author attributes the claimed migrations of the Irish into Argyll to
a set of elite origin myths finding no support in archaeological
evidence. He goes on to ask how the Iron Age populations of Argyll
established and changed their personal and group identity.
Traditional historical accounts of the origin of the Scotttish
kingdom states that the Scots founded the early kingdom of Dal
Riata in western Scotland having migrated there form north
eastern Antrim, Ireland. In the process they displaced a native
Pictish or British people from an area roughly equivalent to modern
Argyll. Later, in the mid 9th century, these Scots of Dal Riata
took over the Pictish kingdom of eastern Scotland to form the
united kingdom of Alba, later to become known as Scotland. To
the classical authors of late antiquity, the peoples of Ireland were
Scotti, probably a derogatory term meaning something like
'pirates'. The name was used by early medieval writers in Latin for
all speakers of Gaelic, whether in Ireland or Scotland. Much later
the usage became associated exclusively with the peoples of
Scotland, whether speakers of Gaelic or not. In this paper I will
use the term Goidelic for the Irish/Scottish Gaelic, branch of
Celtic (Q-Celtic), and Brittonic for the British group including
Welsh, Pictish and Cumbric (P-Celtic).
period of virulent sectarian debate on the origins of the Scots in
the 18th and 19th centuries (Ferguson 1998), the idea of a
migration of the Scots to Argyll has become fixed as a fact in both
the popular and academic mind for at least a century. Present-day
archaeological textbooks show a wave of invasive black arrows
attacking the west coast of Britain from Ireland in the late 4th/5th
centuries (e.g. Laing 1975: figure 1). Even the tide of
anti-migrationism as explanation for culture change which swept
through British prehistory in the 1970s and washed into Anglo-Saxon
studies in the 1980s left this concept remarkably intact. Irish
historians still regularly speak of the 'Irish colonies in Britain'
1995: 18; Byrne 1973: 9), and British anti-invasionist prehistorians
seem happy to accept the concept (e.g. Cunliffe 1979:163. figure).
The insistence on an explicitly colonialist terminology is somewhat
ironic given the past reaction of many Irish archaeologists to what
they perceived as intellectual crypto-colonialism of British
archaeologists and art historians over the origin of the Insular Art
illustrated manuscripts and items such as hanging bowls. Exactly
why colonialist explanations should have survived in the 'Celtic
West' while being hotly debated in eastern Britain is of
considerable interest, but not the purpose of this paper, which is
to provide a critical examination of the archaeological, historical
and linguistic evidence for a Scottic migration, and provide a new
explanation for the origins of Dal Riata.
never been any serious archaeological justification for the
supposed Scottic invasion. Leslie Alcock is one of the few to
have looked at the archaeological evident detail, coming to the
conclusion that 'The settlements show very little sign of the
transportation of material culture to Dalriadic Scotland or to
Dyfed' (Alcock 1970: 65). This lack of archaeological evidence has
led some younger archaeologists to adopt a more cautious approach,
suggesting that perhaps there was an elite takeover of the local
ruling dynasty, rather than a mass migration of peoples, and that
contact may have taken place over a longer time-scale than
the conventional view (Foster 1995 13-14). The paradigm of Irish
migration remains strong however, bolstered by the evidence from
other areas of western Britain. During the expansion of interest in
'Dark Age Britain', scholars familiar with the historical and
genealogical accounts of Irish origins of some western kingdoms.
explicitly searched for, and believed they had found, archaeological
evidence for these migrations. Examples can be quoted for ogham
stones in Dyfed. Brecon, Gwynedd and Dumnonia (Macalister 1949);
placenames in Dyfed (Richards 1960). Galloway (Nicolaisen 1976) and
Cornwall (Thomas 1973); settlement forms in Somerset (Rahtz 1976);
and pottery in Cornwall (Thomas 1968). This illustrates that there
was a climate amongst scholars working in this area who saw cultural
explanations terms of an historical/linguistic paradigm which they
applied to all areas of western Britain.
