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Scotland - A Concise History
The Land and the People


The Wallace Statue, Aberdeen. (Photo: Valentines) The land of Scotland has dictated what sort of history its people would have. The Scots have mountains and marshes; long, narrow, steep-sided glens, all too often open to north-west winds; acid soil and a climate which sees the seasons overlapping, the only certainty being that the growing season will be short. Here the Scots have had to do the best they could with what they had, and all through their history, with hard work and much ingenuity, they have managed to make the land serve its people better than might have been expected.

As well as the land there is the sea. No one in Scotland is very far from the sea, and even if the actual oceans are at some distance, there are long sea lochs, their waters probing into the heart of the country, and there are rivers widening out into firths.

The sea and the lochs and the firths have often served as a defence - moats, as it were, behind which the Scots might shelter. But, important for strategy and defence as they were, these waters were also routes for trade and international contacts. The waters which were so often a barricade, could easily become roads, along which traders and administrators travelled to carry out their tasks. Until as recently as, say, 1960, the traditional and most convenient method of entry to towns and villages all along the shores of the west coast of the country and the western shores of the Firth of Clyde was by sea.

So, the nature of the land had largely determined how, and how successfully, the Scots would make their living and organise their activities. But in yet another respect their experiences were dictated by the residence which fate had given them. All through historic times the Scottish people have had to share an island with another people, far stronger than they in all respects - more numerous, more wealthy and usually more advanced technologically, especially in methods of warfare. Consciously and instinctively the Scots have always had to live with this fact, and their first and constant political problem has been how they might best co-exist with the English. Different solutions to this problem have been adopted at different times, or have been urged by competing Scottish factions at the same time. In either case the Scots have had to make up their minds whether their interests are best served by collaboration with English objectives and English power, and an acceptance of the fact of English dominance in Britain, or whether they should resist absorption, and make the preservation of their national identity a priority. It is the supporters of this latter policy who find grimly humorous accuracy in the remark of a Scottish writer in modern times that the Scots needed the Alps, but God had given them the Cheviots.

And what of the people of this land? Who are the Scots? Like any other people in modern times they are the descendants of every settler who ever lived here. They are a nation of immigrants, even though their immigrant ancestors came many centuries ago, some beyond recorded time. Humans came to Scotland, following the retreating ice some 8000 years ago. The earliest pioneering visitors were probably exactly that - visitors, from the European mainland, driven by hope and curiosity, by ambition and chance, to gather plants and hunt living things for food. In due course, no doubt, some of these visitors were content with what they had found, and saw the prospect of a satisfactory future in this newly found land. So they settled, not at first in any recognisable permanent communities, but living rather a nomadic life passing the days and years and generations in fishing and hunting along the shores, and sometimes entering, greatly daring, the forests of the interior. By 6000 years ago there were certainly permanent inhabitants who are the first ancestors of the Scots.

As time passed, later waves of visitors and settlers arrived, bringing with them new genes, new skills and new customs; adding to the ability of the natives to use implements of bone, wood and stone, the knowledge of metal-working in bronze and iron; offering as a means of livelihood not just hunting, gathering and herding, but crop growing - agriculture in the proper sense. Once the skills of seed-time and harvest were acquired, settlement in the real sense of permanent residence in selected sites was possible.

Our knowledge of how and when this sequence of events took place can never be wholly satisfactory, because all this happened before written records, and even before oral tradition can be used to fill the gap which the absence of written evidence leaves. Our one source of information is the science of archaeology. Archaeologists have done - and continue to do - wonders in providing the rest of us with our awareness of the remote past, but there are, inevitably, limits to what this can tell us. The identification of a site of historic interest is largely a matter of luck, however informed and perceptive the searcher may be; and the excavation of such a site is costly in time and money. We have to accept the evidence of the archaeologist in much the same way as one accepts the evidence of modern political scientists using samples to point to probabilities.

