As befits a nation that produces infinite variations on 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, diamond-patterned golf jerseys – and they drive many Scots apoplectic. Yet Scotland has a habit of delivering on its classic images. In some parts ruined castles really do perch on almost every hilltop. In summer the glens really do turn purple with heather and if you end up in a village on gala day, the chances are a formation of bagpipers will come marching down the street.
The complexity of Scotland can be hard to unravel: somewhere deep in its genes a generous dose of romantic Celtic hedonism blends (somehow) with stern Calvinist prudence. It’s a country where the losers of battles (and football games) are more romanticized than the winners. There’s little more splendid here than the scenery, yet half the time it’s hidden under a pall of drizzle. The country’s major contribution to medieval warfare was the chaotic charge of the half-naked Highlander, yet in modern times it has given the world steam power, the television and penicillin. Chefs throughout Europe rhapsodize over Scottish langoustine and Aberdeen Angus steaks, while back at home there is still a solid market for deep-fried pizza.
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. Even the Highland huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ set are outnumbered these days by mountain bikers and wide-eyed whale-watchers. Outdoor music festivals draw thousands of revellers, but the folk band rocking the ceilidh tent with accordions and an electric fiddle are usually just as popular as the pop stars on the main stage.
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 three hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, two of Britain’s most vibrant 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 and, by the time you read this, Scotland may even be a separate nation if nationalists win an independence referendum on 18 September, 2014. Even if that doesn’t happen, Scots are likely to continue to view matters south of the border with a mixture of exaggerated disdain and well-hidden envy. Open hostility is rare, but ask for a “full English breakfast” and you’ll quickly be put right.