Highlands, mountain region in the northern extremity of Scotland. It consists roughly of the Scottish area north of the imaginary line from Dumbarton to Stonehaven excluding the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the northeastern tip of the Highland council area (the former county of Caithness), and the lower coastal area of the northern mainland. The Hebrides are usually included.
Famous for its rugged beauty, the land is unsuitable for farming and since the 18th cent. has suffered from a steady decline of population—partly caused, initially, by the failure of the Jacobite rebellions. Crofting, fishing, and distilling are the main occupations; in recent years the tourist trade has been an important source of income. Since World War II the British government has sponsored the forestry industry and hydroelectric developments in the Highlands as part of a comprehensive effort to stem the flow of emigration and to relieve poverty and chronic depression.
The early history of the region is not well known. By the 11th cent. the Scottish monarchy was centered in the Lowlands, and except when raids of Highland marauders in the Lowlands spurred punitive expeditions by the king, the Highland lairds were left to run their own affairs. Until its decline in the 19th cent., the Scottish Gaelic language was the core of Highland culture. The distinctive marks of the Highlands, the dress (including the kilt, tartan, sporran, tam, and dirk) and the clan system, were products of the late Middle Ages.
The dress was outlawed by the British government in the 18th cent., when it became alarmed at the area's continued interest in the Jacobites—the Highlands had furnished the backbone of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745. The British government set out systematically—and successfully—to crush the clans that had led the revolts. In the 19th cent., as the language and sectional feeling declined, the government allowed the revival of clan dress and the use of bagpipes, long the national musical instrument of Scotland. In the remote areas, old customs survived more than anywhere else in the British Isles, and many of the Highlanders remained Roman Catholic despite the vigor of the Scottish Reformation. The persistence of old ways along with the magnificent scenery made the Highlands popular in literature.
See L. G. Pine, The Highland Clans (1972); W. C. MacKenzie, The Highlands and Isles of Scotland: A Historical Survey (1977).