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The Scottish Highlands, known locally simply as the Highlands (Scottish Gaelic: A' Ghàidhealtachd, "the place of the Gaels"; Scots: the Hielands) are a historic region of Scotland. The region became culturally distinguishable from the Lowlands from the later Middle Ages into the modern period, when Lowland Scots replaced Scottish Gaelic throughout most of the Lowlands. The term is also used for the area north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, although the exact boundaries are not clearly defined, particularly to the east. The Great Glen divides the Grampian Mountains to the southeast from the Northwest Highlands. The Scottish Gaelic name of A' Ghàidhealtachd literally means "the place of the Gaels" and traditionally, from a Gaelic-speaking point of view, includes both the Western Isles and the Highlands.
The area is very sparsely populated, with many mountain ranges dominating the region, and includes the highest mountain in the British Isles, Ben Nevis. Before the 19th century the Highlands was home to a much larger population, but due to a combination of factors including the outlawing of the traditional Highland way of life following the Jacobite Rising of 1745, the infamous Highland Clearances, and mass migration to urban areas during the Industrial Revolution, the area is now one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. The average population density in the Highlands and Islands is lower than that of Sweden, Norway, Papua New Guinea and Argentina.
The Highland Council is the administrative body for much of the Highlands, with its administrative centre at Inverness. However, the Highlands also includes parts of the council areas of Aberdeenshire, Angus, Argyll and Bute, Moray, Perth and Kinross, and Stirling. Although the Isle of Arran administratively belongs to North Ayrshire, its northern part is generally regarded as part of the Highlands.
The latest Census figures released by the National Register of Scotland, show that the Highland’s population has risen by 23,000 between 2001 and 2011 to 232,000.
Between the 15th century and the 20th century, the area was different from the most of the Lowlands in terms of language. In Scottish Gaelic, the region is known as the Gàidhealtachd, so named because it was traditionally the Gaelic-speaking part of Scotland, although the language is now largely confined to the Outer Hebrides. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably but have different meanings in their respective languages. Scottish English (in its Highland form) is the predominant language of the area today, though Highland English has been influenced by Gaelic speech to a significant extent. Historically, the Highland line distinguished the two Scottish cultures. While the Highland line broadly followed the geography of the Grampians in the south, it continued in the north by cutting off the northeastern part of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland from the more Gaelic Highlands and Hebrides.
In the aftermath of the Jacobite risings, the British government enacted a series of laws that attempted to speed the process of the destruction of the clan system, including a ban on the bearing of arms, the wearing of tartan and limitations on the activities of the Episcopalian Church. Most of the legislation was repealed by the end of the eighteenth century as the Jacobite threat subsided. There was soon a process of the rehabilitation of highland culture. Tartan was adopted for highland regiments in the British army, which poor highlanders joined in large numbers in era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1790–1815). Tartan had largely been abandoned by the ordinary people of the region, but in the 1820s, tartan and the kilt were adopted by members of the social elite, not just in Scotland, but across Europe. The international craze for tartan, and for idealising a romanticised Highlands, was set off by the Ossian cycle, and further popularised by the works of Scott. His "staging" of the royal Visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 and the king's wearing of tartan, resulted in a massive upsurge in demand for kilts and tartans that could not be met by the Scottish linen industry. The designation of individual clan tartans was largely defined in this period and they became a major symbol of Scottish identity. This "Highlandism", by which all of Scotland was identified with the culture of the Highlands was cemented by Queen Victoria's interest in the country, her adoption of Balmoral as a major royal retreat, and her interest in "tartenry".
