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Scotland was first populated by hunter-gatherers who arrived from England, Ireland and Europe around 6000 years ago. They brought the Neolithic Age with them, introducing agriculture, stockbreeding, trade, an organised society and a thriving culture. The remains of elaborate passage tombs, stone monuments and domestic architecture, such as those found on the Orkneys, reveal that this was indeed a vigorous civilisation. Later arrivals included Europe's Beaker people, who introduced bronze and weapons, while the Celts brought iron. The Romans were unable to subdue the region's fierce inhabitants, their failure symbolised by the construction of Hadrian's Wall. Christianity arrived in the guise of St Ninian, who established a religious centre in 397. Later, St Columba founded a centre on Iona in 563, still a place of pilgrimage and retreat today.

Around the 7th century, Scotland's population comprised a constantly warring mix of matrilineal Picts and Gaelic-speaking Scots in the north, Norse invaders in the island territories, and Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the Lowlands. By the 9th century, the Scots had gained ascendancy over the Picts, whose only visible legacy today is the scattering of symbol stones found in many parts of eastern Scotland. In the south, Anglo-Norman feudalism was slowly introduced, and by the early 13th century an English commentator, Walter of Coventry, could remark that the Scottish court was 'French in race and manner of life, in speech and in culture'. Despite some bloody reactions, the Lowlanders' tribal-based society melded well with feudalism, creating enormously powerful family-based clans.

The Highlanders, however, were another matter entirely. In 1297 William Wallace's forces thrashed the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but after a few more skirmishes Wallace was betrayed and finally executed by the English in London in 1305. He's still remembered as the epitome of patriotism and a great hero of the resistance movement.

Robert the Bruce threw a punch for Scottish independence next, when, a year after Wallace came to his very sticky end, he murdered a rival and had himself crowned King of Scotland. In the same year, he faced off the English, but they defeated his forces at Methven and Dalry. He had to wait until 1314, when at the Battle of Bannockburn he finally defeated the English. This was a turning point in Scotland's fight for independence. A distinct barrier developed between Highlander and Lowlander, marked symbolically by the Highland Boundary Fault, running between Fort William and Inverness. Highlanders were regarded as Gaelic-speaking pillagers by the Lowlanders, who spoke Lallans and led a less rigorous and more urban existence.

In the 16th century, Scottish royal lineage was blurred by opposing matrilineal and patrilineal lines of descent and the jockeying of English and French interests. Fierce resistance to the English and persistent monarchic squabbles led to a virtual civil war, and very few monarchs managed to die a natural death. The 17th century was also coloured by civil war, spurred by the thorny issue of the religious Reformation. Despite all the anti-English sentiment, the Act of Union of 1707 saw the Scots persuaded - by means both fair and foul - to disband parliament, in exchange for preservation of the Scottish church and legal system.

Famous attempts were made to replace the Hanoverian kings of England with Catholic Stuarts, although the Jacobite cause lacked support outside of the Highlands due to the Lowland suspicion of Catholicism. James Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender and son of the exiled English king James VII, made several attempts to regain the throne, but fled to France in 1719. In 1745, his son, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Young Pretender, landed in Scotland to claim the crown for his father. His disastrous defeat in 1745 at Culloden caused the government to ban private armies, the wearing of kilts and the playing of the pipes. Coinciding with the inexorable changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the bans caused the disappearance of a whole way of life and the quelling of the Highlanders.

In the south, the Industrial Revolution brought flourishing towns and expanding populations, the creation of industries such as cotton and shipbuilding, and booming trade. The spread of urban life coincided with an intellectual flowering, the Scottish Enlightenment, as people fed the energy they'd previously spent on religious issues into their leisure and money-making activities. Literature in particular blossomed. Life for the privileged became increasingly bourgeois, while the poor got poorer, suffering typhoid epidemics and other side-effects of their overcrowded tenement life. Cities grew even bigger following one of the bleakest events in the north's already grim history: the Highland Clearances that began in the late 1700s and continued for more than a century. Overpopulation, the potato famine and the collapse of the kelp industry caused landlords to force or trick people from the land. Waves of Scots emigrated to North America, New Zealand and Australia, taking with them their reputation for thrift and hard work. The few who remained on the land were pushed onto tiny plots called crofts.

