Skip to main content

A Brief Introduction to Medieval Scottish Culture

Right after Ireland, Scotland is probably my second-favourite European country (yes, I have an uncontrollable bias towards Gaelic nations, pity me). Though nowadays, there's much clamour about the upcoming "Vote For Independence" which could see Scotland seceding from the UK for the first time since the Treaty of Union in 1707. While I'm no political commentator (I'd be horrible at that, in fact), it would be simple ignorance to say Scotland couldn't survive on its own. For much of its history, Scotland was first a collection of petty kingdoms and then a unified kingdom under a succession of houses of royalty.. A unique Scottish culture emerged, rivaling that of their English neighbours to the south. In this post, we'll examine the unique culture of Scotland during the Medieval ages.

Lingustics in 1400 (Blue-Gaelic,Yellow-Scots,Orange-Norse)
 Celtic languages were divided into distinct categories:
  • P-Celtic, which included Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Cumbric.
  • Q-Celtic, from which come the Goidelic languages: Irish, Manx and Gaelic
Over time, Gaelic became the chief language used by the Scots. It was typically an oral culture, especially in the Kingdom of Alba and much of the Highlands.

In the northern islands of the Shetlands and Orkneys, the norm language was Norse, which was introduced by Scandinavian occupiers who regularly raided and occupied the islands.

In the Scottish burghs (towns concentrated in the south and east of the country), English was the main language. This was due to the region being host to Anglian settlers who brought Old English with them. By 1124, French replaced Gaelic as the official language of the royal courts, evidenced by the presence of French documents.

Later, in the Scottish lowlands, Middle Scots (commonly known as English back then) became  became the dominant language of the country. It was derived largely from Old English, with the addition of elements from Gaelic and French. Although resembling the language spoken in northern England, it became a distinct dialect from the late fourteenth century onwards. It began to be adopted by the ruling elite as they gradually abandoned French. By the fifteenth century it was the language of government, with acts of parliament, council records and treasurer's accounts almost all using it from the reign of James I onwards. As a result, Gaelic, once dominant north of the Tay, began a steady decline

(For further reading)


There were strict rules, some enforced by Acts of Parliament, governing who could wear what in medieval and Renaissance times. Fashions changed across the centuries.
The clothes of a medieval bronze caster(from EducationScotland)

The general rule was that the poorer someone was, the simpler their clothes were: a simple belted tunic for peasants, shorter for men and longer for women, generally made of wool or linen.

Men wore ‘braies’ - large baggy underwear - beneath their tunics. Women wore long slips known as ‘kirtles’. Both men and women wore ‘hose’ - leggings like long stockings without feet.

In the early medieval period, women's clothing was patterned very much like men's, but with hems that always reached the ground. In the 11 and 12th centuries, women's clothing began to be more elaborate, with fitted waists and long, sweeping sleeves.

 Sometimes, the elaborate kirtle worn underneath was deliberately revealed by cutting holes in the outer garment or gathering it up at the waist.

In Scotland during the 12th century, most women would have dressed more simply than those in the court of the king of France. For everyday wear, dresses may have been made of plain, undyed wool cloth, worn over a linen kirtle.

 For more formal occasions, dresses made of red or yellow cloth would have added some colour. Belts made of wool or leather would also add some extra decoration

Nobles had access to any fabric they liked, including the exotic silks and velvets brought back by crusaders and merchants, but only royalty were permitted an ermine trim.

(For more information)


 The establishment of Christianity brought Latin to Scotland as a scholarly and written language. Monasteries served as major repositories of knowledge and education, often running schools and providing a small educated elite, who were essential to create and read documents in a largely illiterate society.
Tower of St. Salvator's College, St. Andrews.

