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When I first decided to study abroad in Scotland for the duration of my undergraduate degree, I really didn’t think that there was much to prepare for. After all, how much difference is there really between the US and Scotland? Speaking the same language (mostly) means that we’re pretty similar, right?
In fact, over the past two years I’ve been studying abroad in Scotland, I have come across a LOT of differences and random quirks that I did not expect to.
So if you’re planning to study abroad in Scotland anytime soon, here are 25 things that nobody told me. I hope you can go into it a little bit more prepared than I was.
#1: The Food Sucks
I want you to close your eyes and think about all of the different foods that stem from Scotland you’ve heard about. What comes to mind? Fish and chips? Haggis? You’re probably struggling, and let me tell you why:
The food in Scotland is nothing to write home about.
If you’re planning on staying in student accommodation, imagine the worst horror stories you’ve heard about dorm food and then compound those onto a culture that is already not known for its food. Last year, my cafeteria had a habit of serving multiple different kinds of potatoes as sides for a meal. I’m pretty sure they thought that this was what you might call “variety”. I’m also pretty sure it definitely wasn’t.
So long story short, if you’re looking to study abroad in a place with exciting food, Scotland is not it.
#2: No one is going to hold your hand
The university system in Scotland is set up much differently than the system in the United States. There is a lot less class time and contact hours with your professors, and a lot more expectation of self-teaching and spending a LOT of time in the library, reading. While tutors do have office hours, they’re generally only for one or two hours a week, so the chances that you’re going to find someone who will sit down and go through every single issue in a paper with you are pretty dang slim.
That being said, the fact that no one is going to be there to hold your hand can also foster a serious sense of independence that you often don’t find in the American school system.
#3: You’re a lot farther away from mainland Europe than you think you are
One of the best parts of studying abroad in Europe is just how close you are to the rest of Europe. This closeness lends itself extremely well to weekend trips and general exploring that you definitely don’t have the opportunity to do when you’re studying in the US.
But surprisingly enough, unless you’re in either Edinburgh or Glasgow, the simple task of getting to the airport (aka the only way to get to mainland Europe because, you know, Great Britain is an island) can become a practice in patience.
Public transportation in Scotland is awesome, yes, but it will likely surprise you just how long it can take to get between point A and point B. From my town (St Andrews), for example, it takes about two hours by bus just to get to the Edinburgh Airport. While I still definitely make weekend trips as often as I can, it is a seriously tiring exercise.
#4: There are a lot more Americans than you might expect
Now honestly, I don’t know if this is just a thing at my university thanks to Will & Kate, but there are a surprising number of Americans here. In fact, a staggering 14.7% of students at the University of St. Andrews hail from America (which might just be more than the percentage of students from Scotland). Some of them are study abroad students but most of them, like me, are here for the full four years.
So if you want to escape America entirely, studying abroad in Scotland might not be the place to do it.
#5: All the towns look the same
My little Scottish town is absolutely beautiful. There are ruins of a medieval castle and cathedral here, there are gorgeous golf courses, and we’re nestled closely along the North Sea. But drive ten minutes down the road and you arrive in another town that looks almost exactly like this one. Pretty much the only thing that makes St. Andrews stand out from other towns nearby in the university.
So yes, the buildings and towns of Scotland are beautiful. They’re just… beautiful in the same way.
#6: Literally no one eats haggis. Ever.
I have been living in Scotland for nearly two years now and I have literally never once come across haggis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s mentioned all the time. Literally, everyone you ever meet tells you-you have to try it. But I’ve never actually SEEN it. TBH, I’m beginning to think haggis might not actually be real.
#7: But they do wear kilts. Like, a lot of kilts.
Before I moved to study abroad in Scotland, I heard a lot of jokes about kilts. Especially jokes that either mentioned how I was going to come back dating a guy in a kilt, or in one myself. But I never actually thought that people really and truly wore kilts.
Turns out I was totally wrong, because kilts are still very much a part of Scottish culture. You see them most often at formal events like weddings and balls (more on those later) or on buskers playing the bagpipes (yes, for real). But you’ll also sometimes just see dudes on the street, just casually wearing their kilts.
