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Geography of Scotland


Scotland occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain, which lies off the north west coast of mainland Europe. It has an extremely varied geography: from fertile plains and lowland areas to barren mountains; from densely populated post-industrial cities to uninhabited islands; and which extends from as far south as parts of the English Lake District to as far north as St Petersburg in Russia and Anchorage in Alaska.


Scotland shares its only land border with England, which runs for some 96km or 60ml from the head of the Solway Firth roughly north east to a point just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Scotland is otherwise surrounded by sea: the North Sea to the east, the Irish Sea to the south west, and the Atlantic to the north and west.

As well as the mainland, Scotland has some 790 islands, which help contribute to a coastline that has most recently been estimated to be some 16,500km long, or about 8% of the total coastline of Europe.

Some 97 of Scotland's islands are inhabited, by a total of just under 100,000 people.

The islands lie in four main groups: Orkney, off the north coast of Mainland Scotland; Shetland, which lies between 50 and 100 miles north east of Orkney; the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides, which lie in a 130 mile north-south arc some 40 miles west of mainland Scotland in the Atlantic; and the Inner Hebrides, a large number of islands closer to the west coast of mainland Scotland.

Scotland's total land area is 30,400 square miles or 78,800 square kilometers, giving it an overall population density of 168 people per square mile or 65 people per square kilometer. The distribution, however, is very unevenly spread across the country.

Topographically, Mainland Scotland can be divided into three main areas which reflect the underlying geology. These are divided from one another by south-west to north east lines that roughly parallel the artificial line representing the English Border.

The southeastern 20% or so of the country makes up the Southern Uplands, a pastoral upland area characterised by lines of hills divided by broad valleys.

It is also home to some of the most remote and least populated areas in Scotland, and - perhaps surprisingly - to the country's highest village, Wanlockhead, at 467m or 1531ft.

A fault line running north-east from the coast of South Ayrshire south of Girvan, to the North Sea near Dunbar separates the Southern Uplands to the south east from the Central Lowlands to the north west.

The Central Lowlands can be thought of, very roughly, as the next 20% of the country as you progress north west from the English Border.

It centres on the Forth-Clyde Valley and Scotland's "Central Belt", in which you find the capital city, Edinburgh, with a population of some 450,000, and Scotland's largest city Glasgow, whose wider conurbation has a population of some 1,100,000.

Here, too, you find the cities of Stirling (pop 42,000) and Dundee (pop 170,000). The Central Lowlands were also the home of widespread industrialisation from the late 1700s onwards.

This was based on the large and widely scattered reserves of coal and iron ore found across most of the Central Lowlands, whose use was supported by the development of canals and then of railways.

Deep-mined coal and large scale iron and steel works are no longer part of the picture in Scotland, and only a shadow of the once enormous shipbuilding industry that dominated Clydeside remains.

Today the economy is dominated by service industries, call centres and, despite some high profile setbacks, the electronics industry.

By far the largest zone, the Highlands comprises the north western 60% of Scotland.

Technically this includes everywhere north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, a fault line running from Arran in the south west to Stonehaven in the north east.

Scotland's third largest city, Aberdeen (pop 200,000), lies just to the north of the Highland Boundary Fault, but like the fertile plains of eastern Aberdeenshire it has more in common with the Central Lowlands than with the rest of the Highlands, and as drawn on maps "the Highland Line" is usually deemed to pass to the west of much of Aberdeenshire and Moray.

Once across the Highland Line, however, however, the Highlands are just what you might expect from the description: extensive upland areas rising to peaks of a maximum height of around 4400ft or 1300m.

Scotland's mountains are not high by international standards but their exposure to highly changeable and unpredictable weather patterns influenced by the meeting of Atlantic and European airstreams gives them a seriousness out of proportion to their height.

The area of the Highlands is split in two by the line of the Great Glen, a rift valley running from Fort William to Inverness, the latter being the only city in the Highlands, with a population of 55,000.

The land to the north west of the Great Glen is usually referred to as the North West Highlands, with that to its east forming the Grampians.

The Grampians are characterised by large areas of upland plateau, while the North West Highlands have a much more peaky, eroded look and feel, with the landmass deeply indented by numerous sea lochs.