The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

Scotland may be divided into three major physical regions: the Highlands, the Southern Uplands and the Central Lowlands.

The Scottish Highlands lie west of a line from Aberdeen to the mouth of the Clyde. They form the most extensive and the most sparsely populated of the three regions. The mountains are separated into two parts by Glen More, or the Great Glen, a long crack in the earth’s crust, running from north-east to south-west. To the south are the Grampians, which are generally higher than the North-west Highlands, and contain the loftiest summits, including Ben Nevis (1,347 m)-, the highest peak in the British Isles, and Ben Macdhui (1,309 m). They have also been more deeply cut by the action of glaciers and rivers. Glen More contains three lakes: Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy, and the first is said to be the home of a ‘monster’. In the early nineteenth century the lochs were joined to form the Caledonian Canal which was equipped with 29 lochs and was almost 100 km in total length. Along the west coast the Highlands rise quite abruptly from sea level, so that westward-flowing rivers are short and swift. Rivers which flow generally east, such as the Tay and the Dee, have a relatively long course.

Climatically the region has some of the most severe weather experienced in Britain. The highly dissected nature of the landscape means that there are considerable local variations in climate over quite small distances and these variations are important.

The Highlands comprise forty-seven per cent of the land area of Scotland. At the same time, they house less than fifteen per cent of the Scottish population. The population is largely concentrated on the periphery of the massif, and nowhere else in Britain are the problems of depopulation and economic decline seen so clearly.

The economy of the region has traditionally been that of crofting, subsistent farming, in which the farmer (crofter) and his family consume all the produce. The crofter grows crops on a patch of land near his cottage, the main crops being potatoes, oats and hay. His sheep graze on the nearby hill slopes, and he may have one or two cows, to keep the family supplied with milk, and some poultry.

The Southern Uplands extend from the Central Valley of Scotland in the north to the Pennine Hills and Lake District in the South. Although for the most part an upland area, the boundaries of the region are not clear-cut in physical terms. The Cheviot Hills, composed largely of volcanic rocks, mark the central part of the boundary between England and Scotland. Upland areas extend into the Central Valley, just as the Cheviots merge into the Pennines and the lowlands on both east and west coasts merge into the lowlands of Northumbria and those that surround the dome of the Lake District.

These uplands form a plateau, which glaciation has eroded into smooth, rounded hills. The general level of this plateau-like surface descends from the higher northern margins in a series of steps.

The present-day economy of the region is dominated by agriculture. The region is clearly divided between the sheep pastures of the uplands and the more diversified farming areas of the lowlands. Sheep have been grazed on the uplands for the past six centuries and hardy local breeds, such as Cheviot and Black-face, have been developed which can withstand the snows of winter and produce excellent mutton as well as wool.

Throughout the Uplands population distribution is sparse and limited to isolated farmsteads and occasional villages and towns usually clustered in the valleys on the periphery of the uplands, particularly in Galloway, the name is given to the dales and lowlands of the south-west, and in the Tweed Basin.

The Central Lowlands of Scotland, sometimes known as the Midland Valley, lie between the Highlands and the Southern Uplands. For the most part this region is a lower-lying north-east to south-west trending area some eighty kilometres or so wide.

The Central Lowlands are by far the most densely populated of the three main regions of Scotland: they occupy about 15 per cent of its area, but contain about 80 per cent of its people.

Many of the people who left the Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries settled in the Central Lowlands, particularly in the Glasgow region where industrial development was taking place at a rapid rate. The area was one of the major industrial centres of Britain, with important coal, steel, ship-building and engineering industries. The twentieth century has seen increasing problems in these industries and there has been a movement of population from the area.

In the fertile sandy soils in the south-west the farmers grow early potatoes. They also cultivate oats and in the sheltered Clyde Valley many are engaged in fruit growing and market gardening. Throughout the region sheep are reared on the hills.

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