Scotland is a land boasting a rich heritage full of unique customs and traditions and today we share some of the best ones with you.
From the thrill of the Highland Games and the patriotic national dress, to romantic, musical and mysterious traditions, there are so many fantastic reasons to explore this beautiful country. We have rounded up some of the most notable customs and traditions that can be experienced during a stay in one of our lovely Scottish holiday cottages.
There's a huge variety of unique Scottish traditions to discover across the wide and varied country - whether travelling to the wild and breathtaking Highlands or visiting the exciting capital that is Edinburgh, read up on these unique traditions and get involved!
Read on or choose a topic to find out about below:
The Highland Games in Scotland
One of Scotland’s greatest sporting traditions is the Highland Games. Between May and September, watch this quintessentially Scottish custom across the country at over 80 different events and see competitors put their muscles to the test wearing their national dress, the Scottish kilt. From heavy contests such as the hammer throw, tug-o-war and the caber toss to hill races and haggis tossing, the games are a spectacle like no other.
Fun fact: The idea behind the haggis tossing competition comes from tales of 17th-century women tossing haggis across the river to their husbands as they worked the fields, saving themselves the time of finding a crossing point. The husbands would have to catch the cooked haggis in the front apron of their kilts so it didn’t fall to the floor and get dirty.
There is often a pipe band that marches in unison and blasts out the Scottish classics, and sometimes you will get solo piping competitions and Highland dancers giving dazzling displays including the famous Highland fling. These events are a lovely way to meet friendly locals and soak up the culture, and often there are stalls with food, drink and crafts to browse too! If you are keen to find out more about the Highland games in Scotland then take a read of our blog.
Scotland's iconic tartan kilt
Scottish kilts, known as ‘The National Dress of Scotland’, have deep cultural and historical roots and are a sacred symbol of patriotism and honour for a true Scotsman. Kilts are made of 100% wool tartan and are worn around the waist, accompanied by a sporran. This is a small leather bag hung over the front of the kilt, usually used to hold a hip flask or money. Sometimes you will find these made out of animal fur, and occasionally funky designs too! A kilt pin is worn on the right side where the kilt opens, and a sgian dubh, a small dagger, sits in the sock. There are lots of parts to the outfit, and a few variations depending on the event and also the time of day.
Originating back to the 16th century, the first kilt was a length of draped fabric that was tied around the waist, sometimes the extra fabric could be worn over the head as a hood, or as a cloak draped over the shoulder. It wasn’t until the late 17th or early 18th century that the knee-length kilt was developed and was worn throughout the Highlands and northern Lowlands.
Its design allowed those who wore it to move much more freely, essential in the Highlands of Scotland where the weather can become very damp. The tight weave of the wool created a strong barrier between the rain and skin, and could easily be removed and used as a blanket during cold nights. Its popularity soon increased once the Highland regiments of the British Army adopted the design, and over the centuries has developed to include pleats and brightly coloured tartan patterns, unique to the clan to which the wearer belongs.
During the 19th century, Scottish kilts often used family tartan and were worn as a form of ceremonial dress at occasions such as weddings, sporting events and the Highland Games. Nowadays, the kilt is recognised the world over and is worn by many for both formal and informal occasions. If you would like to learn more about the fascinating history of tartan and kilt-making, there are a wealth of museums worth visiting:
There is much to the history of the kilt and tartan cloth - if you want to know more, have a read of our full guide to Scottish tartan.
The bagpipes and Scottish music
No visit to Scotland is complete without hearing the iconic sound of traditional Scottish music, and of course, Scotland’s national instrument, the bagpipe. Although this wind instrument has its origins in the Middle East, it has travelled and evolved in Europe, and the Scottish people have long since made the Great Highland Bagpipe an outstanding part of their culture by keeping the pipes alive as part of their musical tradition.
The bagpipes consist of a bag that is usually made of animal skin - usually sheep. This is then filled with air by the player and pressed by the arm to push air through three pipes that rise out of the top of the instrument. This creates the very unique sound of the pipes, one that is instantly recognisable as the Scottish pipes. There is a fourth pipe, holding nine holes for chord and pitch changes, and the unique, constant sound that is created stirs exhilarating emotions and can be heard from far away. The pipes can be played solo as well as in pipe bands which you will find across regional areas in Scotland as well as military pipe bands.