had been any substantial movement of people into Argyll, there
should be some sign of this in the archaeological record, even
though few would now accept a simplistic equation of material
culture and population groups. One reason why no evidence has been
brought forward in the past is the relative lack of archaeological
investigation in Argyll, and also in Antrim. However, since Alcock
produced his 1970 paper there has been substantial progress in
understanding early medieval Argyll, giving us the opportunity to
re-examine the archaeological evidence. The areas of material
culture where we might expect to see signs of incomers from a
different cultural group are in personal jewellery such as brooches
and pins and settlement forms. Both areas were aceramic. at this
characteristic settlement forms in Ireland are circular enclosures
with earthen banks (raths) or stone walls (cashels), and artificial
island dwellings (crannogs). Crannogs are found in Argyll, but
unfortunately for proponents of an Irish origin for crannogs,
dendrochronological dating has shown that
Scottish crannogs have been constructed since the early Iron Age
(Barber & Crone 1993), while Irish ones almost all date from
after.AD 600 (Baillie 1985; Lynn 1983), suggesting if anything an
influence from Scotland to Ireland. Although recent work has
sugested some Irish crannogs may be earlier than t5hjs and that some
Scottish crannogs may share constructional features with Irish ones
(Crone 2000), this does no more than suggest a shared cultural
milieu which may have lasted over a very long period and covered
most of Scotland and Ireland.
and cashels of Ireland are the characteristic early medieval
settlement form, with over 30.000 recorded (Stout 1997). None,
however, are known from Argyll. The characteristic settlement form
in Argyll is the hilltop dun, a sub-circular stone walled roofed
enclosure with features such as internal wall-stairs and intra-mural
chambers (RCAHMS 1988: 31). Radiocarbon dates show that these have
been built since the early iron age through to the late lst
millennium AD, and form a coherent area of distinctive settlement
type in Argyll in contrast to the brochs, enclosures and forts of
other areas of Scotland (Henderson 2000: figure 1). There is
therefore no evidence of a change in the normal settlement type at
any point in the 1st millennium AD and no basis for suggesting any
significant population movement between Antrim and Argyll in the 1st
millennium AD. At best, the evidence shows a shared cultural region
from the Iron Age, with some subsequent divergence in the later 1st
millennium ad. Any
cultural influences could be argued as likely to have been going
from Scotland to Ireland rather than vice versa.
If there was no major
movement of people, perhaps there was an elite takeover, similar to
the Norman invasion of England. The lack of change in domestic
equipment and settlement form could then be explained by the
adoption of local cultural traditions. One might expect, however,
that such an elite would differentiate themselves in some way in
terms of their group identity. At this period there is good evidence
that one way in which this was done was through the use of
distinctive personal jewellery, particularly brooches (Nieke 1993),
and most royal sites of the period have produced evidence of
manufacture of silver and gold brooches (Campbell 1990). The
distributions of different forms of early medieval brooches and pins
show strong regional patterns, and though these may not coincide
with political or ethnic boundaries, they do suggest a relationship
with some form of group identity. Rather strangely, these
distributions do not appear to have been studied in relation to the
form of brooch in 4th-6th century Ireland is the
zoomorphic penannular brooch (Kilbride-Jones 1980). The typological
development and dating of these brooches has been controversial,
but has been recently elucidated by Raghnal
Floinn (forthcoming). The form developed in the late 4th century in
western Britain in the Severn Valley, but quickly spread to eastern
Ireland where new forms were developed. These brooches are widely
distributed in Ireland, but not one has been found in Argyll. The
situation is similar with dress-pins, as one of the commonest types
with over 40 examples in Ireland, the spiral-ringed ring-headed pin,
was particularly common in the north (Campbell 1999:14. figure), but
only one is known in Argyll. Conversely, the commonest type of
brooch in western British areas was the Type G penannular. Again the
typology and chronology has been much debated, but a general
development from a sub-Roman form (G 1)in
southwest Britain was followed by later types (G2 and G3) in
northwestern areas, A workshop for Type G3 was found at Dunadd in
Dal Riata (Lane & Campbell 2000) and other Type G3
production sites have boon found in Ireland, at Dooey. Donegal and
Movnagh Lough, Meath. Are we here at last seeing evidence of a
distinctive cultural feature moving from Ireland to Argyll?
Unfortunately not. as the Scottish examples date to the early and
mid 7th century, while the Movnagh Lough metalworking phase is
dated by dendrochronology to the early 8th century (Bradley 1993).
