Looking for an event that’s uniquely Scottish? Or do you know one, but have always wondered how it became a part of Scottish culture? We go behind the scenes of nine iconic Scottish events to show you their rich history, so that next time you visit Scotland, you can enjoy them on an even deeper level.
On the 25th of January, people in Scotland come together to honour the life and work of our literary hero, Robert Burns. We celebrate with a Burns Supper, which combines a tasty meal of our iconic (and delicious) haggis, and a series of readings from Burns’ work.
Every Burns Night is celebrated slightly differently, but it all began when a group of Burns’ friends got together at his old cottage to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. They must have thought it a good night, as they decided to form a society and repeat the event six months later, on his birthday.
There were some initial hiccups, such as having the wrong date for Burns’ birthday! But from 1803 onward, the society has held a Burns Supper every year on the 25th of January. The popularity of the original Burns Society was so large, that more and more people heard about the Burns Suppers, and created their own Burns societies and events. Nowadays, Burns night is celebrated by many in Scotland and across the world.
It’s a great night if you like food and literature! Why not follow our guide to organise your own Burns Supper or come visit in 2022 and celebrate this special evening with us in Scotland?
Up Helly Aa
Ever since the 19th century, the people of Shetland have been celebrating their Norse heritage every year by parading through their town centres as Vikings and by setting fire to a longship. Afterwards, locals and visitors alike alike gather to continue their party by dancing in one of the town’s many charming pubs and restaurants until deep into the night.
Shetland was a part of Norway until 1469, but the Up Helly Aa celebration is unique to the islands. It’s not celebrated anywhere else in Scandinavia or in other former Viking areas. If anything, this wintry fire festival seems to have more similarities with the other Celtic fire festivals on mainland Scotland, such as the Stonehaven Fireballs.
Nevertheless, when the first Up Helly Aa parade was held in Lerwick in 1881, it was intended as a celebration of Shetland’s Norse heritage. More Viking elements, such as the burning of the longship, were added in later years. Every community on Shetland organises their own Up Helly Aa, each of which is slightly different. There are 11 in total, taking place between January and March and attrachting thousands of visitors every year.
Experience these unique events yourself in 2022, marvel at the fire parade and party all night with Vikings. The first Up Helly Aa of the year is the Scalloway Fire Festival (second Friday of January) while the largest celebration takes place in Lerwick (final Tuesday of January). There is also the Delting Up Helly Aa (third Friday of March) which roughly takes place around the time that the first puffins return to Scotland for the summer.
Learn more about Up Helly Aa.
The Six Nations, both the men’s and the women’s rugby tournament, takes place every year from the first weekend in February and culminates five weeks later on Super Saturday. The first tournament kicked off in 1883 and featured the then four home nations of the UK: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. France and Italy joined later on in 1910 and 2000 respectively. Every nation plays each other once, resulting in a tournament with a total of 15 matches.
But rugby itself only became a sport in the UK in the 19th century. Until the 1860s, rugby and football were basically the same sport with everyone running and kicking the ball around. It’s thought this original game started all the way back in Scotland and England in the Middle Ages when entire villages would play against each other. People tried to get a ball, usually made from a pig’s bladder, to the opposing village’s cemetery gates. It was known as a ‘mock war’ and wasn’t uncommon for there to be injuries or even fatalities!
In 1871, a game of modern rugby was played between England and Scotland in Edinburgh (which Scotland won). This led to about 12 years of occasional friendly matches between the home nations, after which the Home International Championship, the precursor to the Six Nations, was played in 1883.
Come to Scotland and cheer your favourite team on! You’re always welcome to join the supporters and lively atmosphere in one of Scotland’s many bars and pubs showing the games.
If you want to see something more like the historic version of rugby in action, check out the Kirkwall Ba’. This event takes place in Orkney every year on Christmas and New Years’ Day, and combines the old rules with a much more gentle play!
Learn more about rugby in Scotland.
