Scottish Traits and the Personality of the Scots

Self-isolation, social distancing, house arrest, lockdown…..choose your poison it all amounts to the same quandary. We’re stuck indoors for the foreseeable. Travel plans cancelled, work ceased or radically altered and social lives decimated. Tough times for us all and quite rightly I’ll not be talking much about travel for some time while we power through. But I felt it important to pause briefly from my on-going and increasingly concerning destruction of the whisky cabinet to jot down some thoughts on something that’s never too far from my mind. The Scots, and our distinctively Scottish traits. What an odd bunch we are.

A never-ending enigma of paradoxes, frustrations and bemusements. We’re straining at the leash to be judgemental and opinionated….yet deeply reticent and prone to caution, held back by deep-rooted fear. We’re kind, fair and ethically-led, yet thrifty, dour and bitter. A mess of personality, I’ve chatted at length with both Scots and non-Scots about the state of us and have responded with both pride and empathetic frustration to their summations. Let’s delve.

 

The Scottish Nature, Temperament and Values

I’ve loosely concluded that simply being Scottish is a heavy burden. We’re expected to embody something. Both men and women, although men probably even more so. To display shades of the legendary heroics of our ancestors (we invented almost everything you know), yet comply ethically with the unwritten code of Scottishness which we are all such strict and devoted followers of.

scottish traits robert the bruce
These guys are hard acts to follow!
robert burns scottish stereotypes
From a young age, local icons are thrust upon young Scots as role models. Feeling inadequate much?
william wallace scottish personality
Scottish traits will alwasy be influenced by the actions of the furious underdog, William Wallace.

Big advocates of equality, Scots have embraced the modern world, particularly in the last decade or two, to welcome ‘new’ Scots of all types under our little umbrella. We have a very liberal mindset where immigration is concerned. Gender equality is ahead of the pace also, with your average Scottish man living in relative reverence of the Mrs and a Scottish government led by Nicola Sturgeon, one of Europe’s most popular politicians. We value education, which is why it’s free. And we look after the most vulnerable through free medical care and support. As societies go, Scotland does a good job of offering somewhere safe, fair and happy to live. This stuff’s critically important to us.

So we’re all very chuffed with that, but what about how our psyches influence Scottish traits? First, there’s the issue of modesty. We like acknowledgement of our gallant efforts at being a good Scot sure (pat on the head), but are usually uncomfortable with direct praise. We can’t exit the conversation fast enough if that materialises. Gruff, monosyllabic small talk and desperate references to the weather or the Cowdenbeath football score can be expected instead.

travels with a kilt scotland
Some of us are such a mess that we need to broadcast our Scottishness at every opportunity.

Then there’s our nature. We have had to put up with the long-term accusation of being tight-fisted, as in stingy. I’d unsurprisingly disagree, although there’s no denying our cautious and calculating tendencies. We’re also loyal, considerate and generous when it’s called for. Especially when drinking and allowing ourselves the rarest of unguarded moments when we may permit those deeply buried emotions to burrow just ever so slightly upwards towards daylight. Is it any wonder that alcohol is so prominent in our lives?

But it doesn’t take long for the contradictions to begin. While there’s no question that we fight ferociously to control and hide our emotions, they can spectacularly spill out in certain circumstances. Extreme ethical and moral eruptions such as a woman mistreated, an innocent exploited or an unfinished pint spilled and your average Scottish bar is likely to turn into a grotesque arena of out-of-shape gladiators suddenly obligated by Scots Law to unleash their inner Braveheart.

the scots
Spill ma pint would ye…. Image from Outlaw King, a Netflix Production

 

How we regard others

I think the Scottish trait of being extremely friendly is a well-earned one, and that’s because we genuinely have a lot of time for people from the wider world. We like tourists, it’s not an act. I would put it out there with relative confidence that Scots prefer non-Scots to themselves, most of the time. You guys are the undoubted beneficiaries of our best behaviour – did you really think Glasgow taxi drivers were always that friendly? Perhaps it’s the excitement of something new and unfamiliar, perhaps it’s that under-the-surface desire to be liked and loved. With that heavy burden of Scottishness around our necks, we unburden by presenting the best of us to others, secretly (and insecurely) hoping for approval and admiration at the same time.

vikings with scottish traits
We love a good Viking story.

