Throughout Scotland, change is in the air. The great migrations of the 19th century—when many Scots went overseas to find a better life—are now starting to reverse. Slowly but surely, some of the estimated 20 million Scots who live outside the country are making the long trip home, where they find far more opportunities than they might have even 50 years ago. The country that gave us inventor Alexander Graham Bell and entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie is once again starting to turn a strong face to the world, with a powerful combination of innovation and tradition. Scotland’s high-tech industries are playing an important role in the technological revolution, and today the country produces personal computers, workstations, and automated banking machines. Scotland is also at the forefront of the renewable energy industry, tapping into its considerable potential for wind and tidal power generation. Meanwhile, exports of Scotland’s time-tested crafts (woolen tweeds and knitwear) are thriving, the market for Scotch whisky has burgeoned around the world, and tourists are visiting in record numbers—to taste whisky, to golf, to fish for trout and salmon, to enjoy the wild landscapes of the Highlands and islands, and to partake of increasingly vibrant urban scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Much of the appeal of Scotland derives from the image the country projects to the world. These impressions of creativity, talent, industriousness, and, often, quirkiness have little to do with misty glens and verdant dales. No one has ever said “Shaken not stirred” with as much suave masculinity as Sean Connery. Since bursting onto the international scene as James Bond in the 1960s, the actor has been named the sexiest man of the 20th century and a national treasure, been knighted, and won many well-deserved awards. Singer Annie Lennox proved that the Scots’ musical talents go well beyond playing the bagpipes, just as flower-power icon Donovan did in the 1960s. Danny Boyle’s 1996 Trainspotting, high on the list of the great British films of all time, introduced us to squalor and poverty in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and Ian Rankin covers some of the same underbelly turf in his Inspector Rebus novels. Among other writers who have revealed the many sides of Scotland are Muriel Spark, who draws on her Edinburgh school days in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Alexander McCall Smith, a noted professor of medical law, displays a Scottish propensity for wry humor and understatement in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. While those sensationally popular novels take place in Zimbabwe, McCall Smith’s gently satirical 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club series are set in Edinburgh. It’s a point of pride in Scotland that the quintessential Londoner, Sherlock Holmes, is the creation of a Scot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and studied medicine at the city’s university. 

Scotland achieved literary acclaim again in 2009, when Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom—the first Scot, the first woman, and the first openly LGBT person to be appointed to the position. Scotland has also broken away from tradition with the country’s most important new building, the Scottish Parliament at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. This legislative body has met only since 1998, after voters in a 1997 referendum called for restoration of the Scottish Parliament that was dissolved in 1707, when the kingdoms of England and Scotland merged under the Act of Union. So, it’s only fitting that the 129 members meet in a bold new landmark. Designed by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles (1955–2000), the free-form assemblage of leaf-shaped wings is said to resemble Scottish landscapes, upturned boats, and even The Skating Minister, a 1790s oil painting by Henry Raeburn in the nearby Scottish National Gallery. Critics have called the mélange of abstract forms, grass roofs, and canoe-shaped skylights everything from an “architectural travesty” and a “symbol of government excess” to “an icon of organic resolution.” Little wonder that Parliament has quickly become a major tourist attraction, as well as a topic of lively discussion among even the most typically taciturn Scots. 

Whatever you think of this startling new presence, the debating hall will be the scene of some fiery sparring in the coming years, as Scotland deals with a dilemma. Scottish voters said “no” to independence in 2014 and “yes” to remaining in the European Union in 2016, when the rest of Britain opted for Brexit. Which means Scots are being forced to leave the European Union against their will, and time will tell how they deal with that. 


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