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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 5 - The Bronze Age

The tall, fair-haired, round-headed Celt brought the knowledge of bronze with him into Britain. Man made a vast stride when he passed from stone to metal. With that transition came an instant and rapid advance all along the line of civilization. The art of war was the first to feel the quickening influence of the new instrument with which man was not armed. His weapons were no longer of stone but of bronze; and although this is every wan an inferior metal to that by which it was to be succeeded, iron, to wit, it was immeasurably superior to stone, and accordingly victory remained with the warrior who entered the field armed with sword, and axe, and dagger, all of bronze. This wrought a revolution in the military art not unlike that which the invention of gunpowder in an after-age brought with it.

When we speak of the Celts, and the gift they conferred on the nations of the West, let us pause a moment to note their origin and career. They are known in history by three names—the Celtoe, the Galatoe, and the Galli. Their irruption from their primeval home in Central Asia was the terror of the age in which it took place. In the fourth century before Christ, after some considerable halt, they resumed their migration westwards in overwhelming numbers and resistless force. They scaled the barrier of the Alps, rushed down on Italy, gave the towns of Etruria to sack, defeated the Roman armies in battle, and pursued their victorious march to the gates of Rome, where they butchered the senators in the Capitol, and had well nigh strangled the Great Republic in its infancy. Another division of these slaughtering and marauding hordes took the direction of Greece, and threatened to overcloud with their barbarism that renowned seat of Philosophy and Art. It was with the utmost difficulty that they were repulsed, and Athens saved. The legions of the first Caesar, after nine bloody campaigns, broke the strength of the Galli; but it was not till the days of the second Caesar that all danger from them was past, and that Rome could breathe freely.

This is the first appearance of the Celts in history; but it is undoubted that long before this, at a period of unknown antiquity, they had begun to migrate from the East, and to mingle largely with the Cimmeric nations which had preceded them in their march westwards. The whole of Europe, from the border of Scythia to the Pillars of Hercules, was known to Herodotus as the Land of the Celts. Their sudden and furious descent on Italy and Greece was probably owing to the pressure of some other people, Scythic or Teutonic, that began to act upon them, putting them again in motion, and sending them surging over the great mountains that flanked their westward march. Their prolific swarms largely mixed themselves with the Iberians of Spain, the Cimri around the German Ocean, and the aborigines of Britain, and generally formed the great bulk of the population west of the Rhine and the Alps.

They were a pastoral people. To till the ground they held a mean occupation, and one that was below the dignity of a Celt. But if they disdained or neglected the plough, they knew how to wield the sword. They were fierce warriors. Even Sallust confesses that they bore off the prize from the Romans themselves in feats of arms. Compared with the legions, they were but poorly equipped—an ill-tempered sward, a dagger, and a lance were their weapons—though they far excelled the Britons, whom they found, when they first came into contact with them, doing their fighting with weapons of stone. They delighted in garments of showy colours, which they not infrequently threw off when they engaged in combat. The character of the Celts was strangely and most antithetically mixed. It presented a combination of the best and the worst qualities. They were eager to learn, they were quick of apprehension, they were very impressible, they were impulsive and impetuous, but they were unstable, lacking in perseverance, easily discouraged by reverses, and it was their ill fortune to mar their greatest enterprises by the discords and quarrels into which they were continually falling among themselves. The picture drawn of them by Cato the censor has been true of them in all ages of their history. "Gaul, for the most part," said he, "pursues two things most perseveringly—war and talking cleverly."1

