Scotland is home to more than 1000 castles, ranging from meagre 12th-century ruins to magnificent Victorian mansions. They all began with one purpose: to serve as fortified homes for the landowning aristocracy. But as society became more settled and peaceful, defensive features gave way to ostentatious displays of wealth and status.
Norman castles of the 12th century were mainly of the 'motte-and-bailey' type, consisting of earthwork mounds and timber palisades. The first wave of stone-built castles emerged in the 13th century, characterised by massive curtain walls up to 3m thick and 30m tall to withstand sieges. Good examples are Dunstaffnage Castle and Caerlaverock Castle.
Scottish Baronial Castles
The appearance of the tower house in the 14th century marked the beginning of the development of the castle as a residence. Clan feuds, cattle raiders and wars between Scotland and England meant that local lords built fortified stone towers in which to live, from diminutive Smailholm Tower in the Borders to impressive Doune Castle near Stirling.
The arrival of gunpowder and cannon in the 15th century transformed castle design, with features such as gun loops, round towers, bulwarks and bastions making an appearance. Forbidding Hermitage Castle is a prime example of a castle adapted for artillery defence.
The Scottish Baronial style of castle architecture, characterised by a profusion of pointy turrets, crenellations and stepped gables, had its origins in 16th- and 17th-century castles such as Craigievar and Castle Fraser, and reached its apotheosis in the royal residences of Glamis and Balmoral.
Lochs & Mountains
Since the 19th century, when the first tourists started to arrive, the Scottish Highlands have been famed for their wild nature and majestic scenery, and today the country's biggest draw remains its magnificent landscape. At almost every turn is a vista that will stop you in your tracks – keep your camera close at hand.
Scotland's highest peak is a perennial magnet for hillwalkers and ice climbers, but it's also one of the country's most photographed mountains. The classic viewpoints for the Ben include Corpach Basin at the entrance to the Caledonian Canal, and the B8004 road between Banavie and Gairlochy, from where you can see the precipitous north face.
Scotland's largest loch by volume (it contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales added together) may be most famous for its legendary monster, but it is also one of Scotland's most scenic. The minor road along the southeastern shore reveals a series of classic views.
From the Gaelic Sìdh Chailleann (Fairy Hill of the Caledonians), this is one of Scotland's most distinctive mountains, its conical peak a prominent feature of views along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. It's also one of the easier Munros, and a hike to the summit is rewarded with a superb panorama of hills and lochs.
Loch Awe is a little off the beaten track, but it's well worth seeking out for its gorgeous scenery. It's dotted with islands and draped with native woodlands of oak, birch and alder, and its northern end is dominated by the evocative ruins of Kilchurn Castle, with the pointed peaks of mighty Ben Cruachan reflected in its shifting waters.
Scotland's rich culture and history are celebrated in countless museums across the country, from the internationally important collections in Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland to specialist exhibits such as the Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, and tiny village museums like Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, with its collection of carved Pictish stones.
The National Museum of Scotland is complemented by several other nationally important collections, including Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum, a Victorian cathedral of culture, and the Riverside Museum, a modern masterpiece celebrating transport through the ages, with a tall ship moored alongside. There are more things nautical at Dundee's Discovery Point, a shrine to polar exploration, and Aberdeen's superb Maritime Museum.
The culture and traditions of Scottish rural life come to the fore in places like the open-air Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie, where a farming township is recreated through historic buildings and demonstrations of traditional crafts. Other smaller folk museums include the Glenesk Folk Museum (Angus Glens), Glencoe Folk Museum, and Kildonan Museum (South Uist).
Each Scottish island has its own distinct culture and identity. The hardy lifestyle of Hebridean crofters is chronicled in the Arnol Blackhouse Museum in Lewis, and in the Skye Museum of Island Life, while the Norse influences and seafaring traditions of the Northern lsles can be explored in the Stromness Museum and the Shetland Museum.
The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead is one of the country's more unusual museums, offering fascinating insights into a little-known subject. Similar places include the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh (pathology), the British Golf Museum in St Andrews, and the Scottish Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh.
