Scotland is known for many things; it’s beautiful landscapes, it’s fascinating history, and it’s characterful weather. But maybe it’s best known for it’s unique and vibrant culture? Scotland and its people have been portrayed in many different ways across pop culture over the past decades. As a result, there have been consistent elements that people have grown to recognise and associate with Scottish culture. Tartan, whisky, and our heavy accents and confounding dialects!
All of these things are inherently Scottish, but there is more to us than that. People may not know Scotland for its love-affair with folk music and dance. Likewise, people may know of haggis, but do they know about our other national dishes which do not instil fear in their prospective consumers? And what about our other booming distilling industry, gin?
Read below about all the iconic elements of Scottish culture that you are sure to recognise, and some that may surprise you!
Scotland and its inhabitants have many well-known characteristics, but one of the most notable is Scottish attire. You are probably familiar with tartans, and with Scottish tweed? Do images of men wearing pleated skirts spring to mind when you think of Scotland? Find out more below about our unique sense of style.
At the heart of it, tartan is a checkered fabric. Traditionally, tartan is woven out of wool but other materials can be used. To be considered tartan, the fabric needs to have interwoven horizontal and vertical stripes known as setts. Tartan was historically worn all over Scotland, but has always been favoured by Highlanders.
Clans developed patterns and colours unique to them. Even today people will wear the tartan associated with their family name, although are not restricted to it. The Royal Stewart Tartan and the Black Watch tartans are often worn by non-Scots and by those who do not have a family tartan.
The wearing of tartan was banned after the 1746 Battle of Culloden, but subsequently, it has seen gradual waves of coming back into fashion over the centuries. It is now used by leading fashion designers and is an essential part of Scottish culture and traditional Highland dress worn at events and weddings.
Although not unique to Scotland, tweed is an essential part of Scottish culture. It has become associated with “gentleman fashion” for outdoor pursuits like shooting and hunting. This is because it is perfect all-around outerwear due to its durable nature.
When thinking about tweed and Scotland, the fabric produced in the Outer Hebrides undeniably comes to the forefront of the mind. Tweed was originally made and used by crofters as it suits the wetter and windier climate of the Outer Hebrides.
Consequently, its durability made it desirable to the upper class for country-wear. With its popularity rising, cheaper alternatives of poorer quality became available. Therefore, to protect the islanders, the tweed produced in the Outer Hebrides by locals was trademarked under the Harris Tweed Authority in 1910, which was then replaced by the Harris Tweed Act in 1993. This protected the quality of the tweed and the island industry from competition.
Inveraray Castle, Photo Credit: VisitBritain
The famous kilt is probably the most recognisable of Scottish icons, but it’s actually changed a lot over the centuries. Initially, the kilt was much larger and untailored. It would be full length with the upper half designed to worn as a cloak or hood. Around the 18th century, the kilt became much shorter and generally knee-length. Said to come into fashion out of practicality as it provided larger freedom of movement.
Kilts are usually made in a tartan pattern and are mostly worn at formal events by men and boys. A man wearing a kilt to a formal event will also wear a kilt jacket, sporran (waist bag), kilt pin, sgian dubh (small knife), ghillie brogues (shoes), and high socks. Fun fact: the kilt design worn by Mel Gibson portraying William Wallace in Braveheart did not exist at the time.
Like tartan, kilt-wearing was outlawed after the Jacobite rebellions. This only embedded it deeper into Scottish culture as a symbol of national identity.
Seeing a Highland Cow is for many visitors to Scotland a must-do activity. Inexplicably fuzzy and cute, and often ginger, you’ll find heilan coos dotted around the countryside. They are well suited to the windy weather in Scotland and rough hills, able to graze on vegetation that other stock would find unpalatable.
Used primarily for the export of their meat, Highland cows are also used for their dairy and conservation grazing in Scotland. These photogenic creatures are relatively docile, and happy to pose for a picture!
Where can you best see Highland Cows? We’ve got some of our favourite spots below!
There are various large estates that keep Highland cows in the North West of Scotland, so plenty of opportunities to see them!
Torridon & Applecross: The single-track roads that weave their way over the peninsula go through large stretches of grazing ground for highland cattle, making this a prime place for getting a road side picture. Get a snap on our Introduction to Sea Kayaking holiday which is based out of Torridon village.
Sutherland Beaches: The Clachtoll and Achmelvich Beaches on the NC500 have become as popular with highland cows as they are with tourists for a wee swim and a lie in the sand. Grab your chance to sunbathe with a coo on our Wilds of Assynt walking trip or on our North Coast 500 road cycling holiday.
The Cairngorms have several great places to go see highland cows, and you’ll often see them grazing in the fields from the road.
