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In the mid-20th century, a major program to harness the Highlands' abundant water resources for hydro-electric power opened up the region and greatly improved the standard of living. The discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea in the 1970s brought prosperity to Aberdeen and the surrounding area, and to the Shetland Islands. However, most of the oil revenue was siphoned off to England. This, along with takeovers of Scots companies by English ones, fuelled increasing nationalist sentiment in Scotland.
Various (heavily subsidised) industries were set up in the Highlands but few lasted. During the 1990s, Inverness in particular grew rapidly as people flocked to the peaceful, unpolluted Highlands in search of a better way of life. From 1979 to 1997, the Scots were ruled by a Conservative British government for which the majority of them hadn't voted and nationalist feelings grew stronger. A referendum in 1997 on the creation of a Scottish Parliament received overwhelming support, and the first meeting of the new Scottish Parliament was held in 1999, signalling a new era of optimism and national pride.
As history has shown, the people of the Highlands and Islands are fiercely proud and, perhaps more so than their Lowland kin, have tenaciously held on to their heritage. As well as bagpipes and kilts (the 1746 Act banning the playing of bagpipes and wearing of kilts was repealed in 1782), the Scots are well known for their national dish - haggis. Usually served with tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips, with a generous dollop of butter and a good sprinkling of black pepper), haggis comprises chopped lungs, heart and liver mixed with oatmeal and boiled in a sheep's stomach. Accompanied by Scotland's national drink, whisky, it can taste surprisingly good! Other culinary delights include local steak and venison, the world-famous salmon (there is a big difference between farmed salmon and the more expensive wild version) and trout, and many excellent cheeses (the best coming from the islands, particularly Arran, Bute, Mull and Orkney). Scotland is also blessed with a thriving beer industry, with both mass-produced and real ales being brewed.
Historically, with the notable exception of literature, the Scottish have been under-represented in the worlds of arts and classical music. Perhaps the need for creative expression took different, less elitist paths in the ceilidh, folk music and dance, and the Gaelic tradition of oral poetry and folk stories. However, Scotland's literary heritage is so rich that most parts of the country have a piece of writing that captures its spirit. This is particularly so in the Highlands and Islands, which offers a wealth of subject matters. Sir Walter Scott's prodigious output, including his Highland tales, did much to romanticise Scotland and its historical figures. Collections of ballads and poems by the popular national bard Robert Burns are also widely available.
The area known as the Highlands stretches north of the Highland Boundary Fault, a natural border running northeast from Helensburgh (west of Glasgow) to Stonehaven (south of Aberdeen). It covers about two-thirds of the country and, as its name suggests, consists primarily of rugged mountain ranges. The western coastline is deeply indented with dozens of long, deep saltwater lochs separated by rugged headlands and peninsulas. The profile of the eastern coast is generally smoother.
Dotted around the Highlands' north and west coasts are 790 islands, 130 of which are inhabited. To the north lie two island groups, Orkney and Shetland. The Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides) parallel the north-western coast. The Inner Hebrides is the scattering of mainly small islands farther south including Mull, Jura and Islay, and the sub-group of the Small Isles (Canna, Rum, Muck and Eigg). The larger islands of Skye and Arran, closer to the mainland, aren't usually included in the Inner Hebrides.