The notion of 'the Scottish arts' often conjures up cliched images of bagpipe music, incomprehensible poetry and romanticised paintings of Highland landscapes. But Scottish artists have given the world a wealth of unforgettable treasures, from the songs and poems of Robert Burns and the novels of Sir Walter Scott to the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Scotland has a long and distinguished literary history, from the era of the medieval makars ('makers' of verses; ie poets) to the present-day crime novels of Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre, Louise Welsh and Ian Rankin.
From the 8th to the 19th centuries the common language of central and southern Scotland was Lowland Scots (sometimes called Lallans), which evolved from Old English and has Dutch, French, Gaelic, German and Scandinavian influences. As distinct from English as Norwegian is from Danish, it was the official language of state in Scotland until the Act of Union in 1707.
Following the Union, English rose to predominance as the language of government, church and polite society. The spread of education and literacy in the 19th century eventually led to Lowland Scots being perceived as backward and unsophisticated – children were often beaten for speaking Scots in school instead of English.
The Scots tongue persisted, however, and has undergone a revival – there are now Scots language dictionaries, university degree courses in Scots language and literature, and Scots is studied as part of the school curriculum.
Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig – pronounced 'gaa-lik') is spoken by about 60,000 people in Scotland, mainly in the Highlands and islands. It is a member of the Celtic family of languages, which includes Irish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
Gaelic culture flourished in the Highlands until the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 many Gaelic speakers were forced from their ancestral lands, and Gaelic was regarded as little more than a 'peasant' language of no modern significance.
It was only in the 1970s that Gaelic began to make a comeback. After two centuries of decline, the language has been encouraged through financial help from government agencies and the EU, and Gaelic education is flourishing at every level from playgroups to tertiary institutions.
Robert Burns & Sir Walter Scott
Scotland's most famous literary figure is, of course, Robert Burns (1759–96). His works have been translated into dozens of languages and are known the world over. Burns wrote in Lowland Scots (Lallans); in fact, his poetry was instrumental in keeping Lallans alive to the present day. He was also very much a man of the people, satirising the upper classes and the church for their hypocrisy. Although he is best known for the comical tale of Tam O'Shanter and for penning the words to 'Auld Lang Syne', his more political poems – including 'Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation' (about the 1707 Act of Union) and 'A Man's a Man for a' That' (about class and solidarity) – reveal his socialist leanings.
The son of an Edinburgh lawyer, Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was Scotland's greatest and most prolific novelist. Scott was born in Edinburgh and lived at various New Town addresses before moving to his country house at Abbotsford. His early works were rhyming ballads, such as The Lady of the Lake, and his first historical novels – Scott effectively invented the genre – were published anonymously. Plagued by debt in later life, he wrote obsessively in order to make money but will always be best remembered for classic tales such as Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian, Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet and Castle Dangerous.
Robert Louis Stevenson & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Along with Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS; 1850–94) ranks as Scotland's best-known novelist. Born at 8 Howard Pl in Edinburgh into a family of famous lighthouse engineers, Stevenson studied law at Edinburgh University but was always intent on pursuing the life of a writer. An inveterate traveller, but dogged by ill health, he finally settled in Samoa in 1889, where he was revered by the local people and known as 'Tusitala' – the teller of tales. Stevenson is known and loved around the world for those tales: Kidnapped, Catriona, Treasure Island, The Master of Ballantrae and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was born in Edinburgh and studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He based the character of Holmes on one of his lecturers, the surgeon Dr Joseph Bell, who had employed his forensic skills and powers of deduction on several murder cases in Edinburgh.
Hugh McDiarmid to Muriel Spark
Scotland's finest modern poet was Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve; 1892–1978). Originally from Dumfriesshire, he moved to Edinburgh in 1908, where he trained as a teacher and a journalist, but he spent most of his life in Montrose, Shetland, Glasgow and Biggar. His masterpiece is 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle', a 2685-line Joycean monologue.
The poet and storyteller George Mackay Brown (1921–96) was born in Stromness in Orkney, and lived there almost all his life. Although his poems and novels are rooted in Orkney, his work, like that of Burns, transcends local and national boundaries. His best-known novel, Greenvoe (1972), is a poetic evocation of an Orkney community threatened by the coming of modernity.
Dame Muriel Spark (1918–2006) was born in Edinburgh and educated at James Gillespie's High School for Girls, an experience that provided material for perhaps her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a shrewd portrait of 1930s Edinburgh.