Again, any cultural influence would appear to be in the opposite
there is no evidence in the archaeological record for any
population movement from Ireland to Scotland, other than travel by
occasional individuals. In Anglo-Saxon England we have an
archaeologically invisible native British population, and debate
centres on the extent to which, they adopted the cultural package
of Anglo-Saxons. In Argyll in contrast, .it is the Goidelic invaders
who are archaeologically invisible.
documentary sources for the migration of the Scotti are of
varying date and validity but, as with the archaeological evidence,
have not received full critical assessment by historians. The
clearest expression is in the Irish chronicles, a source which has
the best potential for containing contemporary records of early
medieval events. In the Annals of Tighernach, an entry for around
AD 500 reads, 'Feargus mor mac earca cum gente dalriada partem
britania tenuit et ibi mortus est' ~ez_mdash~ 'Fergus Mor mac Erc, with
the nation of Dal Riada, took (or held) part of Britain, and died
there'. This clear statement of invasion and colonization is,
however, not a contemporary record, as is shown by the form of the
Irish words. Dalriada, Feargus and Earca are Middle
Irish forms where one would expect the Old Irish Dalriata, Fergus
and Erca. These spellings show that the entry could not
have been written before the 10th century. It has been strongly
argued that this entry, which is the earliest independent record of
Fergus, is one of a series of insertions in the Annals derived from
a 10th-century 'Chronicle of Clonmacnoise' (Dumville 1993:187:
Grabowski & Dumville 1984) and cannot be taken as independent
evidence of colonization.
main source is the Senchus Fer nAlban (History of the Men of
Scotland). This very important document is a social survey and
genealogy of the kings of Dal Riata. believed to have been
originally written in the later 7th century and modified in the 10th
century (Bannerman 1974). Even accepting the supposedly
10th-century version of the text uncritically, it does not refer to
settlement but is a genealogical statement of the origins of the
Scottish kings: 'Erc, moreover had twelve sons .i. six of them
took possession of Alba.' (Bannerman 1974: 47 ), and there
follows a genealogy of the Dalriadan kings from Fergus Mor to the
mid 7th century. It is important to note that nowhere is a mass
movement of peoples mentioned, it is purely an aristocratic, and
specifically royal, takeover of Scotland. However, this account also
cannot be a contemporary record, and can be
shown to be part of the 10th century or later rewriting of the
original text (Bannerman 1974 130-32), as Alba was not used
as a term for Scotland before the 10th century.
early source relating to the origins of Dal Riata is found in
Bede's history of the English church, written in the early 8th
century. Bede's account differs from that of the Senchus. After
describing the wanderings of the Britons and Picts, he says that
Britain received a third tribe,... namely the Irish. They came from
Ireland under their leader Reudai and won lands from the Picts...
they are still called Dalreudini after this leader' (Colgrave~ez_rsquo~s
Mynors 1969: 18-19). To summarize historical sources, it appears
that there are two conflicting accounts of the Irish origins of
Scottish Dalriada. The first, exemplified by the Senchus and the
Annals of Tigernach entry, belongs to no dates back to at least the
8th century. Bannerman has highlighted the difference between the
traditions, and suggests that an older tradition reported by Bede,
was supplanted in the 10th century by the Fergus Mor story for
political purposes of the time (Bannerman 1974:132)
sources, and some other later. material, are clearly origin legends
of a type common to most peoples of the period, constructed to show
the descent of a ruling dynasty from a powerful, mythical or
religious figure. Such genealogies, could be, and often were,
manipulated to suit the political climate of the time as shown by
the replacement of Carpre Riata by Fergus Mor. The genealogies
cannot be taken as indications of past population movement or even
kinship ties. Recent research has lighted how Middle Irish
historians were promulgating a view of Irish kingship which had a
considerable effect on Scottish politics from 10th to the 13th
centuries. Herbert (2000) has shown how the Irish view of kingship,
and political marriages, were influencing Scottish kings in the 10th
centurv towards the concept of kingship of a land (Alba) rather than
a people (the Dal Riata}, and Duffy (2000) has demonstrated
that there was Irish support for one line of rival claimants to the
Scottish throne in the 11th century. This influence continued in the
12th-13th centuries (Broun 1999). It is probable that in this
climate that the manipulation of the genealogies took place, with
each lineage trying to outdo the other
and Irish origins, The earlier version
the legend was possibly constructed to bolster Dal Riata
claims to territory in Antrim.
of the sources presented above
particularlyis not particularly new ~ez_mdash~ each of the elements
has been noted in the past, if not discussed indetail,
but this has not led historians to question the invasion hypothesis.
