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Should you wear underwear with a kilt? 9 questions about Scottish culture, answered

The Scottish independence vote means that Scotland is occupying an unusually central spot on the world stage, and people around the world are becoming caught up in its internal debate over whether to separate from the UK.

If the referendum, which will be decided at the polls today, is inspiring you to embrace Scottish culture, you'll want to make sure you do it right. Wondering when it's appropriate to wear a kilt, or what poem one traditionally reads when serving a haggis? Considering whether entering the Highland games could be a way to relive the glory days of your high school track and field career? Here's what you need to know.

1. What is haggis?


Uncooked haggis, ready for purchase. (FlickreviewR)

Haggis is a Scottish dish that is basically a weird, rotund sausage. It's made by mincing up sheep organ meat (usually the heart, lungs, and liver — sheep giblets, basically), mixing it with diced onion, oats, salt, spices, and fat, and stuffing it into a sheep's stomach, which is then tied shut.

Haggis is usually boiled, but it can also be roasted, fried, sliced into a "burger" that's served on a bun, or even crumbled on top of pizza.

It's traditional to serve haggis on January 25, Burns Night, which celebrates the work of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. A traditional Burns supper consists of "haggis, neeps, and tatties" — haggis, turnips, and potatoes. As the food is served, a guest may recite Burns' famous poem "Address to a Haggis."

Although haggis sounds like the weirdest of foods, it isn't any more peculiar than other forms of sausage (about which I recommend you not think too hard). I've eaten it, and while it's hardly my favorite food, the taste is fine if it's prepared well.

If you live in the US, you'll have to take my word on that: the US banned haggis imports in 1971.

2. What are bagpipes?

Bagpipes and drums are played during the 2013 Edinburgh Military Tattoo. (Edinburgh Military Tattoo)

The bagpipes, a traditional Scottish instrument, are pretty much exactly what their name suggests: a bag attached to some pipes. To play the bagpipes, the piper must keep the bag inflated by blowing into it, while steadily squeezing air out through the pipes and playing a melody on the "chanter" pipe, which has different holes that can be covered to play different notes. Unsurprisingly, it's pretty hard to do all that at the same time, so it takes years of study to become a successful piper.

Although bagpipes are most commonly associated with warfare in the Scottish Highlands hundreds of years ago, they were used in wars as recently as the 20th century. During World War II, Highland regiments were accompanied by pipers during the Second Battle of El Alamein, in Egypt. In 1967, during the Aden Crisis in what is now Yemen, Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Campbell-Mitchell, a.k.a. "Mad Mitch," was accompanied by pipers playing "Scotland the Brave" as he re-took the Crater district of Aden.

3. What is Scottish tartan?

Tartan kilts

Musicians wearing tartan kilts (Jasperimage/Shutterstock)

Tartan is what Americans refer to as "plaid" — a pattern made by lines of different colors and thicknesses crossing each other at right angles on top of a contrasting background. Specific tartan patterns are associated with particular clans and military units, serving as a sort of woolly fabric coat of arms that identifies each one.

Tartans were primarily regional patterns until the mid-19th century, when the wide availability of synthetic dyes combined with the Victorians' love of romanticizing Scotland to make clan-specific tartans a thing.

4. What are kilts?

kilts from behind

A group of men wearing traditional Scottish kilts (Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock)

Kilts are knee-length wool garments, which are usually pleated in the back. They are notably similar to skirts in shape and function, but they're often worn by men who might get upset if you refer to their clothes as skirts. They're usually made of wool, in a tartan pattern.

Today, kilts are not usually worn as everyday clothing, but they are incorporated into formalwear and worn to weddings, balls, and other gatherings. They're also frequently worn to Scottish sporting and cultural events, such as the Scottish national soccer team's matches and Highland games events. As formalwear, they're usually part of an ensemble that includes a jacket, shirt, knee socks, and sporran - a small purse worn around the waist, which is often made of animal fur. However, they may be worn with just a t-shirt on more casual occasions.

Connery Kilt

Sir Sean Connery, in a snappy kilt ensemble. (Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

The term "true Scotsman" is used to refer to someone who wears his kilt without underwear, although many men, including Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, have decided that adherence to tradition isn't worth the itch. Scottish Tartan Authority director Brian Wilton has taken a firmly pro-underwear stance, saying that "sending children up chimneys is traditional, too, but we don't do it now, and the same should apply to wearing nothing under a kilt."

5. What is the Mull of Kintyre test?

Mull of Kintyre

A partial map of Scotland, with the Mull of Kintyre highlighted in red. (FinnWikiNo)

The Mull of Kintyre is a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland that supposedly inspired a decency test for British films.  The "Mull of Kintyre test" was a standard supposedly applied by the British Board of Film Classification in the 1990s, in order to determine whether an image of a penis was too obscene to be shown on British screens. The theory behind the test, as the legend goes, was that penises in a state of arousal were obscene, so the shape of Mull of Kintyre was used as the standard for when a particular erection had gone too far.

