Alba Scotland

By Cruickshank, Alistair | Focus, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Alba Scotland


Cruickshank, Alistair, Focus


From Ultima Thule to Mainstream

Strong images of Scotland and the Scots abound throughout the Western world: Golf and the Old Course at St Andrews; Skye and the other misty isles with purple heather on the mountains; twinkling streams splashing down the glen, past the distilleries from which Scotch whisky flows out to all the world; Robbie Burns and Auld Lang Syne; wild bagpipe reels with plaid kilts swinging at Caledonian balls; the Wallace, patriot to his gory end; Mary, Queen of Scots, tragic heroine; Bonnie Prince Charlie, romantic hero; dour Presbyterians counting the bawbies (pennies); friendly people, craggy exteriors, and soft sentimental hearts.

These and other images of Scotland and the Scots have been spread around the world, often by the Scots themselves as they left their beloved homeland -- once a poor country wracked by internal feuds and disrupted by invasions -- and sought freedom, fortune, and sometimes fame in other lands. These images of Scotland are perpetuated by the works of novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Buchan; by Felix Mendelssohn's Hebridean Overture and the operas Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti; and by movies from "Greyfriars Bobbie" to "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart." Today, the Scottish Tourist Board uses such images to encourage visitors from abroad.

But there is another Scotland, a vibrant modern country -- energetic and full of enterprise and initiative. Today's Scotland builds upon a rich heritage -- that of James Watt, inventor of the first efficient steam engine; of John Napier, the mathematician, to whom we owe logarithms upon which so much of today's electronic calculations are based; of Adam Smith, economist, and David Hume, philosopher; of Joseph Lister, who pioneered antiseptic surgery; and of David Livingstone and Alexander Mackenzie, explorers. Less well known to us today are John Logic Baird and Alexander Fleming who made television and antibiotics possible, as well as the numerous researchers, scientists, and philosophers working in the universities of Scotland and industries such as those in "Silicon Glen." The mysteries of artificial intelligence, bioengineering, cancer, and AIDS are among the concerns being addressed by modern researchers in Scotland. Dolly the sheep, first animal to be cloned, demonstrates the cutting-edge nature of much Scotland-based research.

Scotland was once portrayed by early medieval cartographers as Ultima Thule -- the edge of the known world. Today it is in the mainstream of Western society. But just what is Scotland? Scotland is commonly thought of as a country. The Scots think and speak of themselves as a nation. In fact and in practice, Scotland is an administrative division of the United Kingdom, a position and rank that it shares with Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which are governed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The way in which Scotland came to be a part of the United Kingdom explains much of the feeling of nationhood and the degree of independence that exists today among Scots.

How is it that this small nation, occupying a mainland area only 275 miles north-south and, at its maximum, 154 miles east-west and containing just over five million people, is so well known worldwide? What kind of people is this who would even put distinctive stickers on their cars when they travel in Europe proclaiming that they are from Alba or Ecosse rather than GB, the sticker used by other travelers from the United Kingdom? (Alba is the Gaelic name; Ecosse is French, and GB stands for Great Britain). Why is it that there are far more people of Scottish origin living outside of Scotland than within? The answers to these and other questions lie in the interrelationships of geography and history.

A Harsh and Imposing Land

Lying to the north of England, Scotland is part of an archipelago comprising hundreds of islands lying between the North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. …

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