Highlands and LowlandsCategory: Land + People
By Freda M. Buchanan
When we talk about Scotland we constantly use the words Highland and Lowland to indicate different parts of our country. You might think perhaps that in the Highlands there is no low land, and in the Lowlands no high land, but this is not so. Here and there the Highlands contain low ground and the Lowlands certainly include large tracts of high and hilly ground. When we use these terms we are really thinking of a great natural division extending right across our land.
You probably know that sometimes the underlying layers of rock forming the bed of a country, instead of stretching continuously without a break may be split or otherwise dislocated, and that this interruption is known as a fault. Such a fault runs from Dumbarton on the Clyde in a line northeast across Scotland, to Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen, and then disappears into the sea. This is the Highland Line. North of it lie Highlands, to the south the Lowlands.
In the Lowlands there are hills in plenty, some lonely and wild, other companiable and inviting. They are an important, but not the only, notable feature of the scene. Woods and trees relieve a landscape naturally rather bare, and rivers flow peacefully through broad valleys and plains made fertile by soil carried down from higher ground. Three very famous rivers, Tay, Forth and Tweed flow into the sea on the east; a fourth, the Clyde, into the Atlantic. All except the Tweed widen out into great estuaries called firths to which they give their names, e. g. Firth of Tay, Firth of Clyde. The silver Tweed, fair and much loved, twists and turns for a hundred miles through historic Border country and, for sixteen miles before it falls into the North Sea at Berwick-upon-Tweed, marks the boundary between Scotland and England.
The intrusive waters of the firths penetrate so far inland that there is a distance of only forty miles between Edinburgh, on the Firth of Forth, and Glasgow, on the Firth of Clyde. On and around this narrow waist most of Scotland’s mineral wealth is found. Here live about four-fifths of her population of just over five million people, in some places even now too closely crowded together for health. The countryside, where factories and houses have not made it quite impossible to see it, is rather dull to look at. Yet, though the foreground may be unimpressive, the play of light and shade on hills hardly ever very far away often rewards the eye and cheers the spirit.
Turn your back on this industrial belt, however, and you will soon be aware that agriculture is major Lowland industry. Fields are tilled, grain is sown and reaped and the fruits of the earth are gathered. Cattle and sheep graze and nearly everywhere there are signs not only of husbandry but of good husbandry.
Round the coasts are the ports of Clyde and Forth, Dundee and Aberdeen, where many ships, great and small, come and go, and fishing villages, sometimes almost hidden beneath high cliffs, tell of daily bread earned at sea.
In the Highlands there are hills upon hills, many valleys, much water, some trees, bare moorland at times, cultivated land. There are also small towns and viLlages, little isolated clusters of houses and even solitary cottages, the only sign of human life. There are roads, and in some places railways, but the latter do not penetrate into the far north and west.
The hills stretch endlessly, and even though it is true that they are the worn and wasted remnants of mountains which, millions of years ago, were many thousands of feet higher than they are now, they are impressive and sometimes aweinspiring. Some rise like great, smooth shoulders, others as sharp as peaks or rocky ridges. Very many are over three thousand feet in height, and were climbed and recorded by an expert Scottish climber named Munro. If you ever find yourself in the company of some members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club who happen to be discussing various routes up a mountain, just ask them lightly: “Is it a Munro?” and they will accept you as one of themselves.
The hills everywhere are lined and streaked by countless valleys. If they are narrow they are usually called glens, a broader valley is a strath and takes its name from the river which flows through it. Strathtay and Strathspey are such names. The running water in these glens and straths is a delight.
The streams and rivers do not account for all the water in the Highlands. Inland fresh-water lochs are legion and no picture of Scotland would be complete which did not mention the great sea lochs, long arms of the sea which eat hungrily into her western coasts, making communication easier and more direct by water than by land.
Highland lochs are of all sizes and add enormously to the interest of the scene. Sometimes trees grow along their shores: pines, larch, birch, mountain ash or rowan which the country folk used to plant near their houses to keep the witches away. Some lochs lie along river valleys, others lonely in the heather. They can look bluer than the Mediterranean, but also grey and cold as steel. I know one whose waters are eternally green. In the remote north-west little lochs or lochans lie everywhere in the rough, boggy ground. Those who live in these regions will tell many tales of water spirits. They call them water kelpies. A few hours in such a landscape and you are looking fearfully for the kelpies yourself, especially if you are coming home in the twilight.
It is elements such as these which go to make the Highlands, and nowhere are they more pleasingly combined than in those parts lying south and east of the Great Glen. It is a superb natural playground of which the Scottish people take full advantage and which they delight to show visitors from all parts of the world. Here the Grampian Mountains, rising to their highest points in the Cairngorms, stretch right across this countryside, easily accessible from Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, Scotland’s three largest cities. Every variety of Highland scene is there for the choosing, from the wild and remote solitude of high hills to the gentler peace of woodland loch, river or glen.
The north-west is not so easy of access, because it is beyond the Great Glen, where there are few roads. But a journey there is perfectly possible and is infinitely rewarding. No part of the country speaks so tellingly of Scotland’s ancient bones, and here she is to be seen at her noblest and most majestic.
From Scotland and her People, London, 1961.