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The History and Culture of Scotland

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Scotland is a country with no shortage of historical attractions. Some places may seem like just a place to take a scenic picture, but you’d be surprised by the rich history that occured on those grounds. Scotland’s history is so unique and often tragic that pulls you in and makes you want to learn more. As a history major I loved being in a place that allowed me to become immersed in its historical traditions. Everywhere I went throughout Scotland had their own personal story to tell. From replica landmarks to traditional dancing there is plenty to see and do in Scotland in order to learn more about the unique culture and history of this country.

Historical architecture in Edinburgh

The National Monument

In a city as old as Edinburgh it can be easy to become engulfed in all of the historic buildings and monuments. After being here for two months, I have become accustomed to the Old World aesthetic, but one monument struck me as odd. I spontaneously decided to walk up Calton Hill, a popular tourist attraction in Scotland, as a break from my schoolwork. My flatmate told me it was a beautiful place to visit, though I didn’t know much about it before I went. What I found at the top of the hill shocked me. There was a replica of the Parthenon standing tall at the top of the hill. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought to have seen the presence of Greek architecture in Scotland. The National Monument of Scotland was created as a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. When thinking of Scotland it is easy to focus on its history with Britain which in turn pigeonholes your view of history. I myself am guilty of this. It is also easy to view eras of history as separate blocks of time that never intertwine with each other especially if those eras are centuries apart. The National Monument shows the emergence of histories in unlikely settings with Ancient Greece being present in 19th century Scotland.

Boats on the Loch Lomond

If you ever find yourself in the Highlands I would definitely recommend going to Loch Lomond. Not only is it beautiful, but it has a rich history connected to it, and a popular Scottish folk song was written about it. The song is called The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, and was written by a Scotsman who fought in the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Scottish were brutally defeated with very few making it out alive. The ones who did were captured and taken to the jails at Carlisle Castle, in England. The man who wrote the song (his name is unknown) was taken prisoner along with one of his friends from his hometown. His friend was one of the lucky ones who was granted freedom to return back home. The song’s creator didn’t fare as well as his comrade and was sentenced to hang. It is said that he wrote the song as a poem while awaiting death. The song discusses the man’s longing to go back to his homeland and his sorrow for never being able to see his true love, which was his fiancée, again. Before he went off to battle he promised his love that he would return so they could be wed, but he knows now that they will never be reunited. It is Scottish lore that if a person dies away from their home the faeries guide their spirit back home. This is what the man is talking about when he says that his friend will take the high road while he takes the low road. The low road is the road for the spirits created by the faeries. The poem was found almost a century later by a composer who published the song and it became one of the most well-known traditional Scottish folk songs.

Immersing in Scottish culture: Ceilidh

After going to all the touristy sites in Scotland you should definitely find something that will truly immerse yourself in Scottish culture. Last weekend I went to my first ever Ceilidh. A Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) is a popular social gathering in Scotland. It dates back to 1875 and originates in both Scotland and Ireland. The word Ceilidh descends from the Gaelic word for a “gathering” or “party”. It is a social event filled with traditional Scottish folk music and a lot of dancing. They are normally done for special occasions like weddings or birthdays, but the University of Edinburgh hosts Ceilidhs every now and again for the students. Instead of a regular party where the dancing is freestyle, Ceilidhs have set dancing that are usually done in pairs where a caller calls out the moves. I was very grateful for the caller by the end of the night since I would have had no idea what I was doing without him. It was incredible to be able to experience a part of Scottish culture while also stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new. I am definitely not a dancer and that showed on the dance floor. I kept bumping into people and stepping on people’s feet and it took me a little while to get the steps down. But the Scottish participants were very helpful in teaching the newbies what to do and were laughing along with us making the experience so much fun. I had an amazing time swinging around from partner to partner while listening to the beautiful Scottish folk music being played. It was also interesting to get to hear stories from some of my Scottish and Irish friends on their memories of Ceilidhs from their childhood and the whole experience brought me closer to being a part of the Scottish lifestyle. If you are ever in Scotland I would definitely recommend going to a Ceilidh and experiencing the festivities for yourself because it is such a memorable experience.

Final reflections on making the most of visiting Scotland

Scotland has such a rich and interesting history that surrounds you once you enter the country. When visiting a country it can be easy to become engulfed in the tourist attractions that you miss defining parts of the country. If you ever find yourself travelling to Scotland I would highly recommend doing some research on the place before hand or ask your tour guides about the history surrounding these attractions because the stories are so interesting it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to hear them. It is amazing to be standing in a place and understand what happened there to make it the way it is today. Learning about the culture and history of the places you visit makes the experience so much more enriching. To fully become immersed while travelling you must seek out local culture and find out the history of the country.
Hannah Marino is a History student at Colby College, and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Edinburgh in Scotland in fall 2019.