Such were the people who brought the knowledge of bronze into Britain. Hewing their way through a population armed only with implements of stone, they intruders taught the Caledonian by dear experience to avail himself of the advantage offered by the new material. This was the first fruit that grew out of their invasion. But the Celts were destined to render, in an after-age, a far higher service to the nations of the West than any we see them performing on occasion of their first appearance in Europe. Only they had first to undergo other vicissitudes and migrations. They had to be dislodged from great part of that vast European area of which they had held for a while exclusive possession. They must flee before the sword with which they had chased others: they must be parted into separate bodies, shifted about and driven into corners: they must, in particular, mingle their blood with that of the Caledonian and the Scot, imparting to these races something of their own fire, and receiving back something of the strength and the resoluteness of these other. The faith which they had left behind them in their Aryan home, then only in the simplicity of its early dawn, will break upon them in the West, in the full, clear light of Christianity; this will open to the new channels for their activities and energies, and they will crown themselves with nobler victories than they have won heretofore. Instead of unsettling kingdoms by the sword, it will now be their only ambition to build them up by diffusing amongst them the light of knowledge, the benefits of art, and the blessings of Christianity. There awaits the Celts in the future as we shall see at a subsequent stage of our history, the glorious task of leading in the evangelisation of the West.

But this is an event as yet far distant, and we return to our task of tracing, as dimly recorded in our sepulchral barrows and cairns, the changes in our national life consequent on the introduction of bronze. The first of man’s pursuits to feel the influence of the new metal was war, as we have said. And, accordingly, when we open the cists and cairns of that ancient world, there is the sword, and there are the other instruments of battle, all of bronze. In its evolutions and applications, bronze was found to benefit the arts of peace even more than it quickened the work of human slaughter. The art of shipbuilding took a stride. From earliest time man had sailed the seas, at least he had crept along their shores, but in how humble a craft! A boat of wicker work, covered with skin, or a canoe hollowed by means of fire or a stone hatchet, out of a single trunk; whereas now he begins to cross frith and loch in a boat build to plank. His vessels, though still diminutive, are now more sea-worthy. He can more safely extend his voyages. He can cross the narrow seas around his island, carrying with him, mayhap, a few of the products of his soil, which perchance his neighbours may need, and which he exchanges in barter for such things as his own country does not produce. Thus the tides of commerce began to circulate, though as yet their pulse is feeble and slow.

There is an advance, too, in the art of house-building. A chamber in the earth, or a hut of turf and twigs above ground, had heretofore contented the Caledonian, who bravely met with hardihood and endurance the inclemencies which he knew not otherwise to master. Now, in the bronze age, he erects for himself a dwelling of stone. His habitation as yet can boast of no architectural grace, for his tools are still imperfect, and his masonry is of the rudest type; but his ingenuity and labour make up for what is lacking in his art or in his implements, and now his hut of wattles is forsaken for a stone house, and his stronghold underneath the ground is exchanged for strengths, or castles of dry stone, exceedingly sombre in their exterior, but cunningly planned within, which now begin to dot the fact of the country.

A farther consequence of the introduction of bronze was the development of a taste for personal ornament. The love of finery is an instinct operative even in the savage. Our ancestors of unrecorded time were not without this passion, or the means of gratifying it. The beauties of those days rejoiced in their bead necklaces and bracelets. These were formed of various materials—bone, horn, jet, the finder sort of stones and frequently of sea-shells, perforated, and strung upon a sinew or vegetable fibre. Beads of glass have in some instances been discovered in the cists and tumuli of the stone period, the importation probably of some wandering trader, from the far-off shore of Phoenicia. But when we come to the cists of the bronze age, we find them more amply replenished with articles of personal ornament than those of the foregoing period. These, moreover, are of costlier material, and, as we should expect, they are more elegant in form, and more skillful in workmanship. As among the ancients so with the primitive Britons, neck-ornaments seem to have been the most highly prized; for collars abound among the treasures of the cist. The other members of the body had their due share, however. There were pendants for the ears, clasps for the arms, rings for the finger, and anklets for the legs. Nor was this love of ornament confined to the females of the period. As is the case among all savage nations, it was hardly less strongly developed among the gentlemen of Caledonia than among the ladies. The archaeologist finds not infrequently in the cist of the chieftain and warrior, lying alongside his skeleton, the ornaments which graced his person, as well as the sword and spear that served him in the battle. Among female ornaments, necklaces have been discovered, consisting of alternate beads of jet and amber. The native origin of these articles is placed beyond doubt by the fact that they totally differ from the Anglo-Roman or classic remains, and that they are found in the earliest tombs, dug long ere foot of Roman had touched the soil.