For example, in a recent paper David Dumville, an eminent
and himself a noted deconstructer of
early medieval myths, dismisses both the Fergus
Bede's account, while in the same
accepting the migration of settlers
1993: 187). The absence of a critical appraisal of the migration
story may be due to
acceptance by historians of the invasion
paradigm. History has been largely unaffected by the anti-migration
affected archaeology, not least because medieval
historians work in a period when there
are many indisputable invasions, although also
a rejection of post-modernist approaches
1999). As far as Argyll is concerned.
although few historians would now take the
Mor story at face value, the linguistic
seems so clear that there is readiness
accept the concept of an Irish invasion or
even if the actual details are uncertainand unsupported by the
evidence thus seems to provide the securest evidence for invasion by
Gaels, and as we have seen, seems to have influenced historians and
archaeologists to accept the theory even though they themselves have
little evidence to support it. The presence of Gaelic speakers in
early medieval Argyll is undoubted. Adomnan writing in Argyll in the
late 7th century inhabits an entirely Gaelic world: all the
placenames and personal names referred to in Argyll are Gaelic: the
people of Argyll are 'the Scotti in Britain', and he comments that
Columba needed translators when he travelled to Pictish areas
(Sharpe 1995: 32). In addition, the modern placenames of Argyll are
all of Goidelic origin, in contrast to eastern Scotland where
there is a substantial Brittonic substratum, even if many were
adopted by later Gaelic speakers (Nicolaisen 1976; Taylor 1994). Yet
Pictish was replaced by Gaelic as the language of eastern Scotland
only a few hundred years after
so we would expect to see some Brittonic substratum in the
placenames of Argyll. The traditional explanation is that original
Brittonic speakers were totally displaced by Gaelic speaking
settlers, removing all evidence of Brittonic, settlement and
landscape names. Such a complete obliteration without substantial
population movement, which, as we have seen, is archaeologically
invisible, would be almost unparalleled in onomastic history.
the evidence for this, other than the historical accounts of an
invasion from Ireland? The only evidence for the language spoken in
Argyll before the early medieval period is Ptolemy's Geographv
written in the early 2nd century. This locates the tribe of the
Epidii. and a peninsula called Epidion Akron, on the
west coast of Scotland, in an area generally equated with Kintyre (Rivel
& Smith 1979: 360-fil). Epidii is P-Celtic, and therefore by
implication this area was inhabited by Brittonic speakers. Apart
from the dangers of relying on a single word to support a hypothesis
of an entire language, there are good reasons for questioning this
evidence. Ptolemy's source for his Scottish names was probably from
the Scottish Central Lowlands, and may have transmitted the
Brittonic form of a Goidelic tribal name, or even the external name
given to the tribe by Brittonic speakers. Before the rapid
divergence of Goidelic and Brittonic in the centuries around the
collapse of the Roman Empire there may have been a much less
homogenous pattern of language than we assume for the later periods.
In support of this it is interesting that the P-Celtic tribal name
Menapii appears in Ptolemy's list of tribes in Ireland
itself, and that several peoples of northern Ireland were known as
Cruithi, Goidelic for 'British', but these peoples are
accepted as being Goidelic speakers, and no 'British invasion' of
Ireland is now postulated on the basis of this evidence (Toner
2000: 73). The only reason the name Epidii is used as
evidence for invasion is that it appeared to support the historical
evidence, which we have seen is unreliable. The traditional view
seems inherently unlikely, based as it is on the evidence of a
single word, and a simpler model is proposed below.
no-one disputes that a divergence between Goidelic and Brittonic
took place, and that Goidelic retains the most archaic features
FIGURE 1. Two
differing views of the fault-line between Goidelic and Brittonic. A
Traditional view of the sea as the initial dividing mechanism, with
subsequent spread of Goidelic eastwards. B Alternative with the
Scottish Highlands as the original dividing line between the
of the Celtic language
group, the question is where the original 'fault-line' between the
two is to be placed. In their interpretation, linguists have tended
to be guided by the historical paradigm in their explanations of
language change in western Britain (FIGURE 1A). More subtly. I
believe they have been affected by a geographical viewpoint which is
based on a modern perception of communications and polities which
sees 'Scotland' and 'Ireland' as independent geographical units.
