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Scotland

Its people are feisty, opinionated and fiercely loyal. The country is wild, untamed and beautiful. The climate adds an edge to both. Buoyed by the continued irritant of England on its doorstep, Scotland has survived encroachment, indeterminate weather and the annual influx of stand-up comedians arriving for the Edinburgh Festival. But its people have a rock-solid identity and sense of self. On top of that, the Scots haven't eaten their waterways and forests bare. Scotland's lamb, beef, venison, trout and salmon are highly prized, and game birds such as grouse and pheasant abound. Wash all this down with a shot or two of the world's best whisky and you'll be warming very quickly to the Scottish way of life

Area: 78,772 sq km (30,414 sq miles)
Population: 5.1 million
Capital city: Edinburgh (pop 453,000)
People: Celts, Anglo-Saxons Language: English, Gaelic Religion: Presbyterian Church of Scotland, other Presbyterian churches, Anglicans, Catholics Government: Parliamentary Democracy

Scotland is about half the size of England, and roughly two-thirds of the country is mountain and moorland. Geographically, it can be divided into three areas: the Southern Uplands, the Central Lowlands, and the Northern Highlands and Islands. The Southern Uplands are the fertile plains and hills bordering England; the Central Lowlands run from Edinburgh to Glasgow and contain the industrial belt and most of the population, while the Highlands are mountain ranges of sandstone and granite, rising to their heights at Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain. Of Scotland's 790 islands, 130 are inhabited. Island groups include the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetlands.

Although much of the country was once covered by the Caledonian forest - a mix of Scots pine, oak, silver birch, willow, alder, rowan and heather - this mighty treescape is now reduced to a few pockets of indigenous vegetation. Almost three-quarters of the country is uncultivated bog, rock and heather, with almost 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) clothed in acidic peat. In the far north there are lichens and mosses found nowhere else in Britain. Although the thistle is commonly assicated with Scotland, the national flower is the Scottish bluebell. Scotland's first-ever national park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, opened in 2002. There are also plans to create a second national park in the Cairngorms.

Red deer are found in large numbers. Wild boars, once nearly extinct, have been reintroduced, while the extremely rare wildcats and wild goats are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Foul-tempered highland cattle were bred to endure the cold climate, and sheep graze grasslands all over the country. Otters are rare, but introduced minks are spreading like wildfire. Scotland's famous game birds, the grouse, graze in large numbers on the country's heather, and millions of greylag geese winter on the stubble fields of the lowlands. Seals are frequently seen, and visitors come from all over for the famed Scottish salmon.

'Varied' describes Scotland's climate perfectly. There are wide variations in climate over small distances, and a sunny day will often as not be followed by a rainy one. Although the country nudges the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream winds keep the temperature mild (well, relatively mild). The Highlands, however, can have extreme weather at any time. The east coast tends to be cool and dry, with winter temperatures rarely dropping below freezing (but watch out for the bone-chilling winds off the North Sea). The west coast is milder and wetter, with average summer highs of 19°C (66°F). May and June are the driest months; July and August the warmest. In summer the sun barely sets in the north; in the winter it barely rises.

The best time to visit Scotland is between May and September. April and October are acceptable as far as weather goes, but a lot of places are closed in October. Aside from those interested in skiing or frostbite, the Highlands are pretty much off limits during winter, but Edinburgh and Glasgow are still worth visiting. Edinburgh becomes impossibly crowded during the festival in August, and you will have to book a very, very, very long time in advance.

The supposed highlight of Scotland's calendar is the Edinburgh Festival, held every August. This is one of the world's most important arts festivals, and its Fringe claims to be the largest in the world, with over 500 performers pushing the boundaries every year. The city's Military Tattoo is held in the same month, as is the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival and Glasgow's World Pipe Band Championships. September's Braemar Gathering is attended by the queen in Braemar, with other games held all over the country.

All Scotland hits the streets for Hogmanay, the Scottish celebration of New Year, and you can expect a better party than you've had for some time. For some truly unruly rugby, try the Ba' in Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, which has been held on Christmas Day and New Year's Day for centuries. It consists of two teams and some 400 alcohol-fuelled players, who turn the entire town into a giant rugby pitch for the day. The game starts at the cathedral and the harbour is one of the goals. Puritans should steer well clear.

There are many other wonderful events taking place throughout Scotland. In my opinion you are far better seeking out the wee community events held in village halls, local theatres, pubs and parks. But then again I believe in getting of the beaten path and seeing the Real Scotland.

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