My favorite is the old man in my neighborhood who walks his Westie in his kilt (the dog also has a matching sweater, it’s adorable). In fact, he’s so committed to wearing his kilt that, when it gets too cold, he wears leg warmers. Because pants (er… trousers) would be sacrilege, obviously. Basically, this guy is a walking, talking, Scottish stereotype and I really want to strike up a conversation with him one day just to ask him to say “You may take our lives, but you may never take our frrrrreedom! ” for me.
#8: Wheelie grocery bags are for grandmas, but you will want one.
Chances are you won’t have a car if you study abroad in Scotland. Firstly because you’re not going to bring your car over from America, but also because people here drive on the wrong side of the road and by and large they drive in manual cars (aka my worst nightmare).
This lack of a car means that, when you go grocery shopping, you’re going to be carrying your groceries all the way home (unless there’s a convenient bus route). You will likely spot grannies and their rolling grocery bags and feel a distinct tinge of jealousy as your arms are falling off.
My suggestion is to give into the temptation, no matter how much your Scottish flatmate makes fun of you. Granny roll-y bags are awesome.
#9: Not everyone is a prince.
Second to the comments about the kilts, the joke I get most often is that I’m going to come back dating a prince. My dad still thinks I should break up with my boyfriend and try to go find a nice guy from some random royal family. But surprisingly enough, Prince William does not still attend the University of St Andrews, and his son is a little bit too young to be thinking about anything other than nursery quite yet.
The closest I’ve come to getting myself a royal boyfriend is being in a play with a girl who is straight up a Malaysian princess. It’s just, quote, “not really that big of a deal there”.
#10: You won’t be able to understand the bus driver.
Y’all, Scottish accents are crazy. There is also HUGE variation, in that some Scots are totally understandable (like my flatmate Megan) while others sound like they’re speaking a language that is decidedly NOT English.
By far the worst offenders are the bus drivers (one time I paid a pound more than I had to on a bus and walked away before he could correct my mistake). Honestly, I’ve just given up all hope of understanding them at this point.
#11: There is literally a word for the mist that rolls in off of the sea
You always hear about those beautiful foreign words that express things that just aren’t possible in English, but did you know that, apparently, we have some of those too? A few months back my flatmate shared with me the word for the mist that rolls in off of the sea (specifically on the east coast of England and Scotland): haar.
I’m not even kidding. This word exists. Here’s the Wikipedia page for it.
#12: Even if you’ve never had car sickness before, you will get it in Scotland
I have always prided myself on not getting motion sick (except for that one awful bus ride in Panama). When we were kids, it was always my sister who got car sick on long drives. But ever since moving to Scotland, I have had to take motion sickness pills every time I get into a moving vehicle.
I think it’s probably a combination of the winding roads and the jerkiness of manual cars. But yeah, it’s not ideal. Definitely buy some motion sickness pills if you’re studying abroad in Scotland.
#13: Nandos will be your new favorite place to eat… because of the free refills
One thing that I was nowhere near thankful enough before moving abroad was free refills. In America, you take free refills for granted. Like, before you are even halfway done with your drink the waitress will swoop in with a replacement for you. But in Scotland (as with most of Europe), you get your drink, and that’s it. You have to carefully budget yourself so you haven’t drunk it all before your food comes. It’s actually torture.
But Nandos (yes, of cheeky Nandos fame) has free refills. If that’s not the best excuse for a cheeky Nandos ever then I don’t know what is.
#14: Yes, Scots have a higher alcohol tolerance than you do.
As a result of the drinking age being lower in Scotland in America, Scots generally start drinking younger than Americans do. They also just somehow seem to have a much better alcohol tolerance than any of the Americans. I know a girl who did 13 shots in a row and was fine the next day. The Scots are crazy.
#15: Highland cows are the cutest animals of all time
Never heard of a highland cow before? You might not have unless you’ve seen one of those viral Facebook videos. But yes, highland cows are fluffy, and they are the cutest animals of all time. All you will want in life is to have a highland cow of your own to cuddle with (though the horns might make it a little hard). Or you can just buy a highland cow stuffed animal.
Of course, highland cows are pretty rare (and generally only in the Highlands), so you’ll have to seek them out. But I promise you, it will be worth it. Seeing my first highland cows was a lifechanging experience.