The Contemporary Scene
The most widely known Scots writers today include Iain Banks (1954–2013; The Crow Road), Irvine Welsh (b 1961; Trainspotting), Janice Galloway (b 1955; The Trick Is to Keep Breathing) and Ali Smith (b 1962; How to Be Both). The grim realities of modern Glasgow are vividly conjured in the short-story collection Not Not While the Giro by James Kelman (b 1946), whose controversial novel How Late It Was, How Late won the 1994 Booker Prize.
The Scottish crime-writing charts are topped by Val McDermid (b 1955) and Ian Rankin (b 1960). McDermid's novels feature private investigator Kate Brannigan and psychologist Tony Hill; Wire in the Blood became a successful TV series. Rankin's Edinburgh-based crime novels, featuring the hard-drinking, introspective Detective Inspector John Rebus, are sinister, engrossing mysteries that explore the darker side of Scotland's capital city. He has a growing international following (his books have been translated into 22 languages).
Scotland has always had a strong folk tradition. In the 1960s and 1970s Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor, the Corries and the hugely talented Ewan McColl worked the pubs and clubs up and down the country. The Boys of the Lough, headed by Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, was one of the first professional bands to promote the traditional Celtic music of Scotland and Ireland. It was followed by the Battlefield Band, Alba, Capercaillie and others.
The Scots folk songs that you will often hear sung in pubs and at ceilidhs (evenings of traditional Scottish entertainment, including music, song and dance) draw on Scotland's rich history. A huge number of them relate to the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century and, in particular, to Bonnie Prince Charlie – 'Hey Johnnie Cope', the 'Skye Boat Song' and 'Will Ye No Come Back Again', for example – while others relate to the Covenanters and the Highland Clearances.
In recent years there has been a revival in traditional music, often adapted and updated for the modern age. Bands such as Runrig pioneered with their own brand of Gaelic rock, while Shooglenifty blend Scottish folk music with anything from indie rock to electronica, producing a hybrid that has been called 'acid croft'.
But perhaps the finest modern renderings of traditional Scottish songs come from singer-songwriter Eddi Reader, who rose to fame with the band Fairground Attraction and their 1988 hit 'Perfect'. Her album Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns (2003, re-released with extra tracks in 2009) is widely regarded as one of the best interpretations of Burns' works.
Rock & Pop
It would take an entire book to list all the Scottish artists and bands that have made it big in the world of rock and pop. From Glasgow-born King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, in the 1950s, to the chart-topping Dumfries DJ Calvin Harris today, the roll call is long and impressive, and only a few can be mentioned here.
The '90s saw the emergence of three bands that took the top three places in a 2005 vote for the best Scottish band of all time – melodic indie-pop songsters Belle and Sebastian, Brit-rock band Travis, and indie rockers Idlewild, who opened for the Rolling Stones in 2003. Scottish artists who have made an international impression in more recent times include Ayrshire rockers Biffy Clyro, indie rock group Frightened Rabbit, Glasgow synth-pop band Chvrches, and Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers.
The airwaves are awash with female singer-songwriters, but few are as gutsy and versatile as Edinburgh-born, St Andrews–raised KT Tunstall. Although she's been writing and singing since the late 1990s, it was her 2005 debut album Eye to the Telescope that introduced her to a wider audience. Others include Glasgow-born Amy Macdonald, who was only 20 years old when her first album This Is the Life (2007) sold three million copies; and Karine Polwart, whose songs combine folk influences with modern themes and subjects.
As far as male singer-songwriters are concerned, few are more popular than bespectacled twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as The Proclaimers. Nine studio albums from 1987 to 2012 provided ample material for the hugely successful movie based on their music, Sunshine on Leith (2013); their 10th album, Let's Hear It for the Dogs (2015), reached number 26 in the UK album charts.
The bagpipe is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use today. Although no piece of film footage on Scotland is complete without the drone of the pipes, their origin probably lies in the Middle East; when they first arrived in Scotland is unknown, but it was certainly pre-medieval.
The traditional Highland bagpipe consists of a leather bag held under the arm, kept inflated by blowing through the blowstick; the piper forces air through the pipes by squeezing the bag with the forearm. Three of the pipes, known as drones, play a constant note (one bass, two tenor) in the background; the fourth pipe, the chanter, plays the melody.
