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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 6 - The Iron Age

The iron age is a sort of twilight between the utter night of the stone and bronze periods and the morning of history. Of all the metals iron is by far the most useful. This superiority it owes to its greater hardness, which permits, especially when converted into steel, tools to be made of it which are equally adapted for the most delicate operations and the roughest labours. With iron we can trace the finest line on the precious stone, or hew a pathway into the bowels of the mountain. When man came into possession of this metal, he wielded that one of all the material instrumentalities which was the fittest to give him the mastery of the globe. Man could now till the earth, quarry the rock, dig into the mine, clear the forest, build cities, and enclose them within impregnable ramparts. But what, perhaps, most pleased the Caledonian of that age was that he could now ride forth to battle in his war chariot, brandishing his flashing weapons, and blazing in a coat of mail.

But if the first result of the introduction of iron, as in the case of bronze, was the dismal one of increased battle-carnage, aftertimes were to bring a compensation for this initial evil in the indefinite multiplication of the resources of art. The half-trained savage, as he busies himself smelting the ore and hammering the metal to forge therewith an instrument of slaughter, little dreams that he is in reality a pioneer of peace. And yet it is so. He is making proof of a substances whose many unrivalled properties need only to be known to convince man that he now holds in his hand an instrument of such potency that compared with it Thor’s famous hammer was but a reed. When the qualities of iron shall have been tested and ascertained, man will be able to harness and set working in his service the mighty forces of steam and electricity. And when this has come to pass, the savage shall have grown into a sovereign with not an element in earth, in sea, or in air, which is not his willing subject and servant. The mountain will part asunder to give him passage, the billows of the Atlantic will support his steps, and the lightning will run on his errands to the ends of the earth.

In Asia, it is probable, was the discovery made that iron-stone is an ore, and can be smelted and wrought like the more ductile bronze. At all events, it is in that quarter of the world that we come upon the first historic traces of this metal. The Homeric heroes are seen fighting with weapons of bronze and of iron. The dream of Nebuchadnezzar makes it undoubted that iron was known in Chaldea in his day. This metal formed an important part of the colossal figure that stood before the king in his sleep.1 From the ancient centres—Egypt, Assyria, and Phoenicia—iron slowly made its way westward. Hesiod (B.C. 850) tells us that in his day it had superseded bronze among the Greeks. The Aryan races, which were the first to settle in Europe, were ignorant of metals. Not so the Celtae which succeeded them. They excelled in the metallurgic arts, and if not the first teachers of the Romans in them, they greatly advanced their knowledge and proficiency. The Norici, a Celtic tribe, inhabiting near the Danube, and to whom is ascribed the art of converting iron into steel, are believed to have supplied the Romans with iron weapons in their life and death struggle with Carthage. In the days of Augustus, a Noric sword was as famous at Rome as a "Damascus blade" or an "Andrew Ferrara" in after times. From the Mediterranean iron travelled into northern Europe by the ordinary channels of commerce, and finally made its appearance in Britain. The Caledonians were, doubtless, at first dependent on the southern nations for their supply, but only for a time, for their country abounds in iron ore; and from the day that they learned the art of smelting, they were wholly independent of their neighbours for their supply of this useful metal. In the days of Caesar the native mines yielded, we know, enough for the needs of the inhabitants. Their implements and weapons were now of iron; their personal ornaments were formed of the same metal, along with bronze, which though now dismissed from the service of the arts, was still retained in the business of personal ornamentation.

The change which iron brought with it in the arts and uses of life, was neither so sudden or so radical as that which was attendant on the introduction of bronze. It was not to be expected that it would. The transition from bronze to iron was not by any means so great as that from stone to bronze. The change now effected was simply a change from an inferior metal to a higher. Many of the purposes served by iron had been served by bronze, though not so well. Custom and prejudice were on the side of the older metal. The savage would be slow to discard the tools which had served him aforetime, or to cast aside the ornaments in which he had taken no little pride, and which he might even deem more fitting than those, so lacking in glitter, as ornaments of iron. Besides, iron at first was doubtless the more costly. Though the most abundant of all the metals, its ore is the most difficult to smelt. It fuses only under an intense heat. But its greater utility at last carried the day and brought it into general use, first of all on the field of battle. Self-preservation being the first law of nature, man will always make choice of the best material within its reach for the weapons with which he defends himself. The bronze sword was adapted only for attack. The warrior who was armed with it could deal a thrust, but he could not parry the return blow. His sword of cast bronze was apt to shiver like glass, It was useless as a weapon of fence. This revolutionised the battle-field; and we begin to find the record of that revolution in the cists and cairns. The leaf-shaped bronze sword disappears and the iron brand comes in its room. The shape of the weapon, too, is different. The sword has now a guarded handle. It is clear that the warrior used it to parry the blow of his antagonist as well as seal a thrust, and this necessitated some contrivance for guarding his sword-hand.2

