Country of the Week: Scotland

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve gone across the pond to Scotland, one of the four member countries of the United Kingdom. A proud culture and a rich history fraught with conflict, heroes, and influential thinkers make Scotland one of the most fascinating places in Europe.

  • Capital: Edinburgh
  • Largest City: Glasgow
  • Population (2013): 5,327,700
  • Total Area: 78,387 km²
  • Recognized Languages: English, Scottish Gaelic, Scots
  • Currency: Pound sterling (£) (GBP)

The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye

History of Scotland

The history of Scotland stretches back long before the Roman’s ever arrived. Tombs and structures from a staggering 4000 years ago have been discovered, the oldest in Britain. Many of the specifics that we know today began with the Romans however, due to them being the first to record what they saw. While the Roman Empire claimed Britannia (England and Wales), they were unable to make any significant territorial gains in what is now Scotland. Celtic tribes, especially the Caledonians (Picts) were particularly ferocious in their resistance in the first century AD. Eventually, the Romans erected Hadrian’s Wall, which has stood since as a marker of the end of Rome’s northern reach.

As Rome crumbled and Western Europe slipped into the Dark Ages, the Kingdom of the Picts became known as ‘Alba’ or ‘Scotland’. By the 10th century, Scotland had become dominated by the Gaelic culture that still remains to this day. The kings of Alba were able to grab significant swathes of lands from English, Gaelic, and Norse speaking areas, eventually forming the borders of what is generally considered modern day Scotland.

Scottish fortunes and relations with the English changed radically throughout the Middle Ages. For most of the 1100s-1300s, they maintained relatively stable and cordial relations, though Edward I of England would take advantage of chaos to institute direct control of the country. This resulted in fights for Scottish independence (such as those led by William Wallace). After Robert the Bruce was crowned king of Scotland, he guaranteed independence with a victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. As you might have guessed however, this was not the end of conflict between the two neighbours, with perpetual animosity and increasing internal divisions between the highlands and lowlands.

James IV of Scotland marrying into the English royal family followed the end of the Middle Ages. Though Scotland remained separate, James VI, King of Scots eventually inherited the throne of England and Ireland and effectively ruled the countries as separate entities. The Stuart line (as it was called) endured a tumultuous reign over the kingdom. James’ son Charles I came into conflict with the forces of Parliament, which led to the English Civil War. The end result was Charles execution and the exile of his son and heir Charles II. Following this, Oliver Cromwell led a de facto republic until his death when the monarchy was reestablished (with Charles II being asked back to rule). Charles II’s brother James II (of England) assumed power following his death, though he was later ousted by William and Mary in 1688. After failing to win back his crown at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, he lived the rest of his life as an exiled pretender in France. Eventually, Scotland entered a union with England, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain, which came into effect on May 1, 1707.

Both James II and his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie saw revolts in their name. These Jacobite Risings had large amounts of support in the Scottish Highlands especially. The Jacobite movement was effectively ended at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. There was a subsequent crackdown on Gaelic culture and the Scottish clan system, including a ban on tartan dress.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the Scottish Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in full swing. With the demise of Jacobitism, many Scots moved south and took up positions of power within the British Empire. Numerous philosophers, thinkers, scientists, and writers from Scotland became known the world over such as David Hume, Robert Burns, and Adam Smith. The Industrial Revolution also contributed to a massive increase in the global importance of Glasgow. Known as “the Second City of the Empire”, Glasgow became the world’s pre-eminent shipbuilding centre.

Scotland was integral to the British war effort in both World Wars. Despite extensive bombing during WWII (as a part of the German blitz), the country prospered during this time. Following 1945, this success would be tempered, as industry became more inefficient, competition grew around the world, among other difficulties. In recent decades, Scotland has seen something of a resurgence thanks to financial services, electronic industries, and oil wealth in the North Sea.

