Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom. Since 1999, when legislative powers were devolved to a reconstituted Scottish Parliament, it has enjoyed a high degree of independence.
There are three distinct regions: the Highlands and Islands, a densely populated Central Belt, which includes the main cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the Southern Uplands bordering England.
The Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides island groups lie to the west, with the Orkney Islands and Shetland Isles to the north. Once part of Norway, Shetland is nearer to that country than to Edinburgh, and retains a Norse character.
English is spoken everywhere, and Gaelic speakers make up around 1.3% of the population, mainly in the northwest and the Hebrides. The old language of the south, Scots, often described as a dialect of English, still heavily influences the usage of Scottish everyday speech.
Edinburgh Castle hosts the annual Military Tattoo
During the 19th century, Scotland became an industrial powerhouse, with mining, shipbuilding, heavy engineering and manufacturing supplying the needs of the expanding British Empire.
These industries declined in the second half of the 20th century, and the modern Scottish economy was transformed with the discovery of North Sea oil deposits in 1966, and a rapid development of the service sector.
Devolution and national identity
Pressure for increased autonomy during the 1970s and 1990s led to the passing of the Scotland Act in 1999 by the Labour government of Tony Blair, with Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar as the architect of the legislation.
Following a referendum in 1997, a Scottish Parliament elected by a system of proportional representation was re-established in Edinburgh, with primary lawmaking and limited tax-raising powers.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has a majority in the Scottish Parliament, advocates a referendum on full independence in 2014. This brough it into conflict with the British government until agreement was reached on the wording and terms of the referendum at talks in 2012.
Scots are proud of their national identity and despite a relatively small population of around five million, a very large diaspora exists not only in England but also worldwide, especially in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
The relatively high degree of Scottish autonomy is reflected in other areas: Scotland competes as a separate team in international football, rugby and other sports.
A distinct Scottish identity is ensured by a Scottish Premier League in football, and leading clubs such as Glasgow's Rangers and Celtic regularly qualify for the European Champions League. Celtic were the first UK club to win this competition's predecessor, the European Cup, in 1967.
- Status: Semi-autonomous part of the United Kingdom
- Population: 5 million (2001 census)
- Capital: Edinburgh
- Area: 78,772 km² (30,414 sq miles)
- Languages: English, Gaelic
- Major religion: Christianity
- Monetary unit: 1 pound sterling = 100 pence
- Main exports: Food/drink, chemicals/petroleum products
Head of State of UK: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: David Cameron
First Minister: Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond came to power at the head of a minority government after his Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in elections in 2007, but failed to gain an outright majority.
First Minister Alex Salmond addresses the Scottish Parliament
However, the SNP, which sees full independence for Scotland as its ultimate aim, gained a full majority in the 2011 election, winning 69 out of 129 seats.
In January 2012, the SNP government said it had a mandate to hold a referendum on independence in the autumn of 2014. But the centre-right UK coalition government said this would be unlawful without the approval of the British parliament, and a court battle over the issue looks likely.
Before the SNP took power, Scotland had been run by a coalition between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats - both of whom want Scotland to remain part of the UK - since the devolved parliament was set up in 1999.
The Scottish devolution settlement hinges on the separation of areas of control and legislative powers into reserved and devolved categories.
Among the areas that would be reserved to the House of Commons in London were the Crown and Constitution, foreign affairs, including Europe, the civil service, defence, most tax and budgetary matters, social security, immigration, nuclear energy and broadcasting.
Those areas that were devolved to the Scottish Parliament included education, health, criminal, justice, home affairs, local government, economic development, the environment, agriculture, sport and the arts.
The Scottish Parliament is elected by a form of proportional representation, in contrast to the UK parliament, where MPs are elected by a simple majority in one-member constituencies.
In a fiercely-contested newspaper market, long-established Scottish dailies battle it out with tailored editions of UK titles.
Scottish broadcasting has become part of a wider debate about independence, with the SNP administration seeking the devolution of powers over regulation. A commission set up to examine the state of the industry has recommended the creation of a new public TV service, the Scottish Digital Network.
The UK's national radio and TV networks broadcast across the country alongside Scotland-based services from the BBC and commercial operators.
BBC Scotland and the Scottish government-funded MG Alba run a tri-media Gaelic service, comprising digital TV channel BBC Alba, BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and BBC Alba Online.