Scotland offers a huge range of cultural and heritage-themed events as well as a packed sporting calendar. Many tourists will home straight in on the Highland Games and other tartan-draped theatricals, but there’s more to Scotland than this: numerous regional celebrations perpetuate ancient customs, and the Edinburgh Festival is an arts celebration unrivalled in size and variety in the world. A few of the smaller, more obscure events, particularly those with a pagan bent, do not always welcome the casual visitor. The tourist board publishes a weighty list of all Scottish events twice a year: it’s free and you can get it from area tourist offices or direct from their headquarters. Full details are at visitscotland.com.
Dec 31 and Jan 1 Hogmanay and Ne’er Day. Traditionally more important to the Scots than Christmas, the occasion is known for the custom of “first-footing”. More popular these days are huge and highly organized street parties, most notably in Edinburgh (edinburghshogmanay.org), but also in Aberdeen, Glasgow and other centres.
Jan 1 Stonehaven fireball ceremony. Locals swing fireballs on long sticks to welcome New Year and ward off evil spirits. Also Kirkwall Boys’ and Men’s Ba’ Games, Orkney: mass, drunken football game through the streets of the town, with the castle and the harbour the respective goals. As a grand finale the players jump into the harbour.
Jan 11 Burning of the Clavie, Burghead, Moray hogmanay.net/events/burghhead. A burning tar barrel is carried through the town and then rolled down Doorie Hill. Charred fragments of the Clavie offer protection against the evil eye.
Mid- to late Jan Celtic Connections, Glasgow celticconnections.com. A major celebration of Celtic and folk music held in venues across the city.
Last Tues in Jan Up-Helly-Aa, Lerwick, Shetland visitshetland.com. Norse fire festival culminating in the burning of a specially built Viking longship. Visitors will need an invite from one of the locals, or you can buy a ticket for the Town Hall celebrations.
Jan 25 Burns Night. Scots worldwide get stuck into haggis, whisky and vowel-grinding poetry to commemorate Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns.
Feb Scottish Curling Championship royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org, held in a different (indoor) venue each year.
Feb–March Six Nations Rugby tournament, between Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy rbs6nations.com. Scotland’s home games are played at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh.
March 1 Whuppity Scourie, Lanark. Local children race round the church beating each other with home-made paper weapons in a representation (it’s thought) of the chasing away of winter or the warding off of evil spirits.
April Scottish Grand National, Ayr ayr-racecourse.co.uk. Not quite as testing as the English equivalent steeplechase, but an important event in the Scottish racing calendar. Also Rugby Sevens (seven-a-side tournaments; melrose7s.com) in the Borders and the entertaining and inclusive Edinburgh Science Festival sciencefestival.co.uk.
April 6 Tartan Day. Over-hyped celebration of ancestry by North Americans of Scottish descent on the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Ignored by most Scots in Scotland, other than journalists.
Early May Spirit of Speyside Scotch Whisky Festival (spiritofspeyside.com). Four-day binge with pipe bands, gigs and dancing as well as distillery crawls. Shetland Folk Festival (shetlandfolkfestival.com). One of the liveliest and most entertaining of Scotland’s round of folk festivals.
May Scottish FA Cup Final. Scotland’s premier football event, played in Glasgow.
Late May Atholl Highlanders Parade at Blair Castle, Perthshire blair-castle.co.uk. The annual parade and inspection of Britain’s last private army by their colonel-in-chief, the Duke of Atholl, on the eve of their Highland Games. Also Burns an’ a’ That (burnsfestival.com), a modern celebration of poet Robert Burns, including gigs by contemporary pop acts.
June–Aug Riding of the Marches in border towns such as Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh, Langholm and Lauder. The Ridings originated to check the boundaries of common land owned by the town and also to commemorate warfare between the Scots and the English.
June Beginning of the Highland Games season across the Highlands, northeast and Argyll. St Magnus Festival, Orkney, is a classical and folk music, drama, dance and literature festival celebrating the islands stmagnusfestival.com. The Edinburgh International Film Festival (edfilmfest.org.uk) runs from mid-June for 10 days.
Late June Royal Highland Agricultural Show, at Ingliston near Edinburgh royalhighlandshow.org. Old wooden boats and fishing craft gather for the Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy on the Moray Firth coast (scottishtraditionalboatfestival.co.uk). Glasgow International Jazz Festival (jazzfest.co.uk).
