Our Scottish Heritage

Saint Andrew

Robert Burns

Born into a poor family in Alloway, on January 25th 1759, Robert Burns was named for his grandfather, Robert Burness.  He grew up surrounded by talking, storytelling and singing, and with an emphasis on learning. His life on the farm helped him observe and ponder the simple truths of life.  Throughout his life, he respected merit above title.  He could move confidently in any social class, but he was very aware of life’s social inequalities, and was sympathetic to those people who struggled to make a life among the lower echelons of society.

Burns collected Scottish folk songs and tales, like “Tam o’ Shanter”, and often revised them with his own flair.  Whether his works were strictly original or not is often debated.  When it comes to the power of his work, and the way it resonates with the human soul, there has never been any debate.  His love of conversation, his uncanny insight and articulation of simple truths, and his brilliant repartee often shocked polite society.  He captured the essence of humanity, in “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”, and while he poked fun at the establishment of the day, he ably expressed the feelings of the common man.  His works were appreciated throughout Europe, in a cult-like following.  “The Works of Robert Burns” was the first book after the Bible officially translated into Russian from English by the Soviet government.

He was a proud Scot who wrote about Scottish History, as in “Bannockburn”, with the immortal lines “Scots wha’ hae wi’ Wallace bled”.  He also wrote of the simple things in Scottish life – a mountain daisy, a louse, even a haggis!  It’s his love poems that are perhaps best remembered – like “Ae Fond Kiss”, “My Luve’s Like A Red Red Rose”, “Jean”, and “My Bonnie Mary”.  In fact, the very first poem Burns wrote was “A Maiden and her Man”.

His writing was not of any great literary style.  Writers like Sir Walter Scott were much more “mainstream” and accepted than the ploughman from Ayr.  But today, Robert Burns is wider-read, more celebrated, and reigns supreme as Scotland’s immortal bard.  His empathy and understanding of the common man made him a spokesman for all humanity – and he’s loved the world o’er.

Like many a genius, he suffered from physical frailty.  Robert Burns died of a failing heart at the young age of 37.  But his is the acknowledged voice of Scotland.  The power of his poetry lives on to this day – and he is celebrated all over the world by Scots and non-Scots alike.


Burns Night

Every year, on January 25th, Scots the world o’er celebrate  Rabbie Burns, the national Bard.  And on January 21st 2012, at Rockefeller’s, so will members of the St. Andrew’s Society of Pittsburgh gather with friends to enjoy an evening of pomp and ritual. We’ll meet and greet, and enjoy fellowship and a wee dram or two. It was this kind of Scottish friendship Burns inspired with his writing. Then the skirl o’ the pipes will interrupt our conversation and laughter, and we’ll go to our tables, as the officers and guests are led to the top table by a piper.
The dinner will begin with a welcome and a grace. The “Grace at Kirkudbright” (pronounced keer-coo-bree) will be recited. It was used when the Earl of Selkirk dined in the late 1700s, and is sometimes called “the Selkirk Grace”.
                        Some hae meat and canna eat
                        And some can eat that want it
                        But we hae meat and we can eat
                        Sae let the Lord be thankit.
We’ll enjoy a wonderful meal. The traditional Scottish bill o’ fare would include neeps an’ tatties (turnips and potatoes) with haggis. Other favorites include cock-a-leekie soup, herring or salmon, tripe and onions, maybe steak-and-kidney pie. Our bill o’ fare (see our Burns Dinner flyer) will ensure, as Burns would say, “all our weel-swall’d kytes belyve, be bent lyke drums” (all our well swollen bellies be bent like drums).  The star of the meal will be that “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”, the haggis!
With the first course cleared away, the master of ceremonies will ask guests to be upstanding to receive the haggis. A bagpiper in full dress will lead the beastie in – carried by the chef on a silver platter. When the haggis reaches the top table, it will receive a mock-heroic address as only the Bard could write – “Fair fa’ your honest sauncy face, great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race” – ending with a plea to the Powers that be, “if ye want her gratefu’ prayer, gie her a haggis!”
After the meal, with buttons subtly loosened, the guests sit back to enjoy the serious part of the evening – the Immortal Memory. This evocation of Burns life and writing is really a speaker’s dream. Burns wrote so extensively and quotably on most of the good things in life – friendship – love – food – national glories.  Quoting Burns generously can’t help but provide a speech that will gain the approval of everyone present. The Immortal Memory can be serious – or humorous – or sentimental. Usually, it’s all three!  In this toast to Burns, his transgressions and excesses will be overlooked, and the insight and eloquence of his poetry will be celebrated – because Robert Burns, more than any other poet, captured the essence of humanity in his writing.  This is what we celebrate late in January.
More recently, a toast is made “tae the lassies” (Burns wasn’t reticent when it came to praising the lassies), with a response being offered on behalf of the lassies.  This became the fashion when Burns dinners were usually an all-male affair, with the ladies preparing the meal – and being thanked afterwards with the toast tae the lassies.
As the evening progresses, we may hear some of Burns’ best-loved songs, like “Ae fond kiss”, or “My luv is like a red red rose”. We will enjoy demonstrations of dancing and piping and fiddling, before we finish with informal ceilidh dancing. Then we’ll all will gather in a circle to say farewell with Auld Land Syne (old long since), Burns’ universally loved poem to lasting friendship.
                        And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
                        And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
                        We’ll tak’ a richt guid willie waught,
                        For auld lang syne!
And another Burns Night will have been celebrated in true Scottish style.

