Scotland evokes thoughts and images of bagpipes, celtic music, folk festivals, highland games, malt whisky, and grown men wearing red-checkered kilts. In this remote and isolated land, the Scots must resort to these amusements to pass time. Occupying the northern portion of Great Britain and the UK, Scotland is a rugged land of coastal inlets, mountainous terrain, and myriad islands. Its cold climate has resulted in a sparse population, but the vicious outdoors have made the Scots a proud, independent and self-sufficient people.
Scotland is washed by the Atlantic Ocean in the north and west and by the North Sea in the east, enjoying over 2,300 miles of coastline. Scotland is often seen as a place to vacation but not to live. The royal family, for example, have a summer home at Balmoral, and many of the wealthy have estates in Scotland that serve as hunting and fishing refuges.
Today, legend and romance characterize Scotland, attributed to its gorgeous scenery of rugged peaks, pristine lochs (lakes), glistening glens, rolling hills, lowland woods, and sandy white beaches that criss-cross along sheltered bays, hidden coves, and rocky bluffs. This natural beauty has made Scotland a perfect destination for outdoor endeavors such as fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and ice-climbing. Golfing is also a major attraction, as the country is home to the world’s most famous golf course, the St. Andrew’s, among many other quality courses.
But Scotland also has a musical heritage. Visitors are invited to enjoy bagpipes and Celtic music at folk festivals like the Girvan Folk Festival in May, the Newcastleton Festival in July, and the “can’t miss” Edinburgh Festival in August. Sports enthusiasts will enjoy the highland games in the summer months, which are held at various places from Aberfeldy to Tomintoul. Enjoy watching and participating in track and field events, tug-o-wars, highland dances, hammer throws, and other spectacles.
Also, scattered throughout Scotland are medieval towns, old castles, and prehistoric mounds and stone circles. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site at the Neolithic Heart of Orkney where numerous ancient forts, burial mounds, and stone circles can be found and explored. And don’t miss the medieval capital, Edinburgh, or Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, where Victorian architecture beams decoratively.
Scotland’s isolation and remoteness kept it from the turmoil that embroiled England with the rest of Europe. It was out of the reach of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the “institutions of feudalism”. The Romans attempted to build forts in the area, but simply could not police the area.
The English had a history of moving farther north and attempting to conquer Scotland. Thanks to their spirit of nationality and independence, the Scots were able to withstand the English on numerous occasions. They were often defeated but they constantly rallied against and again, holding their ground until the Crowns unified in 1603. Scotland accepted the union because its King ascended the English throne, making them feel equal to England. They also accepted union with Parliament in 1707. Over the years, many Scots have held leading positions in government and industry. Two prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas, have also hailed from Scotland. Even though England and Scotland share the same island and kingdom, the English and Scots are two distinct cultures.
Today, Scotland while a part of England is still aware and protective of its distinct heritage. Scots express their nationalism though through self-confidence and not necessarily by force. While Scottish nationalists advocating self-rule have been elected to Parliament in the past, there has never really been a real threat of separation.
The highlight of Scotland’s natural beauty is the Highlands, which dominate the region northwest of Aberdeen and Glasgow. This line from Aberdeen to Glasgow used to mark the boundary between savage and civilized Scotland, but Highlanders have only come across in that way because of the rough-and-ready character they have had to build up living in such harsh and isolated land.
The highest peak in the highlands is the Ben Nevis at more than 4,400 feet high, atop which you can catch striking views of the rest of the highlands, including Glen More, Great Glen, and the chain of lakes cutting from Firth of Lome to Moray Firth. Since 1847, Moray Firth and Firth of Lome have been linked by the Caledonian Canal and its various locks, which run from Fort William to Inverness (the capital of the Highlands) – connected by Lakes Oich, Ness, and Lochy. This is where the legend of the Loch Ness (“Nessie”) monster started as far back as the 6th century AD – a Plesiosaur, long-necked dinosaur allegedly sighted by many locals over the years.
