A Scot Is Not a Scotch — Scotch is a whisky and not the name of the proud people who inhabit the country. They're called Scots, and the adjective is Scottish. Don't worry—if you forget and call them Scotch, they'll forgive you. What they won't forgive is your calling them English.


In Scotland's earliest history, its prevailing language was Gaelic, along with a smattering of Norse dialects. When English was introduced and Scottish English developed, it borrowed heavily not only from Gaelic but also from Scandinavian, Dutch, and French. In the 15th and 16th centuries, when Scotland had close ties to France, French was a literary language of precision and grace, and it was the language of Mary Queen of Scots, who spoke no Gaelic at all. After the Scottish court moved to England in 1603, Scottish English was looked on as a rather awkward dialect.

As the centuries progressed, the ancient and complex Gaelic diminished in importance, partly because the British government's deliberate policy was to make English the language of all Britain. By the 1980s, less than 2% of the Scottish population understood Gaelic. Most of those who still speak it live in the northwestern Highlands or in the Hebridean Islands—especially the Isle of Skye, where about 60% of the population still use Gaelic.

Scottish English never developed the linguistic class divisions that exist so strongly in England among upper-, middle-, and lower-class speech patterns. Throughout most of its English-speaking history, the hardships of Scotland were suffered in common by a society that had few barriers between the classes. Social snobbery was relatively unknown and the laird (estate owner) and his man conversed as equals.

At the end of the 20th century, the great leveling effects of TV and radio had begun to even out some of the more pronounced burrs and lilts of the Scottish tongue. However, the dialect and speech patterns of the Scots are still rich and evocative. Today, after years of struggle, Scottish students are rewarded with approval by pro-Scots educators when they say, "Whos all comin tae the jiggin?" ("Who's coming to the dance?"). This increasing pride in the Scottish language is in direct contrast to what happened in classrooms back in, say, the 1950s. At that time, students were under a constant threat of a whack from a tawse (leather strap) if they blurted out a single aye.

How the Scots Say It

aber -- river mouth

ach -- field

aird -- promontory

alt -- stream

auch -- field

auld -- old

baillie -- magistrate

bal -- hamlet or tiny village

ben -- peak, often rugged

birk -- birch tree

brae -- hillside, especially along a river

brig -- bridge

broch -- circular stone tower

burn -- stream

cairn -- heap of stones piled up as memorial or landmark

ceilidh -- Scottish hoedown with singing, music, and tall tales

clach -- stone

clachan -- hamlet

close -- narrow passage leading from the street to a court or tenement

craig -- rock

creel -- basket

croft -- small farm worked by a tenant, often with hereditary rights

cromlech, dolmen -- prehistoric tomb or monument consisting of a large flat stone laid across upright stones

dram -- 1/8 fluid ounce

drum -- ridge

dun -- fortress, often in a lake, for refuge in times of trouble

eas -- waterfall

eilean -- island

factor -- manager of an estate

fell -- hill

firth -- arm of the sea reaching inland

gait -- street (in proper names)

gil -- ravine

glen -- a small valley

haugh -- water meadow

how -- burial mound

howff -- small, cozy room or meeting place

inver -- mouth of a river

kil, kin, kirk -- church

kyle -- narrows of ancient or unknown origin

land -- house built on a piece of ground considered as property

larig -- mountain pass

links -- dunes

loch -- lake

machair -- sand dune, sometimes covered with sea grass

mon -- hill

muir -- moor

mull -- cape or promontory

ness -- headland

neuk -- nose

pend -- vaulted passage

provost -- mayor

reek -- smoke

ross -- cape

schist -- highly compact crystalline rock formation

strath -- broad valley

tarbert -- isthmus

tolbooth -- old town hall (often with prison)

uig -- sheltered bay

uisge -- water

uisge beatha -- water of life, whisky

way -- bay

wynd -- alley

Highland Games & Gatherings

Highland Gatherings or Games have their origins in the fairs organized by the tribes or clans for the exchange of goods. At these gatherings, there were often trials of strength among the men, and the strongest were selected for the chief's army.

