 1567. But to Mary Stuart, Queen Elizabeth I died childless. Subsequently, Mary’s son, James VI, who has succeeded his mother on the throne of Scotland, became James I of England.
And conflicts between Scots and English continued, even after the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707. The Jacobite cause gained more supporters but everything ended in April 1746, during the Battle of Culloden. Scottish warriors wre massacred within an hour and the Highland Clearances forced the remaining members to leave the Highlands. This clearance involved the banishment of tartans and the end of clan chiefs.
Since 20th century, Scotland fights to maintain her economy, espaically with the drilling of North Sea Oil in 1967. Scotland’s culture gained a significant power in the 90’s with movies like Braveheart and the Harry Potter saga. But even if the Declaration of Arbroath recognized Scotand as independent, this declaration was mainly symbolical. Referendums for Scotland’s independence happened in 2014. Even if the vote declared that 55% of the people of Scotland decided that the country should remain in the United Kingsom, strong riots for independence still happen nowadays. Most people do believe that with Brexit, Scotland will finally gets her long wanted independence. To be continued…
The importance of clans before Culloden
The Highland Clearances happened after Culloden. It forced the survivors of the battle to move away from the Highlands, where most important clans were located. The banishment of tartan made the identification of ancient proud Scots impossible.
Tartans were first mentionned in 1538 ; they were made of wool, colored with local plants and berries and were 16 feet long (almost 5 meter). Longer in the back and shorter in the front, the kilt was wrapped around the waist and pinned on the shoulder.
The « sporran » (a small purse), a pin and the « sgian dudh » (pronounced ski-an doo), a small dagger inside socks, are the complementary accessories of a kilt for official celebrations.
Nowadays, kilts are shorter, with brighter tartans and worn for celebrations like marriages, the Highland Games and the ceilidhs, a traditional ball.
Discover here few examples of different tartans :
Clan Armstrong Clan Fraser Clan Campbell Clan Johnstone
Clan MacTavish Clan Stuart Clan Wallace
Completing the role of tartan, scottish crest badge was also a way to identify a clan and his members. It was a proof of allegiance to a clan or a clan chief. They became more popular in the 19th century, like tartans, with the influence of Victorian romanticism.
Outlander’s fans among us are aware that the Clan Fraser of Lovat motto is JE SUIS PREST. Coming from French, it means “I am ready”. Their crest badge represents a deer head.
Another example with Clan Johnstone ; their crest badge represent a golden winged spur. Their motto is NUNQUAM NON PARATUS, meaning « Never unprepared ». And Clan Johnstone still have a chief, even though this role is only symbolical.
Tartans and crest badges were ways to create identity and unity withing a clan.
The Clans of Scotland have ancient origins in the Celtic and Norse traditions. The word « Clan » derives from the Gaelic word « clann », referring to a close-knit group of relatives. Anyone who pledged their allegiance to the chief could use the clan’s name as their own.
Geographical areas represent the ancient locations of clans : for instance, Clan Campbell ruled across much of the Highlands. Clans system still fascinates traverlers and Scotland lovers. In Irish Mythology, clans members were descendants of demigods. In reality, they were probably kings’ descendants.
A sense of identity and kinship was one the main reasons to be part of a clan. But throughtout troubled times, it was also the best way to survive. Constant battle for lands and resources was ferocious between clans. And let’s not forget Norse invasions, English attacks, Jacobite uprisings…More reasons to be part of clan rather than protecting yourself all alone. A clan was a noble incorporation. A chief controlled every aspect of the clan’s life. Men with responsibilities and influence assisted him, as members of the clan gentry. In addition to this gentry were the clan warrior elite, also called the « fine ». These warriors were strong and hungry for more land, always ready for a good fight against enemies to defend their clan.
If you had pledged allegiance to a clan chief, your life wouldn’t have changed a lot from your farmer’s life. You’d still have to tend to livestock, work in the fields and feed your family. In August, you’d have the opportunity to do some sports, as it was the period of the Highland games. And sometimes, you were sent on a “reveing” with your companions to steal livestock from neighboring clans.
Without forgetting that you could live constantly under the threat of inter-clan feuds, conflicts with the Irish-Gaels and above all, the danger that the English monarchy could represent. And we must be honest : the British threat was the most dangerous of all ; as it brought forward the fall of the Clan System.
Cultural life of Scotland
Scotland’s culture and customs remain remarkably vigorous despite her union with the United Kingdom. Alongside the thistle and Scotland’s national flag, the bagpipe has a place of choice as a symbol of Scotland, even if they have more ancient origins and can be found throughout the world. It is by the 16th century that various clans established hereditary pipers. The use of this instrument during wartime became a tradition to inflame the passions of soldiers before battle.
