Travel Reflection: A Historian Visits Scotland

by Dan Miller.
A winding highland road with two sheep walking down the center.
(Photo courtesy of Drumscot Tours)

My wife and I just got back from spending two weeks driving around the highlands of Scotland and the experience has left me with several powerful impressions. My first impression is that Scotland has refused to submit fully to the demands of the automobile. While its roads are very well maintained, they are narrow (two tight lanes at best, no shoulders) and few, and drivers have to share them with bicyclists, hikers, and sheep. The roads also go right through the middle of every country town along the way where traffic slows to a crawl. City streets are also narrow, crooked, lacking signs (the locals have lived there for several generations so why do they need signs?) and parking is very limited. Did I mention that gas costs more than ten dollars per gallon?

But conditions that make for some stressful driving may be beneficial in other ways. Scotland’s countryside is not only spectacularly beautiful, it is relatively unspoiled by the unsightly billboards that fill our American roadsides. Scottish towns are also wonderfully picturesque, full of old stone houses and shops right along the narrow, winding streets. In most American towns, such streets would have been straightened and widened a century ago, and they would now be bordered by shopping malls, chain restaurants, and acres of asphalt parking lots (think of 28th Street in Grand Rapids).

Scottish street with old stone houses on each side.
Looking along the main street in Peebles, Scotland. (Image courtesy of

People in Scotland drive their cars (if they own them) much less often than Americans do which means they shop locally. The result is that the small country towns retain a much richer array of locally owned retail shops, pubs, and restaurants which gives each one a uniqueness that is charming. Prices are much higher in Scotland than they are in the U.S. (in our experience lodging and restaurant bills were 50% higher than in the U.S.) and we heard frequently that there were no decent jobs for young people, who were migrating south to England for work while older English couples were retiring in Scotland which was driving up the price of real estate.

My admittedly non-professional-economist impression is that Scotland has been making some trade-offs. By limiting automobile traffic and restraining other forms of “economic development,” they have preserved their natural and built environment with results that must be seen to be appreciated. However they are paying a price in the form of an economy which is growing more slowly than in other parts of the U.K. which means higher prices and fewer jobs. It raises a question that is relevant to every society in the world including ours. How can we balance the provision of economic opportunity, especially for younger people, with the preservation of a healthy environment, a rich culture, and a stable society? And how do we make those choices in a way that is fair to current and future generations?

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

2 thoughts on “Travel Reflection: A Historian Visits Scotland

  1. Pingback: A Historian Visits Scotland, Part 2 | Historical Horizons

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