If you’re keen to find out more about the interesting history of the bagpipes, there are many museums and castles around Scotland which hold fascinating collections to explore such as the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. You can also attend the World Bagpipe Championships which are held annually in Glasgow in August.
Experience Christmas and Hogmanay in Scotland
Christmas in Scotland
Spending Christmas in Scotland can be a magical affair, especially if you are lucky enough to stay in Scotland while it's snowing. Our Christmas cottages are located throughout Scotland and whether you are staying by the coast, in the hills, or by a loch, they offer the perfect base for all sorts of winter explorations. If you stay near Edinburgh or Glasgow you can nip into their city centre Christmas markets to try some ice skating, hot waffles and German sausages. They also have lots of arts and crafts stands where you can pick up some of your festive shopping. Throughout the small towns and villages, you will come across Christmas lights strung up and town centre Christmas trees. In some towns, you will get Christmas Eve celebrations where locals gather to sing carols or meet Santa! Wherever you are in Scotland, there will be some Christmas music playing and merry spirit around!
Hogmanay in Scotland
Hogmanay is an important part of the Scottish calendar, occurring as part of the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Although many of the old Hogmanay traditions have now disappeared, some of the unique customs have been carried through the generations and remain part of the celebrations today.
The main custom of Hogmanay is partying with friends and family as soon as the clock strikes midnight; bells are rung and the drinks come out. Many towns and villages have street parties where everyone gets together and fireworks are set off in celebration. Immediately after midnight, it is traditional for everyone to stand in a circle, cross their arms and hold hands with people on either side singing Robert Burns ‘Auld Lang Syne'.
Quite often a quaich of whisky is passed around and everyone will take a sip and toast to a happy new year. The quaich is Scotland's cup of friendship and has been used through the centuries to offer a welcoming drink at clan gatherings and some people still use them today. Everyone is in good spirits, bringing in the New Year on a happy note. If you are really lucky you will get to experience a Scottish Ceilidh where a fiddle band will play the likes of 'The Dashing White Sergeant' and 'The Duke of Perth' and you will dance in merriment for hours on end!
Here are some more old age New Year related Scottish traditions...
First footing: After midnight, to ensure good luck for a household, the ‘first foot’ over the threshold should be a dark male, taking with him symbolic gifts such as coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a wee dram of whisky. These gifts mean the household will be safe, warm, and have enough food for the year. This custom is taken very seriously and blondes and redheads are considered bad luck.
Redding the house: Redding the house is carried out on New Year’s Eve, essentially the equivalent of a spring clean, readying the house for the New Year. This tradition began in the days when every household had open fires and so the fireplaces, in particular, had to be cleaned and cleared of ashes, ready for new ones to be started. It was considered bad luck to go into the New Year with a dirty house.
Burning the Clavie: The Clavie is a half-barrel filled with wood shavings and tar, nailed onto a carrying post with, importantly, the same huge nail each year. This barrel is then lit and carried on the shoulders of a local through the village, a prized position handed down through the family, followed by a large crowd stopping at the houses of residents to present them with a smouldering ember from the barrel to bring the household good luck for the year ahead.
On the 11th January every year the ancient Scottish custom of Burning the Clavie takes place in Burghead, a small fishing village on the Moray Firth. Dating back to the 1750s, the Hogmanay festival takes place on this date as this was when the Julian calendar changed over to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The procession travels on towards Doorie Hill, the headland upon which stands the ruin of an altar. Here, it joins a bonfire built up of split casks and as the burning barrel falls to pieces, the villagers collect the fallen glowing bits to kindle the New Year’s fire on their cottage hearths and bring them luck. Whilst the rest of the UK rioted and demanded back their 11 days, the town of Burghead decided to celebrate New Year’s on both the 1st and the 11th of January, getting the best of both worlds!
Hogmanay is a fantastic time of year to visit Scotland and join in with the locals during a wonderful tradition. Find out where and how to celebrate right with our guide to Hogmanay in Scotland.
The Kirkwall Ba’
Every Christmas and New Year’s Day at 1pm, a mass football game is played out in the streets of the town of Kirkwall. The game is rather chaotic and brutal, played with a cork-stuffed leather ball known as the ba’.