Certainly we feel a kin with our near-neighbours. The Scandinavians have intertwined nicely into our historical storyline and Viking tales and heritage remain integral on the Northern Isles in particular. We are very proudly European for the most part, long taking a curious comfort from our Auld Alliance with the French and our modern-day infatuation with the Spanish (with whom we enjoy the vast majority of our holiday time), despite the stark cultural differences. To be in the front row when a Scot is caught in a Southern European physical embrace truly is a sight to behold. Bolt rigid, wide-eyed and the tragic epitome of social awkwardness, this riot is fortunately fading slightly with the passing of each generation….even if extravagant warmth and physical displays of affection will never be our most natural suit.

Casting the net wider than Europe, we assume pretty much everywhere else is exotic and probably much more exciting than drab old Scotland. Why folk from far fields – who have never set foot in Scotland – are so keen to see themselves as ‘Scottish’ is amusingly bemusing in the extreme. We welcome all with genuine and slightly confused warmth, keen to hear what on earth made you decide you wanted a holiday in the rain.

stac polliadh scottish traits with landscapes
We hold our mountains in the highest regard, yet seem confused when others come from all over the world to experience them for themselves.

The Irish are our much more gregarious and extroverted Celtic pals from across the sea. Similar, yet so very different. The comparison has perhaps best been summed up as so – the Irish are fire on the outside, steel inside. Scots are the reverse. Cousins that very much enjoy the occasional meet up (drink), things are only likely to turn ugly if the they dare to suggest that they possess the superior whisky.

The English are something else entirely and our story is long, tumultuous and endlessly inter-connected, for better or worse. History has possibly never seen such an intense relationship between two countries. The English have been to the Scots friends, allies, family, rivals, oppressors, enemies…..all have been true at some point. Contrary to lazy assumption, I don’t think Scots (aside from the odd nutcase) simply dislike English people. That would be nonsense, and blatant racism, not something we’d tolerate. History is inescapable, and every generation of Scots will inherit those bruises in some form or another. But equally Scots were all too willing to be joined at the hip with England during the booming years of the British Empire. We enjoy pretending there’s an almighty distance between us when it suits and oppression has often been an easy shield. “Poor wee Scotland”, we’re good at that. Yet there is no question that a complex resentment simmers away, bubbling up now and again as has been seen even in recent political times. Fascinating neighbours, indeed.

But all of these different views we have of the world and its people come together where hospitality is concerned. We love the stuff. It serves up to us all, on a plate, the chance to show off how Scottish we are. And for that, we’re always grateful.

 

 

How we regard ourselves

This is perhaps even more telling. While we tend to be on our best behaviour with visitors, the mask is on another face when dealing with fellow Scots. At our worst, we actually perversely enjoy seeing other Scots fail. A Scot who is visibly an achiever, doing well for themselves or being ostentatious in any way, is automatically to be subjected to jealousy, suspicion and dislike. “Getting too big for their boots this one”, “who’d they run over to get where they are” and such. It’s very telling in its simplicity.

Scots bumping into other Scots abroad is hilarious. An almost equal dose of dismay, relief, annoyance and fresh confidence come together to do battle. Delighted that they can finally stop pretending to speak any language other than their own (trawling through high school lesson memories has been exhausting, however much they like to think they’ve been getting away with it), this is matched by how un-exotic their travel experience has suddenly become with these new additions. How dare this lot come flip-flopping their way into my balmy utopia; but Thank God they are here as I’m no longer the only lobster on the beach and we can talk about how cheap the local booze is and why Greenock Morton may be in line for a marginally above-average season.

scottish traits scots abroad
Upon seeing a Burns statue in New Zealand, these Scots were obligated to pose in solidarity. Delighted about it too.

Before long in this instance, the conversation turns towards regional Scottish traits and is followed swiftly by an unstoppable torrent of judgement, scorn and stereotyping. It may sound like a benign geographical enquiry, softly spoken just at the point when a possible alliance is on the cards, but don’t be fooled. A more loaded scenario you cannot imagine as the seemingly innocuous words “where abouts are you from?” come nonchalantly marching into the equation. Expect immediate brandings along the lines of:

Glasgow – Psychos. Or military-grade socialists. Both, probably both. Taxi.

