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Much of Scottish history has been shaped by the country's location in a remote corner of northwestern Europe. Amazingly, Scotland encompasses 787 islands (although only about one-fourth are inhabited). Its 10,004km (6,216 miles) of coastline are deeply penetrated by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west, and the often-turbulent North Sea, on the east. Most places lie no more than 97km (60 miles) inland. In fact, the sea has shaped Scotland's destiny more than any other element, and bred a nation of seafarers, many of whom still earn their living on the water.

Scotland is a world apart, a distinctly unique nation within the United Kingdom. Just more than half the size of England, with only a tenth of England's population, it boasts more open spaces and natural splendor than England ever did. The Scots are hard to classify: They're generous yet have a reputation for stinginess, eloquent yet dour at times, and romantic at heart yet brutally realistic in their appraisals (especially of the English). Even the Romans couldn't subdue these Caledonians, and they remain Braveheart proud and fiercely independent.

But how did it all begin?

Early History -- Scotland was a melting pot from its earliest days. Standing stones, brochs (circular stone towers), cromlechs, cairns, and burial chambers attest to its earliest inhabitants, but we know little about these first tribes and invaders. When the Roman armies decided to invade in A.D. 82, the land was occupied by a people the Romans called the Picts (Painted Ones). Despite spectacular bloodletting, the Romans were unsuccessful, and the building of Hadrian's Wall effectively marked the northern limits of their influence.

Parts of Hadrian's Wall still stand, but in England, not Scotland. The wall extends for 118km (73 miles) across the north of England, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, its most interesting stretch consisting of 16km (10 miles) west of the town of Housesteads. If you're driving north from England into Scotland, you might want to stop and see the remains of this wall before penetrating the Border Country of Scotland.

By A.D. 500, the Picts were again attacked, this time by the Dalriada Irish, called Scots, who were successful. They established themselves on the Argyll Peninsula and battled and intermarried with the Picts. Britons emigrated from the south and Norsemen from the east, creating new bloodlines and migratory patterns. Druidism, a little-understood mystical form of nature worship whose most visible monuments are runic etchings and stone circles, flourished at this time. Languages of the era included a diverse array of Celtic and Norse dialects with scatterings of Low German and Saxon English.

The power of the Scotians, entrenched in western Scotland, was cemented when a missionary named Columba (later canonized) arrived from Ireland in 563. The rocky Hebridean island of Iona became the base for his Christian mission. Christianity, already introduced by Sts. Ninian and Mungo to Strathclyde and Galloway, became widespread.

If you have an interest in this early part of Scottish history, visit remote Iona, part of the Hebrides. More than any dull recitation of history, a visit here, especially to Iona Abbey, can recapture some of this land's dim, often unrecorded history.

The Middle Ages -- The Scots and the Picts were united in 843 under the kingship of an early chieftain named Kenneth MacAlpin, but it was the invasionary pressures from England and Scandinavia and the unifying force of Christianity that molded Scotland into a relatively coherent unit. Under Malcolm II (1005-34), the British and the Angles, who occupied the southwest and southeast of the Scottish mainland, merged with the Scots and the Picts. Malcolm's son and heir, Duncan, was murdered by Macbeth of Moray, and this event fueled the plotline of Shakespeare's famous "Scottish play." Glamis Castle, outside Dundee, contains Duncan's Hall, where the Victorians imagined Macbeth killed Duncan.

Malcolm III's marriage to an English princess, Margaret, furthered the Anglicization of the Scottish Lowlands. A determined woman of strong ideas, she imported English priests into Scotland and carried out church reforms that soon replaced St. Columba's Gaelic form of Christianity. Her Anglicization efforts and introduction of the English language as a teaching tool laid important groundwork for making Scotland into a potential English kingdom. She led a life of great piety and was canonized as St. Margaret in 1251.

While Europe's feudal system was coming to full flower, Scotland was preoccupied with the territorial battles of clan allegiances and the attempt to define its borders with England. Cultural assimilation with England continued under David I (1081-1153), who made land grants to many Anglo-Norman families, providing Scotland with a feudal aristocracy and bringing in ancient names such as Fraser, Seton, and Lindsay. He also embarked on one of the most lavish building sprees in Scottish history, erecting many abbeys, including Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose, and Dryburgh. You can still see these abbeys or their ruins.

In 1266, after about a century of Norse control, the foggy and windswept Western Isles were returned to Scotland following the Battle of Largs. Despite nominal allegiance to the Scottish monarch, this region's inhabitants quickly organized themselves around the Donald (or MacDonald) clan, which for nearly 100 years was one of the most powerful, ruling its territory almost as an independent state. The honorary title of their patriarch, Lord of the Isles, is still one of the formal titles used on state occasions by Britain's Prince of Wales. To learn more about what may be the most important clan in Scottish history, you can visit the Clan Donald Visitor Centre, at Armadale on the Isle of Skye.

