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Mountain Thyme Blog

  • The Flower of Scotland

    Usually, when a flower is chosen by a nation or state as the official botanical representative of that land, one would expect it to be particularly beautiful, or at least so prolific as to be immediately associated with the place. Certainly, some legend or ancient symbolism would also be a perfectly good reason for a certain flower to play the part. Even so, some choices are more surprising than others. However unusual, the national flower of Scotland represents its people in a way few other flowers manage to do. So just what is the national flower of Scotland? The humble, prickly purple thistle!

    How on earth did this flower, deemed a weed and nuisance by many, become the national flower of Scotland? One legend credits this prickly bloom with alerting a sleeping band of Scots to approaching Norse invaders. While trying to sneak up on the Scots under cover of darkness, the invaders removed their shoes in order to keep their approach silent. Suddenly...

  • The Great Highland Bagpipes

    You either love them or hate them, but there’s no denying the bagpipes are one of the most memorable instruments played today. There are actually many kinds of bagpipes (and not all from Scotland), but the instrument most people associate with the general name of “bagpipes” is the Great Highland Bagpipe (in Gaelic, “piob mhòr”, “great pipe”). While the bagpipe as an instrument is ancient indeed, with its roots tracing back to the Middle East, and variations being used all over Europe for centuries (no, the bagpipe did not originate in Scotland!), the “modern” Great Highland Bagpipe came into being in the late 18th century. There was a need for uniformity, both for military regimental purposes (the bagpipes have a long history as a martial instrument in Scotland) as well as for competition and judging, and so the Great Highland Bagpipe as we know it today was developed.

    The two universal features of bagpipes are a bag (which holds the air needed to play the instrument) and the pipes (which contain internal reeds which produce sound). In the case of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the bag (made either of hide or a synthetic material) is held under the piper’s arm,  filled with a blowpipe (blown into by the piper at regular intervals) and pressure maintained by the piper’s arm when the piper takes a breath. In this way, the sound of the bagpipes remains constant, unlike other wind instruments which have pauses for taking a breath. The other pipes (in addition to the blowpipe) are the three drones, which rest on the piper’s shoulder, each producing a single, constant note, and the chanter, which is held by, and played with, both hands, and it is this smaller pipe that the melody comes from. Both the drones and the chanter have internal double reeds, which vibrate (once sufficient, and significant, air pressure is applied from the bag) and produce sound. The chanter can only play nine notes in one key, but even so, the repertoire of music for the Great Highland Bagpipe is vast and varied.

    One may think that with only nine notes, learning to play tunes on the pipes must not be very difficult. However, one only needs to listen to an accomplished piper and watch their flying fingers to realize just how complex pipe tunes can be. One feature of pipe music is...

  • Flags of Scotland

    Scotland has two widely recognized flags. (We fly them both on our sons' fort in our backyard!) The first is the blue flag with the white diagonal...
  • Irish and Scottish Gaelic

    The Gaelic language has been continuously spoken in Ireland and Scotland for thousands of years. During that time, its use has waxed and waned, and diverged significantly between the two countries to become Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. Even more confusingly, the language is referred to as Irish or Gaeilge (Gwal-gah) in Ireland, with “Gaelic” being used to describe the people and culture. As different as the modern languages may be between the two countries, they have roots in the same Old Gaelic (or Old Irish).

    The history of this language is a bit murky. We know it comes from an even earlier Celtic language, which came from the Celts that conquered Ireland and Britain some 3,000 years ago (conquering the pre-Celtic peoples that already inhabited those lands). Other Celtic languages include Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Manx. The Celts that settled in Ireland become known as the Gaels, and their Gaelic language traveled with them as they spread throughout Scotland and the Isle of Man.

    The Vikings invaded these areas between the 8th and 10th centuries, bringing an increase in the use of the Norse language. While some Norse words found their way into the Gaelic language, the structure of the language was not affected, and ultimately Gaelic dominated in usage.

    The Catholic Church played a major role in spreading the Gaelic language. One example of this influence is the numerous place names starting with “Kil” (from cill meaning church or cell), which is usually combined with a saint’s name....

  • The Scottish Highland Games

    Modern Scottish Highland Games are one of the best places to go to experience Scottish and Celtic culture outside of Scotland. Today’s Games offer...
  • History of Celtic Knotwork

    During the 7th century BC, Celts from continental Europe crossed over to Britain and began to settle. Artwork was, and remains, a big part of their culture. The most instantly recognizable form of Celtic artwork is their intricate knotwork designs. As with many other cultural artforms, the art of the Celts was both decorative and religious, and often incorporated symbolism and was used to tell stories. Both animals and humans are often depicted in Celtic artwork, but in very imaginative and stylized ways. Anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal) designs are often quite contorted, with long and interweaving body parts. This was due to the Celtic belief...