The popularity of the bagpipes led to the popularity of traditional music in Scotland. Even Scotland’s anthems give Highland Cathedral or Scotland the Brave gives goose bumps, as they can make the glory of Scotland hearable.
Another tradition linked to battle is dance, like The Ghillie Callum (the “Sword Dance”). Dating from the 15th century, the Sword Dance consists in crossing two swords on the ground in an « X » or a « + » shape and the dancer will dance around and within the 4 quarters of it. It could be that kind of dance soldiers would do before joining a battle. It became one of the animations of the Highland Games. Created after ancestral sports games, in the 19th century, one of the most famous activities of the Highland games is “tossing the caber” (first a tree trunk before becoming a heavy pole) and the hammer throw.
On the food side, Scotland gained an important reputation with the Haggis ; a sheep’s stomach filled with the sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs) and cooked with onions, oatmeal, suet and spices. Associated with the National Day, also known as Burn’s Night in Scotland, Haggis is a very popular dish.
Celebrated on January 25th, this evening celebrates the life and work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. But Scotland cooking has a range of various food, like Angus beef, porridge, stovies (a potato-rich stew), shortbreads, scones and toffee, without forgetting Scotland’s national drinks : whisky and IRN BRU. The term whisky derived from the Gaelic uisge-beatha, meaning “water of life.” IRN BRU is the second national drink in Scotland ; its consumption was once higher than Coca Cola’s. It’s an orange soda and has a very specific taste.
Myths and legends of Scotland
Before preparing your bag and your best hiking shoes to discover Scotland, you must be aware of all the myths and legends which built the reputation of Alba as a land of mystery.
This sea cave is located on the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Hexagonal basalt columns form the inside of the cave, as singular acoustics once you’re inside. Some give the origin of this cave’s name to the eponymous hero of an epic poem by James Macpherson. Others claim that around 250 AD, Finn MacCumhaill, also known as Fingal, was the father of Ossian, the traditional bard of the Gaels. Boosted by the Ossianic heroic songs, Fingal’s name was a natural choice to assign to this dramatic and « musical » cavern.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan
This is not a Photoshop picture ; this is reality. The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba, off the west coast of Scotland. Flows can be so strong they can drive the waters to waves of more than 30 feet (9.1m). And sometimes, flows generate whirlwinds, which gave to this strait the reputation of being non-navigable.
According to legend, Breacan, the Norse King, had to anchor by the whirpool for three days and three nights to impress the father of a local princess. To do so, he had three ropes : one made of hemp, one made of wool and one made of the maidens’ hair. The purity of the maidens’ hair would make the rope unbreakable. On the first night, the hemp rope snapped. On the second it was the wool rope and on the third night, the hair rope snapped too. The prince drowned as the boat sank.
The maiden confessed she was not as pure as she pretended to be. That was why the rope broke.
Robert The Bruce and The Spider
He played an important part in the wars of Scottish independence. Robert the Bruce is famous in Scotland and around the world because of this. Crowned King of Scotland in 1306, he tried to free Scotland from English oppression. But he fled after his defeat at Methven. Hiding in a cave in the Western Isles for three months, he was ready to give up. The legend says that at this moment, he watched a spider building a web in the entrance of the cave. The stormy Scottish weather made the spider’s task difficult, destroying its work several times. But against all odds, the spider finally succeed in finishing her web. Inspired by the spider’s efforts, Robert the Bruce was ready to face the enemy again.
The Loch Ness Monster
Did anybody else over here grow up with the legend of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster ? The legend of Nessie is one the most famous in Scotland and still nowadays, an unsolved mystery. Hiding in the Loch Ness in the Highlands, Nessie’s myth became an urban legend. Thousands of people testify that they saw a strange creature in the middle of the loch. Supposedly very tall and thin, he has the tail and the head of a snake and is also very shy. In 1934, some local farmer pretended he has succeed to take a photo of Nessie. It tuned out to be a fake one. Told you, very shy.
The mythical kelpie is a Scottish water horse who haunts Scotland’s lochs and rivers. This horse has the capacity to transform himself into human. He is associated to the Christian idea of Satan, with hooves instead of feet in his human form.
Robert Burns describes him as a lost dark grey pony with a dripping mane. The victims who will cross his path will not resist the desire to climb on his back. Therefore, the kelpie will take them down to a watery grave.
As beautiful as it looks, the Glencoe Valley is the place where the Glencoe Massacre happened on February 13th 1692. According to the legend, Clan Campbell slaughtered their hosts, members of Clan MacDonald, while they were asleep. Survivors who succeeded to escape died from the cold, alone in the wild. Subsequently, ghosts of slaughtered members of Clan MacDonald haunted the valley for more than 300 years.
Here is a link that will take you to the recording of Andre Rieu’s concert in Maastricht, in 2018, when the orchestra started to play Highland Cathedral, and when the audience started to cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAsdo0zMUyA