This traditional Celtic festival heralds the beginning of summer and takes place on the 30th of April, roughly halfway between the Spring Equinox and Midsummer. It originated amongst the Goidelic Celts of Ireland and is even older than the Roman conquest of Britain. Once celebrated all over Scotland, it’s nowadays mostly known for the spectacular fire show on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.
Beltane used to have an important religious and social function. The bonfires at Beltane symbolised the return of summer when communities got together, partied and drove cattle round the fires to purify themselves and their livestock.
Organised by the Beltane Fire Society to rekindle Celtic traditions and reconnect people to nature, the festival on Calton Hill is a revival of ancient traditions and has taken place every year since 1988. Why not experience it yourself? Enjoy the parade, featuring the May Queen, the death and rebirth of the Green Man, and the lighting of the bonfire.
Maybe you’re already familiar with Beltane from the film The Wicker Man (1973). The festivities and ritual at the film’s climax are a very, very loose adaptation of the festival. But don’t worry, there are no sacrifices at the actual Beltane festival! Experience the movie’s filming locations in Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway.
Learn more about Beltane and other Scottish fire festivals.
World Whisky Day
World Whisky Day sounds like it’s a century-old institution, just like whisky itself. But it’s actually pretty new! It takes place every third Saturday in May and is celebrated worldwide, as the centrepiece of Scotland’s Whisky Month.
World Whisky Day was founded in 2012 by Blair Bowman, a student of Hispanic Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Bowman, already a whisky enthusiast, did part of his studies in Spain where he discovered how much people abroad loved the drink. Surprised that there wasn’t an international day for whisky at the time, he decided to create one and it was a worldwide success from the start.
Celebrate World Whisky Day and Whisky Month in Scotland. Enjoy some of the fun events and tastings taking place and learn more about the history and the creation of the drink with an inspiring distillery tour.
Scotland has five whisky regions, each with its distinct flavour. Learn more about which kind of whisky would be enjoyed by your Scottish ancestors or which Scottish clan you belong to based on your taste in whisky.
Learn more about World Whisky Day.
Every year, people in Scotland watch competitors test their strength and endurance against each other at different gatherings all over Scotland. The first games of the year take place in Gourock in May, but the season peaks in July and August with events right across the country, before coming to a close in September.
Legend has it that King Malcolm III called the first ever Highland games in the 11th century, and asked the clans’ fastest runners to race to the summit of the Craig Choinnich near Braemar. The winner would become his new personal courier, making the first ever gathering an elaborate and challenging job interview!
Every gathering is unique, but modern Highland games are usually overseen by a chieftain and feature music, dance and athletic competitions, such as the famous caber toss, hammer throw and track and field events. Some games even let spectators compete in certain simpler events, so you can join the games in Scotland too!
Check out our amazing video for everything you need to know about the Highland games, and plan a trip to experience this iconic spectacle yourself.
Learn more about the Highland games, including how you can organise your own in the back garden.
Largs Viking Festival
At the port town of Largs on the stunning coast of Ayrshire, a festival takes places every year to remember the last great battle between the Scots and Vikings. The festival has been held since 1980 at the end of August/beginning of September in order to preserve the Viking link with Largs.
Experience how history comes to life at the Largs Viking Festival with the reading of the Saga of Haakon Hákonarson, who was King of Norway, Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, and hear of how he tried to defend his realm from King Alexander III of Scotland.
Have fun with the whole family at the Scottish Food and Craft Fayre, the Viking Village, the Labyrinth and more. There are normally various musical performances, as well as a torchlit parade that ends with the burning of a Viking longship and a spectacular fireworks display.
Learn more about the Largs Viking Festival.
St Andrew’s Day
St Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2007, honouring Scotland’s patron saint on 30th November every year. There are a variety of events held to mark the day across the country, but why is the 30th so important, why Andrew of all saints and what does it have to do with the Scottish flag?