From the battle-field and the dreadful work there required of it, iron passed into the kindlier and lovelier uses of social and domestic life. And for some of the uses to which it was now put, iron would seem to be but little adapted, as, for instance, that of personal adornment. The modern beauty would think iron a poor substitute for gold in the matter of jewelry, and would feel nothing but horror in the prospect of appearing at the concert or in the ballroom as the horse appears in the battle, harnessed in iron. But not so her sisters of two or three thousand years ago. They deemed that their charms had not justice done them unless they were set off in iron bracelets, iron anklets, and other trinkets of the same unlovely metal. Even their lords, who were hardly less enamoured of personal ornaments that their ladies, wore, Herodian tells us, their iron neck-collars and iron girdles as proudly as Roman his insignia of the finest gold; another proof, by the way, of the adage that there is no disputing about matters of taste. This much, however, can be said for the Caledonian, even that the metal was novel, that it was probably rare and costly, and therefore was deemed precious. Nor was the Caledonian done with these things when he died. He took them with him to the grave, that he might appear in a manner befitting his rank in the spirit worlds. He would wear them in Odin’s Hall.

Iron, too, was used in the coinage of our country. The current money of our island in those days consisted in good part of iron coined into small rings. So Caesar informs us. Iron money has this advantage over gold, it better resists the tear and wear of use; and this may have recommended it to the Caledonians. We can imagine our ancestors going a-marketing provided with a score of two of these little iron rings. The Caledonian wishes to provide himself with a skin coat, or a plaid of the newest pattern and brightest colours, or a hand-guarded iron sword, for flint arrow-heads and bronze-tipped spear are now antiquated; or he would like to grace his table with a drinking-cup, or a bowl, or other utensil turned on the wheel; or he aspired to present his better-half with a bracelet or a finger-ring, and having counted the cost and found that he is master of the requisite number of iron rings, he sets off to effect the purchase. The seller hands over the goods and takes the rings in payment; they are current money with the merchant. We moderns like to combine the beautiful with the useful even in these every-day matters. It gratifies our loyalty as well as our taste to see the image of our sovereign, bright and gracious, every time we handle her coin. The Caledonian did not understand such subtle sentimentalities. The iron rings he traded with bore neither image nor superscription. They did his turn in the market nevertheless, and he was therewith content.

A gold coinage appears to have been not altogether unknown even them. "Little doubt is now entertained by our best numismatists," says Wilson, "that the coins of Comius and others of an earlier date than Cunobeline, or the first Roman invasion, include native British mintage.3 There is no question at any rate that they circulated as freely in Britain as in Gaul, and have been found in considerable quantities in many parts of the island. The iron or bronze or copper ring money of the first century must therefore be presumed as only analogous to our modern copper coinage, and not as the sole barbarous substitute for a minted circulating medium."

These rings, in some cases, at least, were interred with the dead, despite the saying of Scripture that we bring nothing with us into the world and shall carry nothing out of it. The departing in these ages carried with them the money with which they had traded in the markets of earth, or what portion of it their friends judged necessary. Here it is beside them in their graves, doubtless, in the idea that in some way or other it would be serviceable in the world beyond. The porter at the gate of Valhalla might be the more quick to open if he had the prospect of a gratuity. And the man to whom he gave admission—unless, indeed, this new world was altogether unlike the one from which he had come—would be all the more welcome that he was known to be not without assets, and might help his friends at a pinch. But not to dogmatise about the theory that underlay these burial ceremonies, the fact is undoubted that these little rings are found in the graves and cists of that ancient time lying alongside the skeleton of their former owner. The discovery, however, makes us little the wiser. The great enemy of iron is rust. The hardest of all the metals, it more quickly succumbs to corrosion than any of the others. The ring money found in the old graves cannot be described, because it cannot be handled and examined. It is found, on the opening of the tomb, to be nothing but a circlet of brown rust. The thin gold ornaments dug up at Mycenae, and now in the museum at Athens, are as old, at least, as our ring money, and yet they can be seen and handled at this day. Not so the iron coinage of our forefathers. Not infrequently does it happen, when their graves are opened, that the small rings remain visible for a few minutes, and then, along with their companion skeleton, dissolve in ashes.

