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Issue 36 - 50 Things You Never Knew about Scotland

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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50 Things You Never Knew about Scotland


1. Aberdeen has won the ‘Britain in Bloom’ competition 11 times and the overall ‘Scotland in Bloom’ competition an unprecedented 39 times in a row. At one point after winning a period of nine years straight, Aberdeen was banned from the Britain in Bloom competition in order to give another city a chance.

2. Auld Lang Syne was sung more than 150 years before Robert Burns discovered it. He transcribed it from “an old man singing” and added at least two new verses. He sent it to his friend James Johnson, the publisher of Scots Musical Museum, as an old Scottish song but Johnson delayed publishing it until after Burns’ death. The American bandleader Guy Lombardo popularised the association of the song with the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve in the early 1930s.

3. It was the Romans who brought the first bagpipes to Britain. By 1500 the bagpipe had displaced the harp as the instrument of choice in the Scottish Highlands. The use of the bagpipes as a military instrument inspired the Highlanders in their fight so much that after the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the English banned them. During this period carrying a bagpipe was considered to be as much a crime as carrying arms as it was classified an “instrument of war”.

4. John Logie Baird, (1888- 1946) the inventor of the television was an inventor from a young age. As a boy in his hometown of Helensburgh, Baird installed not only a telephone exchange in his father’s manse but also a system of electric lighting, even entangling passing traffic in the wires. Some of Baird’s early inventions were not fully successful. He was forced to resign from his post of a supervising engineer for an electrical supply company in Glasgow when he apparently blacked out half of the city following a failed attempt to manufacture diamonds from coal dust. He also invented an unsuccessful cure for piles which left him in severe pain for a week, but made a good deal of money out of his ‘Baird patent Undersock’ damp-proof socks for cold Scottish feet.

5. In 1314 King Edward II of England was defeated by the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. The victorious Bruce attributed his success to the relic of the Scottish Saint, St. Fillan, which he took into battle. He declared it was the Saint’s intercession that gave him victory.

6. As a boy in Scotland, inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) made a talking doll that said “mama.” So convincing was it that his neighbours began hunting for an abandoned baby.

7. The world’s first pedal bicycle was made by a Dumfriesshire blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan in 1839. His novel design enabled cyclists to ride with both their feet continuously off the ground for the first time; the popular bicycle of the time, the Hobby Horse, only provided momentum through the swinging of the riders feet back and forth.
Macmillan never patented his idea and it was therefore widely copied. In June 1842 Macmillan, who was known locally as ‘Daft Pate,’ decided to visit his brother in Glasgow on his bicycle, a distance of 68 miles. However when he reached the Gorbals he knocked down a little girl who ran across his path and he was fined five Scots shillings for speeding at eight mph. The magistrate initially declared that the highways of Britain had to be kept free of ‘speedsters’ of his kind but later modified his opinions after the young inventor had shown him his contraption and is said to have slipped him the money for the fine.

8. Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) owned one of the first ever billiard tables. The game was popular in 16thcentury France, where Mary probably acquired a taste for it, and she continued with the pastime on her return to Scotland. After she was imprisoned she was allowed to keep a table in her Tower of London cell and she was a keen exponent of the game right up to her death. In fact while awaiting her execution she complained of being deprived of her billiard table.

9. Robert Burns (1759-1796) published his first book in order to gather enough money to burn his bridges and emigrate to Jamaica where there was a job as a plantation manager waiting for him. It was only due to its success that he stayed in Scotland. The bard is very popular in Russia. His works have been translated more into Russian than all the other languages put together

10. At the age of nine, actor Sean Connery supported his impoverished family with a milkrun in his hometown of Edinburgh. On his round the Scottish youngster delivered to Fettes School, which according to Ian Fleming, was the same school, which James Bond attended following his expulsion from Eton.