The sites discovered and excavated are the archaeologist's samples. From the shells and fish bones in the middens buried under the sands of Tentsmuir in Fife, we learn of the presence and survival methods of our earliest natives. From the discovery of a hollowed-out log or dugout canoe in the bed of the River Tay we deduce that men were able, using such vessels, to make sea-borne journeys. At the wonderful site of Skara Brae in Orkney we can see preserved the stone skeleton of a village, 4000 years old, buried under the sand by one gale, and laid bare by chance, after almost 4000 years, by another. From such sites we can learn what these ancestors of ours ate and wore; from the articles and ornaments found we can make deductions about their society; and when we find the graves where they buried their dead or their cremated ashes, we can even have a modest awareness of their beliefs.

We can use this kind of evidence to identify the variety of peoples, arriving at different times, because their goods are new and different and because their dead are buried in different fashion in tombs of different structure and dimensions. Even the poor exposed skeletons tell the story of a variety of peoples with differing physical characteristics, all of whom came to live here. We can begin to see, in the mind's eye, a kind of parade of the earliest, primitive hunters, the more skilled agriculturalists, and the metal-working Beaker folk, who buried their dead in individual tombs, leaving with each the vessels and implements which might be found useful in the after life which they obviously expected.

That there was a spiritual side to the life of all these people, the barrows and occucists testify; as also, most of all, do the great stone circles like those at Brodgar 

The Ring of Brodgar, Stenness, Orkney
The Ring of Brodgar, Stenness, Orkney. (Photo: Gordon Wright) 

in Orkney or Callanish in Lewis. These sites are signs of a conscious and deliberate decision, by people of whom we know so little, to raise symbols of honour and respect. As time passed these symbols came to bear carvings, proving that an artistic instinct had developed and was here revealed.

These then were our ancestors. They were not unique. Those who came here had come from somewhere else, and there they had left behind their kindred. The distinctiveness of the Scots is not therefore to be found in any one genetic origin, but rather in the blending of all these components which occurred here and, in these proportions, here alone.

We are inclined to form wrong impressions of what would happen as successive waves of invaders descended upon the people already in possession of the land. It is easy to assume that invaders would go in for massacre and extermination, but a little commonsense should lead us to calmer and more accurate judgement.

For one thing, while some victims of the attack will die in heroic resistance, and others, more lucky, will run away, the vast majority simply stay where they are and make the best of a bad job. The conquerors, for their part, don't want corpses, they want workers, servants, perhaps slaves, but at least useful, living subordinates.

Also when conquest and occupation by intruders first happens, the intruders are almost by definition, warrior bands and thus male. As well as land and property, victorious men will seize upon women by right of conquest, and will claim them as their mates. After the initial attacks had occurred and a new dominant group had established itself, the future lay with people whose parentage was part native and part conqueror.

Pictish stone, Aberlemno, near Brechin
Pictish stone, Aberlemno, near Brechin. (Photo: James Halliday)

The conquerors, to be sure, would impose their kind of society, their customs, and, especially, their language; but they could not and did not eradicate the people they had conquered. They dominated and ruled, but that is not the same as destroying those now at their mercy.

We can see this pattern unfolding when we turn to consider the group of invaders who next came to Britain, because we are in a position to know much more about them than we can possibly know of the earliest peoples.

For knowledge of these earliest inhabitants we have to rely upon archaeology and scientific deductions, but the new invaders have left an oral and, eventually, a written record from which we can draw understanding.

These new invaders, arriving some 2500 years ago, were members of the Celtic racial group, coming from the north-western parts of Europe, and at least kindred of, if not wholly identical to, the Gauls who then held those lands. They were of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic peoples, or 'P' Celts, so called because their language commonly employed labial consonants, p, b, v and so on, in words like 'pen' = 'head' and 'ap' = 'son of'. They established their supremacy over the land and its existing inhabitants, becoming a kind of aristocracy and imposing their ways and their languages. The now subordinate natives, most of them, lived on, but their language did not. Only fragments of any pre-Celtic speech remain, particularly in place names. (After all the oldest named things in the world are the mountains and rivers and other natural features upon which humans have looked since mankind's earliest days.)

