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Information About Scotland -- A Novelist's Guide to Creating Scottish Characters and Settings

Updated on October 7, 2014
Shared under Creative Commons license (attribution).
Shared under Creative Commons license (attribution). | Source

Writing a Novel set in Scotland?

Are you a novelist or writer looking for information about Scotland? Do you need a common-sense guide to sorting Scottish stereotypes from reality? You're in the right place. Whether you are writing a book in a month for Nanowrimo, or are working on the project of a lifetime, getting your facts about Scotland right will help you to create a novel you can be proud of.

Living here in Scotland, I find that many people are fascinated with this ancient land and the rich Scottish history and culture. At the same time, those much-loved stereotypes in movies and tourist displays can give people the impression that they know the real Scotland. The truth is, although Scotland is a diverse and wonderful country, it's not all Brigadoon and Highland flings.

In this novelists' guide to Scotland, I'm going to explore and explode several myths and misconceptions about Scotland.

The Scottish Weather and Seasons

Four Seasons in One Day

What comes to mind when you think of Scotland? The hills cloaked in mist? The windswept, rain-battered west coast? Maybe even deep snow (after all, it is a land of the North)?

Yes, we have all these weather types. But it by no means rains all the time, and the mist is not a permanent feature. And this year, the snow is worse down in the southern parts of England than it has been in many parts of Scotland!

I have heard Scotland described as experiencing 4 seasons in one day, and that can be a very true description. Our weather can be unpredictable, and it's not always easy to know what to wear outdoors, or whether or not to take an umbrella.

Like other countries in this part of the world, we have four distinct seasons. Being quite far north, it's also the case that our days are very short in winter and very long in summer -- noticeably more so than further south in England. In the depths of winter many people arrive at their workplace in the dark and leave again at the end of the day in the dark. At mid-summer, the sun barely seems to set.

The winter lasts longer here and flowers bloom later in springtime than in England. I always think of winter as being December to February, but November and March can sometimes feel very wintery too.

Spring is marked by lengthening days and blossoming trees, but snow can still arrive as late as March or even April. More often, we get a lot of rain and some sunny spells at this time of year.

Summer can be brief and, if we have long weeks of rain and grey skies, it sometimes feels like we never had summer at all. Occasionally we will get a mini-heatwave for a week or so. Well, to us it's a heatwave. Even if it is a normal summer's day in other countries. Everyone complains of the heat, and starts to melt in front of electric fans.

Autumn is a lovely time in Scotland, with all the changing colours. On a sunny day, even if the air is cold, Scotland is a wonderful place to be at this time of year. But we often get blustery weather and even gale-force winds in Autumn (September - November). This is the time of year most likely to see misty and foggy weather.

Scottish Names

What to call your Scottish character?

I once did Nanowrimo alongside a woman who loved Scotland. She loved it so much that she was writing about a Highlander in a Diana Gabaldon style historical romance story. Nothing wrong with that. But, sadly, she gave him a female Scots name and couldn't be persuaded to change it.

Fair enough, you might think. If you are simply writing for fun, it doesn't really matter. If you are writing in the hope of being published, though, it pays to avoid giving your characters names that at best are not authentic, and at worse, ridiculous to those who live in the country you are writing about.

In Scotland today you will find a whole variety of names among native Scots. Naturally, a proportion of our population is also made up of people originating from other parts of the world too. For the most part, Scotland is not as racially diverse as many parts of England and certainly not as much as London. But it would be a mistake to write about modern, city-dwelling Scots who all had names like Fraser and Moira.

Today, a new baby is as likely to be given an American name as a traditional Scots name.

That said, tradition seems stronger here than in other places I have lived, and boys in particular often keep a family forename going through the generations.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon - A Novel about a Scottish Highlander

Outlander, 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Outlander, 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition

The much-loved novel 'Outlander' (first in a series) and its author Diana Gabaldon have become the role models for many aspiring authors writing about Scotland.

With over 1200 5-star reviews on Amazon, it is clear that this novel set in Scotland has captured imaginations all over the world.

 

Typical Scottish Boys Names

Male Scottish character name suggestions

Baby name sites are great, but they often don't distinguish between names you are actually likely to come across belonging to real people and names that you find, well, only on baby name sites.

The following traditional Scottish forenames are all names that I have encountered in modern-day Scotland. Some are in such common use in other countries that they may not sound all that Scottish. (This is of course only a selection of names.)

