Traveling to Scotland should include getting a sense of her people. A sense of their hopes, fun, fears, wishes, history and culture. Below are some places and events that we think will give you an essence of Scotland’s wild and elegant character:
Scottish Storytelling Center:
This is an Edinburgh theater that has many forms of entertainment. But, the insiders ask about the local storytellers. Storytellers hold regular meetings in the Waverly Bar on the last Friday of every month. Anyone can jump in and enjoy the stupendous tall tales. This is some grand, local color.
Edinburgh is wild about Festivals. Between July and September, Edinburgh plays host to many, but the largest is The Edinburgh International Festival in August. The Royal Mile becomes a colorful open-air theater where Fringe performers take over. You’ll be awash in drama, juggling, classical music, comedy, magicians, jazz, piping, folk music, and a boatload of activities. You can, theoretically, spend three weeks in Edinburgh during the Festival, be royally entertained, and not spend one dime on your entertainment. This could just as easily be called, Entertainment, Inc., and it’s all for the taking.
The Barras in Glasgow:
Call it what you will, this is an incredible flea market of the very old, to the very new, to the oddly curious. Not all items being sold are entirely legal, but the experience certainly is. It is riotously alive, brimming with color, and fascinating. As in all such places, hold tight to your wallet, and be ready for some great bargains and interesting characters.
Stones of Stenness:
West of Kirkwall is the parish town of Stenness. (Between Lochs Stenness and Harray are the Stones of Stenness.) They are amazing. Originally a circle of twelve rock slabs, now four remain intact. The tallest is a real monster at 16 feet, but it’s remarkable because, despite the fact that it’s amazingly thin, it stands straight up. And, imagine this: Broken tabletops lie within the circle surrounded by a faltering henge—a circular bank of earth—with several ways to the entrance path. Less than a mile to the north is the awesome Watch Stone. It stands beside the road at 178 feet high. Soon, you’ll come upon another stone circle, the Ring of Brodgha, a much wider circle on high ground. Here there were once 60 stones, 27 of which remain. Something Magic this Way Came!
Scotland has Gone to the Birds:
On Orkney and Ahsetland, literally millions of migrant and local birds can be scoped out and admired. Some species are only seen in few other parts of the region, including the great skuas and storm petrels. Over 120 species of seabirds regularly breed here, and over 340 different species have been recorded passing through Scotland’s largest island. Cliffs provide security at nesting times for huge colonies of gannets, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and razorbills. Let yourself go and play among the puffins.
From the time of the infamous Highland Clearances in the 18th century, Scots have emigrated to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the US and elsewhere in search of a better life. There are millions of foreign nationals who trace their heritage back to Scotland, and that may include you. Uncovering family history is a popular, and very good, reason to visit Scotland. You can hire a Professional Genealogist, but if you’re interested in checking it out yourself, try the General Register Office for Scotland. They have records of births, deaths, and marriages dating from the 1500s. There’s also the Scottish Genealogy Society and the National Archives of Scotland, all in Edinburgh. The LDS Church has detailed records, and they welcome use for everyone, if you care to check out your lineage before you hit the shores of Scotland.
A Taste of Scotland:
Scottish food is filled with the natural flavor of each particular area of the country, Highlands or Lowlands. Served with few sauces or spices, the meat is lean and tasty. Ready for the best beef of your life? It does not get any better than Aberdeen Angus. The lamb is also full-flavored with less fat than you’re used to, and venison is superb. Local Scottish salmon and trout are world-renowned. There are also incomparable mussels, lobster and crabs. Wheat doesn’t grow in Scotland, so oatcakes and Bannocks (flat, round loaves) replace bread, unless it’s imported. The Scots love sweets in almost any form: Cakes, shortbread, toffee and butterscotch. And then there is Haggis, the national bane and blessing. It’s a round sausage of sheep or venison ofal, the “chieftain o’ the pudding race,” as Robert Burns described it. Be brave, give it a try! It’s picking up in popularity and becoming a retro staple at high-end, classy restaurants.
The Highlands of Scotland are famous for the games and their music. The first Games took place many hundreds of years ago, and may have served a military purpose by allowing clan chiefs to choose the strongest men through contests of strength. Highland Games are held annually at Braemar, as at Oban, and Dunoon, among other places. The most common gatherings have displays of tossing the caber, weight shifting, piping, singing, dancing and throwing the hammer. The result is a cacophony of sound and activity. Highland dances often have symbolic meanings. For instance, the circle (if a reel) represents the circle of life. In the sword dance, feet skip merrily over swords without touching them. This means no harm in battle.
The Picts and Fairies:
The Picts were a confederation of Celtic tribes living in what was later to become eastern and northern Scotland. They lived there before the Roman conquest of Britain up until the 10th century. Then, they merged with the Gaels. Pictland, also known as Pictavia, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Very little Pictish writing has survived, but Pictish history and society since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources. (The Latin word Picti first occurred in AD 297 and means “painted or tattooed people”) While you’re driving, check out Clach an Tiompain. It is a Class 1 Pictish symbol stone in Strathpeffer. A Pictish symbol stone found at the Broch of Burrian shows it is posssible that some Scottish fairly lore may be based upon the memories of Picts and those who came before them.
Bagpipes have been the traditional sound of the Highlands since Roman times, and are part of the meaning of Scotland. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, they were banned for 11 years, along with Highland dress. It was said they inspired the Highlanders to rebel against English rule. Music has power! The Piping Center, in Glasgow, is in a refurbished church. It offers tuition at all levels, and houses the National Museum of Piping, which traces the development of the instrument. The World Pipe Band Championships are in Glasgow in mid-August with some Highland Events.