There have been calls for more powers to be devolved from Westminster to Scotland. After the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999, this drive has only increased. Scotland came close to formally leaving the UK last year with an independence referendum. Though the vote ended with 55.3% voting in favour of remaining in the UK to 44.7% voting for independence, the idea does not appear to be gone. Just a couple weeks ago, the Scottish National Party (the main party which supports independence) won 56 out of 59 available Scottish seats in the British parliament. Only time will tell what lies in store for Scotland as we move forward.


A pipe band – one of the most famous examples of traditional Scottish music

A Proud Tradition

Much like Ireland, Scotland is considered a Celtic nation. Indeed, Celtic and Gaelic traditions have had a major impact on the Scottish culture we see today. Some people, especially in the north of the country, still speak Gaelic as a first language. In folklore, many of the famous stories are similar to those of other Celtic countries (including the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill). Scottish literature is also very well known, particularly the works of poet Robert Burns. He has grown to become a cultural icon and symbol of Scotland for those at home and abroad.

Scotland has become internationally renowned for its traditional music. The Great Highland Bagpipe is the most common symbol of Scottish music around the world, though there are many varieties and traditions found throughout the country. Other common instruments used include the fiddle, accordion, and clàrsach (harp).

Sport is also very important in Scotland. The country has had a far-reaching impact on modern sports. The Highland games (events held throughout the country that feature traditional events such as the caber toss) have influenced modern athletics events, shinty is a predecessor to ice hockey, a Scottish blacksmith invented the bicycle pedal, and much more. Today, the most popular sport in Scotland is, unsurprisingly, soccer. Together with England, Scotland participated in the first international match in 1872. The Scottish national team has had mixed success on the international stage since then, though the country remains famous for the Old Firm. This is the collective name for Celtic and Rangers, two Glasgow club teams that are far and away the most successful in the country – though Rangers have experienced major financial problems as of late and Celtic has struggled in European competition.

From the Highlands to the Lowlands

Scotland makes up the northern third of the island of Great Britain, with its only border a long southern one shared with England. Despite its relatively small size, Scotland has a great diversity of landscapes. The country is often thought of as being divided between the rugged Highlands, and the more rural Lowlands. The Highlands are sparsely populated and dominated by mountains (including Ben Nevis, the highest in the UK). The Highlands are culturally distinct from the Lowlands which are often considered to consist of the Midland Valley and the Southern Uplands (though the later is sometimes referred to a separate region).

Scotland is home to many important and vibrant cities and towns, the largest of which is Glasgow. While it was once one of the most important industrial centres in the world, it remains Scotland’s business hub and is the third largest city in the UK as a whole. The capital, Edinburgh, is the second largest in Scotland, and is well known as a vibrant cultural centre. With the imposing Edinburgh Castle dominating proceedings in the middle of the city, the capital is an impressive glimpse into what it means to be Scottish. Aberdeen, on the North Sea, has been an important financial centre for years due to granite reserves and offshore oil – which has resulted in the city being called the “Oil Capital of Europe”.


Edinburgh Castle is one of the dominating features of the capital

Did you know?

  • Scotland’s official animal is the unicorn
  • The first ‘sighting’ of the Loch Ness monster was in 565 AD
  • The University of St. Andrews is the third oldest in the UK behind Oxford and Cambridge
  • Alexander Graham Bell – who is responsible for the telephone – was born in Scotland before moving to Canada
  • Scotland is considered the birthplace of golf
  • Well known Scottish actors include Gerard Butler, James McAvoy, and David Tennant
  • Much of Braveheart, a part of Skyfall, and parts of the Harry Potter films, as well as the TV series Outlander, were filmed in Scotland
  • Haggis, probably the most famous Scottish dish, can’t be imported into the US
  • Scotch whiskey (or just ‘Scotch’) is first mentioned in writing in the year 1495

A wild stag in the Scottish Highlands, near Loch Torridon

Last Word

It’s hard to sum up Scottish history and culture in so few words. As both an independent kingdom and a member of the UK, Scots have always been very proud of their distinct culture and heritage. Once you get a taste of it, you might just see why.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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