Alasdair / Alistair, Alec

Callum, Cameron, Colin, Craig

Donald, Douglas, Duncan

Fraser

Gordon, Graeme

Hamish

Iain / Ian

Keith

Leslie

Malcolm, Muir, Murdo, Murray

Ross

Sandy, Stewart / Stuart

Typical Scottish Girls Names

Female Scottish character name suggestions

Although female names sometimes sound less typically Scottish, there are some names you will hear time and again here in Scotland. Names such as Margaret, for instance, which was the name of a Scottish queen many centuries ago.

So here is my list of some commonly-heard Scottish names for girls. Again, this is just a selection, and some of these names may be in common use in other countries too.

Aileen

Ailsa

Catriona (pronounced like Katrina)

Fiona

Isobel

Mairi / Mhairi

Moira

Rhona

Sheena

Shona

Typical Appearance of Scotsmen and Scotswomen

What will your Scottish character look like?

As you probably already figured out, the appearance of Scottish people is just as diverse as that of other nationalities. All the same, there are some stereotypes that persist. For example:

Scotsmen and women have red hair

Some people in Scotland have red or ginger hair, and this is certainly one of the Scottish stereotypes. But the majority of people don't. Red hair is a result of the Celtic ancestry of British people, above all in Wales, Scotland and Ireland as these were the countries to which the native Celts were driven when the Romans invaded the British Isles. So it is no surprise that red hair still crops up today here and also within families elsewhere in the world whose ancestors came from this part of the world. However, if you walk down the typical Scottish street, you will see a range of natural hair colours (and plenty of dyed ones!) from fair to dark.

Scotsmen are all tall, handsome and well-built / Scottish people are all short

Yes, these two contradict each other. Hollywood casting of such men as Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson and Christopher Lambert in the role of Scots (although none of these actors are in fact Scottish) has helped to create a certain image of the tall, handsome Highlander. Native Scots actors such as Sir Sean Connery, Ewan Macgregor, Gerard Butler and Dougray Scott also reinforce the idea that Scotsmen are uncommonly good-looking. (Scottish women, on the whole, have not shared the fame of Scotsmen abroad.)

In fact, many Scottish people are on the shorter side -- but again, by no means all! Despite the accent, the people of Scotland don't all resemble Gimli, the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings! Nor have I ever seen Shrek wandering around... Once again, the golden rule is to keep it real by adding variety.

Red Hair: Myth or Reality - Some Scottish People Have Ginger Hair

Do the Scottish have red hair?
Do the Scottish have red hair? | Source

Speaking Scots

What language do the Scottish speak?

Scottish dialect and accent

In modern-day Scotland, virtually all Scottish people speak English in all aspects of their life. Of course, here in Scotland as well as across the rest of Britain and around the world, there are local dialects and accents. The Scottish dialects have been strongly-influenced by the local history and culture. Therefore, if you come to Scotland from abroad, you might not understand everything the Scottish people say when in conversation with other Scots. There are many words that are unique to Scotland. The University of Stirling has a list of words in the Scots Tongue and their definitions.

The Scottish accent varies depending on which part of the country you are in. There is a real difference between the accent of the West Coast and the East Coast. Travel north and again you will find a distinctive accent. People from different areas will understand each other fine, but if they have strong accents they will recognise each other's geographical origins. To give you an example of different accents, actor Gerard Butler is from the West Coast, as is John Hannah and Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, while Sir Sean Connery is from Edinburgh. However, with actors, you will need to find videos of their everyday voices and not those used in-character, as they may change their way of speaking according to the role.

Scottish Gaelic

Scotland, like Ireland, does have its own language which is called Gaelic. However, unlike Ireland, this language is not widely-spoken in Scotland and many children will grow up without learning a word of Scottish Gaelic.

If you travel around the northern parts of Scotland, you will nonetheless see some Scottish Gaelic on signposts. For instance, Cead Mile Failte means welcome, and you may see this quite a lot (although of course it is not written correctly without the accented characters, which unfortunately won't display here).

One night a week television programmes are broadcast on one channel in Gaelic here in Scotland. If you would like to learn Scottish Gaelic, the BBC has a free online beginners course. Or pick up some basic Scottish Gaelic phrases for your trip to Scotland.