 Until the fifteenth century, those who wished to attend university had to travel to England or the continent, and just over a 1,000 have been identified as doing so between the twelfth century and 1410. Among these the most important intellectual figure was John Duns Scotus, who studied at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris and probably died at Cologne in 1308, becoming a major influence on late Medieval religious thought. After the outbreak of the Wars of Independence, with occasional exceptions under safe conduct, English universities were closed to Scots and continental universities became more significant

This situation was changed by the establishment of the "ancient universities of Scotland". Four universities were established in the Middle Ages:
  • University of St Andrews – founded 1413 (incorporating the University of Dundee for most of its history until 1967) 
  • University of Glasgow – founded 1451   
  • University of Aberdeen – founded 1495 
  • University of Edinburgh – founded 1583
 (See A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, pages 29 & 30)


The accessibility of cuisine depended on location and class status. For example, a lord in a castle would have a small army to prepare the food for the household. The cook would lead the undercooks and the bakers. Larderers would make sure the kitchens were well stocked. Poulterers would prepare the birds. Bread was made fresh and baked in huge ovens. Fruit and vegetables were gathered from the castle’s orchards and gardens
And for ordinary people? Most ordinary Scots ate what we would eat today; They had two meals a day, made from food which they had grown or produced themselves. They ate a lot of food made with oats – a heavy kind of oat bread, porridge and rough, thick oatcakes called bannocks. Stews and thick soups called pottage were also common and sometimes mutton from sheep. Villagers close to the sea had easy access to fish. 
Haggis, arguably Scotland's national dish, has its origins from 1430
At different times of the year there would be different types of fruit and vegetables. Many people kept cows and hens for milk and eggs. Honey was the only way of sweetening food. Everyone - even children! - drank a weak kind of home-made beer made from barley because it was difficult to make sure that water was clean. 

Food was often strongly seasoned with herbs and spices, including garlic, rosemary, fennel, mint, parsley, cinnamon, peppercorns, root ginger, cloves and nutmeg. Some spices were imported via the Pilgrim routes to the Holy Land after they were brought back by crusaders. Salt was very expensive; such that it became a status symbol for kings and rich nobles. Some exotic medieval dishes included 'meat jelly'.

Medieval Scots also ate all sorts of creatures we don’t eat today including swans, peacocks, seals, lampreys and porpoises. They ate lots of birds including small wild birds as well as geese and pheasants. Fish was a regular dish as the church forbade the eating of meat during Lent and on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Herring, pike, salmon and bream were commonly eaten as well as eels, which were caught in lochs with wicker eel traps and barbed eel spears.

Inspired by medieval food? Well, here's an old medieval cookbook. Have fun


Popular posts from this blog

Vintage Maps of the Arabian Peninsula

Some rather old maps of the Arabian peninsula, details under each respective map.

Embedded text: This map of the Arabian Peninsula, published in 1720, shows Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta, and Arabia Petraea. Other regions included are Palestine, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Persia, Aegyptus, and Aethiopia. A large number of towns are shown. The title cartouche includes nine vignette coins. The tribal and town names on the map are those used by Ptolemy. Some are used more than once, with variations. Thus “Indicara,” “Iacara,” “Ichara,” and “Aphana” all could indicate the same place: the spot where Alexander the Great intended to build a capital on an island in the Arabian Gulf, enabling him to control the trade of the region and extend his empire (a scheme that he was unable to accomplish before he died).

 Archeological research suggests that this place was Failakah Island in present-day Kuwait, although some historians place it at Abu Ali Island. The map shows a peninsula near pres…

Bahrain - Old Photographs (Part I)

Below is a collection of stunning old photographs of Bahrain taken in the 20th century. I'll try to input as many captions as I can. Enjoy!

(The vast majority of these photographs were taken prior to the 1960s, by which time their copyright expired and is now in the public domain, as stated in Legislative Decree No. 10 of June 7, 1993 in respect of Copyright Law)

Why was King John the most unpopular monarch in English History ?

The title of this post is self-explanatory. And here's why John (reigned from 1199-1216) was so unpopular:

Under his reign, the English lost the land of Normandy to the French (Normandy had been under English control since the time of William the Conqueror). In fact, he was nicknamed "Lackland" because of this.
He was excommunicated from the Church by the Pope in 1209 (this made him even more unpopular)
His fiscal policies: He made people pay very high taxes 
John was a very bad fighter (he was nicknamed "Softsword" too!), and in those times, a bad warrior made a bad king.
John murdered his own nephew for fear of him leading a rebellion against John.
The barons (who were Normans) revolted against him because of the above reasons, and after deciding that he was a bad king (especially after realizing how he spent tax money).
Perhaps the most significant of all his failures (and the most humourous), he lost the original Crown Jewels in a swamp, in Eastern England. But, i…