In the meantime, real trouble was brewing in the south. Edward I, ambitious Plantagenet king of England, yearned to rule over an undivided nation incorporating England, Scotland, and Wales. Successful at first, he set up John de Balliol as a vassal king to do homage to him for Scotland. Many of Scotland's legendary heroes lived during this period: Sir William Wallace (1270-1305), who drove the English out of Perth and Stirling; Sir James Douglas, the Black Douglas (1286-1330), who terrorized the English borders; and Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), who finally succeeded in freeing Scotland from England. Crowned Robert I, at Scone, in 1306, in defiance of the English, Robert the Bruce decisively defeated Edward II of England at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. Scotland's independence was formally recognized in the 1328 Treaty of Northampton, inaugurating a heady but short-lived separation from England.

You can also visit Stirling Castle, which loomed so large in Scottish history. If you'd rather see where the crucial Battle of Bannockburn took place, visit the Bannockburn Heritage Centre outside Stirling.

In 1468, the Orkneys and the Shetlands, Norse to the core, were brought into the Scottish web of power as part of the marriage dowry of the Norse princess Margaret to James III. This acquisition was the last successful expansion of Scottish sovereignty during the period when Scottish power and independence were at their zenith. It was at this time the Scots entered with the French into an alliance that was to have far-reaching effects. The line of Stuart (or Stewart) kings, so named because the family had become powerful as stewards of the English king, were generally accepted as the least troublesome of a series of potential evils. Real power, however, lay with Scotland's great lords, patriarchs of the famous clans. Jealous of both their bloodlines and their territories, they could rarely agree on anything other than their common distrust of England.

The Reformation -- The passions of the Reformation burst on an already turbulent Scottish scene in the person of John Knox, a devoted disciple of the Geneva Protestant John Calvin and a bitter enemy of both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. Knox became famous for the screaming insults he heaped on ardently Catholic Queen Mary and for his absolute lack of a sense of humor. His polemics were famous -- in his struggle against Queen Mary, he wrote his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. His was a peculiar mixture of piety, conservatism, strict morality, and intellectual independence that's still a pronounced feature of the Scottish character.

Knox's teachings helped shape the democratic form of Scottish government and set the Scottish Church's austere moral tone for generations to come. He focused on practical considerations as well as religious ones: church administration and funding, and the relationship between church and state. Foremost among the tenets were provisions for a self-governing congregation and pure allegiance to the Word of God as contained in meticulous translations of the Old and New Testaments. In Edinburgh, you can still visit the John Knox House, where the reformer lived.

On Knox's death, in 1562, his work was continued by Scots-born, Geneva-trained Andrew Melville, who may have hated ecclesiastical tyranny even more than Knox himself. Melville reorganized the Scottish universities and emphasized classical studies and the study of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek. Under his leadership emerged a clearly defined Scottish Presbyterian Church whose elected leaders were responsible for practical as well as spiritual matters.

Later, the Church of Scotland's almost obsessive insistence on self-government led to endless conflicts, first with the Scottish and then, after unification, with the British monarchs.

Mary Queen of Scots -- When Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-87), took up her rule, she was a Roman Catholic of French upbringing trying to govern an unruly land to which she was a relative newcomer. Daughter of Scotland's James V and France's Mary of Guise, she became queen at only 6 days old. She was sent to be educated in France and at age 15 married the heir to the French throne; she returned to Scotland only after his death. Mary then set out on two roads that were anathema to the Scots -- to make herself absolute monarch in the French style and to impose Roman Catholicism. The first alienated the lords who held the real power, and the second made her the enemy of John Knox and the Calvinists. After a series of disastrous political and romantic alliances and endless abortive episodes of often indiscreet intrigue, her life was ended by the headsman's ax in England. The execution order was reluctantly issued by her cousin Elizabeth I, who considered Mary's presence an incitement to civil unrest and a threat to the stability of the English throne.

Of all the towering figures in Scottish history, only Mary Queen of Scots left an extensive trail of palaces and castles that you can still visit. Begin in the Borders at Mary Queen of Scots House and go on to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, was stabbed 56 times in front of her. The queen used to come to Falkland Palace for hunting and hawking, and lived at Stirling Castle as an infant monarch for the first 4 years of her life.

The power of the great lords of Scotland was broken only in 1603, when Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, assumed the throne of England as James I, Elizabeth's heir. James succeeded where his doomed mother had failed. He was the first of the Stuarts to occupy the English throne, and his coronation effectively united England and Scotland.