Scottish Accents - Famous Scottish actors speaking with their local accents

Actors are of course used to changing their accents for different roles. In speaking with their own voice, they will often revert to their local accent, but dealing with the media and public around the world might mean that this accent is not as strong as it would be back in their home environment. See if you can hear the differences between the accents here. The first two (Connery, Scott) are from the East, the next 3 (Butler, Hannah, Connolly) are from the West, and Ewan McGregor is from central Scotland.

Scottish, Scots, Scotch

Which is it?

If you are talking about people, you would use Scottish. You might also say Scotsman or Scotswoman (the former is much more common and we even have a national newspaper called The Scotsman).

Scots is the language, but it is also acceptable to use 'Scots' to refer to the inhabitants of Scotland.

Scotch refers to produce from Scotland, most commonly whisky (the proper spelling for Scotland is without an 'e', as compared to the Irish 'whiskey').

Learn Scottish Gaelic - Teach Yourself (Scottish) Gaelic Conversation -- Audio Course

Teach Yourself Gaelic Conversation (3 CDs + Booklet) (TY: Conversation)
Teach Yourself Gaelic Conversation (3 CDs + Booklet) (TY: Conversation)

This book and 3 CD set will give you all the basics of conversing in Scottish Gaelic, covering 10 topic areas. Highly-rated (as of February 2010) by Amazon customers.

 

Other Questions About Scotland? - Leave questions or comments here

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  • Adventuretravels profile image

    Giovanna Sanguinetti 3 years ago from London UK

    I love this lens. It's very interesting. Great idea!

  • profile image

    simpsonia 5 years ago

    Great idea for a lens. Well done!

  • Vikk Simmons profile image

    'Vikk Simmons 5 years ago from Houston

    Worthy, worthy, worthy of the Purple Star, this is. Congratulations. I have family in Scotland but I've never been and lost touch with my cousin years ago. Great page.

  • melissiaoliver profile image

    melissiaoliver 5 years ago

    I love visiting Scotland, although I've only been to the Lowlands and would love to visit the Highlands someday. Thanks for this beautiful lens!

    P.S: Have you read Pat MacIntosh's series of detective stories? They're set in medieval Scotland and are really unique, interesting books.

  • efriedman profile image

    efriedman 5 years ago

    Would love to spend more time in Scotland. I see by your other lenses that you have an interest in ballet. I highly recommend performances by the Scottish National Ballet - excellent. I enjoyed seeing one in California in 2011.

  • oxfordian profile image

    oxfordian 5 years ago

    I loved learning all these nuances I didn't know. BTW, Mel Gibson isn't tall at all. Somehow movie magic manages to disguise how short he really is (maybe 5'8'' if he stands up really straight). He actually looks kind of funny in real life because his legs are sooo short.

  • fugeecat lm profile image

    fugeecat lm 5 years ago

    Your section on Scotish names reminded me of a friend I had in school. Her parents were from Scotland and they name her Shelagh nobody could pronounce it correctly.

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    What a fascinating lens. I've been to Scotland once before and felt inspired by the beautiful (if rather cold) setting and the craziest person I've ever met at Aberdeen airport. He reminded of someone out of Trainspotting, which brings me on to another issue with writing about Scotland - I found it ever so hard to understand what on earth they're saying :-)

  • profile image

    huvalbd 6 years ago

    Scotland is the only country in the UK that I haven't managed to visit yet. Sometimes I have a little difficulty with the accent when I work with Scots but we always work well together--we both seem to be focused on getting things done--so I'm really curious to go there. This lens is very nicely written introduction.

  • jptanabe profile image

    Jennifer P Tanabe 6 years ago from Red Hook, NY

    Happy April Fools Day!

  • TonyPayne profile image

    Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

    Excellent job. I feel like writing a Scottish tale now - men in kilts, dancing on swords, while the bagpipes wail, and the smell of haggis wafts in from the kitchen. All this after a hard day lobbing tree trunks as far as they could. You certainly know how to get someone in a Scottish mood. Blessed by an angel.

  • Bill Armstrong profile image

    Bill Armstrong 6 years ago from Valencia, California

    Aye it's a Braw Lens, and ma Muther wull be freezin at hame the noo, am gonna link this yin ta ma lens, awe ra best

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

    @anonymous: Thanks for visiting, and let me know if you do write that novel!