Scotch Whisky

Whisky is an alcohol made from grain.  It dates back at least to the late fourteen hundreds.  The first written mention of Scotch whisky is in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1495. Friar John Cor was the distiller.

A strict legal definition of Scotch Whisky has been in place for many years, to protect Scotch Whisky from unfair competition and to underpin Scotch Whisky’s reputation as being of the highest quality.

Scotch Whisky is defined as:  Whisky that has been produced at a distillery in Scotland, from water and malted barley (only whole grains of other cereals may be added).  It has been processed at that distillery into a mash, and fermented only by the addition of yeast.

Scotch whisky has been distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used and the method of its production.

Scotch whisky is wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years.

No coloring agent other than plain caramel may be added, and no substance other than water may be added.

How is Scotch Whisky Made?

The first step in making malt whisky is malting the barley. It is steeped in water, and allowed to begin germinating. Malting releases enzymes that break down the starches in the grain and convert them into sugars. Once the desired state of germination is reached, the malted barley is dried.  Some distillers add smoke from a peat fire to give the product a smoked, earthy flavor.

Most distilleries get their malts from maltsters.  Only a few run their own malting operations.  These include: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig and Tamdhu.

The next step is mashing and fermenting.  The dried grain is first ground into a rough flour called grist.  The grist is mixed with hot water in a large vessel, where it is allowed to steep.  In this mashing process, enzymes developed during the malting convert the barley starch into a sugary liquid known as wort. The wort is transferred to another large vessel called a wash back.  It is cooled, yeast is added, and it is fermented.  The resulting liquid (about 5–7% alcohol by volume) is separated from solid matter by filtering. At this stage, the wash, as it is called, is similar to corn beer.

The next step is distilling. Distilling increases the alcohol content and removes undesired impurities. Two types of stills are used for distillation: the pot still is used for single malts, and the Coffey still is used for grain whisky. Most Scotch malt whisky distilleries distill their product twice.

For malt whisky the wash is transferred into a wash still, where it is heated to its boiling point.  The alcohol evaporates – travels to the top of the still – condenses – and reverts to liquid.  This liquid (called low wine) now has an alcohol content of about 20%. The low wine is distilled a second time, when it becomes stronger, and is called the new make.  Its alcohol content can now be anywhere from 60%–75%.

