Although relatively small, Scotland is a land rich in contrasts. Often within a few hours travelling, you can experience a landscape that changes rapidly from gentle rolling hills to rugged coasts and dramatic, towering peaks. Vibrant, cosmopolitan cities whose outlook is definitely to the future rub shoulders with ancient castles and monuments rooted firmly in the past.
From the stone circles of Orkney to the new parliament building in Edinburgh, Scotland's dramatic history spans some 8,000 years, years marked by invasions and independence, wars and religious upheavals, intrigues and subjugation. Yet it also saw the flowering of an imagination and inventiveness across many different fields of human endeavour and resulted in Scotland occupying a pivotal position, not only in a British context but in a European and worldwide one also!
Scotland is one of four nations which form the United Kingdom (the other three are England, Wales and Northern Ireland). There are just over 5 million Scots. Scotland is about half the size of England and roughly two-thirds of the country is mountain (including Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK) and moorland. Scotland is 31,510 sq. miles in area. It stretches only 275 miles (440 kilometres) from South to North and 154 miles (248 kilometres) from east to west. At its narrowest point, you can drive from one coast to the other in less than two hours. However, the coastline is so rugged that its length is estimated (by Scottish Natural Heritage) at almost 6,200 miles (10,000km).
There are three main regions - the Highlands, the Central Belt, and the Lowlands. The Highlands in the north, account for more than half the total area of Scotland but only 10% of the population. Most of the population is based around the cities of Edinburgh, the capital, and Glasgow, the commercial centre.
Scotland has around 790 islands, of which 130 are inhabited. The best known are the Shetland and Orkney isles in the north-east and Lewis, Harris, Skye, Mull and Islay in the Hebrides.
The Rivers Clyde, Forth and Tay open into significant estuaries and support three of the major cities of Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee respectively).
Scotland is also noted for its lochs (this name is generally used for lakes in Scotland). Much of the west coast of the country is intersected by Sea Lochs, the longest of which, Loch Fyne, penetrates more than 40 miles inland. Notable fresh-water lochs include Loch Ness (the one with the Monster!).
There’s another important aspect of the landscape apart from its beauty, and that’s the amazing range of outdoor activities it affords. Mountaineering, hill walking and sailing are big attractions. Golf, of course, was created in Scotland. Fly fishing and grouse shooting are seasonal sports that have enthusiastic support. Winter sports include skiing, snowboarding, and curling. Horse riding is part of the culture of the Borders, as indeed is Rugby Football. Canoeing, windsurfing, hang gliding and kite flying are all activities that the rivers and winds cater for, And, like just about everywhere else in the world there’s football. Which, like millions of others around the world, the Scots would play and watch whatever the landscape.
Government in Scotland is in four tiers. A new Scottish Parliament was elected in 1999, following devolution of powers from the United Kingdom Parliament in London. This is the first time Scotland has had its own parliament in 300 years. The Scottish Parliament, which sits in Edinburgh, is responsible for most aspects of Scottish life. The national parliament in Westminster (London) retains responsibility for areas such as defence, foreign affairs and taxation. The European Parliament in Brussels (Belgium) exercises certain powers vested in the European Union. Local government is divided into 29 authorities and three island authorities.
Scotland has a broad-based economy, with tourism, information technology and oil-related industries to the fore. Exports include electronics products, chemicals, machinery, metal manufacturers, textiles and whisky, all characterised by the enduring Scottish hallmark of quality.