The Highlands before 1800 were very poor and traditional, with few connections to the uplift of the Scottish Enlightenment and little role in the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping the Lowlands of Scotland. The period of the Napoleonic wars brought prosperity, optimism, and economic growth to the Highlands. The economy grew thanks to wages paid by kelping industry (where men burned kelp for the useful chemicals obtained from the ashes), fisheries, and weaving, as well as large scale infrastructure spending such as the Caledonian Canal project. On the East Coast, farmlands were improved, and high prices for cattle brought money to the community. Service in the Army was also attractive to young men from Highlands, who sent pay home and retired there with their army pensions. The prosperity ended after 1815, and long-run negative factors began to undermine the economic position of the poor tenant farmers or "crofters," as they were called. The adoption by the landowners of a market orientation in the century after 1750 dissolved the traditional social and economic structure of the north-west Highlands and Hebrides Islands, causing great disruption for the crofters. The Highland Clearances and the end of the township system followed changes in land ownership and tenancy and the replacement of cattle by sheep. The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s was caused by a plant disease that reached the Highlands in 1846, causing great distress. Using a complex form of chain migration, many Highlanders migrated out. Clan leaders would designate which young people should emigrate, where to, and in which order. The first arrivals would prepare the way for their kinsmen who continued to arrive in the chain migration.
The unequal concentration of land ownership remained an emotional subject, of enormous importance to the vexed question of the Highland economy, and eventually became a cornerstone of liberal radicalism. The poor crofters (tenant farmers who rented a few acres) were politically powerless, and in the first half of the century they turned to religion. They embraced the popularly oriented, fervently evangelical Presbyterian revival after 1800. Most joined the breakaway "Free Church" after 1843. This evangelical movement was led by lay preachers who themselves came from the lower strata, and whose preaching was implicitly critical of the established order. The religious change energised the crofters and separated them from the landlords; it helped prepare them for their successful and violent challenge to the landlords in the 1880s through the Highland Land League. Violence erupted starting on the Isle of Skye when Highland landlords cleared their lands for sheep and deer parks. It was quieted when the government stepped in passing the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act, 1886 to reduce rents, guarantee fixity of tenure, and break up large estates to provide crofts for the homeless. In contrast to the Irish Land War under way at the same time, the Irish were intensely politicised through roots in Irish nationalism, while political dimensions were limited. In 1885 three Independent Crofter candidates were elected to Parliament, which listened to their pleas. The results included explicit security for the Scottish smallholders; the legal right to bequeath tenancies to descendants; and creating a Crofting Commission. The Crofters as a political movement faded away by 1892, and the Liberal Party gained their votes.
The Scottish Reformation achieved partial success in the Highlands. Roman Catholicism remained strong in some areas, owing to remote locations and the efforts of Franciscan missionaries from Ireland, who regularly came to celebrate Mass. Although the presence of Roman Catholicism has faded, there remain significant Catholic strongholds within the Highlands and Islands such as Moidart, Morar, South Uist and Barra in the southern Outer Hebrides. The remoteness of the region and the lack of a Gaelic-speaking clergy undermined the missionary efforts of the established church. The later 18th century saw somewhat greater success, owing to the efforts of the SSPCK missionaries and to the disruption of traditional society after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In the 19th century, the evangelical Free Churches, which were more accepting of Gaelic language and culture, grew rapidly, appealing much more strongly than did the established church.
For the most part, however, the Highlands are considered predominantly Protestant, loyal to the Church of Scotland. In contrast to the Catholic southern islands, the northern Outer Hebrides islands (Lewis, Harris and North Uist) have exceptionally large populations belonging to the Protestant Free Church of Scotland or the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The Outer Hebrides have been described as the last bastion of Calvinism in Britain and the Sabbath remains widely observed. Inverness and the surrounding area has a majority Protestant population, with most locals belonging to either The Kirk or the Free Church of Scotland. The church maintains a noticeable presence within the area, with church attendance notably higher than in other Scottish cities. Religion continues to play an important role in Highland culture, with Sabbath observance still widely practised, particularly in the Hebrides.
In traditional Scottish geography, the Highlands refers to that part of Scotland north-west of the Highland Boundary Fault, which crosses mainland Scotland in a near-straight line from Helensburgh to Stonehaven. However the flat coastal lands that occupy parts of the counties of Nairnshire, Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire are often excluded as they do not share the distinctive geographical and cultural features of the rest of the Highlands. The north-east of Caithness, as well as Orkney and Shetland, are also often excluded from the Highlands, although the Hebrides are usually included. This definition of the Highland area differed from the Lowlands by language and tradition, having preserved Gaelic speech and customs centuries after the anglicisation of the latter; this led to a growing perception of a divide, with the cultural distinction between Highlander and Lowlander first noted towards the end of the 14th century. In Aberdeenshire, the boundary between the Highlands and the Lowlands is not well defined. There is a stone beside the A93 road near the village of Dinnet on Royal Deeside which states 'You are now in the Highlands', although there are areas of Highland character to the east of this point.