Highland soldiers were traditionally accompanied into battle by the skirl of the pipes, and the Scottish Highland bagpipe is unique in being the only musical instrument ever to be classed as a weapon. The playing of the pipes was banned – under pain of death – by the British government in 1747 as part of a scheme to suppress Highland culture in the wake of the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The pipes were revived when the Highland regiments were drafted into the British Army towards the end of the 18th century.
Bagpipe music may not be to everyone's taste, but Scotland's most famous instrument has been reinvented by bands like the Red Hot Chilli Pipers (https://rhcp.scot), who use pipes, drums, guitars and keyboards to create rock versions of trad tunes. They feature regularly at festivals throughout the country.
The Gaelic word ceilidh (kay-lay) means 'visit'. A ceilidh was originally a social gathering in the house after the day's work was over, enlivened with storytelling, music and song. These days, a ceilidh means an evening of traditional Scottish entertainment including music, song and dance. To find one, check the village noticeboard, or just ask at the local pub; visitors are always welcome to join in.
Perhaps the most famous Scottish painting is the portrait of Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), held in the National Gallery of Scotland. This image of a Presbyterian minister at play beneath Arthur's Seat, with all the poise of a ballerina and the hint of a smile on his lips, is a symbol of Enlightenment Edinburgh, the triumph of reason over wild nature. However, recent research has suggested it may not be the work of Raeburn after all but may have been painted by French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux.
Scottish portraiture reached its peak during the Scottish Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century with the paintings of Raeburn and his contemporary Allan Ramsay (1713–84), while Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841), whose genre paintings depicted scenes of rural Highland life, was one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.
In the early 20th century the Scottish painters most widely acclaimed outside the country were the group known as the Scottish Colourists – SJ Peploe (1871–1935), Francis Cadell (1883–1937), Leslie Hunter (1877–1931) and JD Fergusson (1874–1961) – whose striking paintings drew on French post-Impressionist and Fauvist influences. Peploe and Cadell, active in the 1920s and 1930s, often spent the summer painting together on the Isle of Iona, and reproductions of their beautiful landscapes and seascapes appear on many a print and postcard.
Perthshire-born John Grierson (1898–1972) is acknowledged around the world as the father of the documentary film. His legacy includes the classic Drifters (1929; about the Scottish herring fishery) and the Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships (1961; about Clyde shipbuilding). Writer-director Bill Forsyth (b 1946) is best known for Local Hero (1983), a gentle comedy about an oil magnate seduced by the beauty of the Highlands, and Gregory's Girl (1980), about an awkward teenage schoolboy's romantic exploits.
In the 1990s the rise of the director-producer-writer team of Danny Boyle (English), Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge (both Scottish) – who wrote the scripts for Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997) – marked the beginnings of what might be described as a home-grown Scottish film industry; a Trainspotting sequel, T2: Trainspotting, was released in 2017.
Other Scottish directorial talent includes Kevin Macdonald, who made Touching the Void (2003), State of Play (2009) and the TV series of Stephen King's 11.22.63 (2016); and Lynne Ramsay, who directed Morvern Callar (2002), the BAFTA-nominated We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), and You Were Never Really Here (2017), which won Best Screenplay at Cannes.
Scotland's most famous actor is, of course, Sir Sean Connery (b 1930), the original and arguably best James Bond, and the star of dozens of other hit films, including Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). Connery started life as 'Big Tam' Connery, sometime milkman and brickie, born in a tenement in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh.
Other Scottish actors who have achieved international recognition include Ewan McGregor, who appeared in Trainspotting, the more recent Star Wars films, August: Osage County (2013), American Pastoral (2016; which he also directed) and Beauty and the Beast (2017); and Kelly Macdonald, yet another Trainspotting alumna who went on to appear in Gosford Park (2001), No Country for Old Men (2007), TV series Boardwalk Empire, and Anna Karenina (2012) and Holmes and Watson (2018).
The leading Scottish architects of the 18th century were William Adam (1684–1748) and his son Robert Adam (1728–92), whose revival of classical Greek and Roman forms influenced architects throughout Europe. Among the many neoclassical buildings they designed are Hopetoun House, Culzean Castle and Edinburgh's Charlotte Sq, possibly the finest example of Georgian architecture anywhere.
