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A wee bit of Scottish Geography

Situated at the northwesternmost point of Europe, Scotland is blessed with some of the most spectacular wilderness areas on the globe. Even in modern times, however, it is a harsh and demanding land. Though Scotland is a country of 520,411 square miles, only slightly over one-fourth of it is arable. Lacking an Ireland to break the Atlantic storms, it is both colder and wetter than its English neighbor to the south. In the Western Isles, for example, rain falls, on average, seven out of every nine days. The Scottish Tourist Board recently compiled a pamphlet professing to show that the climate was not really as bad as reputed, but even it noted that Paisley, near Glasgow, received only 1.3 hours of sunshine during the entire month of December 1890. The cotton barons of the early nineteenth century favored Lanarkshire for their mills because the steady moisture in the air kept the cotton fibers from breaking. Eighteenth-century Highlanders used to wish their departing guests "good weather" as they saw them off.

The east-coast city of Edinburgh receives much less rainfall than the west of Scotland, but fronting the North Sea brings challenges of its own. In a famous essay on Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson credited it with having one of the "vilest climates" under heaven. Said Stevenson, "The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring." Even the Edinburgh Review complained that their climate "would scarcely ripen an apple." While other countries have climate, the old adage has it, Scotland has weather.

But the Scots have been known occasionally to overstate their case. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the west coast of Scotland provides an ideal climate for growing tropical plants, as seen today in the world-famous Inverewe Gardens. The sheltered Lowlands and the fertile northeast region also belie some of these observations. The proximity to the sea means that the northeast receives late frosts—roses may bloom until December— and the rich black soil of the land beyond the Grampian Mountains has supported cattle and sheep for millenia. Oats, barley, peas, and rye grow well, and when potatoes were introduced there and in the Western Isles in the early eighteenth century, they transformed Scottish agricultural life. Other root crops such as rutabagas and turnips, introduced at approximately the same time, flourished as animal and human food. Grass for cattle and sheep still grows abundantly in Orkney, and the sheltered Tay Valley teems with berries of all varieties. Harsh though the climate was, in short, the Scots ate well. Variety, however, was another matter. Green vegetables remained rare until the early twentieth century, and Samuel Johnson’s jibe that the English fed oats to the horses but in Scotland oats served as the staple for the people had a degree of truth throughout Scotland’s long and complex history.

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