St. Patrick's Day in Scotland

Traditions | 15 March 2021

In two days we will be observing St. Patrick’s Day - a worldwide celebration of all things Irish. You might think that as a Scottish private tour company we’re focused solely on the island east of the Irish Sea, but the close links connecting Ireland and Scotland through centuries makes it a very important holiday in our country as well. If you’re having a wee coffee break (possibly Irish coffee - we don’t judge!) and want to know a bit more about the Irish patron saint and his influence on Scottish history, sit back and enjoy this post about St. Patrick's Day in Scotland.

St Patrick’s day celebrations

As you can imagine, the celebrations of saints are connected with the religious calendar of Christian faith and it’s no different when it comes to St Patrick’s Day in Scotland and Ireland. In the olden days, feasts held in honour of the sacred figures of Christianity were usually great occasions as they allowed a respite from the strict rules of fasting. The Feast of St. Patrick on the 17th of March fell into that pattern as restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol connected with Lent were lifted for that day. 

Beer, cider and whiskey still flow for St. Paddy’s Day in Irish pubs all around the world, and the global scale of the celebration is a clue to the popularity of the holiday. As in many cases other cases, its traditions were shaped by the need of Irish diasporas to assert and express their identity in multicultural communities away from Ireland. As ethnic factors always played a role in American politics, public manifestations of Irishness were endorsed more than discouraged, growing into colourful festivals we can admire these days. In 18th c. many American towns and cities started staging St. Patrick’s Day parades, but the custom did not spread to Ireland until the 20th century. On Emerald Isle the day was still more connected with the Catholic Church liturgy and followed by long hours of revelry. But it was always more than just drinking: the national holiday was often marked by festivals of song and spoken word, as well as traditional Irish music sessions (céilithe). Since 1902, St. Patrick’s Day serves also as culmination of the Irish Language Week – an annual international festival promoting the Irish language and culture, both in Ireland and all around the world. 

With the dawn of the era of the Global Village it’s hard to find a place where the Irish free spirit isn’t celebrated by groups of green-clad partygoers, but who exactly was the man so eagerly with pints and drams all over the world?

Who exactly was St.Paddy?

We can’t have absolute certainty regarding the life of St. Patrick, as most of our knowledge comes from two Latin works penned by himself in the 5th century. He was born in Roman-Christian Britain in a family of Christian church officials. When he was 16 he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and spent 6 years as a slave, tending to sheep for his pagan masters. In his Declaration he describes this period as crucial to his spiritual development. It had such a profound effect on him, that when he managed to escape and return to Britain, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a priest.

Patrick went back to Ireland as a Christian missionary and personally baptized thousands, mostly in the northern part of the island. Following the teachings he received in France, he built his mission on monastery life, converting sons and daughters of Irish chieftains, offering them service to god as an escape from family and feudal obligations. For his efforts St. Patrick was elevated to the position of bishop and continued his earth-braking service for decades until his death.

Very quickly St. Patrick became a cult hero of Christianity, and as early as 7th c. sources recall his legendary actions. On his travels across the island he was said to meet and converse with ancient Irish heroes. His ashen walking stick, which he would plant in the ground when teaching the gospel, took root and turned into a living tree when he was forced to spend more time with an obstinate community. He is also credited with turning shamrock into a national Irish symbol after he used it to explain the doctrine of Holy Trinity to his converts. His most renowned deed however was driving away all snakes from Ireland. As there’s no indication that many snakes inhabited the island, it is now thought to be an allegory of him getting rid of the druids of the old Celtic faith, but in any case these supernatural powers indicate the reverence shown to his life’s work by his immediate successors. 

“Very well” – we hear you say – “but how much does this all have to do with Scotland? Simple answer – a lot. Without the strong Irish Church with the cult of St. Patrick at its core, St. Columba might’ve never sailed from Ireland to Iona and turned it into a base for missionary work across Scotland. As Scottish Christianity came from Ireland, the cultural and historical consequences of an alternative route would be far-reaching. Accepting new faith systems, laws and governance patterns from England for instance could lead to much closer ties with the southern neighbour. Dependence on English archbishops would certainly have an impact on Scottish emerging ruling noble class, which could never start considering itself an independent national community. That drive for self-governance and self-determination resonated throughout Scottish history and can be very much heard today. We should also remember that from a much more modern perspective, many Scots can derive their ancestry from thousands of Irish immigrants. Similarly to the diasporas in the United States, Canada and Australia, they were forced to leave Ireland in the 19th and 20th c. and found a better life in Scotland, forever enriching its cultural tapestry.

Celtic celebration in the comfort of your own home

Just like with other holidays in the past few months, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Scotland and around the world won’t be the same this year. Similarly to the Burns Night two months ago, we can improvise many things, but good company is essential. Luckily with video chats you always have access to your fellow revellers and where there’s a will there’s a way. But how to prepare for a video chat St. Paddy’s celebration?

First of all, you must wear something green – by all means go all leprechaun green if you fancy, but a small shamrock or green accent will do. You can also Irish-up your room – green streamers or Irish tricolour flags are great, as are improvised green shades over lamps. If you prefer to work smart rather than hard, set the famous Cliffs of Moher as your background picture and make everyone on the chat appreciate your genius. 

Now you need the right tunes. YouTube, Spotify and Itunes are full of great Irish playlists – from traditional music of the céilithe, pub classics like The Dubliners and The Chieftains, to the modern rockers like The Pogues. With the use of screen-sharing feature you can even follow a playlist of music videos with lyrics and have a sing-along of Irish anthems. 

The last St. Patrick’s Day essential is a drink. The choice is clearly up to you (toasts can be made even with apple juice and no one will be able to tell!), but a pint of Guinness, Irish cider or whiskey may make it feel a bit more special. No matter what’s in your glass, you should be able to make an Irish toast. “Cheers” in Irish is sláinte which is pronounced a bit like “slawn-che”. It literally means “health”, and if you’re feeling brave, you can go for full sláinte is táinte (“slawn-che iss toin-che”), meaning “health and wealth”. (Some of you might notice its similarity with the traditional Scottish Gaelic toast Slàinte mhath – “Good health” – which is pronounced “slan-ge-var”.) If you’re unsure how to tackle these melodic phrases look for tutorial videos by native Irish speakers, but you can have a great St. Paddy’s even mispronouncing every word – it can actually be a side effect of having a good time!

To end your celebrations you can try the old custom of “drowning or wetting the shamrock”. Get a three-leaf clover (if they don’t grow on the route of your essential walk you can cut one out of paper) and put it at the bottom of a cup. Then in a true Irish fashion fill that cup with whiskey, beer, or cider. When you’re ready, toast St. Patrick, Ireland, or those present. Finish the drink in one go, take out the shamrock and toss it over the shoulder for good luck. After 2020, we all surely need it. Sláinte!