Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides (2016)

INTRODUCTION

Scotland is a land steeped in romantic tradition. Its distinctive dress, its national drink, its famous bagpipe music and its stormy history give it an image recognisable worldwide. Though Scotland’s territory is small, it has an unrivalled variety of landscape: deep green glens that slice through rugged mountains; forbidding castles reflected in dark, peat-stained lochs; moors awash with purple heather or yellow broom and gorse; green fields and hills dotted with sheep; and a wildly irregular coastline, incessantly pounded by the Atlantic and the North Sea, with both forbidding cliffs and sweeping sandy beaches.

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands are a riot of spectacular natural beauty and one of the few remaining wilderness frontiers in all of Europe. Within easy reach of the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen are vast tracts of unspoiled country. You might see red deer break cover and golden eagles, or even an osprey, swooping overhead. In coursing streams, magnificent salmon and trout challenge the angler, while seals lounge on rocky shores. It’s quite possible to walk all day and not see another human being.

The sea flows in to fill many of the country’s 300 lochs (except for the Lake of Menteith, Scots never call them ‘lakes’); others are fresh water. The rolling hills and tranquil rivers of the south and the rich farmland of Fife and Royal Deeside present gentler but no less enticing landscapes.

The cultural mosaic, like the scenery, is hugely varied. Every summer Edinburgh, the intellectually and architecturally stimulating capital, is the scene of a distinguished international festival of music and the arts; and Glasgow is a former ‘European City of Culture’. Both cities have outstanding museums and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow is one of Europe’s great art galleries. All around the country you’ll find theatre festivals, concerts, Highland gatherings, folk shows and crafts exhibitions. You can visit some 150 castles – some intact, others respectable ruins. There are also baronial mansions, ancient abbeys and archaeo­logical sites that invite exploration. The Gulf Stream along the west coast makes it possible for subtropical gardens to flourish.

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Stags in the Scottish Highlands

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

Geography and Climate

Covering the northernmost third of the United Kingdom, Scotland’s 77,700 sq miles (30,000 sq km) are home to more than 5 million Scots, making up one-tenth of the total population of Great Britain. Scotland’s territorial area includes 790 islands, of which 130 are inhabited. Some are popular tourist destinations easily reached by ferry or plane.

Happily, what people say about Scotland’s weather isn’t always true. Between May and October there are hours and even whole days of hot sunshine interrupting the rain, mist and bracing winds which perhaps keep the Scots so hardy. Interestingly enough, Scotland in an average year enjoys as much sun as London. Sightseers and photographers appreciate the amazing visibility to be had on clear days. Around lochs and on the coast the only drawback is the midge. These pesky biting flies are impossible to avoid at the beginning and end of the day during the summer. The cold, snowy winters have made the Highlands Britain’s skiing centre; there are many suitable areas for both downhill and cross-country skiing with Glen Coe having the steepest runs.

Politics and Identity

Constitutionally linked to England for nearly three centuries, Scotland is a land that keeps proudly unto itself. It prints its own bank notes (British versions circulate as well), and maintains independent educational and judicial systems, its own church, and more recently, its own Parliament. Gaelic is still spoken in the Western Highlands and Islands. This independent spirit has strengthened with the growth of the Scottish National Party who instigated the 2014 referendum and crushed the other parties in Scotland in the 2015 general election. Despite this surge of nationalism the country is divided on whether to leave the United Kingdom and many of its citizens wish to remain in the union.

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Glen Coe

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

You’ll meet with a friendly welcome everywhere. Smiles are genuine, humour is jovially sharp. Hospitality is an ancient tradition and nowhere will you find people who are more courteous, or more willing to go out of their way for you. Scots have a reputation for tight-fistedness but generosity among friends and strangers is much more common. Scots have a great respect for education – by the 17th century Scotland had four universities while England still had only two. Most Scots are highly articulate, and will express an independent view on just about every issue, especially political ones.

Kilts and Tartans

Brightly coloured tartan kilts have been worn in the Highlands since the Middle Ages but most of the tartans we see today date from the early 19th century when the British royal family made the Highlands fashionable. Daytime Highland dress consists of a knee-length kilt, matching waistcoat and tweed jacket, long knitted socks (with a sgian dubh stuck in the right stocking), and flashes. A sporran (purse) hangs from the waist, and a plaid (sort of tartan rug) is sometimes flung over the shoulder.

The Clearances in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746 destroyed the clan system and Highland dress was forbidden. The kilt survived only because the Highland regiments, recruited to help defeat Napoleon, were allowed to continue to wear it. Authentic tartans are registered designs, and each clan has its own pattern. As the clans subdivided, many variations (setts) were produced. Today, there are some 2,500 designs in all. To find out more, visit the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Company at 555 Castlehill, Edinburgh (open daily).

Scotland is famous for golf, but the one subject that’s certain to fire the hearts of most Scots is football, with the rivalry between two Glasgow teams, Rangers and Celtic, inspiring passionate debate. The national team also arouses fierce loyalties.

Religious observance is still a factor in the Highlands and Islands, but elsewhere the former blue laws that once kept everything closed down on Sunday are giving way. In the cities you will now find a full range of shopping and entertainment on Sundays, though in the smaller towns the shops may be closed.

True Grit

Over the centuries the hard-working Scots have made their mark on all corners of the globe: they were frontiersmen in North America, explorers in Africa, pioneers in Australia. Nowadays about ten times as many people of Scottish birth or ancestry live abroad as at home. Intellectually, the contribution made by Scots to world science, medicine and industry has been little short of astonishing. Above all, what binds the Scots together is a love of country plus a strong sense of community and national identity.

All over Scotland you will see and hear the exhortation to ‘Haste ye back’ (‘Come back soon’). After sampling the extraordinary beauty and diversity of this delightful country, you’ll want to do just that.