For grain whisky the wash is distilled in a column still, where it is produced by continuous fractional distillation, unlike the simple distillation process used for malt whisky.  Grain whisky requires only a single distillation to achieve the desired alcohol content. This efficiency results in the whisky being less expensive.

The maximum distillation purity prescribed by Scotch Whisky Regulations is 94.8% alcohol by volume. This allows the spirit to have a rather high level of alcohol purity.  In practice, Scotch single malts are generally not distilled to very high levels of alcohol content, so they can retain more of the flavor of the original wash.

The spirit is placed in oak casks for maturing. Used sherry casks were traditionally used, but today other wine casks may be used, like port, Bordeaux, Cognac, Madeira – even bourbon whiskey casks from America.

The distillate must age for at least three years and one day in Scotland to be called Scotch whisky, though most single malts are offered at a minimum of eight years of age. Some believe older whiskies are better, but others find the age for optimum flavor depends on the distillery, or even on the cask. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they command significantly higher prices. Evaporation occurs in the distillation process, causing a loss in volume and also a loss in alcohol content.

Different types of cask also give different colors of whisky – sherry and red wine casks give a darker whisky, while bourbon casks give a lighter colored whisky.  The 1990s saw a trend towards “wood finishes” in which fully matured whisky was moved from one barrel into another one that had previously aged a different type of alcohol (port, Madeira, rum, or wine) to add the “finish”.  A notable example is the “Black Bowmore”, released in batches in 1993, 94 and 95 after 29, 30, 31 years in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The name evokes the density of color and complexity of flavor naturally imparted into what was originally water-clear spirit in 1964.

The now properly aged spirit may now undergo vatting or marrying with other whiskies. In the case of single malts this can involve mixing different ages of whisky from the same distillery. The vatted whisky is generally diluted to a bottling strength of between 40% and 46%.  Some distillers release a “cask strength” edition, which is the product of a single cask, has not been vatted, has not been diluted and usually has an alcohol content of 50–60%.  These bottles usually have a label that details the date the whisky was distilled, the date it was bottled, the number of bottles.

Whiskies with alcohol content below 46% can become hazy in the bottle. Chill-filtering is done to avoid this happening. The whisky is chilled to near 0°C to remove the oily compounds produced in distillation.  Bottled whisky over 46% doesn’t need this filtering. Whisky enthusiasts often think chill-filtering removes some of the flavor of the whisky.

What Does the Age Mean?

When an age is mentioned on the label, it is that of the youngest whisky in the blend.  If a blend is described as being twelve year old, the youngest whisky in the blend must have been matured at least twelve years.

When a vintage or distillation year is declared on a label, all the whisky in the product must have been distilled in that year.

Scotch Whisky Regions

There are four main Whisky regions designated:   The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown.

The Highlands – The Hebrides are included in this region. Distilleries include: Aberfeldy, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie Oban, Arran, Isle of Jura, Tobermory, and Talisker.

Speyside – the Spey river valley, once considered part of the Highlands, is now a region in its own right, since it has almost half the distilleries of Scotland! Notable names include: Abelour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and The Macallan.

Lowland – now only a few distilleries remain in the Lowlands, including Auchentoshen, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie.

Islay – the Isle of Islay has some famous distilleries, including Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

Campbelltown – once with 30 distilleries, now with only 3: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank

There is an excellent Interactive Map of whisky distilleries – go to www.scotsman.com and click on “whisky”.

Want to find out more?

The definitive rules governing the making, bottling, and labelling of Scotch Whisky can be found in Scotch Whisky Regulations Guidance 2009.