Alexander 'Greek' Thomson (1817–75) changed the face of 19th-century Glasgow with his neoclassical designs, while in Edinburgh, William Henry Playfair (1790–1857) continued Adam's tradition in the Greek temples of the National Monument on Calton Hill, the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland.
The 19th-century resurgence of interest in Scottish history and identity, led by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, saw architects turn to the towers, pointed turrets and crow-stepped gables of ancient castles for inspiration. The Victorian revival of the Scottish Baronial style, which first made an appearance in 16th-century buildings such as Craigievar Castle, produced many fanciful abodes such as Balmoral Castle, Scone Palace and Abbotsford.
Scotland's best known 20th-century architect and designer was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928), one of the most influential exponents of the art-nouveau style. His finest building is the Glasgow School of Art (1896), which still looks modern more than a century after it was built.
Many Scots are sports-mad and follow football or rugby with fierce dedication, identifying closely with local teams and individuals. The most popular games are football (soccer), rugby union, shinty, curling and golf, the last two of which the Scots claim to have invented.
Football (soccer) in Scotland is not so much a sport as a religion, with thousands turning out to worship their local teams on Wednesday and weekends throughout the season (August to May). Sacred rites include standing in the freezing cold of a February day, drinking hot Bovril and eating a Scotch pie as you watch your team getting gubbed.
Scotland's top 12 clubs play in the Scottish Premiership (www.spfl.co.uk), but two teams – Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic – have dominated the competition. On only 18 occasions since 1890 has a team other than Rangers or Celtic won the league; the last time was when Aberdeen won in 1985.
Traditionally, football was the sport of Scotland's urban working classes, while rugby union (www.scottishrugby.org) was the preserve of middle-class university graduates and farmers from the Borders. Although this distinction is breaking down – rugby's popularity soared after the 1999 World Cup was staged in the UK, and the middle classes have invaded the football terraces – it persists to some extent.
Each year, from January to March, Scotland takes part in the Six Nations Rugby Championship. The most important fixture is the clash against England for the Calcutta Cup – it's always an emotive event; Scotland has won twice and drawn once since 2006.
At club level, the season runs from September to May, and among the better teams are those from the Borders such as Hawick, Kelso and Melrose. At the end of the season, teams play a rugby sevens (seven-a-side) variation of the 15-player competition.
Scotland is the home of golf. The game was probably invented here in the 12th century, and the world's oldest documentary evidence of a game being played (dating from 1456) was on Bruntsfield Links in Edinburgh.
Today there are more than 550 golf courses in Scotland – that's more per capita than in any other country (see www.scottishgolfcourses.com). The sport is hugely popular and much more egalitarian than in other countries, with lots of affordable, publicly owned courses. There are many world-famous championship courses, too, including Muirfield in East Lothian, Turnberry and Troon in Ayrshire, Carnoustie in Angus and St Andrews' Old Course in Fife.
Highland games are held in Scotland throughout the summer, and not just in the Highlands. You can find dates and details of Highland games held all over the country on the Scottish Highland Games Association website (www.shga.co.uk).
The traditional sporting events are accompanied by piping and dancing competitions and attract locals and tourists alike. Some events are peculiarly Scottish, particularly those that involve trials of strength: tossing the caber (heaving a tree trunk into the air), throwing the hammer and putting the stone. The biggest Highland games are staged at Dunoon, Oban and Braemar.
The Traditional Music & Song Association (www.tmsa.org.uk) website has listings of music, dance and cultural festivals around Scotland.
For a guide to Scottish film locations, check out www.scotlandthemovie.com.
Rob Roy (1995) is a witty and moving cinematic version of Sir Walter Scott's tale of the outlaw MacGregor – despite dodgy Scottish accents from Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange.
Shinty (camanachd in Gaelic) is a fast and physical ball-and-stick sport similar to Ireland's hurling, with more than a little resemblance to clan warfare. It's an indigenous Scottish game played mainly in the Highlands, and the most prized trophy is the Camanachd Cup. For more information, see www.shinty.com.
Curling, a winter sport that involves propelling a 19kg granite stone along the ice towards a target, was probably invented in Scotland in medieval times. For more information, see www.scottishcurling.org.