Union with England -- Despite hopes for peace that accompanied the union, religion almost immediately became a prime source of discontent. From their base in England, the two Stuart kings attempted to promote a Church of Scotland governed by bishops, in opposition to the Presbyterian Church's self-ruling organization. So incensed were the Scots that in 1638 they signed the National Covenant, which not only reasserted the Reformation's principles but also questioned the king's right to make laws, a role the Covenanters believed should be filled by Parliament. However, the monarch was still allowed a role, unlike the position the Puritans took in England.

Charles I, king of England from 1625 to 1649, believed strongly in the divine right of kings. When Parliament stripped away much of his authority in 1642, Charles went north to organize an army against the Parliamentary forces centered in London. A civil war ensued, and the forces of Parliament were led to victory by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Charles fled to Scotland, but the Scots turned him over to Parliament, and in 1649 he was convicted of treason and beheaded. Under the Commonwealth setup, Cromwell assumed a dominant political role and became Lord Protector in 1653. King in all but name, he ruled England until his death.

But trouble brewed in Scotland. The death of Charles I led to deep divisions in the country, which finally openly defied Cromwell, proclaiming Charles II king. The Scots even launched abortive invasions of England. Cromwell's forces finally defeated the Scots at Dunbar in 1650. For nearly 9 years (1651-60), Scotland was under Commonwealth military occupation, although the result of that invasion had virtually nothing to do with what you'll see as a visitor today. Religious friction continued, however, after the restoration of Charles II to the English throne.

The Jacobites -- In 1689, when the English Parliament stripped Catholic James II of his crown and imported Protestant monarchs William and Mary from Holland, the exiled ex-king and then his son James Edward (the Old Pretender) became focal points for Scottish unrest. The Jacobites (the name comes from Jacobus, the Latin form of James) attempted unsuccessfully in 1715 to place the Old Pretender on the English throne and restore the Stuart line. Although James died in exile, his son Charles Edward (the Young Pretender), better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, carried on his father's dream. Charismatic but with an alcohol-induced instability, he was the central figure of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. For more legend and lore about Bonnie Prince Charlie, see chapters 12 and 13.

Although the revolt was initially promising, because of the many Scottish adherents who crossed religious lines to rally to the cause, the Jacobite forces were crushed at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, by a larger English army led by the duke of Cumberland. Many supporters of the Pretender's cause were killed in battle, some were executed, and others fled to safe havens such as the United States. Fearing a rebirth of similar types of Scottish nationalism, the clan system was rigorously suppressed; clans that supported the Jacobite cause lost their lands, and, until 1782, the wearing of Highland dress was made illegal. Ten kilometers (6 1/4 miles) southeast of Inverness, you can still visit the historic battlefield at Culloden.

The Young Pretender himself was smuggled unglamorously out of Scotland, assisted by Flora MacDonald, a resident of the obscure Hebridean island of South Uist. One of the era's most visible Scottish heroines, she has ever since provided fodder for the Scottish sense of romance. The Bonnie Prince dissipated himself in Paris and Rome, and the hopes of an independent Scotland were buried forever.

Economic Growth & the Industrial Revolution -- During the 18th century, the Scottish economy underwent a radical transformation of growth and diversification. The British government, fearing civil unrest, commissioned one of its most capable generals to build roads and bridges throughout the country, presumably to increase military access from London in the event of a revolt -- however, they actually encouraged business and commerce.

As trade with British overseas colonies, England, and Europe increased, the great ports of Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Leith (near Edinburgh) flourished. The merchants of Glasgow grew rich on a nearly monopolistic tobacco trade with Virginia and the Carolinas, until the outbreak of the Revolution sent American tobacco elsewhere. Other forms of commerce continued to enrich a battalion of shrewd Scots.

The 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution engendered so much Scottish sympathy for the cause that a panicked government in London became more autocratic than ever in its attempts to suppress antimonarchical feelings.

The infamous Clearances (1750-1850) changed forever Scotland's demographics. Small farmers, or crofters, were expelled from their ancestral lands to make way for sheep grazing. Increased industrialization, continued civil unrest, migration to urban centers, and a massive wave of immigration to the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand all contributed to a changing national demographic and a dispersal of the Scottish ethic throughout the world.

Meanwhile, rapid progress in the arts, sciences, and education, coupled with the arrival of the Industrial Age, meshed neatly with the Scottish genius for thrift, hard work, shrewdness, and conservatism. The 19th century produced vast numbers of prominent Scots who made broad and sweeping contributions to nearly all fields of endeavor.

