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Scotland occupies the northernmost third of the island of Great Britain. Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland and England were separate countries (although Scotland was often under English control). In 1603, however, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, the English crown passed to her cousin, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. For the next century, England and Scotland were two kingdoms, each with its own parliament, sharing a monarch; in 1707, the Scottish parliament was incorporated into the English, and the two countries became one, Great Britain.

Scots were at the center of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century: the executed Charles I was of the Scottish Stuart. Later, when the Stuarts were driven from Great Britain in favor of William and Mary and the Hanoverians, the exiled Stuarts found many allies among the Highland Scots, who supported a series of attempted invasions in the eighteenth century. A very minor uprising in 1708 was quickly put down, but was succeeded by a more significant one in 1715 ("the 'Fifteen"), led by the Old Pretender, James Edward, and by a still more important one in 1745 ("the 'Forty-five"), led by the Young Pretender, Charles Edward ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"). This last invasion was defeated at Culloden in 1746, and marked the end of serious threats from the Stuart adherents. The long-term result, however, was to associate Highland Scotland with Jacobitism and political treason for decades. A series of draconian laws against the Scots in the eighteenth century strove to eliminate Highlands culture: the clans were effectively broken up, the traditional kilts were outlawed, and the Highlanders were disarmed.

But Scottish culture was not entirely wiped out and, especially in Edinburgh, Scotland was in the intellectual and cultural avant-garde. The central figures of the so-called "Scottish Enlightenment" had far more productive intellectual traffic with the Continent than England. Some of the most important philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, were Scots, including David Hume and Adam Smith. Scotland was a center of scientific and medical research (James Watt, for example, was a Scot), as well as an important part of the Industrial Revolution. As the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth, Scottish culture became increasingly concerned with distinguishing itself from English culture through heavy reliance on traditional Scottish traditions and language, as in the works of Robert Burns and, later, Sir Walter Scott.

During the Napoleonic era, Edinburgh was a center for liberal politics; the Edinburgh Review, founded by Francis Jeffrey in 1802, was an important mouthpiece for political radicals.