Scottish traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Scotland?

A brief overview of the customs and traditions of Scotland, a British country.

Food and economy

Food in daily life

The diet includes prepared foods and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables. Meals such as minced meat and tats (ground meat and boiled or mashed potatoes) and homemade curries are common, along with takeout options.

The Scots are heavy consumers of sugar, chocolate, salt and butter, but have recently started eating less meat and more fish, wholemeal bread and vegetables.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Whiskey often serves as a symbolic marker of special occasions. Christmas dinners often include turkey, with haggis being the centerpiece of the Burn Dinner. There is also a strong baking tradition exemplified by the food in the tea rooms, consisting of fudges and scones.


Etiquette rules are situational, affected by status, class, and familiarity. An initial reservation towards strangers is likely to increase if one of the parties has a higher status. However, kindness and verbal courtesy are expected in everyday life. Light and humorous jokes, often about soccer, facilitate these interactions.

The notion that the Scots are friendlier and more open than the English is common. Similarly, many believe that people are friendlier in Glasgow than in Edinburgh. Two somewhat ritualized signs of courtesy are the offering of tea, coffee and sweets to accommodate visitors and taking turns buying rounds of drinks in a pub.


Religious beliefs

The Church of Scotland has around 770,217 members, and around 774,550 people are members of the Catholic Church. Episcopalians have about thirty-five thousand communicants, with a similar number distributed among smaller Protestant denominations, including many strict sabbaticals in the highlands, islands, and fishing ports of the northeast coast. There are between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand Muslims; a handful of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists; and four Jewish congregations.

Although main church attendance is in decline, Scotland bears the imprint of its Protestant history. Today’s followers range from scriptural fundamentalists to liberals who view the Bible interpretively.

In addition to the Protestant distaste for symbolic elaboration and emphasis on the individual’s personal relationship with God, a strong sense of guilt and righteousness pervades Presbyterian discourses.

Traditional supernatural beliefs (ghosts, fairies, etc.) endure as literary themes and in revived forms in New Age celiac beliefs. Belief in the gift of second sight persists among some Highlanders.

Religious practitioners

Leading members of the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches regularly make public statements in the media on social issues and government policies. In recent years, this has involved critical rejection of some aspects of neoliberalism and support for decentralization.

Rituals and Holy Places

Easter and Christmas are the main ceremonial occasions. Medieval pilgrimage sites are mainly visited by tourists and antique dealers. The Scottish landscape, with ancient religious structures, from stone circles to ruined abbeys, is often said to have a sacred quality.

The Isle of Iona, the base of the first St Columban missions in Scotland in the 5th century, is home to the Community of Iona, an ecumenical religious retreat founded in the 1930s.

Death and the afterlife

Funeral practices typically involve a simple blessing and remembrance ceremony by family and friends in a chapel or funeral home, leading up to burial or cremation.

Until recently, women did not go to the grave, and in some parts of the Western Highlands and Islands the post-burial milieu can still become a widespread alcoholic ritual. Catholic ceremonies may be preceded by a traditional wake.

Secular celebrations

Christmas was hardly observed in the Lowlands after the Reformation, but is generally observed as a relatively secularized holiday. New Year’s Eve, called Hogmanay, has long been the main mid-winter celebration. The main cities promote events similar to fairs and public meetings for the new year.

Typically, some entertained guests at home, while others did so “at sight.” The first steps take a bottle of whiskey and maybe some food and, if it’s traditional, a piece of coal or something black.

Celtic seasonal rituals fused with medieval saints’ days survive in modern secularized celebrations. Traditionally, Halloween (October 31) involved boys “dressed up,” or dressed up and entertained for treats, up to mischief, and young girls performing divinations to find out about their future husbands.

Beltane’s May Day celebration, with hilltop bonfires, has seen a revival. Many cities have fairs and gala weeks, especially during the summer. The Annual Highland Gatherings have a similar civic function, as do the Common Gatherings of the Border Towns, in which a procession on horseback ‘passes’ the boundaries of the medieval burgh.

Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30), named after the national patron saint, is not ritually marked, but events of national importance are often timed on that day. Perhaps the most symbolic holiday is Burns Day (January 25), named after the “national” poet Robert Burns.

Around a ritual “peasant” meal of haggis (a mixture of oatmeal, offal and condiments boiled inside a sheep’s stomach lining), turnips and potatoes, accompanied by whiskey, the event includes a series of speeches and readings from the opus of Burns.

This ceremony plays into Burns’s raunchy celebration of the common folk and his penchant for deflating sanctimonious people and those of high descent. Traditionally male-dominated and chauvanistic issues, gender participation is now more egalitarian, and one can even find feminist readings of Burns’s radicalism.

Arts and Humanities

Arts support

The Scottish Arts Council receives advice from specialist committees on the funding of theatres, art galleries, musical and literary organisations, arts centers and major festivals. Almost half of the budget goes to support the four national companies: Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, Royal National Orchestra and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Local authorities and economic development agencies have become important contributors. In the popular arts, self-financing and entrance fees are important.


The passion for the spoken word has grown out of linguistic diversity and the tradition of public prayer and dispute over biblical issues. The ability to tell a good story or joke is greatly appreciated.

There is a rich poetry and prose traditions in Gaelic, Scots and Scottish English. Gaelic literature is derived from bardic verse celebrating heroes and political leaders. The development of Gaelic communities in major cities, particularly Glasgow, around 1870-1914 stimulated a new linguistic and literary consciousness.

Scottish literature oscillates between romantic flourishes and scathing commentary, often suggesting a preoccupation with dialectical tensions: reason-passion, reality-fantasy, natural-supernatural, solemnity-satire. There was a remarkable revival after World War I, spearheaded by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

Many 20th-century prose writers wrote about Scottish places and themes. Recent works like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting combine gritty reality and wild imagination with Scottish idiom and caustic visions of a deindustrialized world.

Graphic arts

Scottish painting has struggled to establish a distinctive identity. The Scottish has been a matter of theme rather than style. Since 1900, French Impressionism and post-1960s conceptual approaches have been influential. The absence of a major Scottish art market has tended to keep fine art semi-professional.

Stylized animals and bas-relief objects on stones of pictorial symbols mixed with the curvilinear designs of Celtic Christianity of the first millennium AD French and Flemish influences appear in medieval church sculpture. In the 19th century, neoclassical styles dominated. Only with the rise of modernism has the long connection between architecture and ornamental sculpture been broken, allowing freer and more experimental modes to develop.

On a more popular and functional level, jewelry and textiles sustain artistic traditions that often allude to Pictish and Celtic design themes. Major art schools provide support, particularly in the field of textiles.

Performing arts

The national ballet, the opera, the orchestras and the Edinburgh festival guarantee the maintenance of a high artistic tradition. Traditional music and dance have had a revival, sustained by dedicated groups and associations, large national competitive events, and a tradition of informal music making in pubs, along with the new popularity of the Ceilidh, a public dance event. traditional stage sets for playing violins.

There is an active folk scene, and a strong popular music scene. Since the 1970s there has been a flourishing of new theaters and companies performing new plays in Scots and translations of plays into that language.

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