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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Geography Lesson

OK people, enough is enough already. Scotland and Ireland are two completely different countries. They are not even on the same island! While the Scottish and the Irish people both have a lot in common, they nevertheless are two distinct cultures, with their own unique traditions. For example, the kilt and the tartan are both "Scottish things" and not "Irish things."

I point out this quite obvious fact because apparently some people need to be reminded. Like the author of this article in the winter 2007 issue of Knitty. She writes, "In my family, we're all of Irish heritage, and we're VERY proud. In fact, my Dad is so proud he has two kilts that he wears on a regular basis." The article has a nice pattern for knitting a pair of kilt hose, but one has to ask, what on earth does wearing the kilt have to do with your dad's being Irish? (Let alone the fact that, in the picture accompanying the article, he's wearing what looks like a Utilikilt, which is neither Scottish nor Irish, but American).

I don't know if it is a world-wide phenomenon or just here in the States but people seem to think Ireland and Scotland are synonymous. I can't escape it. Sitting down the other night to an hour of mindless entertainment with one of my favorite shows, Psych, when one of the main characters, whose last name is O'Hara (about as Irish a name as you can think of) starts talking about all the traditional Scottish customs that her family observes at Christmas, including Hogmanay (which is New Years, but never mind the details).

Then just yesterday I was going through the drive-through of my favorite Scottish restaurant (McDonald's, of course!) in my kilt and Argyle jacket, when the teen who hands me my McMuffin gives me the thumbs up and yells "Hey, Irishman, alriiiiiight!" as I pull away.

So it is time for a geography lesson. I would draw you a map but I don't have to. Someone has graciously done it for me. Right click this link and open in a new window. Isn't that a great map? Thanks to the folks at Now pay attention. Scotland is that northernmost part of the big island to the right (the part that says "Scotland" on it). Ireland, on the other hand, is that smaller island over to the left (the one that says, fittingly enough, "Ireland"). All that empty space in between -- that's water. Two separate land masses. Two separate countries.

While we are looking at a map of the British Isles, I want to point out another thing that may be obvious to some -- they are British! Britain and England are not synonymous. The big island to the right (the one that says "Scotland" on the top of it and "England" on the bottom) is Britain. This means that the English are British, but guess what? So are the Scots. And so are the Welsh. They are all British. So saying things like, "Oh, the Scots hate the British," really doesn't make much sense unless you are accusing the Scots of self-loathing.

Oh, we all know what you mean. When you say, "British" you mean "English." But that's wrong, so stop saying it. The Scots are British too, every bit as much as the English. And the country is called the United Kingdom, being made up of a union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland (Wales is a principality). Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The rest of Ireland is not (again, refer to the map).

So, let's review. Britain is the whole big island, the northern part of which is Scotland and the southern part of which is England (and Wales). Britain and England are not the same thing. Ireland is that island off the west coast of Britain. Ireland and Scotland are not the same thing. Simple enough really, but make a flow chart if you have to.

There, now I feel better. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging...


David Pope said...


Great blog entry. For some reason people don't ever make a distinction between Scotland and Ireland. I think the term Scots-Irish tends to encourage the phenomenon.

On the other hand, it's been happening for a while. The English referred to early basket-hilted swords (16-17th century) as "Irish-hilts" even though what they were describing were weapons which had a strong connection to the Scots. In that case it seems that even way back then the English were using "Irish" to mean "mis-applied pan-celtic modifier." See

I would mention what I believe to be one minor imprecision within your post. My understanding, at least, is that the proper title of the political entity after the 1707 Union of Crowns of England and Scotland was "The Kingdom of Great Britain." It wasn't until the 1800 Union of Crowns of Great Britain and Ireland that the political entity was known as "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland." Obviously, after the Republic of Ireland was created the title changed to "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" to reflect the geographic reality caused by the partition. So I guess what I'm getting at is that the two "united kingdoms" referred to are Great Britain and Ireland, vice England and Scotland. Sorry for nit-picking.

One fact that was surprising for me was that the first Scottish King of Ireland was Robert the Bruce's brother, Edward. Of course the Irish made sure that his reign was short...

kingstonman said...

don't forget Matt, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and as such people from Northern Ireland are British.
I'm from there and always use that as my passport styling, not as Irish!

Anonymous said...

I purposely don't wear my kilts to our local Irish pubs so peole don't think I'm a culturally confused idjit ;)


Anonymous said...


Great post. Things seem so much clearer now! So what part of Britain is Germany in? (I was just asked if I was German today because of my kilted attire.)

It does seem that the kilt is becoming a Pan Celtic Garment with all the Irish and Welsh tartans that seem to be popping up now. This isn't a bad thing but it certainly is a modern one.

So how about some information about the history and styles of fly plaids next...



ke4rjg said...

I was doing some grocery shopping while wearing my kilt. (A UK or a USAK, can't remember which.) A woman came to me and asked, "So, are you Australian?"

Kristopher A. Denby said...


This phenomenon has never bothered me. Most people never take the time to find out the differences between the two islands. People like us are interested in these sorts of things, so we know about them. I bet you haven't always been so knowledgeable on the subject of Great Britain and Ireland. I say cut them some slack. After all, how many times have you seen kilted pipers in the St. Paddy's day parade? St. Pádraig (who was coincidentally born in what is known today as England)is the most famous of Ireland's patron saints, and has nothing to do with Scotland or Scottish culture. So why are the pipes played at St. Patrick's Day events? Why do Police and Firefighters identify with kilts and pipers? It seems to me that many of the fire and police stations on the east coast and Chicago still hold a strong Irish identity (I'm guessing from the huge influx of Irish immigrants in the 1800's?). So, why then, do these agencies who have such a strong Irish identity choose to have kilted Scottish pipers at all of their functions (weddings, parties, funerals, parades)?

To me this is called cultural diffusion, and it is (probably) how Keltic culture came to the islands that we speak of (and then to us in America). I think like a traditionalist, and I am proud of my Scottish heritage (but also of my English, Welsh, and Irish), but I am also a student of anthropology and culture. And I think this will be a non-discussion in a few years. The kilt has been adopted as The Keltic manner of dress, and there is no stopping the tide.

By the way, hello from X-Marks the Scot!

Anonymous said...

I'm Scottish and I'm very glad you took the time to write this entry. Nothing pisses us off more than (mostly Americans) using the terms "English" and "British" as if they were the same (i.e. Lizzie is not just the Queen of England)!

Anonymous said...

Great post, but I do have to say this.

My father-in-law is from Glasgow, now living in Canada. A very proud Scot he is. A die-hard Rangers fan, won't even let you wear the color green in his house! OK, on to my point. Although I agree with most of your post, I find it hard to swallow the part about the Scots being british. In fact my father-in-law would kick the crap out of anyone that suggested he was british. In fact, from what I know, and I'm no expert... No Scot considers himself British and to suggest it is offensive. Now the part about Ireland, I'm with ya 100% That is frustrating when people confuse the two. Again, I'm no expert, just a piper of Scottish descent and a son-in-law to one of the most patriotic Scots I've ever known. If I'm wrong, then please help me understand.


MB said...

Thanks for this well-written, if not a little bit patronizing, post to your blog! Your writing style reminds me of my own!

I've just used your research (from your website) to settle a discussion about the history of kilts. And that led me to order two of your books. I'm sure I'll be watching your blog from now on!
In fact, I'd like to add it to our own blogroll, if that's okay with you.

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