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Scotland vs Ireland vs England – Part 3

By Dawn Rainbolt
More by Dawn

Are They Really That Different?

Ask anyone and they’ll likely tell you that Ireland is famous for rainy weather, leprechauns and rainbows, and large quantities of both sheep and pubs (usually not far from one another). Scotland on the other hand is known for its wild mountains, Loch Ness monster, kilts, bagpipes, and whisky. England calls to mind castles, crown jewels and quaint villages tucked into picturesque landscapes.

Welcome to Part 3 of our feature of Ireland vs Scotland vs England – hopefully this will help answer some of your questions about both the differences and similarities of these great places to visit.

Read on to learn more about how these three nations compare. 

Folklore, Myth & Legend

Scotland, Ireland, and England have their own myths and legends, though there is some overlap – for example, the legend of the selkies, or the seal people (the origin of the mermaid legend) who shed their ocean seal skins while on land to become humans exists in both Scotland and Ireland.

Irish folklore and mythology is some of the richest in Europe. Not only are there many stories, they are both inextricably tied to the landscape (giving meaning and story to various rocks, hills, lakes and rivers) and they are still handed down from parent to child today. These oral stories vary depending on the storyteller and the audience, with many offshoots, differing versions, and extensions. Many characters make appearances in multiple stories. 

English stories are a bit different – think Robin Hood with his merry men, or perhaps King Arthur and Guinevere and the wizard Merlin. Perhaps based on real people, these stories have become tied to what it means to be English.

Irish Folklore

Irish folklore and mythology is some of the richest in Europe. Not only are there many stories, they are both inextricably tied to the landscape (giving meaning and story to various rocks, hills, lakes and rivers) and they are still handed down from parent to child today. These oral stories vary depending on the storyteller and the audience, with many offshoots, differing versions, and extensions. Many characters make appearances in multiple stories. 

But the main “pantheon” of Irish folklore comprises of Finn McCool (or Fionn Mac Cumhail), the angry giant who built the Giant’s Causeway to fight a Scottish giant; Diarmuid and Grainne, Ireland’s tragic lovers à la Romeo and Juliet; Cuchulainn the Hound of Ulster and mortal enemy of Connacht’s impressive warrior queen Queen Maeve – they fought great wars over a giant magical bull; the Children of Lir who were turned to swans for 900 years by a jealous stepmother, and Oisin, the warrior son of Finn McCool. There are many others – the Tuatha Dé Dannan are a supernatural race of beings that evolved into the sídhe (pronounced “shee”) which are what today we know as fairies (and by extension, the infamous leprechauns). There’s also the Cailleach of Beara, a divine hag responsible for winter weather – various neolithic sites are associated with her, and finally the Salmon of Knowledge. There are many lesser-known stories about Irish folklore – many of which are connected with the rolling emerald landscape itself.

Even after the arrival Christianity, it simply merged with Irish mythology – so the Gateway to the Fairy World simply became the Gateway to Hell, the pagan goddess Brigid was canonised into Saint Brigid, and many other Celtic pagan concepts, traditions and characters were simply Christianised. 

Irish folklore is woven into the Irish landscape, and is an important part of the culture and tradition here. Stories are used to explain why that odd-looking rock is there, or what that ancient (Neolithic) mound is, or why a tree grew in a particular place. Storytellers are revered, and have always been so. For so long, few people could speak English or were literate, so oral storytelling became of extreme importance – and this focus and reverence put on storytelling has lead to a rich tradition of writing and a plethora of Irish authors, poets, playwrights and writers, proportional to the size of the Irish population.

Scottish Folklore

Although mythology and folklore do not have as much prominence in Scottish culture as it does in Irish, there is certainly a presence. Undeniably one of Scotland’s main tourist attractions is one the world’s most famous myths, the Loch Ness monster, a dinosaur-esque beast that lurks in the depths of one of Scotland’s largest lochs.