Christmas in Scotland

We know how commercialized Christmas has become. It even starts before Thanksgiving – and advertisers exhort us to spend, spend, spend on glitzy things of little value! Like many of you, I grew up in a place and time where brothers and sisters shared presents, and much of the focus was on food treats – and the Christmas story.
Since the Reformation, the Lowlands have been predominantly Church of Scotland and Presbyterian, while the Highlands have been mostly Roman Catholic. Did you know that Bonnie Prince Charlie is buried in the Vatican, with his father James III?
Many of our Christmas traditions come from the old pagan Celts – from times when the winter solstice was the darkest part of the year, and people prayed for the sun to return. The Scots word “yule” comes from the old Norse word “jól” – a twelve-day celebration of the winter solstice – when the yule log was burned in the fireplace, people kissed under the mistletoe and houses were decorated with evergreens. Isn’t it interesting that the twelve day Celtic celebration was translated into the “twelve days of Christmas” from Christmas Day to Epiphany? Even today, a sprig of Rowan tree burned at Christmas gets rid of bad feelings between neighbors and friends.
Scotland celebrated Christmas simply and happily – until the Reformation and John Knox. In the 16th century, the Kirk frowned upon the celebration of Christmas, or Yule, as a Popish festival. People were even singing Christmas carols! The celebration of Christmas – or “Christ’s Mass” – was banned in 1583! It was said to have no basis in the Bible. And that ban lasted in Scotland until 1958! As Scottish author Sylvia Anderson wrote: “since the sixteen hundreds, only the Puritans of Massachusetts could rival the Scots for a Christmas of solemnity and downright gloominess.” I remember working in Britain, when Christmas Day was a normal working day in Scotland. Of course, I got only one day off at Hogmanay, while north of the border they got three! Ten years ago, some Scottish banks had strikes, because they were giving English holidays (Christmas Day and Boxing Day) rather than Scottish holidays (with more time off at Hogmanay).
But in the Highlands, rules and regulations were, and are today, politely ignored in favor of common sense.  Throughout this time Christmas was a joyous feast of music, dancing, food and merrymaking. Bonfires were burned and ashes kept for good luck. Juniper branches were burned in houses and barns. Oatmeal husks and siftings, cooked to a consistency of molasses, are served on Christmas morning as “new sowens”. A person born on Christmas Day is expected to be able to see spirits and have power over them.  My grandmother, helped by us kids, made the Christmas puddings, weeks before Christmas, while she complained about the cost of dried fruit.
Of all the wonderful Gaelic carols, only one made its way into the Scottish Church Hymnary. Unlike our carols, with angel choruses, trumpets, gifts from kings, and messages from God, the Gaelic carols my sister sings, like “Taladh Chriosta” (the Christ Child’s Lullaby) tell of a young mother looking down lovingly at her new-born boy – and wondering aloud what life will hold for him. This Gaelic simplicity somehow seems more meaningful. Occasionally we Presbyterians sing “Morning Has Broken” – and coming from a Scottish Catholic heritage, I reflect that the tune is a Hebridean melody we used for “Leahabh An Aigh” (Child in the Manger).
The simple story translated many times into song, of Joseph leading a pregnant Mary through trees – of Mary asking for some fruit – of Joseph telling her to get the father of her child to feed her – and of unborn Jesus ordering the trees to bend down, so Mary can reach the fruit – comes from a simple Gaelic poem from Benbecula.
Another Highland tradition has been described this way. “In the week before Christmas, more than fourteen hundred years ago, Columba and his monks showed simple Highland hospitality at Christmas. Visitors, rich or poor, holy men or lepers, were immediately happed around with kindness. A blessing was said, and they were given a meal. No matter what kind of person knocks at the door, he must never be turned away, because here may be the Christ again, in the guise of a stranger.” Even today, homes on the island of Barra set a lighted candle in the window, to welcome the Holy Family, should they pass that way.
This year, have a wonderful, but simple, Highland Christmas!


The Origins of Hogmanay

While New Year’s Eve is celebrated around the world, many customs, like singing Auld Lang Syne, come from Scotland.
The Scots have a long heritage associated with this event.  We even have our own name for it – Hogmanay.
Where does the word “Hogmanay” come from?  Scotland has been influenced by so many cultures through history, it’s difficult to say.  It could be from the Anglo-Saxon “haleg monath” (Holy month), or the Gaelic “oge maiden” (new morning).  The Scandinavian feast that preceeded Yule was “hoggo-nott”, while the Flemish words “hoog min dag” mean “great love day”.  Many think the most likely source is the French “homme est né” (man is born).  We are, after all, celebrating a new beginning.  Presents exchanged in Normandy (the land of Robert the Bruce and many Scots nobles) were called “hoguignetes”.
Regardless of the source of the name, the celebration seems to date back to pagan festivals centered around the Winter Solstice.  At the time of the shortest day in the darkest time of the year, people were ready to welcome the return of the sun, longer hours of daylight and warmer times.
As with many holidays (holy days) the church grudgingly took the dates from pagan celebrations.  That didn’t mean they had to accept the riotous release of human emotions – the partying.  In 1693, Presbyterian Eloquence recorded: “it is ordinary among some Plebians in the South of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.”  Shame on those plebs!
But at that time, the kirk was not feeling very charitable towards riotous behavior.  They’d already banned the celebration of Christmas – and Christmas remained banned in Scotland until the 1950s – almost 400 years later. The reason has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, which focuses on Easter as the big holiday – Christmas was a Popish or Catholic feast, and therefore had to be banned.

Can you imagine what John Knox would have thought of today’s New year’s Eve festival in Edinburgh?  See picture below.

Hogmanay Celebrations

Historians believe that we inherited the riotous celebration from the Vikings who, coming from even farther north than ourselves, paid even more attention to the passing of the shortest day of winter.  The time for raiding would soon be approaching – with fresh food and women and plunder. In Shetland, where the Viking influence is strong, New Year is sometimes called “Yules”, from the Scandinavian word.

In lands where daylight almost disappears in winter, turning the corner at the Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate.  It is the New Year, when friends and family gather to celebrate and to exchange gifts.  This is what Scots call Hogmanay.

Hogmany Traditions 

There are many traditions, like cleaning the house thoroughly (redding up) before midnight on December 31st.  This includes taking out the ashes from the fireplace.  There are also admonitions to clear all your debts before the bells strike midnight – so you can start the New Year with a clean slate.  In many homes, good luck totems are hung from the mantel (the fireplace was the center around which families gathered) – things like a rowan tree sprig (for good luck), mistletoe (not for kissing, as at Christmas, but to ward off sickness), and holly sprigs (to keep out mischievous fairies).
Of course, the holly sprigs never seemed to keep out mischievous children.  The custom of Hogmanay guising is similar to that of Halloween.  Children go from house to house, looking for oatcake, black bun, shortbread, sweets or money.  Their traditional song is:
Rise up guid wife, an’ shake your feathers.
Dinna think that we are beggars.
We are bairns, come out to play.
Get up, and gie us our Hogmanay!

An integral part of the Hogmanay partying, which continues to this day, is to welcome friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and a kiss to wish everyone a Guid New Year.  The underlying belief is to clear out the last vestiges of the old year, and welcome in the New Year with a fresh start.  Bagpipers still pipe the New Year in at midnight, by playing a lament for the old year and something upbeat to welcome the new.
First footing (that is the first foot to cross the threshold after midnight) is still common in Scotland.  A portend of good luck for the coming year is when the first foot belongs to a dark male (a throwback to the days of Viking raids, when finding a blond or redheaded stranger at your door probably meant trouble).  The first foot should bring gifts:  coal (for warmth), shortbread, salt or black bun (food), and, of course, whisky (the water of life).
During the partying, the toast “Lang may yer Lum Reek” may be heard.  This means “Long may your chimney smoke” – a wish that you may have the good fortune to be able to buy coal, to keep warm.
When midnight strikes, it is traditional to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.  This Scottish song from Robert Burns is sung all over the world.  It’s a song about long lost friendship being renewed, with a promise never to forget those we’re with.  The tune is actually older than the lyrics, having been written 80 years before Burns published his song in 1788,
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?
  For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
  We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Torch Processions and Bonfires

The magical fireworks display and torchlight procession in our capital, Edinburgh, and many other Scottish cities, is reminiscent of the ancient customs of Hogmanay parties hundreds of years ago. A few years ago, the procession swelled to over 100,000 people! The risk to public safety forced the organisers to make this a ticketed event. Today, several thousand people, with lighted torches, wend their way from the Mound, through the city, up to the top of Calton Hill, where they throw their torches into the bonfires that burn late into the night.