Scotland's Castles by Chris Tabraham is an excellent companion for anyone touring Scottish castles – a readable, illustrated history detailing how and why they were built.
The Living Tradition (www.livingtradition.co.uk) is a bimonthly magazine covering the folk and traditional music of Scotland and the British Isles, as well as Celtic music, with features and reviews of albums and live gigs.
Sidebar: Essential Scottish Novels
- Sunset Song (Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932)
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961)
- Greenvoe (George Mackay Brown, 1972)
- Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh, 1993)
Sidebar: Scottish Pop Playlist
- 'Suddenly I See' by KT Tunstall
- 'Letter from America' by The Proclaimers
- 'This Is the Life' by Amy Macdonald
- 'Top of the Pops' by The Rezillos
Visitors revel in rural Scotland's solitude and dramatic scenery. Soaring peaks, steely lochs, deep inlets, forgotten beaches and surging peninsulas evince astonishing geographic diversity. Scotland's wild places harbour Britain's most majestic wildlife, from the emblematic osprey to the red deer, its bellow reverberating among stands of native forest. Seals, dolphins and whales patrol the seas, islands moored in the Atlantic are havens for species long hunted to extinction further south, while the northeastern archipelagos clamour with seabird colonies of extraordinary magnitude.
Scotland's mainland divides neatly into thirds. The Southern Uplands, ranges of grassy rounded hills bounded by fertile coastal plains, occupy the south, divided from the Lowlands by the Southern Uplands Fault.
The central Lowlands lie in a broad band stretching from Glasgow and Ayr in the west to Edinburgh and Dundee in the east. This area is underlain by sedimentary rocks, including beds of coal that fuelled Scotland's Industrial Revolution. It's only a fifth of the nation by land area, but it has most of the country's industry, its two largest cities and 80% of the population.
Another geological divide – the Highland Boundary Fault – marks the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands. These hills – with most of their summits around 900m to 1000m – were scoured by ice-age glaciers, creating a series of deep, U-shaped valleys, some now flooded by the long, narrow sea lochs that today are such a feature of west Highland scenery. The Highlands form 60% of the Scottish mainland, and are cut in two by the Great Glen, a long, glacier-gouged valley running southwest to northeast.
Despite their pristine beauty, the wild, empty landscapes of the western and northern Highlands are artificial wildernesses. Before the Highland Clearances many of these empty corners of Scotland supported sizeable rural populations.
Offshore, some 790 islands are concentrated in four main groups: the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides.
It rains a lot in Scotland – some parts of the western Highlands get over 4m of rainfall a year, compared to 2.3m in the Amazon Basin – so it's not surprising that there's plenty of water about. Around 3% of Scotland's land surface is fresh water. The numerous lochs, rivers and burns (streams) form the majority of this, but about a third is in the form of wetlands: the peat bogs and marshes that form a characteristic Highland and island landscape.
But it's salt water that really shapes the country. Including the islands, there's over 10,000 miles of tortuous, complex Scottish shoreline.
While the Loch Ness monster still hogs headlines, Scotland's wild places harbour a wide variety of animals, including red deer, otters and 75% of Britain's red squirrels.
Other small mammals include the Orkney vole and various bats, as well as stoats and weasels. The mountain hare swaps a grey-brown summer coat for a pure-white winter one.
Rarer beasts slaughtered to the point of near-extinction in the 19th century include pine martens, polecats and Scottish wildcats. Populations of these are small and remote but are slowly recovering.
Of course, most animals you'll see will be in fields or obstructing you on single-track roads. Several indigenous sheep varieties are still around, smaller and stragglier than the purpose-bred supermodels to which we're accustomed. Other emblematic domestic animals include the Shetland pony and the gentle Highland cow, with its broad horns and shaggy reddish-brown coat and fringe.
The waters are rich in marine mammals. Dolphins and porpoises are fairly common, and in summer minke whales are regular visitors. Orcas are regularly sighted around Shetland and Orkney. Seals are widespread. Both the Atlantic grey and common seal are easily seen on coasts and islands.
