The Travelettes Culture Guide on Scotland
6 months ago, I got ready for one of the biggest steps in my life: moving to Glasgow, Scotland for at least one year to work on my master’s degree and hopefully launch a successful career as a freelance journalist. I wanted to study in an Anglophone country, but take it slowly and not move to far away from my family (and my possessions stored away on attics in both, Berlin and Vienna). The UK and Scotland in particular seemed just right: only a short flight away from home, life in a vibrant city, affordable tuition fees at a top university, the great outdoors right at the doorstep, and no prospect of a devastating culture shock. Being separated from continental Europe only by the North Sea, I thought nothing could go wrong – at least I’m still in Europe. But far out! On arrival I realized that Scotland is just as different as another continent. With a huge smile on my face I started discovering the quirky curiosities of this place.
First, a couple of weird facts about the UK in general:
The Brits generally don’t consider themselves European. This label is reserved for anybody from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden etc. – you get the point: only the continental ‘mainlanders’. Hence, although I dress myself in the same clothes and speak the language fluently, I am ‘different’ – almost from another planet.
As we all know, cars drive on the wrong – sorry, left side of the road. In my confusion I got almost run over by a bus on my first day – I wished they had these helpful road markings from London and Edinburgh all over Glasgow.
Don’t use the work pants, unless you actually talk about your underwear. Although American vocabulary is generally understood, it is also generally smiled at. So get your British English straight, dispense with the fake English accent and repeat: trousers. The same counts for these unmasking words: plaster (band-aid), autumn (fall), petrol (gas), or rubbish (trash).
And now on to Scotland-specific curiosities:
You’re Speaking My Language – Or Are You?
15 years of English classes and frequent travelling won’t get you far. The Scottish accents knocks everything you thought you knew about English on the head. On landing in Glasgow I was already confronted with the worst type of all: the cascading taxi drivers. Making out single words here and there, I used the smile-and-nod technique to give my travel-weary brain a rest.
Scots use all kinds of words you have never heard before: aye means yes, wee means little, and dram means drink. And if you are up for a wee laughter about the Scottish I highly recommend this sketch on voice recognition technology from a BBC Scotland sketch show.
In addition to Scottish English there are two other languages spoken: Scots, in the lowlands and along the East coast, is a Germanic language variety, while Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language native to the Highlands and northern islands.
When to Go
A friend of mine, who used to live in Aberdeen, warned me: “In Scotland it is either April or December.” Unfortunately, this is true. Scotland, especially the west coast, is incredibly rainy and windy. The weather is so unpredictable, that you often see sunshine, rain, fog and snow on the same day – sometimes even at the same time. After a while though, you start ignoring drizzling rain, and everyday without heavy rain is considered ‘a good day’. Scottish summer starts with the first sunny days in early spring, when the natives take out the shorts and leave their coats at home. You wouldn’t believe how quicky a sunny day in the highlands make you forget the rainy day before.
The best travel time to Scotland depends on your planned activities. The dryest months of the year are April, May and June, which are also the best months for fun in the highlands. The shoulder season shines with endless days in June, perfect conditions in the mountains and midge-free air. July and August are generally warmer, but also a little wetter and the high season for midges in many areas. These months are better for a city break in Glasgow and Edinburgh, especially during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Winter is not Scotland’s sunny side (pun intended) – however the snow-covered Highlands sport a significant charm to ice-climbers and winter-mountaineers!
With a count of over 7 million, there are more sheep than people in this country. But although understanding sheep should not be underestimated, especially when driving along tertiary roads and hiking the highlands, understanding the people is of even higher importance. Luckily, the Scottish are one of the nicest people I have ever encountered, which stands at stark contrast with the stereotypical image of the rough Highlander, and especially the former industrial city of Glasgow.
Just as the British are no Europeans, the Scottish are no Brits, more specifically no English. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, and shares its transnational governance with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the Scottish spirit is highly independent. In September 2014 the Scottish people will vote on political independence in the Scotland Referendum.
Like the language, the Scottish culture is full of peculiar idiosyncrasies:
- The Scottish know how to party. But their flagship is not a specifically vibrant club scene full of underground venues, but a traditional dance with bagpipe music usually held in local community halls: the CEILIDH. As a newcomer it could easily intimidate you: standard group dances, men in kilts and loads of ale. However, the ale will help you loosen up, the bandleader explains every individual dance and kilts can actually be quite sexy – it just depends on who is wearing them!
- Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration, is the highlight of the year. Crazy enough throughout the country, it is topped by the festivities in Edinburgh: masses of happy people, colourful fireworks and special events wherever you turn your glass!
- The official animal of Scotland is not the sheep or the Highland Cow, but the Unicorn. It doesn’t get better than that!
The Scottish Menu
The British cuisine doesn’t have the best of reputations. Traditional dishes are hearty and nourishing, contain plenty of meat and potatoes and are rarely served with salad. Modern Scottish cuisine however is on the forerun: high-quality local produce, rich flavours and culinary twists are on the daily menu. And yet, there are certain traditions that you simply have to try once you are here:
- Deep-Fried Mars Bars: As strange as it sounds, this is a surprisingly delicious late night snack. Actually you can get anything deep-fried, even pizza! It is called “pizza crunch”.
- Fish & Chips: This British classic tastes best in seaside towns like Oban or Edinburgh’s Leith. Every reasonable village has a local chip shops (also called chippy).
- Haggis and Black Pudding: I hope you are no vegetarians, as these two traditional dishes are pure meat delight. Don’t worry about asking about the exact ingredients though – knowledge could blur the experience. Many places also offer vegetarian Haggis!
- Neeps and Tatties: What sounds like number 1 insults, is actually Scottish for mashed turnips and potatoes, traditionally served with Haggis. As healthy as it gets.
At the Watering Hole
Whisky and beer are Scotland’s national beverages. There are uncountable Scottish breweries and distilleries, manufacturing some of the finest ales and single malt whiskies. If you are in Glasgow try the variety of beer at the West brewery, which is my personal favourite. The Scottish Whisky Association and guided tours at the distilleries provide more information on whisky guidelines, tastings and categories.
Drinking alcohol in public is legal some places, but not in Glasgow, where even a can of beer enjoyed with your picnic in the park can cost you a £40 fine. To avoid this penalty, you are better off with Scotland’s inofficial national non-alcoholic beverage: Irn Bru. This bright orange carbonated soft-drink contains loads of caffeine and tastes a little bit like sugared coughing syrup. It is however, pride product of Scotland and is the number 1 selling soft drink, setting back even Coca Cola and Pepsi! Scots love it!
Come, See and Do
In Scotland it is all about landscape and nature, less about city breaks or urban getaways. Although Edinburgh and Glasgow offer urban charm, travellers are drawn by the rough highlands, beautiful islands and picturesque lochs/lakes. The Isle of Skye, Loch Ness and Inverness, Glen Coe and the Cairngorms are some of the natural highlights. Distances seem quite short on the map, Scotland is hardly bigger than Austria. If you drive around yourself however, you will soon notice, that there are several obstacles slowing you down. Motorways are limited to Central Scotland and main roads connecting the coast often narrow and windy, for example the A82 along Loch Lomond connecting Glasgow with Oban, Glen Coe and Fort Williams. The more scenic routes lead along even smaller single-track roads, for example the Old Military Road to Glenelg, from where mainland Scotland is connected to the Isle of Skye with the cutest little ferry I have ever seen. These detours take time, so don’t plan too much for your Scotland road trip!
Opportunities for outdoor sports are ubiquitous in the Highlands and around: mountain biking, kayaking & canoeing, surfing, o, ice-climbing, hill walking, skiing – you name it! Some of the best places to combine all these activities are Glen Coe, the Cairngorms National Park or the Ullapool area.
If you still can’t do without a city break, Glasgow and Edinburgh are both ideal spots for urban adventures. While the former used to be the industrial centre of the north and is now an up-and-coming city-toddler, the latter is the picturesque flagship of urban Scotland. A day spent in Edinburgh alone, can feel as refreshing as a week’s holiday. In both cities you can find some of the best vintage stores, get around easily by foot and indulge in bohemian areas like Leith (Edinburgh) or Finnieston (Glasgow).
You see, if you travel to Scotland it doesn’t hurt to brace yourself for a wee culture shock. Curiosities and peculiarities are plentiful in the rugged country up north, but so are exciting adventures and heartwarming encounters! And if this list makes you think Scotland is the place where you belong, you can find out how Scottish you are right here. A’ll be reit back!
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, unless otherwise stated.