As yet greater obligation did Scottish civilization owe to bronze when it introduced, as it now did, a superior and more serviceable class of domestic utensils. Hitherto culinary vessels and table-dishes had been of stone or clay rudely fashioned. These would fall into disuse on the advent of bronze. The natives had now access to a material of which to fashion vessels, possessing not only greater durability, but susceptible also to greater variety of form and greater grace of decoration. The articles of bronze—cups, tripods, kettles, and cauldrons—dug up from underneath our mosses, show that the Caledonian was not slow to appreciate the advantages which bronze put within his reach, that he set himself to acquire the art of working in it, and that he succeeded in producing utensils of greater utility and of superior beauty to any that he or his fathers had known. His table had a grace which had been absent from it till now. He felt a pardonable pride, doubtless, as he beheld it garnished with vessels of precious material and curious workmanship. A king might sit at his board. Nor did the matter end there. The art refined the artificer. The Caledonian workman came under the humanising influence of a sense of beauty. As time went on his genius expanded, and the deftness of his hand increased. Every new creation of symmetry or of grace as it unfolded itself under his eye gave him a new inspiration, and not only prompted the desire, but imparted the ability to surpass all his former efforts by something better still—some yet rarer pattern, some yet lovelier form. Thus grew up the Celtic art. The time of its efflorescence was not yet come—was far distant. But when at length that period arrives, and Celtic art is perfected, it is found to challenge a place all its own among the arts of the world. From the simplest elements it evolved effects of the most exquisite grace and beauty. It was unique. Celtic hands only knew to create it, and on none but Celtic soil did it flourish.

It is natural to suppose that for some time after the introduction of bronze the supply of the metal was limited, and it cost correspondingly high. In these circumstances the vessels of stone and clay would continue some little time in use, along with those of the new manufacture. The finds in the bogs and cists of our country verify this conjecture. The two kinds of vessels are found in bogs and pits in miscellaneous heaps, showing that the worker in clay and stone was not instantaneously superseded by the worker in bronze. Not only did his occupation continue, but from this time his art was vastly improved. He profited, doubtless, by the metallic patterns to which he had now access, and he learned to impart to his stone arts and implements something of the symmetry and grace which characterised the new creations in bronze. It is now that we come on traces of the potter’s wheel; as later on of the turning lathe. The clay vessels of the period are no longer moulded rudely by the hand, they have a regularity and elegance of shape which the hand could not bestow, and which must have been given them by machinery. This is particularly the case as regarded the cinery vases, which are found in the cists and cairns of the bronze period: many of them are specially graceful. The appearance of urns containing the ashes of the dead in this age, and not till this age, is significant as betokening the entrance of a new race and of new customs, if not of new beliefs. The inhumation of the body was, beyond doubt, the earliest mode of sepulture in our country. Its first inhabitants had brought this custom with them from their eastern home, and continued to practice it, and, accordingly, in the very oldest cairns and cists the skeleton is found laid out at its full length, and one consequence of its long entombment is that on the opening of the cist, and the admission of air, the bones fall in dust and the skeleton disappears under the gaze. But in the bronze age there is a change: this most ancient and patriarchal method of burial is discontinue. The presence of the cinery vase in the grave shows that the body was first burned, and they the ashes were collected and put into an urn. This treatment of the dead has classic example to recommend it. Every one knows that the Greeks and Romans placed the bodies of their departed warriors and philosophers on the funeral pyre. Homer has grandly sung the burning of the bodies of Hector and Patroclus on the plain of Troy: the kindling of the pile over-night, the quenching of the flames at dawn with libations of wine, and the raising over the inurned ashes of the deceased heroes that mighty tumulus that still attracts the gaze of the traveller as he voyages along that shore. But despite the halo which these high classic examples throw around the funeral pyre, we revolt from it. It shocks the reverence which clings even to the bodies of those whom we have revered and loved while they were alive. From these grand obsequies on the Trojan plain we turn with a feeling of relief to the simple yet dignified scene in the Palestinian vale, where the Hebrew Patriarch is seen following his dead to hide it out of his sight in the chambers of the earth. This mode of sepulture, that is, by incremation, would seem to have been only temporary. When we come later down the cinery urns disappear from the graves, and we are permitted to conclude that the Caledonians ceased to light the funeral pyre, and reverted in their disposal of their dead to the more ancient and certainly more seemly rite of laying them in the earth.2