Edinburgh – Posh gits. And probably not really Scottish at all.

Aberdeen – Surprised I can understand a word they’ve been saying. Oh, and cheer up.

I jest, of course. We’ll rush to judgement, sure, but generally Scots abroad will get on much better than they ever would when at home. We like the reminders of the familiar, hesitant as we may be to admit it. In my younger days I was a holiday rep on the Mediterranean and took great joy in bringing Scottish famillies together, after a little handholding. We are unquestionably a different animal when we travel.

In the extreme of this, the Tartan Army are a legendary movement of travelling Scots who boisterously enjoy watching their team getting trounced on the road, proving with pride that we are still the best losers on the planet. They’re well-behaved, friendly-in-the-extreme and abundantly Scottish.  And want to make sure everyone knows it.`

 

 

…..and why do we go to extremes?

Maybe it’s all about balance. While Scots are clearly prone to severe emotional restraint and an inclination towards the quiet guy at the back of the class, we’ve felt the need to counter-balance that by creating the bagpipe, maybe the most intrusively dominant instrument in existence. No-one tends to think of Scots as the life and soul of the party, yet we slapped a Scottish patent on New Year’s Eve and claimed the biggest shindig of the year as our own. And the most inward and reserved of us will unleash a shameless hell on the ceilidh dancefloor when these rare opportunities present themselves.

While there’s that inescapable image of self-imposed dourness, the irony is that we’d never shut up if we didn’t take our Responsibilities of Scottishness so seriously. We’d be gossiping away, scheming, harassing, policing and orchestrating. There’s so much we want to say, but are we allowed? And while our true emotions tend to stay behind lock and key, we love a wistful, even tearful, reminisce about the raw beauty of Our Scotland. Even those who have never been further north than Dumbarton.

glen coe scotland drone
Weeping nostalgically and uncontrollably about Glen Coe is a favourite Scottish pastime.
glenfinnan viaduct drone
Romanticizing Jacobite hotspots such as Glenfinnan is another one.
silver sands of morar scotland
Nature and raw beauty are very deeply embedded in our Scottish traits and tartan souls.

Lest we forget the famous Scots’ pride of course. Proceed carefully, you’re on thin ice here. Because we generally love a good joshing and the opportunity for self-deprecation. Being wound up is part and parcel of our conversation and poking gentle fun at each other is entirely expected and welcomed. Like getting gubbed at sports, we’ll take it on the chin in astonishingly good spirits. Up to a point. Wound a Scot’s pride by taking things too far or striking a nerve and it’s a grudge for life, even if you don’t know it.

Coming back to equality, we relish the opportunity to help those in need. It’s like our calling. To help a neighbour with their shopping, buy a round for a luckless drinking companion or take it upon ourselves to mutiny against the class system, most Scots are primed and ready. Yet, we are thrawn. A very Scottish term, we take a perverse satisfaction in being obstinate and difficult. We enjoy knocking others off their perch with a “serves you right for enjoying yourself you happy bastard” salute as they tumble. It’s like a self-righteous need to defeat success.

Manners matter too. Perhaps this is best examined through hiking etiquette. If you were to take it upon yourself not to say hello to a passing Scot on a hillwalk, you will have quite simply ruined their day. I speak from experience. It is an almost physical wound when this happens, they’re stunned with the shun. They’ll take it back to their family to discuss at the dinner table, they’ll be lying awake that night mulling it over. An egregious slight, how very bloody dare they. The fact this Code of Social Understanding ceases its jurisdiction the second you get back to the car park is neither here nor there, of course.

 

So what are the Scots really?

Carefree and light-hearted we most hilariously are not but at our best, we’re honest, reliable and compassionate. Fairness reigns supreme and most Scots genuinely strive for a fairer and more equal society even if, in our eternal resigned pessimism, we fear we’ll never see one. Our moral compass is the driver in many of our decisions and big-heartedness is something we do well.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s worth having a Scot or two in your life.