Early July T in the Park (tinthepark.com). Scotland’s biggest outdoor music event, held at Balado near Kinross with a star-studded line-up of contemporary bands.
July Scottish Open Golf Championship. Held each year at Loch Lomond golf course, just before the British Open tournament, which is played in Scotland at least every alternate year.
Late July The Wickerman Festival of alternative music is held near Kirkcudbright (thewickermanfestival.co.uk).
Aug Edinburgh Festival edinburghfestivals.com. One of the world’s great arts jamborees. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo (edinburgh-tattoo.co.uk) features floodlit massed pipe bands and drums on the castle esplanade. There’s also the World Pipe Band Championship at Glasgow (seeglasgow.com/piping), and plenty more Highland Games.
Early Sept Shinty’s Camanachd Cup Final shinty.com. The climax of the season for Scotland’s own stick-and-ball game, normally held in one of the main Highland towns. Also various food festivals and events under the banner of Scottish Food Fortnight (scottishfoodfortnight.co.uk).
Late Sept Doors Open Day (doorsopendays.org.uk). The one weekend a year when many public and private buildings are open to the public; actual dates vary. Also another Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival (spiritofspeyside.com), and the Scottish Book Town Festival in Wigtown (wigtown-booktown.co.uk).
Oct Tiree Wave Classic (tireewaveclassic.com). Annual event attracting windsurfers from around the world to the breezy Hebridean island.
The National Mod (the-mod.co.uk). Held over nine days at a different venue each year, the Mod is a competitive festival and features all aspects of Gaelic performing arts.
Nov 30 St Andrew’s Day. Celebrating Scotland’s patron saint. The town of St Andrews hosts a week of events leading up to it (standrewsweek.co.uk).
Despite their name, Highland Games are held all over Scotland between May and mid-September, varying in size and in the range of events they offer. The Games probably originated in the fourteenth century as a means of recruiting the best fighting men for the clan chiefs, and were popularized by Queen Victoria to encourage the traditional dress, music, games and dance of the Highlands; indeed, various royals still attend the Games at Braemar.
Apart from Braemar, the most famous games take place at Oban and Cowal, but the smaller events are often more fun – like a sort of Highland version of a school sports day. There’s money to be won, too, so the Games are usually pretty competitive. The most distinctive events are known as the “heavies” – tossing the caber (pronounced “kabber”), putting the stone, and tossing the weight over the bar – all of which require prodigious strength and skill and the wearing of a kilt. Tossing the caber is the most spectacular, when the athlete must lift an entire tree trunk up, cupping it in his hands, before running with it and attempting to heave it end over end. Just as important as the sporting events are the piping competitions – for individuals and bands – and dancing competitions, where you’ll see girls as young as 3 tripping the quick, intricate steps of dances such as the Highland Fling.
Football (soccer) is far and away Scotland’s most popular spectator sport. The national team (accompanied by its distinctive and vocal supporters, known as the “Tartan Army”) is a source of pride and frustation for Scots everywhere. Once a regular at World Cups where they were involved in some memorable matches against the likes of Holland and Brazil, Scotland have failed to qualify for an international tournament since 1998.
The national domestic league established in 1874 is one of the oldest in the world, but today most of the teams that play in it are little known beyond the boundaries of Scotland. The exceptions are the two massive Glasgow teams that dominate the Scottish scene – Rangers and Celtic (known collectively as the “Old Firm”). The sectarian, and occasionally violent, rivalry between these two is one of the least attractive aspects of Scottish life, and their stranglehold over the Scottish Premier League or SPL (scotprem.com) makes the national championship a fairly predictable affair.
As in England, foreign players have flooded the league, to the extent that home-grown players can be in the minority in the Rangers and Celtic teams. However, talented local players still have a stage on which to perform, and the new blend of continental sophistication mixed with Scottish passion and ruggedness makes for a distinctive spectacle.
The season begins in early August and ends in mid-May, with matches on Saturday afternoons at 3pm, and also often on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. Tickets range from £15 to £25 for big games; the major clubs operate telephone credit-card booking services. For a quick overview, see scotprem.com which features details of every Scottish club, with news and match-report archives.
Although rugby has always lived under the shadow of football in Scotland, it ranks as one of the country’s major sports. Weekends when the national team is playing a home international at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh are colourful occasions, with kilted masses filling the capital’s pubs and lining the streets leading to the ground. Internationals take place in the spring, when Scotland take on the other “home nations”, along with France and Italy, in the annual Six Nations tournament, although there are always fixtures in the autumn against international touring teams such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Tickets for big games are hard to come by; contact the Scottish Rugby Union (sru.org.uk).
