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The key to comprehending - and, in part, enjoying - Edinburgh and Glasgow is to know at least a bit about Scotland's long and sometimes complex history. For much of its existence, the country had full (if disputed) autonomy from England - the larger, more populous, and sometimes pushy neighbor to the south. Although the Scottish and English crowns were joined (1603) and the countries were unified into Great Britain (1707), they are distinct nations.

Although the union with England may well have saved Scotland economically in the 18th century, it also effectively relegated the country to something more akin to an administrative region within Great Britain. Even after devolution, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, while favoring devolution and even born in Edinburgh, once compared the Parliament in Scotland to a Parish Council. Although Edinburgh has long been an intellectual center and Glasgow was considered the "Second City" of the British Empire, many histories of Britain tend to ignore or anglicize developments in Scotland. If you're in any doubt about Scotland's autonomy, however, consider this: In 1320, after decades of war against English invaders and occupiers, barons loyal to Scottish King, Robert the Bruce put their names on a letter to the Pope, the Declaration of Arbroath. It not only clearly affirmed the country's independence but also addressed notions of freedom and liberty as Scots: Abstract ideals that most nations didn't contemplate for hundreds of years.

Early History 

Standing stones, brochs (circular stone towers), and burial chambers are the best remaining signs of Scotland's earliest residents, but little is known about these first tribes that were living in parts of the country hundreds, indeed thousands, of years before the Romans arrived. When the Romans invaded in about A.D. 82, much of the land was occupied by a people they called the Picts (the Painted Ones). Despite some spectacular bloodletting, the Romans never really conquered the indigenous people of Scotland, and the building of Hadrian's Wall (well south of the current border with England) effectively marked the northern limits of Rome's influence. Sometime before A.D. 500, however, the Irish Celtic tribes, called (confusingly) "Scots," began to successfully colonize the land, bringing Christianity and creating the kingdom Dalriada, west and northwest of Glasgow on the coast. Celtic Christianity, already introduced by Saints Ninian and Mungo to Strathclyde and Galloway, became more widespread. In Glasgow, a cathedral still stands at the spot where St. Mungo (or Kentigern) settled, established an enclave, and was later buried.

The Dark and Middle Ages 

The Celtic Scots and the Picts were united around 843, while pressures of invasion from the south and Scandinavia helped mold Scotland into a relatively cohesive unit. Under Malcolm II (1005-34), tribes who occupied the southwest and southeast parts of the Scottish mainland were merged with the Scots and the Picts. Malcolm III (1031-93), with his English-born wife, Margaret, drove forward church reforms that soon replaced the Gaelic form of Christianity. She led a life of great piety, founded Edinburgh on Castle Hill, and was later canonized as St. Margaret in 1251. King David I (1081-1153) embarked on one of the most lavish building sprees in Scottish history, erecting many abbeys, including Jedburgh, Kelso, and Melrose, while also establishing royal burghs such as Edinburgh.

Some of Scotland's most legendary heroes lived during the 13th century, particularly William Wallace (1270-1305), who drove the English out of Perth and Stirling. Later Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) beat English forces at Bannockburn in 1314. In 1320, after decades of war, barons loyal to Scottish King put their names on a letter to the Pope, the Declaration of Arbroath. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the royal Stuart line was established, providing a succession of kings (and one notable queen: Mary, Queen of Scots).

The Reformation

The passions of the Protestant Reformation arrived on an already turbulent Scottish scene in the 16th century. The main protagonist was undoubtedly John Knox, who had a peculiar mixture of piety, conservatism, strict morality, and intellectual independence that many see as a pronounced feature of the Scottish character today. From his pulpit in Edinburgh, Knox helped shape the democratic form of the Scottish Church: Primary among his tenets were provisions for a self-governing congregation, including schools. Thus, Knox effectively encouraged literacy. In Edinburgh's Old Town, visitors can see the John Knox House, where the reformer may have lived, and St. Giles Cathedral, where he most certainly preached.

Knox vehemently opposed the reign of one of Scotland's most famous (and tragic) monarchs: Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). When Mary eventually took up her rule, she was a Roman Catholic Scot of French upbringing trying to govern a land (about which she knew little) in the throes of the Reformation. Following some disastrous political and romantic alliances, Mary fled Scotland to be imprisoned in England - her life eventually ended by the executioner's ax on orders of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Ironically, Mary's son - James VI of Scotland - succeeded the childless Elizabeth and became King of England (James I) in 1603. The subsequent cult of Mary, Queen of Scots has ensured that landmarks associated with her rule and movements through Scotland, whether Stirling Castle or the Palace of Holyroodhouse, are firmly on the modern tourist trail.

Union & The Jacobites 

In the 17th century, Scotland's sovereignty ebbed away as the Scottish royalty spent most of their time in London instead of Edinburgh. In 1689, the final Stuart monarch, the staunchly Catholic James VII (and II of England) fled to France, ending the rule of Scottish kings. In 1707, Scotland had little choice but to merge with England in a constitutionally united Great Britain. This union abolished the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and those loyal to the Stuarts (known as the "Jacobites" from the Latin for James) could only vainly attempt to restore the Stuart line of royalty. Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender), better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, picked up the gauntlet in 1745. He was the central figure in a revolt that nearly worked. Initially successful, starting from the Highlands, Stuart and his supporters easily reached Derby, only 201km (125 miles) from London. The British capital was reportedly in a panic. But Charlie and the Jacobites made an ill-conceived tactical retreat to Scotland, where they were eventually crushed at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, in 1746.

The Scottish Enlightenment & Economic Growth 

During the 18th century, the union began to reap dividends, and the Scottish economy underwent a radical transformation. As trade with British colonies increased, the port of Glasgow flourished. Its merchants grew rich on the tobacco trade with Virginia and the Carolinas. Ships from Glasgow (where they were often constructed, too) were making the trip back and forth to the New World much faster than competitors elsewhere in Great Britain. The Merchant City district of the city center is named after the tobacco and cotton barons. The River Clyde became world-famous for shipbuilding. Of course, many industrial inventions that altered the history of the developing world - such as the steam engine - were either invented or perfected by Scottish genius and industry. The ground-breaking movement in philosophy now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which was established at Glasgow University and based largely in Edinburgh, brought forward important thinkers, such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Edinburgh's New Town was begun in the mid-1700s and today is a World Heritage Site recognized by the United Nations. Later, Victorian builders turned Glasgow into a showcase of 19th-century architecture.

Recent History 

By the 1960s and 1970s, Scotland found that its industrial plants couldn't compete with the emerging industrial powerhouses of Asia and elsewhere. A glimmer of light appeared on the Scottish economic horizon in the 1970s: The discovery of North Sea oil lifted the British economy considerably. Edinburgh also became a center for global banking (though more recently, this has proved to be a mixed blessing). In 1997, under a newly elected Labour government in London, the Scottish electorate voted on devolution - a fancy word for limited sovereignty. The referendum passed, allowing Scotland to have its own legislature for the first time since the 1707 union with England. The Scottish Parliament has since passed laws that differ from practice in England and Wales, such as ensuring free higher education for Scots or offering home care for the elderly. Whether the country can afford these benefits is hotly debated.

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.