  • profile image

    anonymous 6 years ago

    Great character lens. I never thought to write a novel set in Scotland, but now maybe I'll try it.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

    @writercb1: Ah, swoon away! It's always interesting to hear him speak with his own accent rather than putting on a different one for his films. :)

  • writercb1 profile image

    writercb1 6 years ago from United States

    My ancestry on my father's side is from Scotland. Kinnaird. I really enjoyed your lens! Very informative and fun. You dashed Scottish stereotypes and taught us something new. I still must swoon over Ewan McGregor though, even amidst all this seriousness...*swoon*

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

    @aesta1: Thank you so much for the kind compliment.

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Just love this. Truly deserves the purple star. It is always good to read well written lenses.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

    @KarenTBTEN: Thank you so much, Karen!

  • KarenTBTEN profile image

    KarenTBTEN 6 years ago

    Great idea for a lens and very well done. Blessed by a SquidAngel.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @kidspartythemes: Thank you! Today it is pouring with rain here in Scotland. But I still love it. :)

  • profile image

    kidspartythemes 7 years ago

    Very good lens, enjoyed it! Love Scotland, been there many times :)

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @justholidays: Ah well.... if you say "All Scotsmen wear kilts" it's a stereotype. If you say "Some Scotsmen sometimes wear kilts" it's a fact.

    And if you say "Send me 12 gorgeous Scotsmen wearing kilts", well.... :)

  • Kyecerulian profile image

    Kyecerulian 7 years ago

    Great lens! Lots of interesting info about some common myths and falsehoods about Scotland!

  • justholidays profile image

    justholidays 7 years ago

    Hm... still waiting for those twelve Scots in kilt, m'dear. Isn't it a stereotype (men wearing kilts?) Er... no... seems that kilts are appreciated by Scots. And I appreciate Scots in kilts, lol.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Kyecerulian: Thanks so much, Kyecerulian. Always good to see you!

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Sylvestermouse: Oh dear, Scotland is not known for healthy food though there are some good restaurants if you know where to look! I hope you get to return soon.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @anonymous: It would be a shame to see it die out. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Sylvestermouse profile image

    Cynthia Sylvestermouse 7 years ago from United States

    I really enjoyed visiting Scotland, well all except the food. I had a hard time finding something I was welling to try. Thank God for muffins :) It is indeed one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and I loved just sitting back and listening to them talk. I would definitely like to return, but this time, I will plan my own trip and go with people I know instead of with a tour group.

  • profile image

    anonymous 7 years ago

    I understand there are now Gaelic immersion schools. I hope this brings back the language that was once banned by the English.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Bus Stop Toy Shop: You might come across a few more... Gordon Hamilton for one (and there's a proud Scottish name if you ever heard one!) :) Thanks for taking the time to visit and read.

  • Bus Stop Toy Shop profile image

    Bus Stop Toy Shop 7 years ago

    Another Scottish Squidoo-er - there was me thinking I was all alone ;) Great to see some of the myths about us exploded. Thank you!

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @anonymous: Great to have another perspective on the Gabaldon series of novels, Ann. My motivation to write this came from seeing how many budding authors and fans of Scotland thought it was enough to throw in a few stereotypes... ouch. Perhaps even some of the most successful ones are guilty though of taking 'creative licence' too. Thanks very much for commenting.

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    anonymous 7 years ago

    I was recommended Gabaldon's book "The Outlander" and, as a Scot, was horrified at the number of historical mistakes in the novel. In fact, it spoiled my enjoyment of the novel. I would hate to think that readers believe what she writes and believe that this is the way things were done in Scotland. On the other hand, a friend, a historian, andI had an interesting time finding all her mistakes and checking them out.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Kailua-KonaGirl: Thanks so much, KonaGirl. You've now given me the opportunity in return to discover beautiful Hawaii!

  • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

    June Parker 7 years ago from New York

    I really enjoyed your lens. Having a wild mixture of ancestral backgrounds including Irish, Scot, Welsh, English and Hawaiian the Gaelic part of me is always fascinated with your home. Thank you so much for sharing your views. I hope to see more! 5 stars for you! I lensrolled you to my lens about Hawaii, joined your fanclub too.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @naturegirl7s: Thank you! So you, via your mother, have true Celtic roots. :)

  • naturegirl7s profile image

    Yvonne L. B. 7 years ago from Covington, LA

    Wonderful lens. I enjoyed it immensely. My American mother said that she was of "Scotch Irish" and English descent so I love to read about all three countries.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Charlino99: So glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Charlino99 profile image

    Tonie Cook 7 years ago from USA

    Scot decendent, here. Love this lens it is very informative.