The area where the domestic rugby tradition runs deepest is in the Borders, where towns such as Hawick, Kelso and Galashiels can be gripped by the fortunes of their local team on a Saturday afternoon. The Borders are also the home of seven-a-side rugby, an abridged version of the game that was invented in Melrose in the 1890s and is now played around the world, most notably at the glamorous annual event in Hong Kong. The Melrose Sevens is still the biggest tournament of the year in Scotland, although you’ll find events at one or other of the Border towns through the spring, most going on right through an afternoon and invoking a festival atmosphere in the large crowd.
Played throughout Scotland but with particular strongholds in the West Highlands and Strathspey, the game of shinty (the Gaelic sinteag means “leap”) arrived from Ireland around 1500 years ago. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was played on an informal basis and teams from neighbouring villages had to come to an agreement about rules before matches could begin. However, in 1893, the Camanachd Association – the Gaelic word for shinty is camanachd – was set up to formalize the rules, and the first Camanachd Cup Final was held in Inverness in 1896. Today, shinty is still fairly close to its Gaelic roots, like the Irish game of hurling, with each team having twelve players including a goalkeeper, and each goal counting for a point. The game, which bears similarities to an undisciplined version of hockey, isn’t for the faint-hearted; it’s played at a furious pace, with sticks – called camans or cammocks – flying alarmingly in all directions. Support is enthusiastic and vocal, and if you’re in the Highlands during the season, which runs from March to October, it’s well worth trying to catch a match: check with tourist offices or the local paper, or go to shinty.com.
The one winter sport which enjoys a strong Scottish identity is curling (royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org), occasionally still played on a frozen outdoor rink, or “pond”, though most commonly these days seen at indoor ice rinks. The game, which involves gently sliding smooth-bottomed 18kg discs of granite called “stones” across the ice towards a target circle, is said to have been invented in Scotland, although its earliest representation is in a sixteenth-century Flemish painting. Played by two teams of four, it’s a highly tactical and skilful sport, enlivened by team members using brushes to sweep the ice furiously in front of a moving stone to help it travel further and straighter. If you’re interested in seeing curling being played, go along to the ice rink in places such as Perth, Pitlochry or Inverness on a winter evening.Read More
To celebrate the birthday of the country’s best-known poet, Rabbie Burns (1759–96), Scots all over the world gather together for a Burns Supper on January 25. Strictly speaking, a piper should greet the guests until everyone is seated ready to hear the first bit of Burns’ poetry, The Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit.
At this point the star attraction of the evening, the haggis, is piped in on a silver platter, after which someone reads out Burns’s Ode to a Haggis, beginning with the immortal line, “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!”. During the recitation, the reader raises a knife (“His knife see Rustic-labour dight”), pierces the haggis, allowing the tasty gore to spill out (“trenching its gushing entrails”), and then toasts the haggis with the final line (“Gie her a Haggis!”). After everyone has tucked into their haggis, tatties and neaps, someone gives a paean to the life of Burns along with more of his poetry. A male guest then has to give a speech in which women are praised (often ironically) through selective quotations from Burns, ending in a Toast to the Lassies. This is followed by a (usually scathing) reply from one of the Lassies, again through judicious use of Burns’s quotes. Finally, there’s a stirring rendition of Burns’s poem, Auld Lang Syne, to the familiar tune.
When hardline Scottish Protestant clerics in the sixteenth century abolished Christmas for being a Catholic mass, the Scots, not wanting to miss out on a mid-winter knees-up, instead put their energy into greeting the New Year, or Hogmanay. Houses were cleaned from top to bottom, debts were paid and quarrels made up, and, after the bells of midnight were rung, great store was laid by welcoming good luck into your house. This still takes the form of the tradition of “first-footing” – visiting your neighbours and bearing gifts. The ideal first-foot is a tall dark-haired male carrying a bottle of whisky; women or redheads, on the other hand, bring bad luck – though, to be honest, no one carrying a bottle of whisky tends to be turned away these days, whatever the colour of their hair. All this neighbourly greeting means a fair bit of partying, and no one is expected to go to work the next day, or, indeed, the day after that. Even today, January 1 is a public holiday in the rest of the UK, but only in Scotland does the holiday extend to the next day too.