Scotland is a nation of just over five million people occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, which lies off the north west coast of mainland Europe. Large scale emigration in the past means that at least a further 20 million people worldwide trace their origins to Scotland, including over 9 million living in the United States, over 4 million living in Canada, and large numbers in just about every other corner of the globe: including, apparently, 250,000 in Russia.
For a small country (by population the 113th largest in the world) Scotland has a history and a sense of identity that gives it an enormously powerful and positive image worldwide. This is, after all, the nation that gave the world golf; scotch whisky; tartan; the kilt; bagpipes; haggis; a remarkable number of advances in science and engineering; and a poet, Robert Burns, whose birthday, on 25 January, each year is said to be the second most celebrated birthday worldwide.
Scotland shares its only land border with England, to the south, and it is otherwise surrounded by sea: the North Sea to the east, the Irish Sea to the south west, and the Atlantic to the north and west. The total land area is 30,400 square miles or 78,800 square kilometers, giving it an overall population density of 168 people per square mile or 65 people per square kilometer. A large proportion of the population is found in a relatively small part of the country, the Central Lowlands, in which you find Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh, with a population of some 450,000, and its largest city Glasgow, whose wider conurbation has a population of some 1,100,000.
Very large areas of the country are relatively sparsely populated. These include the Southern Uplands, the often overlooked area stretching from the Central Lowlands to the English Border, and the Highlands, the 60% of the country to the north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault which defines the northern edge of the Central Lowlands. The land use closely follows the underlying geology.
Other cities in Scotland are Stirling (pop 42,000) and Dundee (pop 170,000), both also in the Central Lowlands, Aberdeen (pop 200,000), on the relatively fertile east coast, and Inverness (55,000) the only city in the Highlands.
As well as the mainland, Scotland has some 790 islands, which help contribute to a coastline that has most recently been estimated to be some 16,500km long, or some 8% of the total coastline of Europe. Some 97 of Scotland's islands are inhabited, by a total of just under 100,000 people. The islands lie in four main groups: Orkney, off the north coast of Mainland Scotland; Shetland, which lies between 50 and 100 miles north east of Orkney; the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides, which lie in a 130 mile north-south arc some 40 miles west of mainland Scotland in the Atlantic; and the Inner Hebrides, a large number of islands closer to the west coast of mainland Scotland.
People have been living in what is now Scotland for around 10,000 years, and making their mark on the landscape for at least 5,000 of those years. The landscape is dotted by cairns, stones, homes, hillforts, and brochs left by our distant ancestors. There is also plenty of evidence on view of the Romans, the Norse, and the Picts: and of those who converted the country to Christianity from the 400s.
Scotland itself was formed by the conquest or assimilation of Pictland by the Scots of Dalriada in the 840s, and it spent the next 900 years as a more-or-less independent country despite often being at war with the neighbours to the south, who over time became the Norman-dominated English. 500 years of conflict with England was only part of a very violent history that also saw three centuries of conflict with the Norse, repeated conflict between lowland and highland Scotland, constant conflict between Highland clans, multi-dimensional conflict over religion, and a series of conflicts over the succession to the Scottish crown. A tangible reminder of this turbulent history lies in the literally thousands of castles and tower houses built here, many of which remain on view in forms that range from partial ruins to magnificent palaces.
In 1603 the King of Scotland, James VI, also became the King of England, and immediately moved to London. The crowns of Scotland and England have been unified ever since. In 1707, under pressure from England, the independent Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence by accepting an Act of Union with England. Over the following 190 years Scotland was to a greater or lesser degree conjoined with England, while always maintaining a separate legal and education system. During this period its economy was transformed, largely through access to the British Empire, an Empire in which Scots played a disproportionately large role, with Glasgow becoming known as the "Second city of the Empire". Yet increasingly during the 1900s many in Scotland still sought a greater say in the control of our own affairs.
In 1999 a devolved government was created in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament resumed sitting, after a gap of 192 years, with powers over a wide range of domestic issues. And in 2007, exactly 300 years after the Act of Union, Scots elected the Scottish National Party into power in the devolved Scottish Government. The result is unlikely to be full independence, at least in the short term, but it does reflect a growing degree of confidence and maturity across Scotland which means that for the first time in over a thousand years we tend not to feel ourselves to be anyone's poor neighbour.
Today's Scotland is far more than the sum of its parts. Its geology and geography combine to give it a scenic beauty and a scope for adventure that, for its size, is unmatched anywhere; its varied and turbulent history gives an endlessly fascinating added dimension to everything you see; and the outlook of its people says much for the quality of the welcome you will receive. Garnish this mix with the golf, the whisky, the tartan and the ever changing moods of our weather, and you end up with a truly unique and memorable place.