Originally, the men and boys of Kirkwall were split into two rival teams, the 'Uppies' and the 'Doonies'; the team they fell into was dependent on their place of birth, so those born to the north of the cathedral were 'Doonies', with the 'Uppies' being born to the south.
These days, family loyalty is the deciding factor, with players taking the sides of their father and great-grandfathers, regardless of where they now live. The entire town of Kirkwall effectively becomes the pitch, and the aim is for either the 'Uppies' to touch the ba’ against a wall in the south end of town or the 'Doonies' to get the ba’ into the water of Kirkwall Bay, to the north.
Then, when the goal is finally reached, the ba’ becomes the coveted trophy and is awarded to a player who has been a notable participant over the years.
Celebrating the great poet Robert Burns on Burns Night
The annual celebration of Burns Night on the 25th January honours the life and works of the Scottish bard Robert Burns, the author of many famous Scots poems. A Burns supper is held on the anniversary of his birth every year, a Scottish tradition that dates back to 1801.
Whether a formal or informal evening, everyone enjoys a hearty feast which consists of haggis, neeps and tatties, rounded off with drams of whisky as some of Burns’ poems and songs are recited and tributes made, usually after the haggis has been piped in by the bagpipes.
At the end of the evening, everyone joins hands and sings Burns' most popular work, Auld Lang Syne, which is also traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve when the clock strikes midnight. Quite often burns night is tied in with a ceilidh too.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Set against the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a unique and memorable celebration of music, dance and military pageantry. With its roots dating back to 1950, it has become a showcase of military talent of the British forces and their counterparts from around the world, attracting audiences of about 220,000 at the event and around 100 million on television.
It is one of the most iconic events on the festival calendar with highlights including the mesmerising sounds of military pipes and drums playing the inspiring battle tunes of Scotland’s famed regiments, highland dancers giving breathtaking displays, and daredevil stunts of accomplished motorcyclists. Expect fireworks!
Tickets for this one-of-a-kind event sell out fast so be sure to get organised well in advance.
Eloping to Gretna Green
Thanks to its romantic wedding traditions, the Scottish village of Gretna Green is one of the most popular wedding destinations in the world, and one of the best places for couples to visit in Scotland. The tradition of eloping to Gretna Green dates back to 1754 when Lord Hardwicke’s marriage act meant that the marriage age remained at 18 in England and Wales but did not apply to Scotland. Couples began racing to the romantic village of Gretna Green, which was the first easily reachable village over the Scottish border, where it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 with or without parental consent.
Scottish law allowed for ‘irregular marriages’ meaning that almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony, providing there were two witnesses present. At the Blacksmith’s Shop in the village, the blacksmith took up the role of ‘Blacksmith Priest’ and for nearly 200 years couples were married over the now-famous Marriage Anvil.
The blacksmith would bring down his hammer upon the anvil, the tool of his trade, to seal the marriage and the sound, heard throughout the village, would signify the couple had been joined in marriage. This anvil is now the iconic symbol of romance and legend has it that good fortune in the affairs of the heart will be had by touching it.
You can visit the famous Gretna Green Blacksmith’s Shop during a holiday in Scotland and see the actual room where couples past and present get married!
The mysterious Loch Ness monster
The legend of the Loch Ness monster has been bringing people to the dark expanse of Loch Ness in the Highlands for centuries. With over 1,000 eye witness accounts dating back to AD 565, and a wealth of unexplained evidence, the famous mystery of Nessie lives on to this day. This enormous creature is said to have a long, thin body, with one or more humps protruding from the water, and a snake-like head. She is shy though, so you need to be quick to snap a picture before she swiftly disappears into the depths of the loch.
There are various boat cruises available so if you are visiting one of our holiday homes in Scotland, be sure to honour the tradition of visiting Loch Ness and see if you are lucky enough to snap a Nessie selfie. If Nessie grabs your interest make sure you read our guide to the most popular myths and legends throughout the UK - can you guess who is number one?
We have a vast collection of cottages in Scotland, perfect for anyone hoping to get involved or see these fascinating traditions and customs in action in Scotland. Take a look and be inspired!
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.