Of the people themselves we lose track, meeting them probably in the stories and legends of their Celtic conquerors. Celtic folk-lore is rich in stories of strange secret people, dwelling in remote parts of the country; secretive, furtive, shunning the daylight. These small, dark folk, brownies, elves, fairy folk, are probably the unassimilated survivors of the pre-Celtic peoples.

As for the Celts, they applied to themselves the name 'Pretani'. And when the next invaders arrived they seem to have heard the name and adopted it, with only a slight error in pronunciation, and called the people they found, 'Britoni'.

The new invaders, the Romans, were of course very different from previous settlers. In the first place they weren't really settlers at all, and had not been prompted to come to Britain by land hunger, ambition or flight from even more ferocious intruders into their own homelands. They were the masters of the European and Mediterranean world, and they came as masters to extend their power and assert their authority over one of the few parts of the world which they did not yet own. Their role was like that of governors and administrators, and commercial entrepreneurs; they had not come to farm or to work, merely to rule those who did.

They conquered and subdued the Celtic-ruled tribes, beginning in the south of the island and moving gradually north. By around 80 AD they were active as far north as the Solway and Tweed, and on the passes over the Cheviots. But the further north they went the more difficult it was to keep their legions supplied and controlled from their great depots and garrison centres at York and Chester.In the year 80 AD, the Roman governor, Julius Agricola, struck northwards from the Solway/Tyne line, and began a campaign intended no doubt to bring the northern tribes into the same degree of subjection as their kin in the south. Four main tribes stood in his path. In the east, between the Tweed and the Forth, were the Votadini, and their stronghold on Traprain Law. Westwards of there lay the territory of the Selgovae; and further west still, in the valley and estuary of the Clyde, were the Novantae and the Damnonii. Only the Selgovae appear to have sought seriously to obstruct Agricola's advance, and caused him to build what became a major fort, at Newstead - the Roman 'Trimontium', nestling as it did at the foot of the three peaks of the Eildon Hills.

With these tribes subdued, Agricola advanced further north, and controlled the Forth/Clyde isthmus with a line of forts. From this base in 84 AD he marched northwards, along the only route which geographical conditions then made feasible; across the Carron, then the Forth near the site of Stirling, in the territory of the Maeatae, and then to the Tay at its highest navigable point, present day Perth.

Beyond the Tay his legions moved northwards, his supply ships moving in parallel with his army, and making contact every so often to replenish supplies. Eventually his advance brought him to the spot, never yet acceptably identified, called Mons Graupius. There the northern tribes, united it seems in resistance, stood at bay; and their leader Calgacus called on his men to resist to the last against the Romans and their plans which Calgacus saw would involve the ruin and destruction of their society. The Roman future he rejected, in the phrase which Tacitus has made famous, 'Where they make a desert, they call it "peace''.

The Eildon Hills from Scott's View
The Eildon Hills from Scott's View. (Photo: Gordon Wright)

Traprain Law, East Lothian
Traprain Law, East Lothian. (Photo: Gordon Wright)

Agricola won the battle, but total conquest and occupation of the north proved beyond his capacity. The best he could do was to have small forts to keep watch at the mouths of the glens which gave access into and from the further mountain regions.

Before his term of duty ended he had constructed these outposts; the forts along the Forth and Clyde, and a network of forts and roads along which reinforcements and supplies could be brought as required. But the Roman presence in these parts was of short duration. The main Roman frontier from around 120 AD was defined by Hadrian's Wall, and north of that wall there was a very limited civilian presence. A final attempt was made by Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor in 142-3 AD, who tried to make a more substantial and permanent wall along the Forth/Clyde line, which was named the Antonine Wall in honour of the Roman emperor of the day. This wall was built of turf on a base of stone, and was some 14ft. wide. It had forts at roughly two-mile intervals along its length, and the most impressive signs of a settled Roman way of life are to be found at these strong points.