The 20th Century & Beyond -- Scotland endured bitter privations during the Great Depression and the two world wars. In the 1960s and 1970s, Scotland found that, like the rest of Britain, its aging industrial plants couldn't compete with more modern commercial competition from abroad. The most visible decline occurred in the shipbuilding industries. The vast Glasgow shipyards that had once produced some of the world's great ocean liners went bankrupt. The companies that produced automobiles were wiped out during the 1930s. Many commercial enterprises once controlled by Scots had been merged into English or multinational conglomerates.

However, all wasn't bleak on the Scottish horizon. The 1970 discovery of North Sea oil by British Petroleum boosted the economy considerably and provided jobs for thousands of workers. Oil has continued to play a prominent role in the Scottish economy. In 1981, the largest oil terminal in Europe opened at Sullom Voe in the remote Shetland Islands.

As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland became a member of the European Common Market in 1973, although many Scots -- perhaps owing to their longtime isolationism -- opposed entry. Some voters expressed a fear that membership would take away some of their rights of self-government and determination. In 1974, Scotland underwent a drastic revision of its counties, and many regions were renamed. Tayside, for example, was carved out of the old counties of Perth and Angus.

A landmark scientific breakthrough occurred in 1997. The Scots had always contributed almost disproportionately to the world's sciences and technology. Now the land that gave us Sir Alexander Fleming, a Nobel prize winner who discovered penicillin, cloned a sheep. The issue of Nature for February 27, 1997, reported the event, the work of scientists in Roslin. Dolly was the first lamb to be produced by cloning the udder cells of an adult sheep. In the summer of 1997, another major step was taken, and Polly was created, a lamb that has a human gene in every cell of its body. The work was hailed as a milestone. Animals with human genes (at least in theory) could be used to produce hormones or other biological products to treat human diseases or even to produce organs for human transplant.

In 1999, under Prime Minister Tony Blair's reforms, Scotland was allowed to elect its own legislature for the first time since its 1707 union with England. A total of 129 Scots were elected to this newly formed Parliament. Unlike the Welsh Parliament, the Scottish version, centered at Edinburgh, has the power to tax and make laws, as well as to pursue such matters as healthcare, education, public transportation, and public housing. Scotland is still represented in the main British Parliament in London. Scotland, however, must bow to the greater will of Britain in matters of foreign policy.

The Scottish Parliament got off to a bad start in 2000, with Scotland's 21 robustly competitive newspapers writing of "the silly season" or the "totally absurd." The press noted that members of Parliament awarded lawmakers with commemorative medals before they had done anything, granted bonuses, and fretted about parking spaces and vacation grants instead of tackling some of the country's serious problems, such as a feudal landowning system. Some lawmakers found themselves heckled in the streets, and they had to endure the bite of such popular comics as Billy Connolly, who dismissed the body "as a wee pretendy Parliament." This characterization was most dramatically illustrated in 2003, when Scotland, despite widespread opposition on the home front, along with England and Wales, sent soldiers and equipment to do battle in Iraq, toppling the dictator Saddam Hussein.

In 2004 and 2005, the Scottish Parliament came face to face with one of its biggest challenges. Half of the country belongs to just 350 people, the "lairds" as they are called in Scotland, including English aristocrats, reclusive foreign investors, pop stars, desert sheiks, offshore companies, and rich people from London's financial sector. Dating from the 12th century and reinforced by the infamous Highland Clearances of the early 1800s, the ancient system is coming under review. And the battle rages on -- for example, the islanders of Gigha won the fight to own their own land even though they were not the top bidder for its sale. The 1,375-hectare (3,400-acre) island has been handed over to a community trust. Developments on the island are being closely watched. Indeed, Gigha could be a test case for Scottish land ownership in the 21st century.

On a more optimistic front, Scotland is turning a strong face to the world, with its abundant natural resources: oil, water, gas, and coal. Its high-tech industries have played an important role in the technological revolution, and today the country produces 13% of Europe's personal computers, 45% of Europe's workstations, and 50% of Europe's automated banking machines. Scotland's time-tested crafts (woolen tweeds and knitwear) are thriving, the market for Scotch whisky has burgeoned all around the world, and tourists are visiting in record numbers.

In 2007, Scotland marked its 300-year anniversary with England by focusing attention more on the perennial discord than the ties that bind their two members of Great Britain. "This treaty [a reference to the Treaty of Union] can and will be undone, and at the moment there is a wellspring of Scottish nationalism," said Murray Ritchie, convener of the Scottish Independence convention, an advocacy group. "What we need is a referendum to settle the issue of independence." The union has been contested since 1707. The Scottish poet Robert Burns labeled those who voted for union as a "parcel of rogues."

As Scotland moves deeper into the 21st century, there's a new esprit in the land. Scots are on a roll, declaring that their country is not a mere tartan theme park.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.