Blair Castle: right on the most southern edge of the Cairngorms National Park you’ll find the whitewashed walls and charming grounds of Blair Castle. Highland cows are kept in the surrounding fields and provide a reliable spot to go and see them. We visit Blair Castle on our Cairngorms & Royal Deeside walking trip.
Around Newtonmore: There are two good spots near the Highland village of Newtonmore to see our favourite fuzzy icons. The Highland Folk Museum keeps cows who are very used to tourists and not averse to a careful stroke or two. The nearby Ruthven Barracks is also a good point, with cows generally grazing nearby. We go here on our Casks & Castles road cycling itinerary.
Head over to one of Scotland’s many islands and you stand a good chance to see a Highland cow. Their thick coats easily keep out the chill of the sea breeze, and highland cows are known to be partial to a bit of seaweed.
Isle of Iona: The island is mostly known and visited for the remarkable Iona abbey, but it’s also a good destination for Highland cow spotting. See a heilan coo and more Scottish wildlife on our Mull, Staffa, and Iona wildlife holiday.
Barra and the Uists: Highland cows are quite commonplace on these beautiful Hebridean islands. If you’re lucky you might even see cows being herded over the white sand beaches! Visit Uists, Barra, and Mingulay on a wilderness walking trip with us.
“Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North, The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth; Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.”
– Robert Burns, My Heart’s in the Highlands
Traditional Music and Ceilidhs
Another undeniable part of Scottish culture is music and dancing. Bagpipes are recognised worldwide as a typically Scottish instrument, even if the musical enjoyment is at times contentious and wholly dependent on the skill of the piper. However, nothing evokes as strong a feeling of Scottish identity and kinship as hearing the first strangled notes of a bagpipe tune make its way into the world.
And it doesn’t stop at bagpipes! Traditional Scottish music has made quite a comeback. There are various music festivals taking place across the country and folk music is the live music performance of choice at many pubs. Traditional Scottish music can feature the fiddle (violin), guitar, drums, mandolins, harp, an accordion and of course bagpipes! The music lends itself perfectly to dancing and is the music of choice for ceilidhs.
If you are unfamiliar with a ceilidh, it’s a popular Scottish country dance. Historically, ceilidhs existed to assist courtship in the rural areas in Scotland. Providing a fun opportunity to meet people. Today, you mostly have ceilidhs at weddings. However, they are also held as social gatherings to celebrate festive occasions like Christmas and Hogmanay, and to mark a special event like a birthday or anniversary. They are at present especially popular for fundraising events.
Ceilidh dances are a bit like barn dancing, with everyone invited to participate and where the set dance involves at least one partner.
Now we will be the first ones to admit that Scotland is not exactly known for its food. But it should be! We have an extensive natural larder that produces beautiful fresh seafood, fruit, vegetables, and game all year round. Scotland is also home to some remarkable chefs with notable names including Tom Kitchin and Nick Nairn.
Below we’ve got some of our favourite Scottish dishes and ingredients that we feel everyone should try. It does include the classics like haggis, but also some that may surprise you and change your mind about Scottish food…
Learn more about Skye’s foodie culture…
Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties by the Balmoral.
Haggis the most famed and most feared of Scottish food. Traditionally, Haggis comprises of offal, mixed with oats and spices, and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. This is not unique to Scotland and Scottish culture. This has been done since ancient times. The most perishable meat was prepared and eaten immediately with the available dry stored ingredients in a convenient ready-made container, the stomach of the freshly killed animal.
In Scotland, haggis has survived as part of the national cuisine due to Robert Burns’ poem, ‘Address to a Haggis’, which popularised its consumption. In today’s supermarkets and restaurants, haggis more often than not gets cooked in an artificial casing and is created from a mix of pork and sheep. Vegetarian and vegan versions are also very common and generally more palatable to tourists. The meat-free versions still contain the oats and spicy seasoning and give a very similar taste experience.
Cullen Skink soup by the Torridon Hotel
Hailing originally from the northeast town of Cullen, Cullen Skink compromises of smoked fish, potato, onion, and often milk. This hearty soup is incredibly comforting and moreish, and one we thoroughly recommend any traveller. It’s similar to an American fish chowder as it shares many of the same ingredients, but Cullen Skink is said to be more characterful.
Cullen Skink is traditionally made with smoked haddock, but any smoked fish will do. However, if you’re travelling around Scotland you may experience many variations of the same concept. Like many national dishes, Cullen Skink was heavily influenced by what was available at the time and in the area. Cattle was expensive, so meat-based dishes were rare. Cullen sits on the Moray Firth, so seafood was accessible and affordable. As were potatoes, which form the base of the soup. Milk and cream are optional for a richer taste, although the soup is plenty creamy without due to the starch in potatoes.