 

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32 Comments

  1. I love this week’s article, Neil which I have forwarded to many of my Yankee friends here in the USA, begging the question “Is it worth having a Scot in your life?” Let’s see how they respond!
    Thanks again, please stay safe and healthy.
    Gordon

  2. Neil,

    I loved this article. Though my heritage is primarily English (my ancestors decamped from Scotland with Malcolm Canmore) and Norwegian, Scotland, especially the Highlands, is the place that feeds my soul. Now I think I have a better understanding of why that is!

    1. Always happy to help join the dots Deb. Once Scotland has worked it’s way into your soul it can’t be easily shifted 😉

  3. Neil,

    Great article. I am thrilled to know that my proclaiming to any and all Scots that I have met on my travels around Scotland about the wee bit of Scottish heritage that I have has brought a smile to my distant cousins. Being almost 80% Celtic brings a smile to my face despite my being so obviously American, and traveling thru Scotland and Ireland seems so right with my soul. My greatest find in Scotland, in addition to the amazing scenery, has been the incredible warmth and friendliness of the Scots. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

    BTW, I have almost the exact picture of Glen Coe from my last trip. And yes, the beauty of the area did get me misty eyed.

    Keep the great articles coming!
    Slainte mhath!
    Mary W.

    1. Thank you Mary and lovely to hear about the impact that Scotland has had on you. It’s such an old land, with such an old soul, that it’s understandable in every sense to form an attachment. I hope you make it back soon to build on it further!

  4. I loved this blog! As a Canadian with Scottish grandparents from the Hebrides. I saw a lot of these traits growing up. As an adult married to a man born in Perth, I see even more from him though he left Scotland at the age of 10. A visit to Scotland as a child gave me an eye-0pening experience into my grandparents beginnings; the sounds, the different food, attending the Inverness Tattoo, (not that they would have seen any of that from the Butt of Lewis). Anyway, just wanted to say this was my favourite blog post yet.

    1. Delighted to hear it Maureen. Love understanding the endless unique connections folk have with Scotland and having a little bit of Hebridean in your blood can only be a good thing! God I miss the islands…..

  5. Fascinating! Ticking a few hereditary boxes over here. what I love about the Scots is their ethno-historic pride in being Scottish. I could be wrong on this, so do correct me, but I haven’t heard a Scot say, “well I was born in Scotland but I have German and French or other heritage.” As a Canadian, though I think I can say with some measure of confidence that Canadians take pride in being Canadian, we are often searching for, and claiming our roots from elsewhere. How wonderful that you have such a strongly rooted cultural heritage and inherent traits that connect you with each other.

    1. Very true Kristen! We do seem to just refer to ourselves as Scottish and that’s that. Especially if born here for sure. Very aware of North America in particular being just as you say and searching for roots further back, for us we don’t seem to feel the need much. Although increasingly international we do have a very strong traditional Scottish identity too, which I hope never fades :-). Glad you enjoyed.

  6. Great article Neil! As an avid visitor, I particular got a chuckle from “We welcome all with genuine and slightly confused warmth, keen to hear what on earth made you decide you wanted a holiday in the rain.” Can’t wait for life to get back to normal…hoping to make another trip this fall! Stay well!

    1. Hope you can make it Leslie, I think the next 3-4 weeks will be a critical indicator if that’s on the cards. Glad you enjoyed 🙂

  7. A very sincere, deep and emotionating post indeed.
    Thanks you Neil for making feel me like if i have a Scott in my life !
    Just a wee question : because I love Scottish way of speaking and Scottish accent, could you, just for this post, make an audio link with yourself reading your text ? It would be a Scott in my computer, and a great way ton improve my scottish prononciation!
    Sincerely yours,
    Juliette from France

    1. Hello Neal,
      Note for Juliette. There is a Scots Language class on the Open University website that I highly recommend. It not only allows you to practice the Scottish words and language, there are many sections where a Scots speaker reads the lesson and the. You can record your own voice. Loved the class! And I highly recommend it.
      Ruth from the USA

    2. Thank you Juliette, glad to hear I had the desired impact! That’s an interesting idea too. I’m currently stuck abroad and don’t have any of my gear with me but let me look into it! There’s also the VisitScotland podcast of course, which is mainly me talking, and you can find that on iTunes and Soundcloud….or the Scotlanders YouTube channel where I’m also talking a lot. Cheers!