11. After Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated by the Government forces at Culloden, the young pretender fled for his life and was befriended by Captain John Mackinnon. The prince was so grateful that he gave Mackinnon his personal recipe for his favourite concoction, made from a French formula, of Scotch whisky laced with heather, herbs, honey, and spices. It was called drambuie, which means “a drink that satisfies” in Gaelic.

12. Dundee is Scotland’s only south facing city.

13. In 1424 James I (1394-1437) banned the playing of football in Scotland proclaiming: “The King forbids that any man play at the fute ball under the pain of jail.” He believed the game to be too rough, declaring it was “meeter for lameing than making able the users thereof”.

14. For years the English King George IV’s (1762- 1830) habit of cavorting around in Highland Dress did not endear him to the English public.

However his 1822 visit to Edinburgh in full Highland rig was stage-managed by Walter Scott to portray the English king as an overweight reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The spectacular pageantry that took place helped make tartans and kilts fashionable and was an important step in the romantic stereotype of ‘bonnie Scotland’.

15. In 1457 golf was banned in Scotland by King James II (1430-1460) because it distracted people from practising their archery skills.

16. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian gave its name to a ballroom used by a Scottish football team in its early days. In 1873 they decided to name themselves Heart of Midlothian or ‘Hearts’ after it.

17. In the 11th century King Malcolm Canmore organised a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar) in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger. It could be argued that today’s modern Highland games originated from this event. The earliest recorded Highland Games organised on modern lines was at St. Fillans, in Perthshire in 1819. A range of athletic events took place, in addition to Highland Dancing and piping.

18. In 1901 the Scottish company A.G.Barr developed a new caffeinated soft drink with an eccentric orange colour. Irn Bru’s formula was a closely guarded secret, but it proved popular amongst the Scots. Today it’s the best selling soft drink in Scotland, the only country in the world where another drink outsells Coca Cola.

19. King James IV (1473- 1513) was the last Scottish king who spoke Gaelic. After being connected with the murder of his father King James III, James felt so guilty about his role in his father’s death that for the rest of his life he wore an iron chain round his waist next to his skin.

20. In 1775 Dr Samuel Johnson published his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, which recorded his visit with his friend James Boswell. But Johnson had a low opinion of Scotland. On one occasion when Boswell admitted he came from Scotland but “I cannot help it.” Johnson replied: “That sir, I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help”.

21. In 1818, while on a walking tour of Scotland, the English poet John Keats managed 600 miles in a month, always rising before dawn in order to complete 26 miles before noon. This walking tour included climbing Ben Nevis, the ascent of which he compared to “mounting 10 St Pauls without the convenience of a staircase”.

22. The kilt did not originate in Scotland.

It was worn by the ancient Egyptians and was part of the Assyrian soldiers’ uniform. It was an Englishman Quaker Thomas Rawlinson, who introduced it to Scotland. During the early 18th century Rawlinson ran an iron smelting works in Glengarry and he wore Highland dress in the traditional manner from which he found it time consuming to disrobe. From this he developed a more easily detachable garment, which his workers soon adopted as they found it to be more practical .

Iain MacDonnell, the Chief of Glengarry subsequently adopted it and many others soon followed.

23. Five thousand years ago nine stone huts were built at Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands. In the corner of each little hut was a tiny alcove with a hole in the ground connected to a plumbing system that washed away the wastes through a system of drains into the sea. These are almost certainly the oldest lavatories in the world.

24. In 1772 Scotland became the first country to make lefthand travel a national law, applying to all city traffic. Offenders were fined 20 shillings.

25. Around 250BC, many years before the Romans came to Britain, beer was being brewed by the Picts in Scotland. The beverage was made from heather and had hallucinogenic properties.

26. St Columba, the Irish missionary who brought Christianity to Scotland, is said to be the first person to have encountered the Loch Ness monster. The story goes that in 565AD he came across a group of Picts burying a man who had been killed by the monster while swimming. One of his followers dived into the loch to bring back a boat, and was attacked by the beast. Columba immediately made a sign of the cross and in the name of God commanded the monster to go. At this the monster fled as if terrified.