Wearing Hides

Another traditional ceremony of New Year involves people dressing up in cattle hides and running around the village being beaten with sticks.  In the small remote villages of the Outer hebrides, where customs and language are cherished and preserved, these custome are alive.  On the Isle of Lewis, young boys form themselves into bands, with the leader wearing a sheepskin, while band members carry sacks.  They go through the village from house to house, reciting a Gaelic rhyme.  When they are invited inside a house, the leader walks clockwise round the fire, while everyone hits the skin with sticks.  walking counter-clockwise (starting to the right) is Widdershins – the witches way!  The boys are given some bannocks (fruit buns) for their sacks – before moving on to the next house.
Lighted torches are often made from animal hides wrapped around sticks.  When ignited, they produce a thick aromatic smoke, believed to be effective in warding off evil spirits.  These smoking sticks are known as Hogmanays.
One of the most spectacular fire ceremonies takes place in Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen.  Giant fireballs, weighing up to 20 pounds, are lit and swung around on 5 foot long metal poles, requiring 60 men to carry them as they march up and down the high Street.  This pre-Christian custom is believed to be linked to the Winter Solstice of late December, with the fireballs signifying the return of the sun.  At that time it was believed that the sun swung around the world.  The sun was believed to consume evil spirits.

U Helly Aa

Another New Year’s ritual is Up Helly Aa – the world’s greatest fire festival!  It takes place in ten towns in the Shetland Islands on different dates from the end of January through late February.  The Norse words have meanings as follows:  “Up” indicates something that is coming to an end;  “Helly” refers to a Holy Day;  and “Aa” signifies a series of festive days.  So “Up Helly Aa” means the end of the winter holidays (Solstice, Yule, Christmas and New Year).
It is a celebration of our Norse ancestry, centered around a replica Viking long boat which has been assembled throughout the previous year.  Teams of people called Jarls man the boat, with a Guizer Jarl as the principal character.  Each Guizer Jarl takes the name of a Norse legend.
This custom dates back only two hundred years, but it involves entire towns dressing up as their Viking ancestors.  They ceremonially drag the galley through the streets, before the torchbearers circle the boat and sing the Up Helly Aa song.  Then they throw their torches into the galley, and the Viking long boat is burned. After the galley has been burned, the crowd sings the song “The Norseman’s Home” – with many a tearful eye.
It’s truly a spectacle to put on your bucket list!
After the formal burning and singing, the Guizer Jarls visit every hall to greet and drink with the guests.  This can take well into the next morning, which is OK because the next day is “Hop Night”, a day for yet more feasting, dancing and drinking.
Up Helly Aa takes place in many towns in the Shetland Islands, and thousands of locals and visitors take part each year.  In some towns, the celebrations go on for days.
With all this celebrating, it’s worth remembering that January 2nd is a public holiday in Scotland – to give everyone time to recover from merry-making.  It’s all part of Scotland’s unique cultural heritage of pagan traditions surrounding the darkest time of the year, and the welcome return of the sun in the days following the Winter Solstice. Return to top.

Gaelic Language

Gaelic College on Skye offers distance learning courses via the Internet, including introductory and advanced courses in Gaelic for non-degree students. To find out more, and to listen to a sample exercise, go to www.smo.uhi.ac.uk and click “Quick Links/Short Courses”, “Distance Learning” and finally the individual course link