As befits the home of tartan and whisky, simple definitions don’t really suit Scotland. Clichéd images of the place abound – postcards of wee Highland terriers, tartan tins of shortbread, ranks of diamond-patterned golf jerseys … and they drive many Scots to apoplexy. And yet Scotland has a habit of delivering on its classic images: in some parts ruined castles really do perch on just about every hilltop, in summer the glens inevitably turn purple with heather and if you end up in a village on gala day you just might bump into a formation of bagpipers marching down the street.
The complexity of Scotland can be hard to unravel: somewhere deep in the country’s genes a generous dose of romantic Celtic hedonism blends, somehow, with stern Calvinist prudence. There’s little more splendid here than the scenery, yet half the time it’s hidden under a pall of drizzly mist. The country’s major contribution to medieval warfare was the chaotic, blood-curdling charge of the half-naked Highlander, yet it’s civilized enough to have given the world steam power, the television and penicillin. Chefs from Paris to Pisa rhapsodize over Scottish langoustine and Aberdeen Angus steaks, while the locals are happily tucking into another deep-fried supper of haggis and chips. It’s a country where the losers of battles (and football games) are more romanticized than the winners.
Naturally, the tourist industry tends to play up the heritage, but beyond the nostalgia lies a modern, dynamic nation. Oil and nanotechnology now matter more to the Scottish economy than fishing or Harris Tweed. Edinburgh still has its medieval Royal Mile, but just as many folk are drawn by its nightclubs and modern restaurants, while out in the Hebrides, the locals are more likely to be building websites than shearing sheep. The Highland huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ set are these days outnumbered by mountain bikers and wide-eyed whale-watchers. Outdoor music festivals will draw thousands of revellers, but just as popular as the pop stars on the main stage will be the folk band rocking the ceilidh tent with accordions and an electric fiddle.
Stuck in the far northwest corner of Europe, Scotland is remote, but it’s not isolated. The inspiring emptiness of the wild northwest coast lies barely a couple of hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, two of Britain’s most dense and intriguing urban centres. Ancient ties to Ireland, Scandinavia, France and the Netherlands mean that – compared with the English at least – Scots are generally enthusiastic about the European Union, which has poured money into infrastructure and cultural projects, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. By contrast, Scotland’s relationship with the “auld enemy”, England, remains as problematic as ever. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has helped to focus Scottish minds on Scottish affairs, but many Scots still tend to view matters south of the border with a mixture of exaggerated disdain and well-hidden envy. Ask for a “full English breakfast” and you’ll quickly find yourself put right. Old prejudices die hard.