Scotland has an immense variety of birds. For birdwatchers, the Shetland Islands are paradise. Twenty-one of the British Isles' 24 seabird species are found here, breeding in huge colonies. Being entertained by the puffins' clownish antics is a highlight for visitors.
Large numbers of red grouse – a popular game bird – graze the heather on the moors. The ptarmigan plays the Arctic trick of changing its plumage from mottled brown in summer to dazzling white in winter. In heavily forested areas you may see the capercaillie, a black, turkey-like bird that is the largest member of the grouse family. Millions of greylag geese winter on Lowland stubble fields.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB; www.rspb.org.uk) is very active in Scotland. Several species have been successfully reintroduced, and the populations of other precariously placed species have stabilised, including those of ospreys (absent for most of the 20th century), golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons and hen harriers.
Feature: Journey of the Salmon
One of Scotland's most thrilling wildlife experiences is to see salmon leaping up a fast-flowing waterfall, resolutely returning to the place of their birth. A salmon's life begins in early spring, hatching in a gravelly stream in some Scottish glen. Called fry at this stage and only an inch long, it stays in the river for a couple of years, growing through the 'parr' stage to become a silvery, 5in to 10in smolt, when it heads out to sea.
Its destination could be anywhere in the North Atlantic, but eventually, after one to three winters feeding at sea, it returns home to reproduce. Arriving all through the year, but most commonly in late spring and autumn, salmon return to their native rivers and run up to the headwaters to spawn from November to January. That job done, salmon normally die and the cycle begins anew.
Plants & Trees
Although the thistle is Scotland's national flower, more characteristic are the Scottish bluebell (harebell), carpeting native woodlands in spring; and heather, the tiny pink and purple flowers that emerge on the Highland hills and Southern Upland moors in August. Vivid pink rhododendrons are introduced but grow vigorously, and bright-yellow gorse flowers in late spring.
Only 1% of Scotland's ancient woodlands, which once covered much of the country, survive, and these are divided into small parcels across the land. Managed regeneration forests are slowly covering more of the landscape, especially in the Highlands. The government's Forestry Commission (www.forestry.gov.uk) conducts managed logging and dedicates large woodland areas to sustainable recreational use. The vast majority of this tree cover is coniferous, and there's a plan to increase it to 25% of land area by 2050.
Feature: Flowers of Scotland
The untamed wildness of Scotland lifts the spirit, but another of the country's delights is a more managed beauty, in the shape of its numerous formal gardens, riotously beautiful in spring and summer. Historically, every stately home worth its salt had a planned garden in the grounds, and the warmer parts – the southwest, the Aberdeen and Moray area and the Gulf Stream–warmed northwest coast – are absolutely studded with them.
The National Trust for Scotland (www.nts.org.uk) manages many of the finest gardens; its website is a good first stop to plan a route through the blooms.
Scotland has two national parks – Loch Lomond & the Trossachs and the Cairngorms. There's a huge range of other protected areas: 43 national nature reserves (www.nnr.scot) span the country, and there are also marine areas under various levels of protection.
Scotland's abundance of wind and water means the government hasn't had to look far for sources of renewable energy. The ambitious grand plan is to generate 100% of the country's electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020 (and total energy needs by 2030). And things are going to plan, with a level of 68% achieved by 2016, and a solid commitment to reject fracking and nuclear power.
Though a major goal is to halt a worrying decline in biodiversity, climate change is a huge threat to existing species. Temperature rises would leave plenty of mountain plants and creatures with no place to go; a steady decline in Scotland's seabird population is also surmised to have been partly caused by a temperature-induced decrease in plankton.
The main cause, however, of the worrying level of fish stocks is clear: we've eaten them all. In 2010 the Marine (Scotland) Act was passed. It's a compromise solution that tries to both protect vulnerable marine stocks and sustain the flagging fishing industry, which is pinning its hopes on Brexit freeing it from the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.
Seventeen per cent of Scotland is forested, compared with England's 7%, Finland's 74% and a worldwide average of 30%.
Scotland accounts for one-third of the British mainland's surface area, but it has a massive 80% of Britain's coastline and only 10% of its population.
A beautifully written book about Scotland's wildlife, penned by a man who lived and breathed alongside the country's critters in a remote part of the Highlands, is A Last Wild Place by Mike Tomkies.
