Information About Scotland -- A Novelist's Guide to Creating Scottish Characters and Settings
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.
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
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
Iain / Ian
Malcolm, Muir, Murdo, Murray
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.
Catriona (pronounced like Katrina)
Mairi / Mhairi
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
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.
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
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.