But the Romans did leave behind them, more important than roads and forts, baths and villas, the experience and the memory of Christianity. The earliest Christians in Britain were soldiers and their families, or officials serving the legions and their organisations in some capacity. There are Christian signs at several sites, dating from the earliest days of the Antonine Wall, and for over a century before Roman rule ended in Britain, the Empire had been officially Christian. For a few brief years in the mid-fourth century the area between the Walls was once more brought under Roman control, and during that period there was born, into a Christian society, the first known Christian evangelist in our history, St Ninian.

Born in the Solway area, and educated, according to tradition, in Rome, the young Ninian spent time in the monastic community led by St Martin near Tours. Returning home, some time before 400 AD, he established his stone church 'Candida Casa' at Whithorn which served as a centre of missionary activity carried on by Ninian and his followers. So when we speak of Christianity being brought to Britain in the sixth century, by St Columba or St Augustine, we speak carelessly, and with thoughtless disregard for what was Rome's most profound legacy to our country.

There are limits, which should be obvious, to what walls can and cannot do. Separation over a period of generations can create differences in society, and even in speech, on either side of the wall which creates the separation. But in real essentials the people on either side remain as they were before the wall was built. If the wall is built through the lands of a single people, then biologically a single people they remain.

All people in Britain when the Romans arrived had a common ancestry, and retained it, regardless of any wall or action by the Romans. Sometimes the Latin writers mention, as a kind of alternative name for the Caledonians, 'the Picts', and much energy has been expended in seeking to answer the question 'Who were the Picts?'. The commonsense view has to be that the Picts were merely the Britons who had avoided incorporation into Rome's empire; and the Britons, throughout the island, were all the descendants of all who had gone before. Some differences there would be as a result of distances and isolation of one tribe from another, and very likely, pre-Celtic influences would survive more strongly in one part of the island than in another. Latin and English writers have led us into imagining some mysterious racial divisions where none really existed. The Wall separated people physically, when the sentries wished it to do so, but it could not undo the natural work of generations.

A useful corrective to these errors can be found in writing which is neither Latin nor English, but Welsh - the great epic The Gododdin which tells of the ride of the warriors of the Votadini - The Gododdin in other words - to the aid of their British kin at the great battle of Catraeth (Catterick). Kin all Britons still remained, and not the Antonine Wall, or even Hadrian's Wall, could alter that fact.

Not until post-Roman times did any new race intrude into the island, adding to the genetic pool of its people. In the latter years of the Roman occupation various raiders from overseas had carried out hit and run raids around the coasts. As Roman power declined the ability of its rulers to provide for the defence of its remoter provinces lessened, until finally, after several forlorn attempts to avoid the decision, the legions were withdrawn from Britain altogether in the year 407 AD.

The departure of the Romans meant that hit and run raiders might now find it possible - and tempting - to see themselves as settlers, and perhaps conquerors; and throughout the rest of the fifth century two such groups gradually established themselves in Britain.

From Scotia - the north eastern part of Hibernia (or Ireland) - came the Scots, a Celtic people like the Britons, but of a different branch of the family. They were Gaelic, not Brythonic, their speech categorised as 'Q' Celt rather than 'P' Celt, as they used guttural consonants 'c' and 'g' rather than the 'p' and 'b' of the earlier arrivals. Thus the Brythonic 'pen' is, in Gaelic, 'ceann', and 'ap' becomes 'mac'.