One of the best-loved pieces of Scottish wildlife writing is Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell, in which the author describes life on the remote Glenelg peninsula with his two pet otters in the 1950s.
Scottish Environment LINK (www.scotlink.org) is the umbrella body for more than 35 of Scotland's voluntary environmental organisations, committed to environmental sustainability.
Scottish Natural Heritage (www.nature.scot) is the government agency responsible for the conservation of Scotland's wildlife, habitats and landscapes. A key initiative is to reverse biodiversity loss.
Some 90% of Britain's surface fresh water is found in Scotland, and Loch Lomond is Britain's largest body of fresh water (by area).
Wildlife-Spotting: Seven Iconic Scottish Species
Scotland's wildlife is one of its biggest attractions, and the best way to see it is simply to spend time in the great outdoors. Pull on your boots, grab your binoculars, go quietly and see what you can spot. Many species that have disappeared from, or are rare in, the rest of Britain survive here in Scotland.
The red deer, Britain’s largest land animal, is present in large numbers in Scotland. You’re bound to see them if you spend any time in the Highlands; in winter especially, harsh weather will force them down into the glens to crop the roadside verges. But the most spectacular time to spot them is during the rutting season (late September and October), when stags roar and clash antlers in competition for females.
Best places to spot Jura, Rum, Torridon, Galloway
The harbour (or common) seal is the smaller and – despite its alternative name – less common of Scotland’s two seal species; the grey seal, recognised by its bullnosed profile, outnumbers it by eight to one. Scotland is home to about 80% of Britain’s harbour seals, and they can often be seen hauled out on rocks and sandbanks at low tide, or swimming in harbours looking for scraps from the fishing boats.
Best places to spot Orkney, Shetland, Moray Firth, west coast
Perhaps the most majestic wildlife sight on moor and mountain is the golden eagle, which uses its 2m wingspan to soar on rising thermals as it hunts for its favourite prey, the mountain hare. Almost all of the 400 or so pairs known to nest in the UK are to be found in the Scottish Highlands and islands, as they prefer remote glens and open moorland well away from human habitation.
Best places to spot Harris, Skye, Rum, Mull
Scotland's woods are home to 75% of Britain’s red-squirrel population; in most of the rest of the UK they’ve been pushed out by the dominant grey squirrel, introduced from North America. The greys often carry a virus that’s lethal to the reds, so measures are in place to try to prevent their further encroachment.
Best places to spot Galloway Forest Park, Glen Affric, Landmark Forest Adventure Park, Rothiemurchus
From a low point in the late 20th century, when the population was decimated by hunting, pollution and habitat loss, otters have made a comeback and are now widespread in Scotland. They frequent fresh and salt water but are easiest to spot along the coast, where they time their foraging to coincide with an ebbing tide (river otters tend to be nocturnal).
Best places to spot Orkney, Shetland, Skye, Outer Hebrides; the piers at Kyle of Lochalsh and Portree are otter ‘hot spots’, as they have learned to scavenge from fishing boats
The magnificent osprey, the world’s only bird of prey that eats only fish, was hunted and poisoned to near-extinction in the UK until it began nesting in Scotland again in the 1950s. Today there are around 250 breeding pairs in the UK, 90% of which are in Scotland. They nest here from mid-March to September, after migrating from West Africa.
Best places to spot Aberfoyle (The Trossachs), Loch Garten (Cairngorms), Loch of the Lowes (Perthshire)
Trapping, hunting, habitat loss and interbreeding with feral domestic cats have made the Scottish wildcat Britain’s most endangered mammal; it's thought that fewer than 400 purebred individuals survive. It hunts around the edges of woodland at dawn and dusk and is very wary of humans; seeing one in the wild is extremely rare.
Best places to spot Angus Glens, Strathpeffer area, Highland Wildlife Park (in captivity)
If you're pushed for time, you can improve your chances of spotting wildlife by joining a ‘wildlife safari’. Many operators around the country run full- or half-day 4x4 safaris searching for eagles, deer and other species, or operate boat trips to spot seals, dolphins, whales and seabirds.
The following organisations’ websites provide information on the wildlife reserves under their management:
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk)
- Scottish Natural Heritage (www.nnr.scot)
- Scottish Wildlife Trust (http://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk)