GREAT SCOTTISH HISTORY
We’d like to take this opportunity to pay homage to the ‘Great Scots’ and all the wonderful things that make them interesting. The Scottish have made many important contributions to our society, and paved the way for future innovation in the fields of telecommunications, medicine and more. Your crash course in Scottish history and facts of varying importance begins here.
Scots with Smarts
Alexander Graham Bell — invented the telephone
Bell’s work with hearing devices led to being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876. Ironically, he considered his most famous invention an intrusion on his scientific work and refused to have a telephone in his study. We don’t suppose he’d have a Facebook page, either, were he alive today.
Alexander Fleming — discovered penicillin
Fleming accidentally discovered the world’s first antibiotic by leaving his laboratory in an untidy mess. Said Fleming, “I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, but I suppose that’s exactly what I did.” He made many unsuccessful attempts to develop a formula that would last long enough in the human body, but stopped studying penicillin in 1931, giving other scientists the opportunity to research and mass produce the infection-fighting agent. A more detailed account of Fleming’s discovery can be found here.
John Logie Baird — invented the television
Named one of the ten greatest Scottish scientists in history, Baird developed the world’s first practical television system. Said a newspaper editor who was asked to help promote Baird’s new invention, “He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless!” Just think. Without Baird’s ingenuity, we wouldn’t have reality television. Which would be a real tragedy.
Alexander Graham Bell
Sir Walter Scott — pioneer of the historical novel
Known internationally in his lifetime, Scott’s works remain classics of both English and Scottish literature. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake, and Rob Roy, a particular favorite of certain women at Tartan who still haven’t outgrown their crush on Liam Neeson.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — innovator in the crime fiction genre
Doyle began writing while waiting for patients at his independent (and unsuccessful) medical practice. He is most known for his Sherlock Holmes detective stories, but published a number of other works in science fiction, poetry, plays and non-fiction.
Sherlock Holmes is rumored to have been the inspiration behind the main character on the television drama “House.” (House, Holmes, get it?) House’s ability to deduce and diagnose medical mysteries, his substance abuse and his trusty sidekick Dr. Wilson (Dr. Watson) are just some of the other parallels. Coincidence? We think not. For a more exhaustive list of similarities, click here.
Robert Louis Stevenson — novelist, poet, essayist
Stevenson’s best known works include Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A literary celebrity during his lifetime, he is currently among the 30 most translated authors in the world.
Braveheart: The Man and the Movie
The script for the 1995 epic Hollywood blockbuster was primarily based on Blind Harry’s 15th century poem about 13th century Scottish knight Sir William Wallace. Wallace is known for leading a resistance during the Wars of Scottish Independence and is remembered today as a patriot and national hero. The movie crew spent six weeks shooting on location in Scotland, but shot major battle scenes in Ireland, using members of the Irish Army Reserve as extras. Visit the Wikipedia page for more interesting cinematic facts.
Dolly the Sheep – first cloned mammal
Though Dolly’s time on Earth was short-lived, she became quite a celebrity and brought worldwide acclaim to Scotland’s Roslin Institute, where she lived for all six years of her life. The “world’s most famous sheep” was survived by her six children.
Liam Neeson as Rob Roy. Isn’t he dreamy?
Holidays and Celebrations
Hogmanay — December 31
This celebration of bringing in the new year is more important to Scotland than Christmas.
Burns Night — January 25
To commemorate the birth of poet Robert Burns, a “Burns Supper” is consumed (which involves the infamous haggis) and a speech is given in praise of the bard.
St. Brigid’s Day — February 1
On the eve of this holiday, Brigid is said to walk the earth. Before going to bed that night, each member of the household leaves a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside for Brigid to bless, and in the morning the clothes and cloth strips are brought in and are believed to possess powers of healing and protection.
Braemar Gathering — first Saturday in September
This major Highland Games event dates back to the 11th century. Queen Victoria ensured the success of the games into modern times by attending them in 1848, and the Royal family has been associated ever since.