#16: Don’t try Irn-Bru
I had literally never heard of Irn-Bru before I came to Scotland. But then, on move-in day, I went into town for lunch with a new friend, who insisted we try Irn-Bru. It is orange and I honestly can’t explain the flavor to you, but the Scots seem to love it. My advice is not to try it.
#17: Get ye to a Ceilidh
I kept reading the word ‘ceilidh’ before I showed up and had literally no idea what it was referring to. I also had no idea how to pronounce it. Then, when I finally made it to Scotland I kept hearing people talk about “Kaylie”. It took me longer than I’m proud to admit to put two and two together and realize that ceilidh = Kaylie and it is, in fact, the coolest folk dancing event you will ever go to.
You may end up losing 20 pounds due to sweat, but I promise you: ceilidhs are honestly the best nights out.
#18: You will hear Auld Lang Syne at the end of every event ever.
I don’t know what it is about the Scottish, but they really freaking love Auld Lang Syne. No matter where you are or what type of event you are at, it WILL end with an emotional sing-a-long to Auld Lang Syne. And that’s a guarantee.
P.S. If it’s not Auld Lang Syne, it’s Loch Lomond.
#19: Bagpipes are actually beautiful
After nearly two decades of being subjected to propaganda about bagpipes sounding like dying cats, I expected to absolutely hate the things when I finally heard them in real life. But then I actually heard them in real life, and they are honestly so beautiful.
Which is a good thing, since you will hear bagpipe music on a regular basis in Scotland. From buskers on the street to wedding performers, they are literally everywhere.
My first year at university, I heard bagpipes as my shuttle from the airport drove into town after winter break. That was how I knew I was home.
#20: You will be expected to run into the sea at dawn on the First of May. And get into a giant foam fight during one of your first weekends at uni.
Okay, so this is mostly just a St Andrews thing, but a fair thing to warn you about if you do happen to be studying abroad specifically at the University of St Andrews: we are big on our traditions here, and sometimes they can be a little crazy.
For example, your first week at university you’ll likely be approached by a third-year student who wants to adopt you. Then, a few weeks later, you will participate in Raisin Weekend (the details of which are honestly hazy) and a giant foam fight at the end of it.
And on the first of May, you might just find yourself staying up all night in order to run into the sea at dawn. It’s for good luck on your exams, or so I’m told.
#21: You’re going to go to a lot of balls.
Once again, this is pretty specific to St Andrews, but for some reason, we really like to host a lot of balls over here. Like, straight up, Cinderella-esque b a l l s. Maybe it’s the royalty thing again, or maybe we just like pretending we’re #fancyaf. And honestly, they’re mostly just like any other night out. Just… everyone is dressed a little fancier.
#22: You will be constantly amazed by your new hometown and how beautiful it is.
I know I mentioned way back that all Scottish towns look the same, but your town will look different. It will be the most beautiful Scottish town and you will never want to leave it.
#23: Don’t try the peanut butter.
There’s a reason I put peanut butter on my list of things to ask for for Christmas if you’re studying abroad: although possible to find in Scotland, it is disgusting. And exactly 0% like the peanut butter you are used to.
Take it from me: if you like having peanut butter around, bring some with you from the US.
#24: The grading system makes exactly zero sense.
I’ve spent my whole life with the A-F grading system, so, to me, it seems completely natural. Coming across the pond to find out that there was something totally different for university was a little bit jarring, and honestly, I’m still not totally sure I understand it.
There are firsts, two-ones, two-twos, and thirds. And, for some reason, your first two years of university don’t actually count towards your degree??? If someone can explain this to me please do.
#25: It will be impossible to find stick deodorant.
Much like peanut butter, I never knew how much I valued stick deodorant until my first semester in Scotland when I ran out of the deodorant I had brought from home and had to go buy some more. And all that was available was spray deodorant. Which, to me, is a completely foreign concept.
Although some places do have a small selection of stick deodorant, if you have a kind of deodorant back home that you really love, I suggest stocking up, because you’re not going to find it in Scotland (I, for example, have like 5 sticks of Old Spice Amber stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere).
And there you have it: 25 things nobody tells you about studying abroad in Scotland. Feel prepared?