According to the Telegraph, "If the 'Davy Crockett' in question was roused to the point where the incline was greater than that of the Mull of Kintyre (the 'angle of the dangle'), there would be swift case of cinematic "Bobbitism" and the offending article cut by the censors quicker than you could say 'In the Realm of the Senses'."

The BBFC has denied that the Mull of Kintyre test ever existed. In any case, however, the UK now takes a much more permissive approach to penises on film. So if the test was used in the past, it's not needed anymore.

6. Is Scotland's national animal really the Unicorn?

Scottish version coat of arms shutterstock

The Scottish version of the Royal Coat of Arms, with Scotland's unicorn on the left (Richard Laschon/Shutterstock)

Yes, Scotland's national animal really is the unicorn. The mythical beast appears on the Royal Coat of Arms alongside the lion, England's national animal. There are two versions of the Coat of Arms — the one for use in Scotland has the unicorn on the left, while the one for the rest of the UK has the unicorn on the right. (That means that if you're ever trying to figure out whether you're in Scotland or in England, you can just look for a coat of arms.)

According to the Scotsman, "in Celtic mythology, the Unicorn of Scotland symbolized innocence and purity, healing powers, joy, and even life itself, and was also seen as a symbol of masculinity and power."

7. Why does Scotland have more awesome versions of regular animals?

Highland calves

Highland cows: 100% more awesome than regular cows. (Aconcagua)

It's not just unicorns — Scottish animals have real flair across the board. Blame Scotland's relatively cold climate.

Highland cows, for instance, are bred to be extra fluffy so that they can thrive in chilly weather. They're hardy and able to live in rocky terrain that wouldn't support other cattle breeds. Because their hair keeps them warm, they don't have to rely on fat to maintain their body temperatures, leading to meat that is very lean. And, of course, they're pretty adorable.

Shetland ponies modeling cardigans knitted from Shetland wool: 100% more awesome than regular ponies that lack sweaters.

Shetland ponies have likewise managed to take the lemons of cold, rocky terrain and turn them into the lemonade of adorableness. The Shetland Islands are an unforgiving environment, but the horses developed a small stature and thick coat that allowed them to survive harsh winters with little food.

Wikipedia describes Shetland ponies as having a "brave" character as well as a tendency to be "very opinionated or cheeky" and sometimes "impatient," "snappy," and "uncooperative," which leads me to believe that they'd be pretty good at blogging if they ever learned to type.

8. Why does Scotland have its own sports teams if it's part of the UK?

The Tartan Army sings "O Flower of Scotland" before a match against Wales in Cardiff.

Scotland doesn't field its own teams in all international competitions, but it usually does for specific sports. During the Olympics, for instance, Scottish athletes compete for Great Britain, not Scotland. However, Scotland has its own teams that compete internationally in sports like soccer, rugby, and cricket.

This is partly because of history, and partly because of national pride. In the case of soccer and rugby, for instance, England and Scotland invented international matches and played the first ones against each other, so they have always had their own teams. And since those early days, a sense of national pride and competitiveness has meant that each country wanted to keep its own team.

Scottish soccer fans are known as the "Tartan Army," and they refer to the English as the "auld enemy." Scotland used to play England every year, but the games were suspended in 1989 amidst fears of hooliganism — at the time, English fans had such serious problems with violence that English club teams were banned from European play, and there were concerns that Scotland-England matches would provoke problems. Now they only play each other as part of larger tournaments.

Scotland fans are known for singing "O Flower of Scotland," an unofficial national anthem, to which they add shouted callbacks (like "what for?" and "BASTARD!") when they get to the parts about the English king's armies being routed in the 14th century. So that's pretty fun.

9. What are Highland games?

Highland games are a traditional Scottish sporting and cultural event. Although they're frequently held in Scotland, there are now Highland games tournaments held all over the world.

Most Highland games also feature traditional music and dancing, but they're most associated with a series of events in which competitors lift heavy things up and then throw them as far as they can. These include the caber toss (in which competitors attempt to launch a tree-length log into the air so that it turns end-over-end and lands in a perfect 12 o'clock position), the stone put (like a shot put, but with a heavy rock instead of a shot), the Scottish hammer (very similar to the track & field hammer throw), and the sheaf toss (in which competitors use a pitchfork to launch a burlap bag filled with straw over a high bar).

Bonus Question: what about the Loch Ness Monster?



The Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as "Nessie" by her many fans, is a mythical animal who supposedly lives in Loch Ness, a large freshwater lake in the Highlands.  The hunt for Nessie is one of the most famous examples of cryptozoology, a pseudoscientific discipline involving the hunt for mythical animals. (Other examples include Bigfoot and the Yeti.)

Although there's no evidence that Nessie is real, Loch Ness certainly is, and it's beautiful. If you're ever in Scotland, it's well worth a visit.

Urquhart castle

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness (Shutterstock)

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