Thus, the Irish Sea and North Channel have come to be seen as the
dividing line between Gael and Briton, only to be crossed by
invasion. This view was not shared by early medieval commentators,
who saw the dividing line as Druim Albin. the 'Spine of
Britain' (the Grampian Highlands) being the linguistic barrier. It
should not surprise us that the Highlands were a communications
barrier. There are only two or three narrow routeways through the
Highland massif, each involving several days travel on foot. It is
easy to see how linguistic differentiation could take place when the
peoples on either side of this barrier were only in sporadic
communication. On the west coast however, most of Argyll is no more
than a day's sail from Ireland, and at closest the distance between
Argyll and Ireland is only 20 kilometres. There is abundant evidence
to show that early medieval Argyll was a sea-based society
(Bannerman 1974; Campbell 1999). In this context the North Channel
can be seen as a linking mechanism rather than thee dividing one
envisaged in the concept of the 'sea-divided Gael' (O'Rahilly 1932:
123). The islands of Rathlin and Tiree are respectively 20 km and
100 km from mainland Argyll, though Rathlin is today officially in
Ireland. and Tiree in Scotland. Both are clearly part of one
archipelago where good sea communications would enable the same
language to continue to be spoken and develop in tandem. Further
south, the much wider Irish Sea would have made daily communication
more difficult, and the 'fault ine~ez_rdquo~ could have lain between Ireland
and mainland England and Wales (FIGURE IB).
An alternative view
summarize, if there was a mass migration from Ireland to Scotland,
there should be some sign of this in the archaeological record, but
there is none. If there was only an elite takeover by a warband, who
must have adopted local material culture and settlement forms, there
be signs of the language of the native majority in the placenames,
but again there is none. A purely dynastic takeover would not have
led to language change on the scale seen, no clear historical
backing. My reading of the archaeological, historical and linguistic
evidence is radically different from the traditional account, but
that the people inhabiting Argyll maintained a regional identity
from at least the Iron Age through to the medieval period and that
throughout this period they were Gaelic speakers. In this maritime
province, sea communications dominated, and allowed a shared archaic
language to be maintained, isolated from linguistic developments
which were taking place in the areas of Britain to the east of the
Highland massif in the Late Roman period,. Occasional developments
in material culture settlement types could pass from one area of the
west to another, and of course individuals moved between the areas,
but this was not on a sufficient scale to produce an homogenous
cultural province. By the early medieval period, the emphasis on
marine transport in Argyll allowed the development of a formidable
navy, capable of maintaining a strong political identity within
Argyll, and allowing Dal Riata to.become an expansionist
force in the area attacking as far away as Orkney, the Isle of Man
and the west coast of Ireland (Campbell 1999: 53; figure). For a
time during this early period. Dal Riata extended its
control to the area of Antrim closest to Argyll, much as the Lords
of jthe Isles were to do in the later medieval period, and thnis
area also became known as Dal Riata. During the Middle Irish
period, when claims of the Irish ancestry of Scottish royalty were
being elaborated, a process of 'reverse engineering' was used by
Irish writers to explain the existence of an Irish Dal Riata
as the progenitor of Scottish Dal Riata rather than vice
conclusion, the Irish migration hypothesis seems to be a classic
case of long-held historical beliefs influencing not only the
interpretation of documentary sources themselves, but the
subsequent invasion paradigm being accepted uncritically in the
related disciplines of archaeology and linguistics. The paradigm has
been supported by a series of mutually sustaining positions where
archaeologists have looked to the historical/linguistic model,
historians have been supported bv linguists, and the linguists by
the historians. There are clear parallels here to the situation
recently reviewed by Patrick Sims-Williams (1998) exploring the
relationship of paradigm acceptance between geneticists, linguists
and historians, and Forsyth (1997) in her demonstration of how
linguists were driven by outmoded archaeological thought, in the
question of the origins of the Pictish language. I believe that none
of the evidence is capable of supporting the traditional
explanations, and that closer dialogue between historians, linguists
and archaeologists can lead to a better understanding of the
construction of identity and processes of social change in the early
medieval period. The work of Forsyth (1997) and Taylor (1994) on
Finland, and Smith (forthcoming) on Brittany are signs that this is
already happening. Surelv the question that is of interest here is
not 'where did people come from?', but 'how did people establish and
change their personal and group identity by manipulating oral,
literary and material culture?'. Indeed, merely by re-labelling the
supposed 'Irish settlers' as 'Gaelic speakers', following the
practice of contemporary writers such as Adomnan. the whole issue
can be studied in an atmosphere free from the colonialist
implications which have distorted the study of early medieval
in this paper have been presented in various seminars over the last
few years and I would like to thank Dauvit Broun,Thomas Clancy,
Steve Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Sian Jones, Robert O Maodolach,
Simon Taylor and Alex Woolf for stimulative and helpful discussion,
without implicating them n the ideas put forward here.
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