5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Scotland

Scotland

When my parents told me at age 12 that we were moving to Edinburgh, Scotland I had no idea what was in store for me. A mixed bag of emotions constantly swirled through my head in the months leading up to the big transition: excitement, nervousness, elation, dread, reluctance, and above all, wanderlust. 

We ran through the checklist of to-dos before leaving the small town I had grown up and lived in for the past 12 years, including, but not limited to: acquiring passports, vaccinating our two dogs who would be coming with us, taking entrance exams for my new school in Scotland, weeding out the piles and piles of junk I had accumulated over the years, attending goodbye parties (one of which my parent’s friends hired a bagpiper for without our knowledge! My mom cried.), and finally packing the ginormous suitcases that would have to hold us over until the rest of our shipment arrived.

While my parents and my dad’s company prepared us as thoroughly as they could for such a life-transforming experience, there are definitely some things I wished people would have told me about what it’s REALLY like to live in Scotland (especially when you’re in the throes of puberty, no less). So I have compiled my own list of advice, a list of 5 things I wish I had known before moving to Scotland. This list may be revisited in a future post but for now I’ve limited it to 5. So here it is, “The 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Scotland”:

1. The weather really will be a pain in the arse. And you will never get people to stop talking about it.

To be fair, all sorts of people warned me about the nasty weather in Scotland. I shrugged it off with comments of, “Well I like the rain!”. Little did I know…

Growing up in California had already spoiled my tolerance towards weather but nothing could prepare me for the bitter, bone-chilling, and above all rain-soaked world of Scotland. I still swear I have never been as cold as I have been when living in Edinburgh.

The weather is incredibly fickle: more often than not you will experience all four seasons in the matter of 20 minutes. Coupled with the fact that my school uniform was comprised of a skirt, tights, and Mary Jane flats I was often MISERABLE. If it rained I would stay cold and wet for hours after, the only reprieve being a steaming hot bath when I got home to thaw my body out.

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Yep, that’s tights in the snow. I felt so bad for the little Primary school boys that had to wear shorts year round…

We also had to wear woolen blazers which quickly turned our school into a stinking mass of wet sheep after every rain. Pleasant.

Another thing you will learn about the weather is British people LOVE to complain about it. It is the main topic of conversation and you will start, and end your day with a bitter retelling of the day’s many weather-related woes.

Takeaway: stock up on lots of sweaters and long socks, wear two pairs of tights to keep your little legs warm (this was a lifesaver for me), and never leave home without a windbreaker. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

2. Get used to unusual darkness, and lightness! 

Due to the U.K.’s position so far North, the amount of lightness and darkness you are privy to will obviously depend on the time of year.

During the summer it won’t get dark until about 11:00pm. It’s awesome for having barbecues, staying up late, and enjoying the day to its fullest extent. Not so awesome when you’re trying to go to sleep and the sky refuses to get dark.

During the winter it’s a nightmare. I went to school in the dark and came home in the dark. I’m pretty sure the sun set at like noon. It depletes your energy, makes the task of waking up for the day even more unbearable, and you start to feel like a vampire. It sucks. That’s all there is to it.

Takeaway: Embrace your inner Buffy during the winter and plan lots and lots of late night events during the summer.

3. The school system is VERY different and VERY difficult. 

This obviously will only apply if you are planning on going to school in Scotland but it is worth noting nonetheless. This was probably the biggest shock and hardest for me to adjust to. The school system is completely different to American schooling. I worked all. The. Time.

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(Except for the best day of year- Charities’ Day- where it was basically a giant party after months of dreary weather and exam preparation).

It was a huge adjustment period for me just remembering all the classes I was expected to report to in a day! I came in during Secondary 2, roughly 7th grade (although I essentially skipped a grade when moving to Scotland). Secondary school runs from S1-S5 or S6 (you have the option to leave early) and basically involves a ton of courses that then get progressively narrowed down depending on your interests and desired career path. So you pretty much need to know what you want to do at a very early age. No pressure, right?

My first year at George Watson’s College (yes it was really called that and it was just as posh as it sounds) was the last year of taking the introductory track courses, which would then get narrowed down for S3 and S4. I took: Mathematics (or Maths, which I still think is weird), Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Economics, English, Home Economics (sewing and cooking, so cool!), Art and Design, Music, Games (AKA Physical Education, Ugh…I particularly hated swimming and gymnastics. And highland dancing. Pure torture), Religion and Philosophy, Geography, and French. Whew! I think that’s all of them…no wonder I was exhausted! Not to mention I had loads of catching up to do. For instance, French. I had never in my life taken French before. And I was stuck in a class with students who had been learning French since Nursery school. Needless to say it was a HUGE learning curve.

S3 and S4 thankfully meant less classes but they only got more difficult from there, with the introduction of nationally regulated exams. We first had NABs (National Acceptance Banks) which were the qualifying checkpoints along the way that told you if you were on track to take the national exams. It gets a LOT more complicated from there so I won’t drone on and on. Just know, little Sabrina, that the schooling is so much more difficult and different than you ever could have imagined. But having 3 years of such rigorous instruction meant that high school (even a college prep school taking a ton of APs) and college were a breeze. Makes all those late nights, tears shed over feeling constantly overwhelmed, and stress of taking what was essentially multiple SATs every few months somewhat more worth it. Maybe…

Takeaway: Be prepared to put in a lot hours and work. But know that you will be extremely smart and well-rounded at the end of it. And University in America will have nothing on you as a result.