A Full Scottish
A full Scottish breakfast.
You may have heard of a Full English breakfast. But do you know what a Full Scottish breakfast is? It may depend on who you ask and where you are in Scotland, but a Full Scottish comes with the traditional ingredients like eggs, buttered toast bacon, link sausage, and baked beans. Scottish elements include additional black pudding, square sausage and a tattie scone. Sometimes you can also get haggis on the plate, buttered mushrooms, grilled tomato, and fruit pudding.
Black pudding is a blood sausage made from pork blood, fat, and cereals. Fruit pudding shares similar ingredients but the blood is completely replaced with fat and suet and includes dried fruit. A tattie scone is a Scottish variation of a potato-based griddle scone. A square sausage (also known as Lorne) is a sausage slice made out of minced meat, rusk, and spices. We can’t responsibly recommend you eat this every day, but you should try it at least once on a trip to Scotland!
Steak at Kyloe restaurant, Photo Credit: VisitScotland
This one is not a dish, but an example of Scotland’s natural larder not to be missed! Most people will associate the name ‘Aberdeen Angus’ with high-quality beef. The hardiness of Angus cattle and the quality of the meat means that Angus beef gets bred all over the world and is widely recognised, but trust us, it tastes best right here in Scotland. Consumption of Highland cattle is also growing, due to the leanness of the meat. It is said that the quality of the grazing in Scotland and wet weather add to the flavour of Scottish beef, making it extra succulent. Be sure to try a highland steak and chips when you’re in Scotland, with whisky sauce for the ultimate taste experience!
Salmon Korma by Kinloch Lodge on Skye
In Scotland, we’re lucky to have an abundance of rivers filled with salmon and award-winning sustainable fish farms. The North Atlantic salmon that hails from Scotland is globally recognised as some of the best in the world. Try a signature Scottish salmon dish at breakfast and order a smoked salmon kedgeree, or have a salmon and cream cheese sandwich with afternoon tea! It’s not just salmon that we recommend, with over 10,000km of coastline, our entire seafood selection is pretty topnotch. Scottish scallops are delicious pan-fried with Stornoway black pudding and be sure to have some langoustine and lobster on your trip. There is also an abundance of shellfish like mussels, oysters, and razor clams available year-round in Scotland.
Venison by Monachyle Mhor
During the hunting seasons, it’s easy to get a hold of fresh and relatively inexpensive venison in the Highlands of Scotland. Lovers of red meat will be delighted to learn that venison is the healthier option too, being both low fat and high in protein. The meat has a unique gamey flavour that goes well with redcurrant, sloe, and cranberry. Venison gets prepared in multiple ways and don’t be surprised to encounter it in sausage form and as a cured meat in Scotland. It even gets sold as chorizo! Many Scottish restaurants will include venison on the menu at the right time of year so make sure to try it if you have the opportunity. Wild venison is best available between October and December.
If Scotland could be packaged up into a dessert – cranachan would be it. It captures many of Scotland’s best natural elements, and is tasty too! The quintessentially Scottish ingredients are whisky, oats, cream, and fresh raspberries. It is similar to an ‘Eton Mess’, although notably meringue is substituted for whisky and toasted oats. Traditionally, ‘crowdie’ cheese would be used instead of cream, but this is difficult to come by outside of Scotland and makes the dish a bit heavy. The whisky is usually added in with the cream, along with some honey. The oats are toasted with sugar to caramelise them. This is all piled together in alternating layers together with fresh fruit (most commonly raspberries). The result? Creamy heaven, although not for the faint-hearted!
Scottish Oats Porridge by Kinloch Lodge on Skye
You’d be hard-pressed to find an ingredient more Scottish than oats. For centuries oats have been Scotland’s main crop, meaning it’s been readily available and affordable for a long time. Countless recipes include oats, even ones that might surprise you like haggis and blood pudding. However, the most obvious Scottish dish containing oats is porridge. There are many ways to prepare Scottish porridge. Different people like to add flavour in different ways with the addition of honey, whisky, fresh fruit, and sugar. It’s not just the easy availability of oats which has made it popular in Scotland – it’s also a great breakfast food to set you up for the day! Oats release their energy slowly, meaning you feel fuller for longer and oat eaters also benefit from lower cholesterol.
