Facts about Scotland
Robert Burns said, in his poem ‘A Dream’, that ‘facts are chiels that winna ding.‘ It means something like: facts are men that cannot be overturned – that is, can be relied upon. Here are a few Scottish facts I’ve acquired over the years. I should point out there is one snippet in this list – just one – that I made up, just for fun. Oh, don’t worry, I’ve flagged it up though, as folk had started to write to me about it…..
Facts about Scotland – the South
* The Common Ridings are held in early June in many Scottish Borders towns. These are magnificent celebrations of the horse as well as of the Borders communities. The town of Selkirk claims its event is the largest mounted gathering in Europe.
* The highest village in Scotland is not in the Highlands. It is at Wanlockhead (1380ft, 420m) in the Lowther Hills, Dumfries and Galloway.
* In 1860 the golf club at Prestwick in Ayrshire ran an open competition for professionals. It was a huge success and soon became known as the British Open Championship, now one of the world’s most famous golfing competitions.
* As a token of the Scottish people’s gratitude to General Dwight D. Eisenhower after WWII, the National Guest Flat in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, was gifted to him.
* Robert Burns trained as a heckler or flax dresser at a restored house in Irvine, Ayrshire. The venture ended when his partner’s wife carelessly dropped a candle and burned down the premises.
* The founder of the National Parks system in America was John Muir, born in Dunbar, East Lothian in 1838. Today, he is commemorated in his homeland by the John Muir Country Park, his birthplace museum in Dunbar High Street and there is also a new John Muir Trail – launching in April 2014, stretching from Helensburgh in the west of Scotland to Dunbar in the east.(above).
* The world’s first steam-boat was tested on Dalswinton Loch, north of Dumfries, in 1788.
Facts about Scotland – the bit in the middle
* The inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was a sailor called Alexander Selkirk, born at Largo in Fife. A Crusoe statue can be seen in the village today.
* The multi-millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Fife. Among many other gifts to the town is Pittencrieff Park, bought because he was once refused entry to it as a child!
* The oldest living tree in Europe is said to be at Fortingall in Glen Lyon, Perthshire. The yew tree is said to be 3000 years old.
* Angus towns give their name to at least three items of food in Scotland: the Forfar bridie, the Arbroath smokie and Kirriemuir gingerbread. (The first is a pie, the second a fish and the third is, well, just gingerbread.)
* The Lake of Menteith near Aberfoyle is sometimes called Scotland’s only lake. The usual word for an inland body of water in Scotland is, of course, loch. There are one or two other ‘lakes’ in Scotland but, in this case, it was a map-maker’s misunderstanding anyway. The word should be ‘laich’: a low-lying area. (The low ground just to the north of Elgin, for instance, is sometimes called ‘The Laich of Moray’.)
* Queen Victoria left at least three ‘Queen’s Views’ – one of Loch Tummel and Schiehallion above Pitlochry in Perthshire, another of Loch Lomond from the A809 road to the north of Glasgow. The less well known view is of the Howe of Cromar, west of Aberdeen and north of Aboyne on Royal Deeside. (A howe in Scots is a stretch of low or favoured ground, sheltered by hills.)
* Loch Lomond is Scotland’s largest loch – not in water volume, not in length – but in surface area. (This is one of the most often repeated facts about Scotland, to be honest.)
Facts about Scotland – the north
* Marischal College in Aberdeen is the second-largest granite building in the world. Only El Escorial in Spain is larger.
* Aberdeen’s Central Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre stand in a row when viewed from Union Terrace. The locals refer to them as ‘Education, Salvation and Damnation’! (This is possibly the oldest Aberdeen joke on record. But still worth a mention in facts about Scotland.)
* ‘The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’ is a famous Scottish song – but the aurora borealis can be seen from plenty of other places in the north of Scotland.
* Among the exhibits at the Grampian Museum of Transport at Alford near Aberdeen is the ‘Craigievar Express’ – a steam-driven cart invented by the local postman to help him on his round.
* The earliest example of written Gaelic (11/12th century) was inscribed in the Book of Deer, a religious manuscript originally written at the first Abbey of Deer, near Old Deer in Buchan, north of Aberdeen. (Oddly enough, this important work is in the University Library, Cambridge, England. How it got there from Scotland, nobody seems to know for sure – possibly looted during the Wars of Independence. I think we should have it back now.)
* General José san Martin, liberator of Argentina, spent most of his voluntary exile in Banff, on the Moray Firth coast. This attractive little north-east town is remembered by a Plaza Cuidad de Banff in Buenos Aires. Hmmm, one of the more obscure facts about Scotland in this list.
* The pleasant little town of Cullen on the Moray Firth coast gave its name to the Cullen skink, a very rare species of lizard found in Scotland only in the countryside around the town. ahem!!!!
Facts about Scotland – the Highlands
* Loch Ness is Scotland’s largest loch – not in surface area, not in length – but in water volume.
* Loch Awe is Scotland’s longest loch, while Loch Morar is the deepest. (Actually, in this list of facts about Scotland, this ranks as one of the most curious: Loch Morar is 310 m / 1017 ft deep – the sort of depths you’d expect to find out in the Atlantic, off the Continental Shelf.
* Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorms, at 4296ft (1309m) the second highest mountain in Scotland, is said to be haunted by the Grey Man of Ben Macdui, an apparition that frightens walkers when it looms out of the mist.
* Fort George near Nairn is the finest example in Europe of an 18th-century military fortification. Built as a consequence of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, it has never fired a shot in anger.
* The hump-backed bridge connecting Seil Island, south of Oban in Argyll, with the mainland is sometimes called ‘The Bridge over the Atlantic’ since it spans a tiny arm of that ocean.
* The Falls of Lora (above) are below the Connel Bridge near Oban. They are not always seen, as they are a tidal confluence caused in the narrows by the mass of water from Loch Etive meeting the sea. This, of course, is an ebb tide, though they can be spectacular at the flood as well. And this picture was just taken at slack water when there wasn’t a lot happening. Sorry about that. I’ll go back to get another one some day soon.
* Scotland’s tallest mainland cliffs are the Clo Mor, between Durness and Cape Wrath. Follow this link for more on the scenery of the far north and the Vikings in Scotland.
Facts about Scotland – Islands
* One of the most magnificent prehistoric monuments in the UK, the Callanish Standing Stones (‘Scotland’s Stonehenge’) on Lewis are a cross-shaped setting dating in part from 3000BC.
(Above) The tallest – 19ft / 5.8m – single standing stone in the UK is the Clach an Trushal off the A857 near Barvas on Lewis.
* In 1919, the surrendered German Grand Fleet, anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, scuttled itself. Though several vessels were subsequently salvaged, enough remain to make the area arguably one of the finest dive sites in the UK. Wonder if that’s a claim rather than a fact about Scotland?
* In the 12th century, Vikings broke in to the prehistoric Maes Howe chambered cairn in Orkney. They were looking for treasure. They found none – but left graffiti including the famous Maes Howe Dragon carving.
* Sometimes described as the oldest houses in Europe, the Stone Age farmsteads at the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray are an astonishing 5000 years old.
* The most complete surviving broch is on Mousa in Shetland. Some experts believe these curious upturned-flower-pot shaped towers were defences against sea-borne raiders.
* At the narrow neck of Mavis Grind on the A970 north of Brae in Shetland it is possible to throw a stone from the North Sea to the Atlantic (if you are a good thrower!)
* The national nature reserve at Hermaness on Unst, Shetland, is just one place to see bonxies – great skuas – spectacular air pirates. These hefty gull-sized birds attack intruders near their nests. An arm held above head height keeps them at a distance – usually. (Just to clarify: when I say ‘an arm’ I mean your own arm. Obviously you’d be a bit of a woose to use anyone else’s.)
Facts about Scotland – Edinburgh
* Punctually, every day since 1861, the one o’ clock gun has boomed out from Edinburgh Castle. It was originally intended as a time-check for mariners at Leith, the city’s seaport.
* The Royal Botanic Garden has the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.
* Edinburgh Zoo is famous for its Penguin Parade. This daily penguin walk used to take place on the pavement outside the zoo – but had to be stopped as it distracted passing motorists! (Actually, it is said the penguins strolling on the pavement resulted in collisions between motor vehicles.)
* Ben Ledi in the Trossachs can be seen from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. (I only include this as a reminder that Scotland is quite a small place.)
* There is no documentary proof that John Knox ever actually lived in John Knox House. Nevertheless, it is certainly of his time and the tradition has ensured the historic house’s preservation.
* The interior vestibules of houses in the New Town were originally designed to be an exact fit for sedan chairs. (This must have been really convenient for the well-to-do owners when it rained, actually being carried into their homes.)
* The last shot fired in anger from Edinburgh Castle was in 1745, by an unknown soldier of the Hanoverian garrison taking pot-shots at the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie as they rode past.
* The inspiration for the Robert Louis Stevenson tale ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was Edinburgh’s own Deacon Brodie – respectable citizen and locksmith by day, criminal by night!
Facts about Scotland – Glasgow
* Glasgow has the only subway system in Scotland.
* The Mitchell Library is the largest public reference library in Europe.
* Glasgow was once the home of the North British Locomotive Company, the second largest railway locomotive builder in the world (after Baldwins in the USA).
* The wide bridge over Argyle Street for the railway tracks connecting Central Station is known as the ‘Hielan’man’s Umbrella’ (Highlander’s Umbrella) as it formerly was a meeting place for the many Highlanders who came to the city looking for work.
* Just one of many interesting architectural features in Glasgow is 142-144 St Vincent Street, built in 1899 and called ‘The Hatrack’ because it is ten stories high but only three bays wide.
* The best surviving example of a Roman bath house in Scotland was uncovered at Bearsden in Glasgow. Finds from the excavation can be seen in the Hunterian Museum.
* Glasgow has plenty of trees in its parks – and more parks than any other British city. It also has a Fossil Grove – fossil stumps and roots of trees 330 million years old – in Victoria Park.