Nessie is not the only water based legend you have to keep an eye out for when visiting Scotland. Kelpies are shape-shifting spirits said to live in Scottish lochs and rivers. Most commonly they are said to take on a horse-like form, but in some stories they take the shape of a human to lure people to their watery deaths. It’s believed these stories were told to warn children to stay away from deep water. You can visit the impressive Kelpies monument near Falkirk, consisting of two 30-meter high horse-head sculptures. It should be noted that the monument acknowledges Scotland’s horse-powered past and not the mythological creatures…

Scotland’s the perfect destination for a bit of “dark tourism”; with the cities, castles, and even countryside roads laden with ghost stories. For those brave and keen you can take a tour in Edinburgh’s underground city, a former neighbourhood and slum gradually overtaken by larger structures and sealed during a spread of bubonic plague. The vaults are now rife with ghosts, the most famed being a little girl looking for her lost teddy bear. Other famous ghostly hotspots include Drovers Inn along the West Highland Way, said to be the most haunted pub in Britain, and Glamis Castle, home to 4 frequently sighted ghosts. 

You can’t talk about Scottish myths and legends and not mention unicorns. This mythological beast is Scotland’s national animal. Exactly how this came about is unknown, but unicorns share a lot of characteristics with the Scots. Proud and untameable, yet simultaneously being a symbol for purity and strength. It’s said that Scottish kings fancied themselves unicorn tamers, as unicorns were believed to only yield to virgin maidens as pure and innocent as the beasts themselves. This is why the unicorn is often depicted by the Scottish with golden chain wrapped around its neck or body. It was the ultimate representation of power.

English Folklore

The most famous stories to have come out of England are that of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

King Arthur is a timeless hero – usually associated with the early Middle Ages, but he could have been around even earlier. He may be real – or just a story – or a combination of both. The story is legendary – a peasant boy destined to become king, demonstrating his right to rule by pulling what is likely the most famous sword in history, Excalibur, from a stone.

From there, the boy Arthur is crowned king, and he becomes the epitome of the ideal and chivalrous king, with his Knights of the Round Table, his noble quests, his beautiful bride Guinevere, all under the tutelage of the famed wizard Merlin.

The other historically significant myth to talk about is Robin Hood. This lord-turned-thief is infamous for his mantra of “steal from the rich and give the poor.” He and his band of merry men live in Sherwood Forest, planning their light-hearted attacks on wealthy caravans in order to provide for those less fortunate. They were hunted by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who represents authority, and wealth disparity.

Both of these stories are important because of how they portray medieval English history – and provide two figures with whom the English could identify – a sort of national hero drawn from, and for, the lower classes – a glorification of what it means to be English.

Ancient Ruins

The ancient tombs of Carrowkeel cling to the top of a windblown hill in Co Sligo, northwest Ireland. They pre-date the Pyramids of Giza.

Ireland has a long history. For the better part of 800 years, Ireland has been under rule. Scotland was brought into the UK in XX and is still a part of it. But going back a few thousands years, both countries were inhabited by Neolithic peoples, the world’s first farmers. These ancient people who lived some 5,000 years ago built amazing monuments. In Scotland, the bulk of these ruins are on the islands – the Orkney Islands and the Isle of Lewis and Harris. In Ireland, the entire island is bursting with these ancient tombs and monuments.

Newgrange in the east not far fromDublin is the largest, but the west of Ireland has the highest concentration of stone circles, cairns, portal tombs, wedge tomes, court tombs and standing stones.

In the northwest, find Carrowmore and Carrowkeel, two of the largest collections of Neolithic cairns, tombs and stone circles, with dozens on each site. Carrowkeel’s main cairn is aligned with the Summer Solstice sunset – an amazing experience.

Visit the Poulnabrone Dolman, a massive dolman that is the pinnacle of the Burren’s rich archeology.

In the south, visit Lough Gur for the largest stone circle in Ireland, also aligned with the summer solstice.

Scottish Castles

Scottish Castles

Moody and dramatic, the crumbling walls of Urquhart Castle brood over Loch Ness.

Some of Scotland’s most famous castles:

If you want to visit a historic castle then Scotland is the destination for you. Scotland is home to between 2,000-4,000 castles, which range from elaborate palaces, great houses, stately mansions, intimidating forts, impressive strongholds, lonely towerhouses and imposing keeps. Scottish castles are all drama, often formidable structures or ruins set in jaw-dropping scenery. Many castles come with a fascinating backstory of clan disputes and battle. Often they’ll even feature a residential ghost or two.