Industrial prosperity lasted through WWI, but the world depression of the 1930s struck a mortal blow. Aberdeen was the only city to show marked prosperity in the 20th century, thanks to North Sea oil and gas discoveries in the 1970s. Continuing economic hardship, rampant unemployment, the depopulation of rural areas and lower standards of health and housing than those experienced in England have all led to a loss of confidence. However, dreams of seceding from the Union with England are stronger than they've been for many years.

Strongly Labour, Scotland smarted through the 1980s and '90s under Britain's Conservative-led government, which showed scant regard for Scotland's desire for self-rule. The decisive Labour victory in the 1997 general election resulted in the loss of all Conservative seats in Scotland and the birth of a Scottish Parliament, which first convened in 1999. A new parliament building is being constructed at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and is expected to open in November 2003. The Labour government has already granted limited Scottish devolution, so the birth of an independent Scotland some time in the 21st century isn't such a romantic idea after all.


Historically, the Scots have been under-represented in British art and music, but they have packed a mighty wallop in the worlds of science, literature and philosophy. Scots came up with logarithms, the second law of thermodynamics and the laws of electrodynamics; they revolutionised steam power and invented bitumen, waterproofing, the telephone, the television and radar. Scots have been pioneers in anatomy, antiseptics and the development of penicillin. One of them, Adam Smith, even came up with the wacky idea of the invisible hand of capitalism. The Scots attribute this impressive roll call to the country's long-standing emphasis on a good education.

Scotland has an impressive artistic legacy, kicking off with the wild man himself, Robbie Burns, and is continuing this reputation, as Hollywood fetes members of the Mac Pack such as Ewen McGregor and Robert Carlyle, and literary festivals go gaga over grunge-and-drugs writers like Irvine Welsh. Perhaps the most famous icon of Scottish traditional culture is the Highland bagpipe, which achieved the height of its popularity during Queen Victoria's reign - she liked to be woken by one playing outside her window. Tartans, that other Scottish icon, date back to the Roman period, but were only associated with particular clans after the 17th century. Although kilts and other highland dress were banned after the Jacobite rebellions, they were revived in the following century. The mainstay of traditional culture was the ceilidh, or visit, a social gathering held after the day's work when a local bard would tell folk stories and legends and play songs. Ceilidhs are still held, though these days there are fewer stories, more dancing, and plenty of alcohol.

It's probably true to say that religion has played a more influential part in the history of Scotland than it has in any other part of Britain. Christianity reached Scotland in the 4th century, and with the Reformation the Scottish Church rejected the Pope's authority. Later a schism developed amongst Scottish Protestants, the Presbyterians favouring a simplified church hierachy. Two-thirds of Scots belong to the Church of Scotland, although the more rigorous United Free Presbyterian church is more popular in the Highlands and Islands. There are large Catholic populations in Glasgow, and some of the islands were secretly converted to Catholicism after the Reformation. Although not remotely on the scale of Northern Ireland, sectarian tensions can be felt in Glasgow, especially when the Protestant Rangers play the Catholic Celtic.

Until the 12th or 13th century, Gaelic was spoken in all of Scotland, although Lallans (an English dialect with French and Scandinavian influences) has been spoken in the Lowlands for centuries. Now only about 66,000 people speak Gaelic, mainly in the Hebrides and northwest Scotland. Efforts are being made to halt its decline, and there are numerous Gaelic words that linger in everyday speech and make Scottish English almost impenetrable to foreigners.

Scotland's chefs have an enviable range of fresh ingredients at their disposal - meat, seafood and vegetables, as well as a reputation for some of the best game dishes in the world (think smoked salmon, venison and grouse). Other legendary Scottish meals include porridge, shortbread, haggis (a delectable mix of chopped lungs, heart and liver mixed with oatmeal and boiled in a sheep's stomach with surprisingly tasty results - vegetarian versions are also available), Scotch broth and that modern gourmet creation, the deep-fried Mars bar. Whisky is still the country's biggest export.

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