A céad míle fáilte my Sassenach friends! Gather round, take a moment respite and be regaled with tales of a land North of the wall.
For most people in Britain, the 30th of November is usually just another rainy, grey and miserable day. It’s been a month since the debauched and costumed antics of Halloween and there are another few weeks until the merry, mistletoe-d parties of Christmas. Further, should you forget a coat or umbrella, the weather leaves you with a hunched-shouldered acceptance of your sodden existence.
As someone who lives in the North of England, I promise that this state of affairs worsens as one travels up the country. But go beyond the border and into Scotland and they have to start inventing new words for the sullen conditions they often find themselves in.
For Christmas, my Scottish uncle got me a charming little book called Scotland the Dreich where a reader can find an album of rainy, bleak and dreary days. For the uninitiated, dreich is a word recorded in Scots since the 15th century meaning ‘dreary, tiresome or wearisome’. Far from being a cause for depression however, the author actually thinks of it as an antidote. You can think of it as a sort of Scottish answer to Danish hygge. While we all love ‘those long summer days of unbroken blue, and soft scented breezes’, ‘what would they be without their counterpoint – days of cold, mist and a dampness that reaches the bone?’. In a brooding and typically Scottish tone, the author writes that such dreich days have a stillness ‘that is matched by no other… They are quiet days, melancholy yet not depressing. They are a blank canvas on which to project future hopes. They are days to stay at home by the fireside, with a book and a dog asleep at your feet’.
In such a melancholic and dreich land, at such a wearisome and rainy time of year, it seems fitting that one ought to have an excuse for a drink and a treat of some sort. Thus, on the alleged anniversary of his peculiar crucifixion, Scots celebrate their patron Saint Andrew.
While known for his slanted cross and his relationship to Scotland, St Andrew was one of the original 12 Apostles of Christ. His story is one of exploration and travel as he left his home on the Sea of Galilee and travelled through much of the Balkans and Eastern Europe spreading the Word of Jesus before eventually settling and apparently founding modern-day Kyiv. It was there that he was executed for his beliefs on a cross that resembled an X, thus creating the saltire.
Allegedly, as part of his many travels, he ended up in a small town in an area on the East coast of Scotland called Fife which was renamed St Andrew’s in his honour. If it seems a bit farfetched that someone would leave the warm and sunny Middle East for the East coast of Scotland, a more convincing story is that a follower of his brought some of his relics to that same town and it was renamed for the same reason. Thus, St Andrew became tied to Scotland.
Feasts have been held in St Andrew’s honour since at least 1000 AD, but it wasn’t until 1320 that he was named Scotland’s patron Saint. While fans of Braveheart or Robert the Bruce may be familiar with events like the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Bannockburn, they may be less familiar with the Declaration of Arbroath (Ar-bro-th). It was a Scottish spring day, the 6th of April to be exact, which meant that it was probably a rainy day too – maybe even a dreich one – and King Robert the Bruce was dealing with a diplomatic crisis in which the Pope was urging him to find a truce with England. The Scots, not being ones to back down, replied with the Declaration of Arbroath in which the words were written:
As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
It was on this day that St Andrew was declared Scotland’s patron Saint.
Talking about freedom, the actual celebration of St Andrew’s day owes much to the self-proclaimed land of the free, the USA. While feasts have been held in St Andrew’s honour for the last 1000 years, the popular celebration of the 30th of November didn’t really begin until the 18th Century. A group of Scottish ex-pats had moved to South Carolina and set up the St Andrew’s Society of Charleston. It was there, on the other side of the Atlantic where a few Scots were missing their homeland – and the original country to release a declaration of independence against England – that people gathered to enjoy their Caledonian roots.
Most of you reading this won’t be Scottish nor will you get the bank holiday that Scotland does in honour of St Andrew. I hope, however, that his story and presence in Scottish history has been an interesting one. As the cold, wet and windy weather of British winter begins to assert itself, I recommend that you turn away from the dreich landscape outside and instead look to a cosy room where you can enjoy a dram of uisge-beatha with friends and say ‘Sláinte mhath!’.
Let other Poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drunken Bacchus,
An’ crabbèd names an’ stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug;
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.
O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch Drink,
Whether thro’ wimpling worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!
Robert Burns, Scotch Drink, Stanzas I & II