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Shades-of-truth: Thank you, and good to meet you!

  • Shades-of-truth profile image

    Emily Tack 7 years ago from USA

    Ah, we all love Scotland! Really interesting, and informative, well written, and loved it, and rated it! Thanks!

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Mihaela Vrban: Turns out he has some Scottish blood in him (pointed out by TylaMac further below) so I guess there's no problem with that! :)

  • Mihaela Vrban profile image

    Mihaela Vrban 7 years ago from Croatia

    This was fun. And you broke some of the myths in my head :) Still, I like Mel Gibson as Scot :))

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @HannahDavis: Thanks for your kind comments and for stopping by here!

  • profile image

    HannahDavis 7 years ago

    I really enjoyed this lens! I visited Scotland last summer and agree that, though people have a distinct facial look, they come lots of different sizes and hair colors :) I also met lots of kids with the names you described as common Scottish names! Very nice lens!

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Capricorn57: Thanks so much. I know what you mean, I think a well-written and accurate novel is the best way to learn about history. I hope you do get to visit Scotland sometime soon. :)

  • profile image

    Capricorn57 7 years ago

    Excellent lens, and I also love the outlander series of books and am on the fifth one, "The Fiery Cross". I never even realized I could enjoy history so much. It was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I am of Scottish heritage on my mother's side, and have found the information facinating. It is one place I have always wanted to go.

    My late husband worked there for many months, but I never got to go. I did get 2 Border Collies from Scotland. Anyway, I loved your lens. Thanks!

  • indigoj profile image
    Author

    Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

    @Tyla MacAllister: Thank you, I really appreciate your comment, and all the others here.

    Yes, I had heard that in the US 'Scotch' tends to be used to refer to people, though you wouldn't do it over here and to me Scotch is the beverage (or an egg!). I didn't know about Mel Gibson's Scottish connection though, so you taught me something new! :)

    I think it's wonderful that American Scots have such a pride in their ancestry. I wonder if the home country lives up to your expectations when you visit? I hope so.

  • Tyla MacAllister profile image

    Tyla MacAllister 7 years ago

    This is a great lens for writers who are looking for a good crash course in Scottish culture. I have ambitions in that area and I am sure that I will return to this lens over and over when I need a quick answer.

    Thanks so much for addressing the whole Scot,Scottish,Scotch issue. Americans have developed the unfortunate habit (IMHO) of referring to themselves as Scotch or Scotch-Irish. I know it's accepted common usage but it's still incorrect.

    Also about Mel Gibson,although he isn't a native Scot he is Scottish on his mother's side. As I'm sure you know we American Scots always think of ourselves as Scottish even if it's been 500 years since our ancestors arrived in the New World. lol

  • jptanabe profile image

    Jennifer P Tanabe 7 years ago from Red Hook, NY

    Great job! Reading your lists of Scottish names made me feel quite homesick for "the good old days" when I was a child in Scotland - certainly my schoolmates had those names!

  • profile image

    ulla_hennig 7 years ago

    What a wonderful lens to learn more about Scotland!

  • profile image

    kimmanleyort 7 years ago

    What a great resource for novelists who need an insider's guide to the real Scotland. Very thorough and easy to read.

  • Mahogany LM profile image

    Mahogany LM 7 years ago

    Four seasons in ONE DAY? Singapore doesn't even have four seasons in one whole year :).

    I'm not writing a novel, but I found this lens very interesting (considering I've been to Scotland's neighbors but never made it over to you guys).

    (I like your ginger-haired disclaimer/release of consent bit by the way - it's a good point)

  • Wednesday-Elf profile image

    Wednesday-Elf 7 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

    I've never been to Scotland, even though one-half of my ancestors were from Scotland, but I would so love to see the country. My uncle and my mother each visited at one time years ago. Love your descriptions and a nicely done group of ideas for anyone, in addition to writers wanting information to write about Scotland.

  • LotusMalas profile image

    LotusMalas 7 years ago

    This is such a fabulous guide to Scotland. You're descriptions are so rich that I can just imagine myself there!

  • Richard-H profile image

    Richard 7 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

    Would you believe I've never been to Scotland? But I learnt some new info from my visit :)

  • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

    Kathy McGraw 7 years ago from California

    What a great resource. I was investigating a couple of the Clans many years ago and could have used this. You are right, if people want to write about a country, or the people, it's best to have the facts straight. Blessed by an Angel