Northwest of the Great Glen is probably the most beautiful region of the Highlands, a spectacular land of rugged mountains, lovely glacial lakes, and fields covered with stones formed from the last Ice Age. Further north, you’ll find barren moors and mountains that have been swept by rain and wind.
East of the Great Glen is the region of the Highlands tourists flock to. You’ll find the Grampian Mountains, the Trossachs valleys, and lakes, streams, moors, peat deposits, and stone-covered fields throughout. The Rannoch Moor is one of the favorite natural habitats in this region that can be visited. Overall, very few towns can be found in the area – among them, the small tourist village of Ballachulish with its slate quarries and the historic Glencoe, where the Campbells betrayed their fellow Highlanders in 1692, leading to the massacre of the MacDonalds.
The Uplands in the south while mountainous are nevertheless tamer than the Highlands, resembling the landscape of northern England. The fronts along the English-Scottish border make up the region known as the “Border country”. In general, the Uplands is peaceful, serene, and dominated by glassy slopes and sleepy streams.
The southwest region of the uplands is especially popular among poets and writers. The likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Dorothy Sayers have made the southwest their home in the past.
The southeast section of the Uplands is characterized by rivers like the Tweed, dark-age abbeys like the Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh, and Jedburgh. The southeast is also known as “Sheep country” and the “land of Tweed” because of its exports of sweaters and tweeds to the rest of the world.
The Border Country is a lawless region, famous for its old days when clans used to switch allegiance between the English and Scottish thrones based on what was more favorable at the time. The Border Country was also the home of Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist who wrote Rob Roy and Ivanhoe.
The central Lowlands or “broad Middle Valley” is where most Scots live. It is a region of commerce and industry centered around its two biggest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Efforts to decentralize and industrialize the north and western areas of Scotland have largely failed, and most Scots prefer the urban life in the lowlands. Geography has also helped the cause. Both the Clyde and Forth rivers stream far enough inland to give the big cities easy access to water. The river’s inland endpoint has also made it an ideal center point for the convergence of railways and roads, making the lowlands the perennial heart of Scotland.
The islands of Scotland include the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, and the Hebrides. The Orkney Islands are located off of Caithness in northeast Scotland beyond the traditional village of John o’Groat’s, which is considered the most northerly settlement in Great Britain. The islands are surrounded by treacherous waters, highlighted by the Pentland Firth with its rocky reefs and racy tides – long known as a ships’ graveyard. The Orkneys are believed to have been settled since the Stone and Bronze Age. There is also evidence of Norse invasion in the 9th century. Only 20 of the 70 Orkney Islands are inhabited. You’ll find that the islands are treeless but fertile. Scapa Flow is a famous sheltered anchorage that has been used as a war base for the British navy.
The Shetland Islands are farther north of the Orkneys past the Fair Isle. Shetlanders are fishermen and seamen, descended from the ancient Norsemen. You’ll find farmland in the Shetlands as well as pets and livestock of ponies, sheep, and cattle. The Shetland sheep, soft and sought-after, has given the world the famous Shetland knits.
The Hebrides is the fabled “Western Isles” off the west coast of Scotland. Many songs, ballads, and poems have been written about this well-traveled group of islands. Many of the Hebrides Islands have interesting names like “Rum”, “Muck”, and “Mull”. The island of Skye is famous for its resident Bonnie Prince Charlie who planned an overthrow of the British Crown in 1740, which ended in defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
Friedberg, Judith, and Joseph C. Harsch. “Scotland.” Lands and Peoples, Volume 3. Danbury: Grolier Educational, 2001. ISBN: 0717280225.
“Highland Games.” < http://international.visitscotland.com/sitewide/fivestarfeatures/highlandgames/>
“Scotland Travel Guide – Overview.” < http://www.worldtravelguide.net/country/245/country_guide/Europe/Scotland.html>
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