From Ireland access to the western coasts and islands of northern Britain was easy, and the journey no problem whatever to galley-borne fighting men. Scots over a period of time established settlements at various points throughout the inner Hebrides and around the sea lochs and firths; and by 500 they had arrived and concentrated in sufficient strength, to have created for themselves the Kingdom of Dalriada. This land had been until its seizure, the home of British/Pictish tribes, and was no doubt looked upon as national territory by the Pictish Kings. So, there would be anger and battles as the Scots sought to penetrate further inland, and the resentful Picts sought to keep them out. On the evidence of surviving place-names we can see a pattern to the eventual extent of the Scottish conquest. Obviously there was no clearly defined boundary, such as modern states would establish, but the Scottish advance can be seen to have halted along the high ground known anciently as 'Drumalban' where modern Argyle meets the shires of Inverness and Perth.

In the generations which followed, Scottish power and influence moved gradually east and north-east, carried forward often no doubt, by war, but owing much to the work and influence of the first truly historical Scot, St Columba.

Columba - Columcille in his own language - was a prince of the royal house in Irish Dalriada, who had to leave his home after a dispute over, so tradition tells us, the copying of a Christian psalter. The dispute had caused bloodshed, and blame seems to have been laid upon Columba who left Ireland for exile in Scottish Dalriada in 563. There, on the island of Iona, already a traditional place of Christian worship, he and his group of followers made their home and began the mission work which made the little island one of the most influential and loved centres of Christendom.

As well as being a Christian evangelist Columba was also a Scot, and, we may guess, a patriotic one. His fellow-Scots had only recently suffered a defeat in the long-running war with the Picts. Perhaps if the Pictish king could be won over to Christianity like the Scots, enmity between the two would diminish and harmony prevail. Possibly with this part-religious part-diplomatic purpose, Columba and a few colleagues (two of them themselves Picts) set off along the Great Glen to meet and negotiate with the Pictish King Brude at Inverness.

This mission was successful, and a shared Christian affiliation now promised better relations between Picts and Scots. For the rest of his life Columba, and the followers whom he taught and inspired, carried their mission and this Scottish influence into much of Pictland, including Orkney and the Western Isles. He also established friendly contacts with fellow-Christians in British territory south of the Clyde, inheritors of the tradition begun by St Ninian, especially St. Mungo (or Kentigern) who, we are told, received Columba as a visitor in Glasgow in 584.

By the time of his death in 597 Columba had served his faith with great devotion and success, but he had also proved a wise counsellor to the Scottish Kings of Dalriada and his legacy to his fellow countrymen was political as well as religious.

Britons and Picts were more or less the same people by blood at least, with the latter perhaps retaining slightly more traces of their pre-Celtic ancestors. The Scots were more distantly related, but still related. But in the dying days of Roman Britain there appeared around the coasts yet another wave of invaders, with no ancestral or cultural ties to the Britons at all. These were the English - known variously as Angles, Saxons and Jutes - who first established themselves in the south and south-eastern coastal areas of Britain. Their settlements gradually extended along the east coast, as later fleets brought over more settlers from their German homelands; and by 597 there was an English stronghold north of Hadrian's Wall, at Bamborough.

As English power grew, and strongholds established links with one another, by around 590 they had cut a corridor right across the island from the North Sea to the Irish sea, separating the Britons of the north from their brothers in what became Wales. Their northern expansion brought them into war against an alliance of Britons and Scots; and the English victory at Degsastane (possibly near Jedburgh) in 603 gave them control of the eastern coast as far north as the Forth.

The eastern boundary was for the moment well-defined; but there was no necessity to imagine that the Forth must be the river along which Pict and Englishman would bristle at each other. The border might move south to the Tweed, or the Tyne or the Wear - perhaps even the Humber. On the other hand it might move north to the Tay or the Moray Firth.

On the west, the question was whether the Britons might succeed in reuniting, or whether at least they might hold the whole area north of the line of the Ribble. The alternative was that the English might widen their corridor, and push the boundary to the Solway or even to the Clyde.

The crucial fact however was that the English had succeeded in cutting off the native-cum-Celtic peoples in the north of the island from their kindred in the west and south-west. As it turned out this division was never to be reversed. The future fate of the sundered sections was to be very different and the northern section was in due course to emerge as Scotland.


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