Hundreds of castles are open to the public, and along with tours of the interior, there will also be beautiful gardens begging to be explored. If you want to spend a day or two living like royalty, there are various castle hotels dotted around the country and also private hire opportunities. 

Roman Britain

Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman Republic started in what is modern-day Italy in the 6th century BC, not expanding off the Italian peninsula until the 3rd century BC. It took some time for them to start expanding, but once it became an empire, each of the ruling emperors were expected to do two things – leave their mark on Rome (and try to outdo your predecessor), and expand the empire.

Contrary to popular belief, the Romans started on good terms with the Celtic tribes living outside their walls. They traded with them all manner of objects, though later unrest was a factor in the Romans decision to leave Britannica. Regardless, a fear of invasion from the north led to the building of the impressive Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD, and running for 73 miles across England.

One of the most important places in Roman Britain was York, known as Eboracum in Roman times. Founded by the Romans in 71 AD, it was the north’s major military base and therefore a significant city.

The Romans stayed in England for about 360 years, from 43 BC to 410 AD. Though Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous, they built other great monuments too, such as Bath spa, using the natural thermal waters found in the area. Today the Roman bathhouse is a historical site but there is a modern bathhouse next door, still using the natural waters.

Language - Irish vs Scots Gaelic

Another area where Ireland and Scotland both share common heritage and yet differ in today’s society is through the use of language. Both Ireland and Scotland’s vernacular languages (Irish and Scots Gaelic, respectively) share a common ancestor. Both languages were looked down upon by the English, and both languages suffered regular attempts to be stamped out. Both languages exist as principal spoken languages in scattered, isolate pockets, usually in the more far-flung regions of the country, particularly amongst island communities. 

Irish Gaelic & the Gaeltacht

In contrast to Scotland, the Irish language has seen a massive revival in Ireland. There are still a good few pockets of native Irish speakers, called the Gaeltacht, which are found predominantly on islands or in remote communities in West Cork, Dingle, Connemara, the Aran Islands, and northern Donegal, though in Scotland, there aren’t very many similar pockets of Scots Gaelic speakers. 

But where Scotland and Ireland really differ in terms of language is that in Ireland, Irish is a required subject from primary school all the way up through the Leaving Certificate (a level comparable to the US SATs, British A Levels and French baccalauréat). There are even plenty of Irish schools where all subjects are taught in Irish.

Though most people don’t hold Irish conversations daily, nearly everyone in Ireland is conversational in Irish, and we do tend to weave in small amounts of Irish in everyday dialogue, emails salutations and exchanges. All signs and official documents or websites are translated into Irish, and there are certain TV and radio channels that are Irish-speaking only. In Scotland, though these Scots Gaelic pockets do exist, the extent is not the same, and it is not taught in schools.

Essential Phrases – Ireland

Scots Gaelic

Speaking traditional Scottish Gaelic was outlawed in the 1600s and was further suppressed in Scotland following the Jacobite uprisings and Highland Clearances. Unsurprisingly, Scots Gaelic is now a dying language. Efforts have been made to revive the language – with dedicated radio and TV stations and subsidized degrees but many argue that governmental intervention is required to save it. The good news is that the language is seeing a recent surge in popularity. Language learning app Duolingo launched Scots Gaelic as a learnable language in November 2019, and it saw over 127,000 registrations in a short period of time. This made Scots Gaelic one of the fastest growing language courses ever on the app, and it means that more than double the number of people who currently speak it are learning to. TV shows like Outlander and recent portrayal in film have added to the re-popularisation of Scots Gaelic with many non-Scots learning the language as well. 

Essential Phrases – Scotland

Intrigued? Read more the first two instalments of this 3-part feature on Ireland vs Scotland vs England.

Read Part 1      Read Part 2

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Ireland, Scotland and England are three magical destinations, each with both similarities and differences.

If these sound like destinations that may interest your clients, work with us to start planning your client’s bespoke adventure holiday to Ireland, Scotland or England now.

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Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture, intriguing history, ancient castles, cheery locals and sweeping landscapes of Ireland.

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