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Scotland is about half the size of England, and roughly two-thirds of the country is mountainous 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.
All UK domestic flights and those from Scotland to places in the EU attract a US$15 departure tax and to other destinations it's US$30; a cost that's usually factored into the ticket price. From Europe it's often cheaper to fly to London then catch a train or bus north. It's a one-hour flight from London to Edinburgh, but once you add on the trip to and from the airport you're getting close to the four-hour rail trip.
Long-distance buses are usually the cheapest method of getting to Scotland. A train from London can get you to Edinburgh in four hours, Glasgow in five, and there are plenty of discount fares available. Scotland has ferry links to Larne, near Belfast, and to Belfast itself. In summer there is also a weekly ferry between Aberdeen, the Shetlands and Norway, and a twice-weekly ferry from Aberdeen to the Faroes.
For those with their own transport, main roads are busy and quick - Edinburgh is 373mi (600km) from London and it will take you about eight hours to drive, as long as you don't get caught up in one of the numerous motorway hold-ups