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The Rough Guide to Scottish Highlands & Islands (Rough Guide Travel Guides)
INTRODUCTION Located on the northwest fringe of Europe, the remote Scottish Highlands and Islands are one of the continent's most unspoilt, scenic areas, a rugged region of imposing mountain ranges bounded by scattered island groups and wild seas. Shaped over thousands of years by geological faults, scouring glaciers and the hostile weather systems of...
INTRODUCTION Located on the northwest fringe of Europe, the remote Scottish Highlands and Islands are one of the continent's most unspoilt, scenic areas, a rugged region of imposing mountain ranges bounded by scattered island groups and wild seas. Shaped over thousands of years by geological faults, scouring glaciers and the hostile weather systems of the North Atlantic, the magnificent land- and seascapes of the region have themselves moulded its rich history, producing some of Europe's best-preserved Stone Age settlements, centuries of warring clansmen, romantic heroes such as Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the recurring themes of precarious existence and determined survival. The Highlands - the massed ranks of hills rising to over four thousand feet, and the glens and lochs between them - begin north of the Highland Boundary Fault, a geological divide separating the northern two-thirds of Scotland from its more populous central belt. While for many these bare-topped mountains represent the very essence of Scotland, they are only half the picture. In the west, the soaring peaks are complemented by a savagely indented coastline, where empty beaches and spectacular cliffs are interspersed with patches of unexpectedly lush vegetation. Off the west coast, arrayed like scattered jigsaw pieces, are the Hebrides, whose five hundred wind-swept islands comprise the largest of Scotland's archipelagos. Meanwhile, off the north coast of the mainland lie the fertile, treeless islands of Orkney and, halfway across the North Sea to Norway, the bleak and rugged Shetland islands. Strictly speaking, the Highland Boundary Fault runs from the Firth of Clyde to Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen, but its significance goes beyond mere geology. Communication with the rest of Scotland across this geographic divide has always been patchy, and remains difficult in places even today. As a result, the history of the Highlands and Islands is quite distinct from the rest of Scotland, with its deeply embedded clan structure and the influence of Norse rule, which continued in some of the islands until as late as the fifteenth century. And, while the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746 was a blow to Scottish pride, it was an unmitigated disaster for the Highlands and Islands, signalling the destruction of the Highland clan system, and the ultimately the entire Highland way of life. The Clearances that followed in the nineteenth century more than halved the population, and even today the Highland landscape is littered with the crumbling shells of pre-Clearance crofting communities. The Highlands and Islands remain a sparsely populated area - the largest centre, Inverness, is little more than a large town. In contrast to the rest of Scotland, there is little heavy industry, leaving the economy extremely fragile, with depopulation a constant threat, particularly in the islands. In some cases, only the arrival of settlers from outside the region has stemmed the dwindling numbers. Nowadays, the traditional Highland industries of farming, crofting, fishing and whisky distilling are no longer enough to provide jobs for the younger generation, and have had to be supplemented by forestry, fish-farming and the oil industry. However, all three of these tend to have a detrimental effect on the environment, whose health is of paramount importance to the region's other growth industry, tourism. All in all, it's a tricky juggling act that the region is still stuggling to master, balancing the importance of grabbing new opportunities with the will to maintain traditional values. Over the last couple of decades, the local economy has been boosted by massive government and European Union subsidies. Such funding has helped kick-start many businesses (not all of them successful), and has greatly improved the transport network. Nevertheless, travelling remains time-consuming: distances on land are greater than elsewhere in the Britain (and there are no motorways), while getting to the islands means coordinating with ferry or plane timetables whilst hoping the weather doesn't intervene and spoil your plans. For the visitor, of course, the difficulty of getting around is no great hardship, as most journeys are accompanied by terrific scenery, and the lack of urgency soon seduces. The Norse language of Orkney and Shetland has died out, and Gaelic, once the language of the majority of those living in the rest of the Highlands and Islands, is more or less confined to the Hebrides. However, the unique culture and heritage of the region has survived remarkably well, especially traditional music, folklore and literature, all of which continue to be championed enthusiastically, from village pub ceilidhs to dedicated centres. In other aspects too, such as religion and sport, traditions and practices remain distinct from other parts of Scotland. For most visitors, though, it's the spectacular scenery of peaks, glens and coastline that remains the primary draw. Many also opt for the plentiful and rewarding outdoor activities, particularly hillwalking, though good mountainbiking, canoeing, climbing and skiing can all be enjoyed. Another valuable part of the outdoor experience is the region's natural history, which boasts eagles, puffins, whales, dolphins, red squirrels and snow-white mountain hares, alongside an array of precious indigenous trees, plants and flowers.
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