When I decided to take the leap across the Atlantic to attend the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I knew it would be an adjustment.
Aside from taking on the responsibility of college life, I had to settle into the culture of a whole new country.
Born and raised on Long Island in New York, I had only been to Europe once before starting at St Andrews, and had never visited Scotland until I showed up for my first day.
Needless to say, I was quickly confronted with a slew of major differences between the US and Scotland — some that I expected, some that completely surprised me, and some that seemed downright weird.
Here is a list of 15 that have stood out the most in my three years there so far.
1. A prevalence of kilts
Kilts may seem like one of the most stereotypical things about Scotland, but trust me, it’s for good reason. People DO wear them, especially to formal affairs! It’s not uncommon to see men wearing kilts to weddings or other black-tie events, and the specific pattern of Tartan (or plaid) on the kilts may go hundreds of years back in a Scottish family’s history. As for what the guys wear under the kilts? That’s undisclosed information.
2. There are more sheep than people
According to the Scottish Government, there were 6.7 million sheep in the country as of June 2015. In June of the same year, the census counted 5.37 million people. That would explain why you may drive miles without seeing a single person, but sheep– they’re everywhere.
Even the name sounds unappealing, and once you find out what it actually is, you’ll understand why. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish that is a mixture of sheep insides, oats and spices, all stuffed into a sheep’s stomach as casing. Being an adventurous eater, I wanted to try Haggis on Burns night, when Scottish poet Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” is read aloud while the lovely loaf is held up for all to admire. Let’s just say I wasn’t the biggest fan.
4. Grocery bags cost extra
A law recently enacted placed a charge of 5 pence on plastic grocery bags. While not a bank-breaker, the charge does encourage people to bring reusable shopping bags from home when they go to the supermarket, which is much better for the environment.
5. The “Eeyore effect”
Scotland is famous for bad weather, but also for the fact that a whole four seasons can happen in one day: sun can change to rain, wind, or snow in a matter of minutes. It’s also home to what I call the “Eeyore effect:” a phenomenon where a rain cloud can actually be small enough and quick enough to follow one person as they walk down the street, just like the one that follows Eeyore, the perpetually depressed donkey from Winnie the Pooh. It’s definitely depressing to be followed by your own personal raincloud. The incredible rainbows that follow, however, are totally worth it.
6. The Mexican food is terrible
Unripe, imported avocados and a general lack of Mexican immigrants means that Mexican food in Scotland leaves a lot to be desired. I will always remember the sad day when I tried to make my own Guacamole, and the avocados I had bought were so hard that I couldn’t mash them up. The two Mexican restaurants in St Andrews aren’t great, and students from Texas usually don’t even step foot in them for fear of horrible disappointment.
7. Trousers are pants, and pants are underwear
This is an important one. Terms for basic items often change when you cross the Atlantic, and you might not know until it’s too late. In Scotland, pants are referred to as trousers, and the word pants actually means underwear. When an American friend of mine responded to a compliment on a dress she was wearing by saying “thanks, I just didn’t feel like wearing pants today,” it was no wonder that the surrounding Brits gave her disgusted looks.
8. Hard liquor is sold in your everyday supermarket
It’s definitely convenient. You can come out of your local Tesco with toothpaste, Vodka and tomatoes: no separate trip to the liquor store is required. And you probably won’t be judged, either.
9. Many houses don’t have clothing dryers
This infuriates me. Why, in one of the dampest and coldest countries in the world, would you build houses without clothing dryers? No dryer and lots of humidity in the air means that you can’t expect to wear that sweatshirt you washed until 5 days later. And when you do put it on, it will be stiff, prickly, and will probably smell like mould.
10. Tea often means dinner
You can imagine my confusion when some friends said that they were going to have Chinese food for their “tea.” Then I realised that “tea” often means dinner, while actual tea is consumed during “teatime.”
11. Teatime is a real thing
If they’re not meeting for pints at the pub, people will often get together to drink tea in the afternoon. And crumpets are real too.
12. Roundabouts can have multiple lanes
Besides the fact that Scots drive on the left side of the road just like their English counterparts, they also love to have giant roundabouts with 3 or 4 separate lanes. They look horrible and confusing, and that’s one of the reasons that I never want to drive over there.
13. It gets dark at 3 p.m. in the winter
In the dead of Scottish winter, the sun rises at around 9 a.m. and sets about 6 hours later. The short, dark days certainly take some getting used to: when it’s rainy (which is often) it sometimes feels like the sun hasn’t risen at all. But long days in the spring and summer–when the sun rises around 4 a.m. and sets around 10 p.m. — make up for the winter’s lack of light.
14. Highland “Coos”
It’s a water buffalo, it’s a woolly mammoth, it’s a…cow? The Highland Cow (or “Coo,” as the Scots pronounce it) is one of Scotland’s friendliest creatures. They can often be seen grazing in the fields that line highways and country roads alike, and, despite those giant horns, they’re said to be very gentle.
15. “It’s a braw bricht moonlit nicht the nicht”
No, they aren’t choking on Haggis. Scottish people have lots of their own words and expressions that originate from the old languages of Scots and Gaelic. These terms tend to vary regionally, and, peppered throughout general conversation, can make the Scottish especially hard to understand for the rest of the English-speaking world. The translation for this particular phrase: “It’s a good (or brilliant) bright moonlit night tonight.” Other points of confusion: “Aye” means yes, “nae” means no, and “ah dinnae ken” means I don’t know.
Despite occasional difficulties in understanding them, Scots are generally some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever encountered. Unlike New Yorkers, they will not hesitate to say hello to you on the street, and are always eager to help a lost foreigner find her way. So, even though you might miss simple things like sunlight and good Mexican food, Scotland is a beautiful country and highly worth a visit.
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