A much wider definition of the Highlands is that used by the Scotch Whisky industry. Highland Single Malts are produced at distilleries north of an imaginary line between Dundee and Greenock, thus including all of Aberdeenshire and Angus.
Inverness is traditionally regarded as the capital of the Highlands, although less so in the Highland parts of Aberdeenshire, Angus, Perthshire and Stirlingshire which look more to cities such as Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee and Stirling as their commercial centres. Under some of the wider definitions in use, Aberdeen could be considered the largest city in the Highlands, although it does not share the recent Gaelic cultural history typical of the Highlands proper.
The Highland Council area, created as one of the local government regions of Scotland, has been a unitary council area since 1996. The council area excludes a large area of the southern and eastern Highlands, and the Western Isles, but includes Caithness. Highlands is sometimes used, however, as a name for the council area, as in Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service. Northern, as in Northern Constabulary, is also used to refer to the area covered by the fire and rescue service. This area consists of the Highland council area and the island council areas of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.
Much of the Highlands area overlaps the Highlands and Islands area. An electoral region called Highlands and Islands is used in elections to the Scottish Parliament: this area includes Orkney and Shetland, as well as the Highland Council local government area, the Western Isles and most of the Argyll and Bute and Moray local government areas. Highlands and Islands has, however, different meanings in different contexts. It means Highland (the local government area), Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles in Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service. Northern, as in Northern Constabulary, refers to the same area as that covered by the fire and rescue service.
There have been trackways from the Lowlands to the Highlands since prehistoric times. Many traverse the Mounth, a spur of mountainous land that extends from the higher inland range to the North Sea slightly north of Stonehaven. The most well known and historically important trackways are the Causey Mounth, Elsick Mounth, Cryne Corse Mounth and Cairnamounth.
Although the largest part of the Highlands is, geologically speaking, on the Great Britain Mainland, most UK couriers consider it to be offshore, alongside Northern Ireland, Isle of Mann, etc., which, in contrast, are physically separated from Great Britain by open water. They use this notion to justify additional fees for delivery to the Highlands, or to exclude the area entirely. Whilst the physical remoteness from the largest population centers inevitably leads to higher transit cost, there is confusion and consternation over scale of the fees and the effectiveness of their communication, and the use of the word Mainland in their justification. The Royal Mail is the only delivery network bound by a Universal Service Obligation to charge a uniform tariff across the UK. This, however, applies only to mail items and not larger packages which are dealt with by its Parcelforce division.
The Highlands lie to the north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, which runs from Arran to Stonehaven. This part of Scotland is largely composed of ancient rocks from the Cambrian and Precambrian periods which were uplifted during the later Caledonian Orogeny. Smaller formations of Lewisian gneiss in the northwest are up to 3 billion years old. The overlying rocks of the Torridonian sandstone form mountains in the Torridon Hills such as Liathach and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross.
These foundations are interspersed with many igneous intrusions of a more recent age, the remnants of which have formed mountain massifs such as the Cairngorms and the Cuillin of Skye. A significant exception to the above are the fossil-bearing beds of Old Red Sandstones found principally along the Moray Firth coast and partially down the Highland Boundary Fault. The Jurassic beds found in isolated locations on Skye and Applecross reflect the complex underlying geology. They are the original source of much North Sea oil. The Great Glen is a transform fault which divides the Grampian Mountains to the southeast from the Northwest Highlands.
The entire region was covered by ice sheets during the Pleistocene ice ages, save perhaps for a few nunataks. The complex geomorphology includes incised valleys and lochs carved by the action of mountain streams and ice, and a topography of irregularly distributed mountains whose summits have similar heights above sea-level, but whose bases depend upon the amount of denudation to which the plateau has been subjected in various places.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct from below.
Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye.
The islands of Loch Maree.
Cape Wrath Lighthouse in the far NW of the Highlands.
The Kyle of Durness
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