Let’s start with the date. In the 11th century, the old pagan festival of Halloween was still important for many Scots, because it was a major festive reminder for farmers to move their cattle from the pastures into the stables for winter. King Malcolm III tried to replace this pagan celebration with a Christian one by instructing farmers to bring their cattle in about a month later on St Andrew’s Day.
As an apostle of Jesus who was famously martyred on a diagonal cross, Andrew was one of the more well-known saints. However, aside from a mass in his honour on the 30th November, the day wasn’t that special yet.
Next up, the saint. It wasn’t until 300 years later during the First Scottish War for Independence (1296–1328), that the Scottish nobles declared that Saint Andrew would be Scotland’s official patron saint. Saint Andrew had been growing in popularity for the past three centuries, but only from 1320 was he officially Scotland’s chief saint.
Lastly, the flag. You might already know that our saltire is also called the flag of Saint Andrew or that it depicts Saint Andrew’s cross. So, you might also think that after declaring Andrew to be Scotland’s patron saint, the Scots used the flag with his cross to charge into battle. But this wasn’t the case. The flag wasn’t used until after the war, at a border skirmish at Otterburn in 1388.
St Andrew’s Day has taken on new dimensions since the Middle Ages. From a simple date to replace Halloween, we now celebrate our bank holiday with festivals or a nice traditional ceilidh. Come and experience it yourself, and see the saint’s flag proudly fly on flagpoles across the country.
In Scotland, we celebrate Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) with spectacular fire festivals as well as a couple of unique customs, traditions, fireworks, ceilidhs and (live) music. In short, Hogmanay is not just the Scots word for New Year, it’s a completely unique celebration. But where does it come from?
Nobody knows for sure, but we have some pretty good clues:
- The word ‘Hogmanay’ only exists in Scots, a language derived from a northern dialect of Old English.
- Hogmanay is a fire festival that marks an important moment on the calendar and is only celebrated in Scotland and the North of England, places where people used to speak this dialect of Old English.
- Fire festivals are usually Celtic celebrations to mark important moments on the calendar. On Halloween at the start of autumn, or Beltane at the start of spring, the ancient Celts for example used bonfires to symbolically purify people and livestock and to ward off fairies and other evil spirits.
- There are no Celtic winter fire festivals on the British Isles.
- Hogmanay takes place around the same time as Yule, the Viking new year, which is not a fire festival.
So, what do all of these clues try to tell us? Well, there used to be a kingdom, the Kingdom of Northumbria, in the Middle Ages that stretched along the North Sea from the Firth of Forth all the way south to the River Humber. Its people, a mix of Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Viking rulers, spoke this aforementioned northern dialect of Old English.
It’s quite common that when people mingle, cultures mingle too. And when the Vikings celebrated Yule, which is one of the biggest events in the Viking year, it got infused with elements from Halloween and Beltane, which are two of the biggest events in the Celtic year.
Fairies play an important role in both Celtic celebrations, and they used to for Hogmanay too. The name for the festival is namely thought to come from the Old English word Hoghman, which translates to ‘hill man’ or ‘fairy’. So Hogmanay would mean something like ‘feast of fairies’, and could very well be a Viking-Scots version of Yule and Halloween mixed together.
One tradition from Viking times that we still do today in Scotland at Hogmanay is ‘first-footing’. For the ritual, a dark-haired man needs to be the first person to visit you in the new year for good luck. The implication is that, in the Middle Ages, a fair-haired man who entered your house first would have been a Viking raider. Yikes! Check out our video for more quirky Scottish Hogmanay traditions.
One of the most spectacular features of Hogmanay are our impressive annual torch parades in Edinburgh on the night of the 30th of December, and those in Biggar, Combrie and Stonehaven on Hogmanay itself.
Learn more about Hogmanay.
We hope you enjoyed reading about the history behind Scottish events. Scotland’s events are making a comeback! Check out our unique Scottish cultural events and explore our events calendar, which includes some special events for our Year of Stories 2022.
Love Scottish history? Don’t forget to also visit our blog about the fascinating history behind the hit TV series Outlander.