With bronze, too, came a marked improvement on the dress of the natives. Their clothing hitherto had alternated betwixt a coat of fur, which was worn in winter, and a garment of linen, which formed their summer attire. The former cost them little trouble, save what it took to hunt the boar or other beast of prey and compel him to give up his skin for the use of his captor. The latter they wove from the little flax which they had learned to cultivate. But they needed a stuff more suitable for clothing in a moist and variable climate than either the hide of ox or the light fabric of linen. A woollen garment was what they wanted as intermediate betwixt and one of fur and one of flax. But in the stone age it does not appear that they knew to weave wool in cloth. Probably their implements were at fault. But the arrival of bronze got them over the difficulty. It supplied them with finer tools, and now an advance takes place in the arts of spinning and weaving. They had now less need to rob the bear of his skin, or slaughter the ox for his hide. The wool of their flocks would furnish a garment more suitable for most purposes than even these. Accordingly, woollen cloth now begins to make its appearance. And from this time we can imagine the Caledonian, when he went a-field, wrapping himself in his woolen plaid, or donning his woolen cloak and cap, while his legs are encased in leather, and his feet are thrust into sandals of skin.

But it is in the agriculture of the country that the main change that followed the introduction of bronze is seen. The stone axe, with its edge so easily blunted, made the process of clearing the forest a slow and laborious one. The oaks and firs that covered Scotland yielded to the axe only after long and painful blows, and it was with immense toil that a small patch was redeemed for pasture, or for growing a little grain. In truth, the clearances were mostly effected by the agency of fire. But when bronze made its appearance the Caledonian became master of the great forests that environed and hemmed him in. His pasturages stretched out wider and wider; the golden grain was seen where the dark wood had waved. The beasts of prey decreased, their covert being cut down. If the hunter had now less scope for the exercise of the chase, and his venison began in consequence to grow scarce, he could make up for the lack of that food in which he delights by a freer use of the flesh of his flocks and herds. There came to be no lack of corn and milk; and the morasses beginning to be drained, not only was the face of the country beautified, but the air above it became drier and more salubrious. Such is the evidence furnished by the contents of the refuse-heaps of the bronze age, found in the caves, in barrows, in lake-dwellings, and in ancient burial-places.3

It is the admixture of tin with copper that gives us bronze. Copper is one of the most abundant of the higher metals, but it is also one of the softest, but when alloyed with tin in the proportion of from a tenth to a twelfth per cent., copper acquires the hardness requisite to fit it for all the purposes to which bronze was put. And as this is the proportion found in the bronze relics which have been dug up in the various countries, it is thence inferred that bronze was diffused from one centre, and that centre in Asia Minor. Brass is a later and different metal. It is the admixture of zinc with copper, and is not found in use till we come down to the rise of the Roman empire.4 The invention of bronze carries us back to an unknown antiquity.


1. Smith, Ancient History, iii. 259-270. Lond. 1868.

2. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals of Scotland, Chap. V., vi., vii. Edin. 1851.

3. See Dawkin’s "Early Man in Britain," chap. xxi., for their works from which the above facts are gleaned, and on which the deductions stated in the text are founded.

4. Anderson’s "Scotland in the Pagan Times and the Iron Age," p. 223



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