Halloween — October 31
Typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the name roughly translates to “summer’s end.” In traditional Celtic festivals, large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. This practice has evolved to the pumpkin carving we know today.
St. Andrew’s Day — November 30
St. Andrew has been the patron saint of Scotland since 747 AD. Though not a public holiday, St. Andrew’s is more commonly celebrated by expatriate Scots around the world.
St. Brigid represents the power that brings people from the dark season of winter into spring. We think she deserves her own holiday, too.
Myths and Legends
The Thistle — Scotland’s national emblem
Legend has it that an invading band of Vikings was set to descend upon a camp of sleeping Scot warriors and were thwarted when one of the attackers trod on a wild thistle with his bare feet. His cries roused the Scots, who defeated their enemies and named their saving grace the Guardian Thistle.
The Unicorn — Scotland’s national animal
While an unlikely choice (and also not a real animal), the unicorn was chosen as Scotland’s national animal because of what it symbolized: innocence, purity, joy and even magical powers of healing. It was regarded as a wild, fierce, freedom-loving creature — traits the Scots themselves embodied.
Loch Ness Monster — fact or fiction?
Nessie was first spotted by St. Columba in the 6th century. Explanations for the surge in sightings since the mysterious 1930s photos have been attributed to giant eels, the existence of a plesiosaur or just too much whiskey. Despite the fact that modern science dismisses Nessie’s existence as an unfounded legend, her positive effect on local tourism is undeniable. To see a timeline chronicling major “discoveries,” click here.
Haunted Castles — ghosts, apparitions and tortured spirits, oh my!
Buildings with long histories tend to collect stories. Borthwick Castle claims regular sightings of Mary Queen of Scots dressed as a pageboy. Her Highness escaped from Borthwick in 1567 wearing a similar disguise.
Robert Bruce and the Spider – how the Scots defeated the English
Robert Bruce was crowned King of Scotland in 1306 and was forced into hiding almost immediately when the English invaded his country. He sought refuge in a cave, where he watched a spider try to spin its web from one part of the cave to another. Six times it tried and failed. On the seventh attempt it succeeded. Bruce took this as a sign that he should not give up his struggle to free Scotland from the English, and ended up defeating a much larger English army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Tidbits and Trivia
The Game of Golf
According to some, modern golf as we know it started on a pasture in Scotland, when a shepherd hitting pebbles with his crook accidentally sank one in a nearby rabbit hole. Others trace the sport back to Roman times, and believe the game spread and evolved as the Roman army conquered lands throughout Europe. Most agree that the modern game originated in Scotland, where James II’s ban of the game resulted in the first mention of golf on written record.
The Highland Games
The annual Highland Games are a mixture of Gaelic customs, and date back hundreds of years. The Games are held throughout the year in Scotland, and attract tens of thousands of competitors and spectators for music, dancing and athletic displays of brute strength. Present day games include battle reenactments, bagpiping, drumming and events like the caber toss, stone put and Scottish hammer throw, performed by men wearing kilts (which is no easy feat). See the Wikipedia page for a more detailed account of the past, present and future of the Games.
“He was a bold man who first ate a haggis” says an old Scottish proverb. This traditional (and infamous) dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, is mixed with oatmeal and spices and simmered in the animal’s stomach. Typically eaten with neeps (turnips) and potatoes, haggis was memorialized as the national dish of Scotland in Robert Burns’ 1787 poem “Address to a Haggis”. It’s traditionally served with the Burns supper during the week of January 25, when Scotland’s national poet is commemorated. If you’re still hungry for more, feel free to browse here.
Scottish Fun Facts
Fact #1 – Scotland has three official languages: English, Scots (a relative of English) and Scottish Gaelic. A well-known unofficial language is Scottish English, or English spoken with a strong Scots accent.
Fact #2 – At least six U.S. presidents were of Scottish descent.
Fact #3 – Scotland’s flag is one of the oldest of any country in the world, dating back to the 12th century.
Fact #4 – Scotland was an independent country until 1603. After merging governments with England in 1707, it became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Haggis. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach).