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The country today

As Scotland enters the 21st century it is shaking off the old tourist stereotype of shortbread in tartan tins, bagpipers and haggis. Instead it is incorporating such icons into contemporary life, often with humour and verve. On the streets of Edinburgh, Glasgow and other major towns, there is a buzz and confidence equal to any modern European city, albeit with a definite Scottish twist.


The economy of Scotland has always been closely linked with the rest of the United Kingdom and in recent times also to the European Union. At the time of the Industrial revolution Scotland was one of the powerhouses of Europe, famous for shipbuilding , as well as its thriving coal mining , steel and other manufacturing industries. As these traditional industries went into decline or moved to other parts of the world Scotland has become a technology and service based economy – it is estimated that around 80 per cent of all Scotland’s employees now work in services and this sector has enjoyed significant rates of growth over the last decade.

The “ Silicon Glen ” corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh is home to many companies specialising in information systems, electronics, instrumentation, defence and semi-conductors, while Edinburgh is one of the largest banking and financial services centres in Europe.

Despite the passing of its halcyon Clyde shipbuilding days, Glasgow still builds ships, is Scotland’s leading seaport and is the fourth largest manufacturing centre in the UK. The city also boasts the UK’s largest commercial and retail district after London’s West End.

In the late 1970s the discovery and exploitation of North Sea oil and natural gas in fields around the Shetland Isles proved a massive boon to Scotland in general and to the Highlands and Islands, particularly Aberdeen. Today, even though the best years of oil have passed, this sector continues to underpin a local economy which has barely survived – particularly in the islands – on traditional fishing and agricultural activities. The services sector has also spread far north however with Shetlanders and Orcadians involved in software and microprocessors.

Other important Scottish traditional sectors are textiles, whisky and shortbread, not only important as highly visible flagships to the tourist sector but also exported all over the world. Tourism is an important and growing area but highly susceptible to external influences as demonstrated in the 2001 and 2005 terror attacks in London.


In 1997 Scotland re-opened the Scottish Parliament, almost 300 years after the last parliament was dissolved.

The Parliament has responsibility over wide areas of Scottish affairs and has tax-raising powers, though in theory at least the UK Parliament at Westminter) retains powers to amend or even aboliish the Scottish Parliament.

Among areas which remain under Westminster control are the constitution, foreign policy, defence and national security, border controls and economic policy, including Scottish taxes, though the Scottish Parliament has limited power to vary local income tax, known as the Tartan Tax.

The head of state in Scotland is still the British monarch.

The new Scottish Parliamentary body has 120 members. Tthe Executive comprises a First Minister and a team of ministers and law officers.

The Parliament is a single house legislature made up of 129 Members, 73 of whom represent individual constituencies and are elected on a first-past-the-post voting system.


Scotland’s population based on the results of the 2001 Census was 5,062,000. Recent estimates suggest that a truer figure is around 5,117,000.

Glasgow is the largest city with a population of approximately 619,000 while the capital, Edinburgh, has around 448,000 with Aberdeen next at just under 219,000.

Scotland’s population reached its peak in the mid 1970s, and has slowly declined since then. However the trend of people leaving the country, usually for better paid jobs in England, has been arrested with significant movements of population to Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Also, since 2004 and the expansion of the EU—offering economic migration without frontiers in much of Europe—incomers from countres such as as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, have joined the local population.

Traditions and customs


Clann in Gaelic means children or family. All members of a clan owed loyalty to the head of the family or the chief. In return for their allegiance, he acted as leader, protector and dispenser of justice. Castle pit prisons, gallows hills and beheading pits are all common features in clan territories. The ties of kinship created a powerful social unit which flourished north of the Highland Line where Scottish monarchs found it hard to assert their authority. There the Lord of the Isles ruled as an independent monarch. As late as 1411, with the Battle of Harlaw, the monarchy was threatened by combined clan action. Clan ties ran deep and rivalries and feuds, often for land or cattle, were common. Scott popularised the Campbell–MacGregor feud in Rob Roy. The late 17C was marked by the Massacre of Glen Coe. The mainly Catholic clans pinned their hopes on the “King over the water” and the Jacobite risings were based on clan support. Sweeping changes followed the Battle of Culloden (1746) with the passing of the Act of Proscription (1747-82). The wearing of tartan in any form and carrying of arms were banned and heritable jurisdictions abolished. This was the destruction of the clan system and the death knell came with the clearances of the early 19C.

The battles and feuds, loyalty and traditions live on in legends and literature. Today Clan Societies and Associations are active organisations, both in Scotland and abroad. Some of them finance museums (Macpherson at Newtonmore, Donnachaid north of Blair Atholl), others undertake the restoration of clan seats (Menzies Castle) or building of clan centres (Clan Donald Centre, Armadale Skye).


The colourful clothing material, tartan, now so symbolic of Scotland, has ancient origins while clan tartans are an invention of the early 19C. In the Highlands a coarse woollen cloth ( tartaine in French) was dyed using vegetable plant sources (bracken for yellow; blaeberries for blue, whin bark or broom for green). Originally patterns or setts corresponded to the district in which a particular weaver, with his distinctive pattern, operated. In early portraits it is common to see a variety of patterns being worn at one time. Some of the best examples are Francis Cote’s splendidly defiant Pryse Campbell, 18th Thane of Cawdor, The M­acDonald Boys (c 1750), Raeburn’s series of Highland chiefs including M­acnab and J Michael Wright’s 17C Highland C­hieftain at Holyroodhouse Palace.

The repeal of the Proscription Act (1782) led to the commercialisation of tartans and standardisation on a clan basis and a more rigid observation of clan or family tartans. The first tartan pattern books appeared at this time. George IV’s 1822 visit, when the monarch wore a kilt, initiated the tartan boom of the 19C, a vogue continued by Queen Victoria and Albert with their interest in all things Highland.


Any given sett or pattern may be woven in modern, ancient or reproduction colours. With the introduction of aniline dyes in the 19C the colours became bright and harsh and were termed “modern” . After the First World War an attempt was made, again using chemical dyes, to achieve the softer shades of the natural dyes. These were defined as “ancient” and created a certain amount of confusion on the tartan scene as some tartans, like the Old Stewart or Old Munro, already had “old” as part of their title. More recent developments include the invention of “reproduction” and “muted” colours.

The introduction in the 19C of synthetic dyes gave vivid colours and the kilt began to lose its camouflage quality on the hills. Hunting tartans were created where the bright red backgrounds were replaced by green, blue or brown. The dress tartan was another innovation of the period. The clan tartan was given a white ground and used for men’s evening dress.

A tartan exists for every occasion be it everyday, hunting or evening wear. The most common form is the kilt which constitutes the principal item of Highland dress. By the 16C a belted plaid (feileadh mor) was in use for everyday wear. The little kilt (feileadh beag) developed from this and was popular in the 18C. A proper kilt may use as much as 8yd/7m of tartan. Both the Scottish Tartans Museum in Stirling run by the Scottish Tartans Society and the Scottish Experience, Royal Mile, Edinburgh have costume displays. The former has registered as many as 1,600 tartans or setts.

Tracing your ancestors

Before applying for professional help eliminate any home sources of information that you may have to hand. Check out old letters, diaries, albums and newspaper cuttings and books with inscriptions, including the family Bible or school prizes. Ensure that research has not already been done on the family with a visit to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Birth, marriage and death certificates from 1855 onwards, Census Returns from 1801 and Parish Registers pre-1855 may be consulted in the General Register Office . The National Archives of Scotland holds property records (Sasines and Deeds Registers) and will furnish names of researchers experienced in using such documents. For those with titled or eminent ancestors, Burke’s and Debrett’s Peerages, the Dictionary of National Biography and Who’s Who are useful sources. The names of professional genealogists can be obtained from the Scots Ancestry Research Society which also furnishes the addresses of Clan Associations.


Spoken Gaelic

Although on the decline there were 65,978 speakers in 1991, representing 1.2% of the resident population. The majority of Gaelic speakers are bilingual. As a living language Gaelic continues to flourish in the Northwest Highlands, the Hebrides where 76% of the population are Gaelic speakers and Skye (58%). Outside these regions Glasgow has a pocket of Gaelic speakers.

One of the oldest European languages and a Celtic one, Scottish Gaelic is akin to the Irish version. The Gaeldom culture has given much that is distinctive to Scotland (tartans, kilt, bagpipes, music). An Comunn Gaidhealach (f 1891) with its headquarters in Inverness promotes the use of Gaelic, its literature and music and organises an annual festival, the Mod , of Gaelic song and poetry .

Scottish crafts

Craftsmen offer a wide variety of quality objects, which make perfect souvenirs of a visit to Scotland. Of the many traditional Scottish crafts, the best-known is the knitwear of Fair Isle and Shetland. These include the natural colours of Shetland sweaters, the extremely fine lace shawls and the complicated multicoloured patterned Fair Isle jerseys. Harris tweed , woven exclusively on handlooms in the Outer Hebrides is a quality product well meriting its high reputation. Tartans are nearly all machine woven but kiltmaking has remained a handicraft.

Both glassmaking and engraving are thriving crafts today. The best-known products, other than cut crystal, are the engraving and handblown paperweights, in particular the delightful millefiori. Jewellery making includes the setting of semi-precious stones such as the Cairngorm or Tay pearls. Both serpentine and granite are employed for various ornaments and objects (paperweights, penholders) and granite is used for the polished curling stones.

The straw-backed and hooded Orkney chairs, white fleecy sheepskin rugs and leather and hornwork articles (cutlery handles and buttons) are also popular.

Both individual craftsmen and larger firms usually welcome visitors to their workshops and showrooms. For further information apply to the local tourist information centres.

Highland games and gatherings

Visitors are well advised to attend one of these colourful occasions where dancing, piping and sporting events are all part of the programme. As early as the 11C contests in the arts of war were organised to permit clan chiefs to choose their footrunners and bodyguards from the winners.

Following the repeal of the Proscription Act, Highland Societies were formed to ensure the survival of traditional dances and music. Today these events are popular with locals and visitors alike. Of particular interest and charm are those of the Grampian and Highland areas.

Traditional events include dancing, piping, athletics and the never failing attraction of massed pipe bands. The heavy events include putting the shot, throwing the hammer and tossing the caber as straight as possible and not as far as possible.

The map below shows a selection of Highland Games, Gatherings and Common Ridings. The background colour indicates the month, and for certain games the principal attraction is also given.

Food and Drink

Scottish fare

Scottish cooking is characterised by the excellence and quality of the natural products from river, moor, sea and farm.


These number Cock-a-Leekie using fowl, cut leeks and prunes; Scots or B­arley Broth , a vegetable and barley soup; Game Soup; Partan Bree a crab soup and Cullen Skink made with smoked haddock.


Of the many varieties of fish, pride of place goes to the salmon , be it farmed or wild, from the famous fisheries of the Tay, Spey or Tweed. Served fresh or smoked, it is a luxury dish. Trout and salmon-trout with their delicately pink flesh are equally appreciated. Breakfast menus often feature the Arbroath Smokie – a small salted and smoked haddock; the Finnan Haddie , a salted haddock dried on the beach prior to smoking over a peat fire; and the kipper a split, salted and smoked herring.


The hills and moors provide a variety of game. The best-known are the superb red grouse and venison . The raw material is either farmed or wild.


With such first class beef cattle as the angus from Aberdeen and Galloway in addition to home-bred sheep, it is hardly surprising that the quality of Scotch beef and mutton is unsurpassed. Haggis is the national dish.


Succulent soft fruits (strawberries, raspberries and black currants) ripened slowly make an excellent sweet. Other creamsweets like Cranachan often incorporate one of the soft fruits. Atholl Brose is a mixture of honey, oatmeal, malt whisky and cream.


Although not of international repute, Scotland is home to several very high quality home-made cheeses. Both the Dunlop cheese from Orkney, Arran and Islay and the Scottish Cheddar are hard cheeses. Caboc is a rich double cream cheese rolled in oatmeal while Crowdie is similar to a cottage cheese.

Breakfast and tea-time

These two famously British meals provide the chance to taste porridge, a smokie or kipper, a rasher or two of Ayrshire bacon with eggs, oatcakes, an Aberdeen buttery or a softie. Tea-time includes shortbread and Dundee cake.


Heather honey or Scottish-made jam and marmalade are not only perfect at breakfast time but make ideal presents.

Whisky, the water of life

Scotland’s national drink, whisky – in Gaelic, uisge beatha (pronounced oosh-ga beh-huh), meaning water of life, is thought to have begun centuries ago as a way of using up rain-soaked barley after a wet harvest. Whatever its origins, the highly competitive whisky industry is nowadays Scotland’s biggest export earner (over £900 million a year) and one of the government’s main sources of revenue.

It is often asked, what makes a good whisky. The answer is that the quality and subtle differences in character depend essentially on a combination of certain factors, of which the key ones are: the barley (not always home grown); the water, filtered through peat or over granite; the equipment, such as the shape of the still, and of course the experience and skill of the stillmen.

To learn more about whisky in Scotland visit the official website www.scotlandwhisky.com. this gives details of places to visit, whisky festivals, tours, tastiing guides and links to a whole host of other whisky-related websites

A troubled past

Undoubtedly among the earliest distillers of whisky, the Scots have played a major part in the perfection of this art. In the 15C monks were distilling a spirit and soon after it became an everyday domestic occupation. The Union of 1707 brought exorbitant taxation, including the 1713 malt tax. Distilling went underground and smuggling became a way of life. From the illicit stills on the hillsides, the spirit was transported along a smugglers’ trail from Speyside to Perth over 140mi/225km of hill country. Excisemen became the scourge of the Highlands. A succession of new laws in the early 19C did nothing to halt illicit distilling until the 1824 Act. The latter sanctioned distillation on payment of a licence fee and duty per gallon produced. Many famous distilleries were founded after this date. Whisky production developed rapidly in the 1880s as the replacement spirit for gin and brandy. Blending produced a more palatable drink which rapidly achieved universal success. Although blended whiskies still dominate the market, the subtler and finer qualities of a single malt are gaining recognition.

Malt whisky

The original spirit was a malt or straight unblended product of a single malt whisky.

There are around 116 single malts, classified into Highland, Lowland or Islay.

The subtle flavours of pure malt whisky distilled according to age-old methods are greatly prized by connoisseurs throughout the world. The distilleries on Speyside (Cardhu, Glenfarclas, Strathisla, Glen Grant, Glenfiddich, Tamnavulin, The Glenlivet and Dallas Dhu) enjoy a prestigious reputation and many welcome visitors to see the process and sample a wee dram.

Islay in the Hebrides produces distinctive smoky, peaty malts such as Laphroaig, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain.

There are also many lesser-known malt whisky distilleries close to Edinburgh and Glasgow and all over the Highland region which welcome visitors. The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh also provides a comprehensive introduction to the celebrated drink.

Blended whisky

Grain whisky is made from a malted barley and other cereals. The blends are a mixture of a lighter grain with a malt. Blended varieties are subdivided into two categories: de luxe and standard.

Whisky making

Scotch whisky is made from only three ingredients: malted barley, water and yeast. The processes have been refined down through the centuries but apart from the scale and complexity of the hardware, in essence they have remained the same for much of this time.


Best quality barley is first steeped in water and then spread out on malting floors to germinate. It is turned regularly to prevent the build up of heat. Traditionally, this was done by tossing the barley into the air with wooden shovels in a malt barn adjacent to the kiln.

During this process enzymes are activated which convert the starch into sugar when mashing takes place. After 6 to 7 days of germination the barley, , goes to the kiln for drying. This halts the germination. Peat may be added to the fire to impart flavour from the smoke.


The dried malt is ground into a coarse flour or grist, which is mixed with hot water in the mash tun.

The quality of the pure Scottish water is important. The mash is stirred, helping to convert the starches to sugar. After mashing, the sweet sugary liquid is known as wort.


The wort is cooled and pumped into washbacks, where yeast is added and fermentation begins. After about 2 days the fermentation dies down and the wash contains 6-8% alcohol by volume.

Pot stills

In some mysterious way the shape of the pot still affects the character of the individual malt whisky, and each distillery keeps its stills exactly the same over the years.

The still is heated to just below the boiling point of water and the alcohol and other compounds vaporize and pass over the neck of the still into either a condenser or a worm – a large copper coil immersed in cold running water where the vapour is condensed into a liquid.


The wash is distilled twice – first in the wash still, to separate the alcohol from the water, yeast and residue

The distillate from the wash still, then goes to the spirit still for the second distillation. The more volatile compounds which distil off first, are channelled off to be redistilled. Only the pure heart of the run, which is about 68% alcohol by volume is collected in the spirit receiver.

Spirit safe

All the distillates pass through the spirit safe – whose locks were traditionally controlled by the Customs & Excise. The stillman uses all his years of experience to test and judge the various distillates without being able to come into physical contact with the spirit.

The newly distilled, colourless, fiery spirit , reduced to maturing strength, 63% alcohol by volume, is filled into oak casks which may have previously contained Scotch whisky, bourbon or sherry, and the maturation process begins.


By law all Scotch whisky must be matured for at least 3 years, but most single malts lie in the wood for 8, 10, 12, 15 years or longer. Customs & Excise allow for a maximum of 2% of the whisky to evaporate from the cask each year – the Angels’ Share. Unlike wine, whisky does not mature further once it is in the bottle.

Grain whisky and blending

Scotch grain whisky is usually made from 10-20% malted barley and then other unmalted cereals such as maize or wheat. The starch in the non-malted cereals is released by pre-cooking and converted into fermentable sugars. The mashing and fermentation processes are similar to those used for malt whisky.

While the distinctive single malts produced by individual distilleries are becoming increasingly popular, blending creates over 90% of the Scotch whisky enjoyed throughout the world.

By nosing samples in tulip-shaped glasses the blender selects from a wide palate – from the numerous Highland and Speyside malts to the strongly flavoured and peaty Island malts, and the softer and lighter Lowland malts. These malts are combined with grain whiskies – usually 60-80% grain whiskies to 20-40% malt whiskies, and are then left to ‘marry’ in casks before being bottled as one of the world-renowned blended whiskies.

A blend of a range of malt whiskies, with no grain whisky included, is known as a vatted malt.

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