  8. Hello Neil,
    Thank you for this lovely insight into the Scottish “soul”. 🙂
    As an avid Scotland traveller I recognized a few traits – others have so far gone unnoticed by me.
    I also love the poetic language throughout your blogs (often not easy to read by someone who isn’t a native speaker which makes for a nice challenge).
    Best wishes,
    Tanja

  9. I truly enjoyed your article and will continue to read your blog. I was hoping to look for my Scottish roots in June but trip will probably not happen due to the virus. God willing I’ll be there next year. It’s truly interesting to read of the Scottish personality. Thank you.
    Ila Rice Hennig with Bruce and Blevins and Boggs ancestors.

  10. Yes Neil , a great article , I can agree with you about being ignored by a fellow hillwalker..
    Like you I often wear the kilt on the hills and always like to say hello to other walkers and often enough have a good long chat .
    I would say 95 per cent of hillwalkers always acknowledge me but I concur with you in the fact that I get annoyed when someone coming in the opposite direction , has his/her head down and is obviously going to ignore me.
    Generally there is a certain code of courtesy on the hills giving a sort of friendliness, that says ‘ are we not special to be up in the hills enjoying the spectacular panoramic views and scenery’
    Yes I get annoyed when ignored but you are right in saying this code vanishes soon as we turn on our cars ignition and head back to civilisation

    1. It stings James doesn’t it! We take it for granted and it just seems a very nice and normal thing to do in our rural areas, especially on a hike. As you say, it’s a way of sharing how fortunate we are to be enjoying these places. A point more relevant at this moment than ever!

  11. Thank you, Neil! Entertaining and well-written article – I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about 6 months while pursuing graduate studies and I’ll say that your insights definitely resonated with me. Navigating Scottish culture as an American has thankfully been somewhat easy (slowly training my ears to better understand the various dialects), but I’m always so impressed by how welcoming and inclusive everyone tends to be. So grateful for time spent in an amazing place…. definitely feel my soul refreshed!

    1. Thank you Katherine and glad to hear you’re settling in well! I really think that most Scots are just proud that folk from all over the world would choose to come here and it’s our collective responsibility to make you feel as welcome as we can. Good luck with those dialects, Edinburgh definitely the easiest place to start and maybe build up to Glasgow and the North East 😉

  12. Hi Neil,

    Nice article, full of interesting insight, I am that man and will never forget the moment when my Italian Pizza man hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks as my wife and I were ready to fly back home for a few weeks, I was like a block of marble freshly hauled out of the Massa Carrara hillside! Took me weeks to recover…

    Especially liked the line about why would people pay good money to holiday in the rain, I will remember that one and use it with due credit.

    Yes being a Scot now living in America is great, yes there are a few Scottish wallet jokes, but most people are open and want to know whens the best time to visit. So I ask them have they heard the expression “four seasons in a day” well expect four seasons in an hour! They all return happy and having had a great experience and cant believe how friendly everyone is.
    Of course when you are returning to endless sunshine in Florida a wee bit of rain is no big deal.

    Keep writing and stay safe…

    Andy

    1. Oh you’ve a way with words Andy, I can almost feel your discomfort haha! Glad to hear there’s some familiarities in there for you and quash those stingy myths whenever you can. Great to hear the Floridians are returning home with more than just midge bites!

  13. Hi Neil yes ! “having -a-Scot-in-my-life” is really worthwhile especially by those lockdown times !
    As a bretonne from Nantes, I love the way you write about the Scottish, your humour, your light self-derision…
    Please keep on writing and giving me the even stronger desire to come back to Scotland !
    take care and love
    Anne

    1. Interesting Anne as it’s come to my attention recently that Captain Haddock from Tintin was a Breton! I’d been convinced he was Scottish given his traits but makes a lot of sense now – some of the similarities that exist there between us. Hope things are going OK in Nantes and take care.

  14. You are such a gifted writer! I so enjoyed this, I cannot even tell you how much. Well done! I have been to Scotland twice, and plan to return this September. I absolutely love it, and all of you who call it home. Alba gu brath!

    1. Thanks very much Paula and hope you can make it back to visit Scotland in September, hopefully we’ll have some whisky left!

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