4. The food….leaves something to be desired. 

I hope I don’t offend any of my Scottish friends by saying this but I really don’t like Scottish food. I’m not just talking about thehaggis or black pudding either (although I can happily say I did not dare to try either of these…interesting dishes). British food in general has never really been seen as the epicenter of creative cuisine. And I can’t say my three years there changed my perceptions all that much.

It’s a lot of bland, monotonous, hearty fare. Fish and Chips. Beans on Toast. Meat pies. Not a lot of diversity or color. Now, I’m speaking generally of course. You may very well like the innards and entrails of a sheep tied up in its own stomach. Just not for me.

Some foods that baffled my mind as to how people found them delicious include:
-Cheese and mayo sandwiches. I have a lifelong hatred of mayonnaise so this may be just me but really?! Cheese and mayo?! No.
-Irn Bru: you either love it or you hate it. This orange-colored soda tasted absolutely disgusting, kind of like bubble gum maybe? I dunno, I didn’t take to it but some people swear by it.
-Scotch Eggs: an odd concoction consisting of a peeled hardboiled egg, wrapped in ground meat (who knows what kind…), breaded, and deep fried.

And some foods that won the popularity contest among my schoolmates:
-Gregg’s Bacon or Sausage Rolls. My dad LOVED these as they’re basically a bacon or sausage sandwich. He claims they are perfect for cold golfing days and judging from the long lines in front of Gregg’s (a bakery chain) each morning there must be something to these. I never tried them because I don’t like bacon but were well beloved among my fellow pupils.
-Toasties: George Watson’s take on a panini that were ridiculously cheap, ridiculously simple, yet ridiculously yummy.
-The school’s flapjacks, shortbread, and pound cake: basically anything desert-y is bound to be a winner but George Watson’s made phenomenal deserts. I remember the mad dash at morning break to grab a slice of shortbread, flapjack (kind of like…an oat, maple syrup, cereal bar, desert thing. SO DELICIOUS), and the pound cake. Heaps of sugar and butter in all three but oh so delicious and definitely necessary to get through some of the duller classes like the dreaded physics with Doctor Barrow…


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Check out those prices though! So cheap! I took this picture on my first trip back after leaving Scotland to show my American friends back home just how absurdly overpriced our cafeteria food was in comparison to George Watson’s!

Takeaway: You’re probably braver than I am so you may enjoy some of the mentioned above. All in all, Scottish food- not my favorite. Although I did love the soup- perfect for cold days (In other words, all the time). And hunt down flapjacks, they’re so tasty.

5. Get used to Public Transportation. 

The United States is SO behind in reliable and efficient public transportation when compared to Europe. My hometown of Folsom, California was particularly lacking in that department when I was growing up in that it was non-existent. Driving was your only choice. So I was a complete newbie moving to a city, and country, where more people use public transportation than they drive.

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Each day after school let out I would race across school to catch the 38 bus (shout out to my 38 BOMAs- Best of Mates Always!). We had a regular contingent of riders, a few of which actually became my closest friends. We also had a couple of weirdos that we avoided at all costs.

The 38 was super annoying in that it was one of the more unreliable of buses. You either ran to catch the bus as you were passing the sporting field at the edge of campus or you waited what seemed to be an eternity, usually in pouring rain or bitter freezing cold. One time the bus blazed right past a group of about 10 of us. Didn’t even stop. My friends and I decided to screw standing in the bone-chilling cold any longer and walk the few miles in the direction of home, or in my case, the second bus I took to get back to my house.


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The famous 38 bus crew. Look how overjoyed we were taking the bus! (Sorry for the photo, SB…I had to).

My family lived on the outskirts of town so it took me the longest of anyone to get home. Except for the crazy few that lived in like St. Andrews or Biggar and put in over an hour of commute-time. Mine wasn’t that bad but out of everyone in the 38 crew I had the longest ride and then had to transfer over to the 41 to get to Davidson’s Mains, then walk up the hill and way back to my house. It was a pain. I was trying to think of what I would do to pass the time during this gnarly, seemingly never-ending journey home. I know I read a lot, tried to do homework, listen to my ipod (one of those first generation ones, so fancy!). Probably thought a lot. Life was simpler then (I know, I’m not that old but technology has moved so crazy fast!) and we were pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram, pre-Twitter. I think people were into Bebo and Myspace but I had no interest. I barely knew how to use my phone.

I know I got frustrated sometimes because all I wanted was for my mom to pick me up from school, like she used to when we lived in California. But learning how to use the bus, and handle all the crazies that inevtably arise on public transportation, has served me well. I have a very good understanding and tolerance of public transit, so much so that I much prefer it to driving. My days on the 38 also made me some of my greatest and best friends that I am still close to today. So in that respect, thank you 38. 🙂

Takeaway: Learning how to navigate public transportation is incredibly beneficial, no matter how annoying it might be. Sit back and enjoy the people-watching.

There we have it! These are only a few of the probably thousands of things I wish I had known before moving to Scotland. If you have ever been to or called Scotland your home let me know in the comments below any tips and tricks you have for those able to make the journey to such a beautiful place that I still miss to this day.

Until next time!

Happy Travels!

Freckles

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