Scottish Cheeseboard, Photo Credit: VisitScotland
This is not something you’d immediately associate with Scotland – but our climate and geography is well suited to cheese production. With over 24 cheesemakers across the country, there is plenty of local choices. Harder mature cheeses like Cheddar are prevalent, but there are some deliciously soft, creamy, and blue cheeses available too. Cheeses not to miss in Scotland? You should definitely try crowdie if you get the opportunity, this soft cheese is said to be a remnant from Viking days. It is usually rolled in oats and black pepper. Clava brie is a lovely pasteurised brie-style cheese made on the North-East coast of Scotland. If you like Cheddar, try Dunlop, it’s similar in taste but a bit softer. There are many variations available by different creameries!
Being vegetarian & vegan in Scotland
With the rise of more people electing to have vegetarian and vegan diets, Scotland has seen a change in its restaurant scene to match the growing demand. More and more restaurants will feature a variety of meat-free and plant-based options, and dedicated vegetarian and vegan businesses are thriving.
It’s easy to get flavourful, interesting, and affordable vegetarian and vegan food in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but even in the smaller cities of Dundee, Inverness, Fort William, and Aberdeen the options are increasing. Our natural larder suits a vegetarian and vegan diet, with an abundance of excellent seasonal fruit and vegetables available year-round.
For cafe culture try the Flame Tree Cafe in Dundee, it’s not a dedicated vegan restaurant but has various options. Many of the non-vegan dishes can easily be adjusted to suit a vegan diet. Inverness has been home to Nourish for several years now, an organic vegetarian & vegan cafe which offers seasonal and local food. The Wildcat in Fort William has delicious vegan food and also a zero-waste, organic and fairtrade food shop at the back. The city of Aberdeen has seen various dedicated options pop up over the years, but one of the best places to grab a plant-based breakfast, lunch, or dinner is the Foodstory Cafe.
Distilling & Brewing
Nosing a Scotch Whisky
Often when people are asked what they associate with Scottish culture and Scotland, they’ll say whisky. ‘Uisge Beatha’ is the Scottish Gaelic term for whisky, it means ‘water of life’. Although this term initially came about because of it’s believed medicinal qualities, the phrase is still relevant today as whisky is one of Scotland’s largest exports and tourist attraction.
Whisky consists of grain (typically malted barley, but rye and wheat get used as well), water, peat, and yeast.
Scotland has 5 distinct whisky regions: the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and most recently Speyside. For a whisky to be classified as Scotch Whisky it has to be produced in one the whisky regions and be matured in an oak cask for a minimum of 3 years.
Scottish Gin Being Poured
Gin has become massively popular on a global scale – and over 70% of the UK’s gin production takes place in Scotland. Scotland’s started producing gin since around the 1700s, influenced by their existing trade relations with the Netherlands. The Dutch brought spices and botanicals to Leith Docks, and also “jenever”, their own version of a juniper flavoured liquor.
As whisky has such a long maturing process, many new distilleries (and existing too) produce gin as a side hustle. This has attributed to the incredible variation of gin available in Scotland. Scottish distilleries have added distinct Scottish twists to their gin; like Harris Gin which use locally foraged sugar kelp and Rock Rose Gin which use Scottish botanicals like roseroot, seabuckthorn, and rowan berries.
Scottish Ale, Photo Credit: VisitScotland
Another big player on the Scottish drink scene is craft beer with over a 100 beer breweries across the country. Scotland appears to have a long history of beer brewing, with evidence of an ancient brewing process found at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Isles.
There are dozens upon dozens of micro-breweries in Scotland, all pushing the limit of traditional beer production and using the best of local ingredients. Perhaps inspired by the local beer makers of 5,000 years ago, Orkney is home to two breweries, Orkney Brewery and Swannay Brewery. Both highlight the importance of local Orcadian water as a key ingredient in their respective brews. On the mainland, Six Degrees North are growing their own hops and turn to the local fields, forests, and coasts for flavour.
Part of the charm of our country is our distinctive language and even those who can speak fluent English may struggle to understand some of our local dialects.
But fear not, we’re here to help you learn with our Essential Phrasebook for Scottish Vocabulary. Language is a distinct part of Scottish culture, and our many dialects can change in a relatively small distance keeping even us Scots on our toes.
Learn your bairns (kid) from your bampots (crazy people), and your quines (girls) from your loons (young men)!
Another fundamental part of Scottish culture? Folklore. Scotland has its own unique history of folklore, filled with fantastical creatures, curious events, and the mysterious properties of various plants and animals. We can’t even begin to regale you with all the tales and stories but are happy to point you in the right direction for further information.
Wilderness Scotland is the best way to experience the gorgeous landscape and people of Scotland. The guides are awesome people who want to ensure you have the best possible experience, the accommodations and food are top notch, and the locations are stunningly beautiful and will live in my memory forever. I can't thank Wilderness Scotland enough for the amazing experience I had on my trip.