Old Traditions Are Alive and Well in Scotland

Old Traditions Are Alive and Well in Scotland
Bagpipers provide the soundtrack for the Highland Games near Inverness, Scotland. (Victor Block)

Ask anyone what they think of when they think of Scotland, and they'll probably say bagpipes, kilts, and clan tartans. And if the year were 1746, you would be hearing the same thing. But it was in that year, when the English decimated the Scots at the Battle of Culloden, that they set about to systematically rid the country and its people of their identity and traditions.

It didn’t work, which makes it all the more remarkable that the customs and rituals that define the Scottish people today are the same as they were centuries ago—and it was my mission to explore them all: kilts, bagpipes, whisky, and the Gaelic language.

It was on a trip to the Scottish Highlands with UNTOURS, a company with its own unique traditions, that I got to revel in all of it. The people at UNTOURS put you up in unusual accommodations in multiple cities in more than a dozen European countries—perhaps a castle, a vineyard, or a delightful old church such as the one where we stayed. They provide a car, inundate you with information, connect you with a local contact to answer questions, and set you off to see what you want to see when you want to see it, unencumbered by anyone else’s set schedule or preferences.

We were spending our “live like a local” week in our own apartment, part of an 1837 church in a former life, near our home base of Inverness, and it did indeed feel like home. A street sign on the corner with arrows pointing to a museum, the bus station, and a market, as well as one sign that read “Castle and Toilet,” warranted a double take. Not to mention all of the neighborhood signs on which the Gaelic translation appeared below the English words. Dead language? Not close. Very hard to understand, though. But then again, so is the language that they speak, which they claim is English.

If there were a singular symbol for Scotland, it might be tartan. You see it everywhere, from hotel interiors and tabletop items to cookie tins and everyday clothing. And then there are planes at the airport sporting bright tartan colors. There are also the Highland Games. A throwback to ancient Scotland, this is a unifying rite of passage for any Scot. Amid the vast ocean of tartan, bagpipes, and clans sits a cultural event steeped in skill, tradition, and community going back more than 1,000 years.

The sound of distinctive bagpipes emanating from competing bands never leaves your ears. Every pipe band sports its own tartan, so the multitudes of plaids create a fashion visual that’s hard to forget. And I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “bonny,” “aye,” and “laddie.” To say the Highland Games are a feast for the senses is a wee understatement.

Although some of the games such as track and cycling may be recognizable, the chanter, caber-tossing, hammer-throw, and tug-of-war are not. Men throwing heavy sticks, balls, hammers—and probably their arms—out! The Highland dancers, aged 6 to 60, with their colorful costumes, intricate steps, toe-tapping music, and enthusiasm galore enchant whatever the age.

Young dancers perform at the Highland Games near Inverness, Scotland. (Victor Block)
Young dancers perform at the Highland Games near Inverness, Scotland. (Victor Block)

So the kilts, bagpipes, and Highland Games all attest to Scottish heritage. That still leaves whisky.

Scottish single malts—celebrated locally as whisky (not whiskey)—are known all over the world for their richness, smoothness, and cost. With a history dating back as far as the 11th century, Scottish whisky is an important part of the country’s identity, with most of the 140-plus distilleries in the Highlands. Being a more pedestrian imbiber of alcohol, I wasn’t the ideal candidate for a whisky distillery tour and tasting. But I soldiered on.

At the Glen Ord Distillery, serving up its single malts for almost two centuries, I sampled a flight of their three brands of whisky—three very different flavors, or so I was told, but I was useless as a taster. They all tasted the same to me. I’m not proud. Then I added three drops of water to each dram to “separate the flavors.” And yes, I noticed they were more potent—but still tasted the same. I slinked out of the distillery.

A visit to the Highland House of Fraser reinforced the uniqueness that is Scotland because there—for a mere $750—you can have your own personalized kilt made. And should you not have your own family tartan, you can choose from 750 different plaids from other clans. And you can even watch a kiltmaker weave your threads while, of course, listening to some bagpipe music.

And lest you think that the kilt is itself a throwback to history, not so. They’re often worn at celebratory gatherings that range from birthday parties to weddings to funerals—and sometimes just because. And as our local UNTOURS rep told us, he takes his kilt and bagpipes with him wherever he goes. Apparently, both wrap up well for traveling, which conveys how much a part of everyday living the old traditions are today.

Kilts are worn in everyday situations all over Scotland. (Victor Block)
Kilts are worn in everyday situations all over Scotland. (Victor Block)
Despite England’s efforts to destroy the language, the clothing, the traditions, and the lifestyle of the Scottish people, they all remain alive and well today. And UNTOURS encourages its own traditions. We picked up a roasted chicken and a bottle of wine before heading back to our cozy apartment to think about what other historic-modern Scottish traditions we would next explore.

When You Go

For more information: UnTours.com/scottish-highlands
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2022 CREATORS.COM
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