27. The invention of logarithms as an aid to calculation is attributed to a Scottish nobleman named John Napier (1550-1617).

Napier is also credited with creating one of the earliest calculating machines, known as ‘Napier’s Bones’ and popularising the use of the decimal point, though he only considered his mathematical studies to be a ‘mere hobby’.

28. In 1823 the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh (1766- 1843) patented the waterproof cloth he used to make raincoats, after experimenting with waste rubber products from Glasgow’s new gas works. He was anxious to protect the secret of his new waterproof cloth so he chose Highland workers to work in his Glasgow factory as they only spoke Gaelic. His novel mackintoshes immediately proved to be a hit though at first the rubbery substance became brittle and stiff in extremely cold weather.

29. John Henry Anderson (1814-74) was a Scottish conjuror, who became known as the Great Wizardof the North, a title he claimed had been bequeathed to him by Sir Walter Scott, the original Wizard of the North.

He is credited with moving magic from fairgrounds to the theatre when he opened his 5,000-seat City Theatre in Glasgow, and was also the originator of pulling of rabbits from top hats, which he begun advertising in the 1840s

30. Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) became the Queen of Scotland on the death of her father, James V when a mere six days old. Her devoted little Skye Terrier was her companion throughout her long imprisonment by the English Queen Elizabeth and was concealed in her skirts during her execution. It refused to be coaxed away from her body, wouldn’t eat afterwards and died from grief and starvation.

31. In the early 19th century a Scottish engineer John McAdam (1756-1836), who’d become increasingly frustrated with highways that were often impassable because of rain and mud, came up with a revolutionary method of road construction. It involved placing tightly packed layers of smaller stones bound with fine gravel on a base of large stones with adequate drainage to carry away rainfall. This macadamisation of roads did much to ease travel and communication and the process was quickly adopted in many other European countries and North America. Midway through the 19th century the use of hot tar to bond the stones was developed. This method known as tarmacadam (today shortened to tarmac) is still the staple of road building 200 years later.

32. In 1490 the Bishop of St Andrews declared that meat pies were too English and banned their consumption in Scotland.

33. Although the Scots comprise less than 0.5 percent of the world’s population, 11 percent of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Scotsmen.

34. Scottish soldiers in the 14th century carried bags of oatmeal and cooked themselves fresh oatcakes wherever they camped. The dough was rolled out and while one side was baked on a flat iron plate the other side was toasted on the campfire. These cakes gave them the energy to endure long marches.

35. In the last years of his life George Orwell lived a selfsufficient lifestyle in a remote smallholding on the island of Jura in the Outer Hebrides. Barnhill, his house there was an empty, isolated farmhouse, eight miles from the nearest road. There he wrote his novel 1984 away from the phone and other distractions and he could fight his tubercolis

36. The British Isles’ shortest place name is I (the Gaelic for Iona). In addition there are three Scottish place names which contain only two letters: Oa, Ae and Bu.

37. An English visitor to Scotland in the early 17th century described a ‘pottage’ made of oatmeal flour boiled in water and eaten with butter, milk or ale. This meal, which was to become known as porridge had many regional variations in Scotland and was served at breakfast or as the main course at lunch or dinner.

38. When the potato was introduced to Europe in the early 17th century, it was damned as an evil food. The Scots refused to eat it because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, and in other European countries it was blamed for starting outbreaks of leprosy and syphilis.

39. One of the first Scottish railways was opened between Edinburgh and Dalkeith in 1831. It contained Britain’s first railway tunnel stretching 350 yards under the southern edge of Holyrood Park. The carriages were originally horse-drawn as it was thought steam engines were dangerous. It became known as the Innocent Railway because of its safety record, as no one was ever killed.