The earliest games were held more than 1,000 years ago. The same tradition continues today: throwing hammers, putting rounded stones found in the rivers, tossing tree trunks, and running in flat races and up steep hillsides. Playing the bagpipes and performing dances have always been part of the gatherings. The Heavies, a breed of gigantic men, draw the most attention with their prowess. Of all the events, the most popular and most spectacular is the tossing of the caber (the throwing of a great tree trunk).

Queen Victoria, who had a deep love for Scotland (which was dramatized in the film Mrs. Brown), popularized the Highland Games, which for many decades had been suppressed after the failure of the 1745 rebellion. In 1848, the queen and her consort, Prince Albert, attended the Braemar Gathering and saw Duncan, her ghillie, win the race up the hill of Craig Choinnich, as she recorded in her journal. (Ghillie originally meant a male attendant or Scottish Highland chief, though today it's used to refer to a hunting or fishing guide; incidentally, Duncan was reputedly the queen's lover.)

The most famous gathering nowadays is at Braemar, held in late August or early September and patronized by the royal family. When that chief of chiefs takes the salute, Queen Elizabeth is fulfilling a role assumed by a predecessor of hers in the 11th century.

Other major games are held at Ballater (Grampian), Aberdeen, Elgin, and Newtonmore.

Clans, Tartans & Kilts

To the outsider, Scotland's deepest traditions appear to be based on the clan system of old with all the familiar paraphernalia of tartans and bagpipes. However, this is a romantic memory, and in any case, a good part of the Scots—the 75% of the population who live in the central Lowlands, for example—have little or no connection with the clansmen of earlier times.

The clan tradition dates from the tribal units of the country's earliest Celtic history. Power was organized around a series of chieftains who exacted loyalties from the inhabitants of a particular region in exchange for protection against exterior invasions. The position of chieftain wasn't hereditary, and land was owned by the clan, not by the chieftain. Clan members had both rights and duties. Rigidly militaristic and paternalistic -- the stuff with which Scottish legend is imbued -- the clan tradition is still emphasized today, albeit in a much friendlier fashion than when claymores and crossbows threatened a bloody death or dismemberment for alleged slights on a clan's honor.

Chieftains were absolute potentates, with life and death power over members and interlopers, although they were usually viewed as patriarchs actively engaged in the perpetuation of the clan's bloodlines, traditions, and honor. The entourage of a chieftain always included bodyguards, musicians (harpers and pipers), a spokesman (known as a tatler), and -- perhaps most important to latter-day students of clan traditions—a bard. The bard's role was to sing, to exalt the role of the clan and its heroes, to keep a genealogical record of births and deaths, and to compose or recite epic poems relating to the clan's history.

Most of the clans were organized during two distinctly different eras of Scottish history. One of the country's oldest and largest is Clan Donald, whose original organization occurred during the Christianization of Scotland, and whose headquarters has traditionally been Scotland's northwestern coast and western islands. The fragmentation of Clan Donald into subdivisions (which include the Sleat, the Dunyveg, the Clanranald, and the Keppoch clans) happened after the violent battles of succession over control of the clan in the 1400s. These feuds so weakened the once-powerful unity of the MacDonalds that a new crop of former vassal tribes in northwestern Scotland declared their independence and established new clans of their own. These included the Mackintoshes, the Macleans, the MacNeils, the Mackinnons, and the MacLeods.

Meanwhile, the giant Celtic earldoms of eastern Scotland disintegrated and Norman influences from the south became more dominant. Clans whose earliest makeup might have been heavily influenced by Norman bloodlines include Clan Frasier (from the French des fraises, because of the strawberry leaves on the family's coat of arms), de Umfraville, and Rose. Other clans adapted their Celtic names, such as Clan Robertson (Celtic Clan Donnachaidh) and Clan Campbell (Celtic Diarmid).