40. The first international rugby game happened in 1871 at a time when teams still consisted of 20 players each side. It was played between England and Scotland at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh, in front of a crowd of 4,000, who paid an entrance fee of one shilling. Scotland won by one goal and one try to one goal. There were no penalty goals, as it was accepted that gentlemen would not cheat. The try was awarded after a 10 minute argument, leading to a famous aphorism by Dr. H.H.

Almond, the Scottish referee: “I must say, however, that when an umpire is in doubt, I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise.

They are probably in the wrong”.

41. Scots Wae Nae, the unofficial Scottish anthem written by Robert Burns was inspired by Robert the Bruce’s marching song Hey Tutti Taitie which was sung by his troops during the Battle of Bannockburn.

42. The haunting melody of Scotland the Brave is a hymn to rebel Jacobites. The tune dates back several centuries, and is considered a traditional Scottish folk-tune, the same tune is also used for the song My Bonnie Lassie. However the lyrics were written comparatively recently by the Scottish journalist Cliff Hanley in 1956.

43. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was concerned about a proposal by Robert Peel’s government banning the circulation of all notes below £5 in Scotland, (a law had recently been passed banning them in England), which would have meant the disappearance of the much loved Scottish £1 note. So he wrote a series of letters, called The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, which were published in the Edinburgh Weekly News in 1826, that stressed the importance of Scottish banknotes as part of the Scottish financial system and as an example of Scottish identity.

Sir Walter generated such a furore that the government was forced to back down and to this day portraits of him appear on the front of all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland.

44. John Duns Scotus (1265-c1308) was a Scottish Franciscan theologian whose hair-splitting theology became dated against modern trends but his followers refused to change and take in new ideas. So the name “Dunce” came to signify those who refuse to learn and move on.

45. The Irish introduced Shinty, a game similar to hurling, to Scotland in the sixth century. It became a favourite sport of the Scottish Highlanders where is was played in the winter months.

Though a combative game of much violence, (the name shinty is derived from a word meaning a commotion and a brawl), the game concluded with a feast. A keg of whisky, presented to the winning team, would normally be shared by all.

46. Though skating was first developed in north Europe, the first skates with iron blades were made in Scotland in 1572.

Scotland can also lay claim for establishing the first skating club in Edinburgh in 1742. To qualify as a member applicants had to prove their ability to skate a complete circle and on either foot to jump over three hats.

47. The Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) was notoriously absent-minded.

On one occasion falling into discourse with a certain Mr Damer during breakfast, Smith took a piece of bread and butter, and after rolling it round and round put it into the teapot and poured the water to brew it.

Shortly after he poured out a cup, and on tasting it declared it was the worst tea he had ever met with.

48. The distinctive checked patterns worn by various Highland clans evolved in the 16th century. Different clans adopted varying coloured designs mainly due to the varying availability of dyes in different locations.

However the religious reformer John Knox frowned upon God fearing folk wearing such bright coloured attire and the clergy were banned from wearing them.

Meanwhile in Aberdeen a woman wearing a long tartan cloth was considered to be ‘wanton’.

49. The rough, hardwearing cloth known as tweed originated in southern Scotland in the early 19th century as a variation on twill, a woven fabric. It is often assumed it took its name from the River Tweed but this is not the case. Its origins lie in the old Gaelic word for twill, which was ‘tweel.’ In 1826 a London clerk drafted an order for tweels and accidentally wrote ‘tweeds’ and the name took off.

50. Walter Scott was inspired to write his tale of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Waverley after visiting the ruins of Waverley Abbey.

He worked on it in 1804 but mislaid the manuscript and put it off, before resurrecting it 10 tears later. The first ever historical novel, it was an instant success in Britain, America and Europe. The tale of tartened, kilted, Scots did a brilliant PR job for his nation as up to then, many English had thought of them as a nation of bloodthirsty savages but they were transformed into brave warriors. Though the novel did not name its author, it came to light that Walter Scott was the writer behind it and as the result of the massive success of the book, he became the first British novelist to become a noted public figure.