Simultaneously, in the Borders between England and Scotland, families and clans with differing sets of traditions and symbols held a precarious power over one of Britain's most heavily contested regions, enduring or instigating raids on their territories from both north and south. But despite the rich traditions of the Lowland and Border clans, it's the traditions of the Highland clans (with their costumes, bagpipes, speech patterns, and grandly tragic struggles) that have captured the imagination of the world.

The clans had broken down long before Sir Walter Scott wrote his romantic novels about them and long before Queen Victoria made Scotland socially fashionable. The clans today represent a cultural rather than a political power. The best place to see the remnants of their tradition in action is at any traditional Highland gathering, although battalions of bagpipers seem to show up at everything from weddings and funerals to political rallies, parades, and civic events throughout Scotland.

Garb o' the Gods -- A memorable photograph from the handover of Hong Kong may spare the First Battalion of the Black Watch from having to answer the question most frequently put to men in kilts. As the flags were being lowered at the Cenotaph, a rush of wind lifted the tartan fabrics from the backside of Lance Cpl. Lee Wotherspoon and revealed nothing at all but his backside. He received a lot of mail and an admiring review from a gay publication in France.

-- Warren Hoge, New York Times (1998)

Although not every visitor to Scotland is descended from a clan, almost all are familiar with plaids and the traditions associated with them. Over the centuries, each clan developed a distinctive pattern to be worn by its members, presumably to better identify its soldiers in the heat of battle. (Today, tartan is used interchangeably with plaid, but the word tartan originally referred specifically to a mantle of cloth draped over the back and shoulders.)

Kilts enjoy an ancient history. Checkered tartans were first mentioned in a 1471 English inventory. The clans developed special dyeing and weaving techniques, with colors and patterns reflecting their flair and imagination. The craft of dyeing was raised to an art that was a point of pride for the clan: Alder bark, steeped in hot water, produces a black dye; gorse, broom, and knapweed produce shades of green; cup moss produces purple; dandelion leaves produce magenta; bracken and heather produce yellow; white lichens produce red; and indigo had to be imported for blue.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie launched his rebellion in 1745, he used tartans as a symbol of his army, and this threatened the English enemy so much that public display of tartans was banned for a period after his defeat. Tartans came into high fashion in Queen Victoria's day, when she and her kilt-wearing German consort, Albert, made all things Scottish popular.

Today, there are at least 300 tartans, each subtly distinct from the others, and all are available for sale in Scotland's shops and markets. If you're not fortunate enough to be of Scottish extraction, don't worry: Queen Victoria long ago authorized two Lowland designs as suitable garb for Sassenachs (the English and, more remotely, the Americans).

Few people realize that from 6.3 to 9m (21-30 ft.) of tartan wool cloth goes into the average kilt. Even fewer non-Scots know what's actually worn beneath those folds strapped over the muscular thighs of a parading Scotsman. For a Highlander, the answer to that question is nothing, an answer that goes along with such defenders of ancient tradition who hold that only a Stewart can wear a Stewart tartan, only a Scotsman looks good in a kilt, and only a foreigner would stoop to wearing anything under it.

Alas, commercialism has reared its head with the introduction of undershorts to match the material making up bagpipe players' kilts. A story is told of a colonel who heard a rumor that the soldiers of his elite Highland Light Infantry regiment were mollycoddling themselves with undershorts. The next day, his eyebrows bristling, he ordered the entire regiment to undress in front of him. To his horror, half a dozen of his soldiers had disgraced the regiment by putting on what only an Englishman would wear. He publicly ordered the offending garments removed, and when he gave the order the next day to drop your kilts, not a soldier in the regiment had on the trews (close-cut tartan shorts).

Even in today's general decline of standards, the mark of a man in the Highlands is still whether he can abide the drafts up his thighs and the feel of wool cloth against his tender flesh.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.