The cists and graves testify to the new face that began to appear on our northern and barbarous country on the coming of iron. With it the streaks of the historic dawn begin to be seen on the horizon. The isolation of the land is now well nigh at an end. The Britons in the south are seen crossing and recrossing the channel in frequent intercourse with their neighbors and kinsfolk the Belgae. The arts drawn them together. They understand one another’s speech. The coinage of the two nations passes from hand to hand on both sides of the sea. The tides of commerce flow more freely. The pulse of trade is quickened. State necessities, too, draw them to each other, and tend to cement their friendship. Rome is advancing northward, and wherever she comes she imposes her yoke, and the Britons, desirous, no doubt, of keeping the danger from their own door, send secret assistant to the Belgae in resisting the advances of their great enemy. The influences which this contact and commingling make operative in the south of the island extend into the north, bringing therewith a certain refinement to the Caledonian, and multiplying the resources of his art, of which we begin to find traces in that only writing he has left behind him—his cairns and cists, to wit. His art-designs are better defined, and also more graceful. He has better material to work with, and he does better work. He is gathering round him new appliances both for use and for ornament, and may now be said to stand on the level which the nations of Asia had reached five centuries before, or it may be earlier. His fighting equipage is now complete. He appears on the battlefield in his war-chariot; and when his battles come to an end, he takes it with him to the grave. For when we uncover his barrow, there are the iron wheels that were wont to career over the field, carrying dismay into the hostile ranks, resting in darkness—at peace, like the skeleton alongside. There, too, is his shield with its iron rim and studs, together with his sword, the prey, all of them, of the same devouring rust, but telling their tale, all the same, of bloody conflicts long since over. We have a glimpse, too, into the boudoirs of the period. We see the beauty performing her toilet with the help of a polished iron mirror; for when we open her cist, there, resting by her side, in the dark land, is the identical mirror in which she was wont to contemplate the image of her beauty when she lived beneath the sun; and there, too, are the trinkets of gold, of amber, and of other material which she wore above ground, and which she is entitled to claim in the world into which she has now passed.4

Of the thrifts and industries practised in the Scotland of those days, we have memorials not a few treasured up, unwittingly, long ago for our instruction in this latter age. Let us bestow a glance upon them. We have seen how the Caledonian could build, sagaciously planting his winter house far down in the warm earth, and summer retreat of twigs hard by in the open air. Now that he is in possession of iron tools, many improvements, doubtless, take place in the accommodation and furnishing of his hut. But he knows also to weave. The loom of that age, like its plough, was of the simplest construction, existing only in its rudiments. It survives, however, in the cairns and cists—the great storehouse of pre-historic records—and with it specimens of the cloth woven upon it. Here is the long-handed, short-toothed comb with which the thread, having been passed through the warp, was driven home. This, and the beam to which the threads were fastened, formed the loom. In the tumuli are found portions of cloth of a quality far from contemptible, and sometimes of bright and even beautiful colours. To create such fabrics on so rude a loom, argues both deftness and taste on the part of the workman. To pass from the weaver of the iron age to the potter, we trace, too, an advance in his art. The cups and vases dug up are more elegantly shaped and by means of a few waving lines, have a simple but graceful decoration given them. The art of glazing pottery—the colour commonly being green—has now been found out. From the potter’s wheel we come to an instrument of still greater importance in domestic life. The grain-stones are now laid aside, and the quern has come into their room. May we not infer from this that a greater breadth of corn has now began to be grown, and that the natives depend more on the field than on the chase for their subsistence, and may have regaled themselves on the same dish that may yet be seen on the breakfast tables of our own day. Nor are the cists silent respecting so humble an actor on the scene as the dog. The attendant of man in all stages of his career, we know that he followed the steps and looked up into the face of the Caledonian, savage though he was, for here the bones of dog and master lie together in the same grave. And when the Caledonian was no longer a savage, though still a barbarian, he had broken to his use, and attached to his person and service, a yet nobler animal—the horse, to wit. For here in the same barrow, beside the bones of the warrior, lie those of the steed that bore him into the battle, and mayhap carried him safely out of it. He shares the honour as he shared the perils of his master.

Nor did beauty in those days, any more than in ours, neglect the labours of disdain the aids of the toilet. Here are the whalebone combs, the bone and iron pins, and the articles of gold and amber and jet, which were employed in the arranging of the hair and the adorning of the person. These remain, but—such is the irony of the time—the charms they helped to set off have long since faded. The men of those days, too, made merry on occasion. Here are the drinking-cups, the goblets, and the vases that figured at their banquets, once bright and sparkling, but now encrusted with the rust of two thousand years and more. In vain we question these witnesses of the long past carousals touching the liquor that filled them, and the warriors and knights that sat round the board and quaffed, it, while the song of bard or the tale of palmer mingled in the loud din of the banqueting-hall. The climate of Scotland did not favour then, any more than in our day, the cultivation of the vine; but when denied the juice of the grape, man has seldom been at a loss to find a substitute, and commonly a more potent one. Our ancestors, I like the Germans, regaled themselves on a beverage brewed from a mixture of barley and honey, termed mead; and, though stronger than the simple wines of southern lands, it was greatly less so than the potent drinks with which the art of distillation has since supplied their descendants.

The cuisine of the Caledonians of that period was far from perfect. But, if their food was cooked in homely fashion, it was varied and nutritious, as the long preserved relics of their feasts testify. The museum at Bulak shows us on what luxuries the Egyptians of four thousand years ago regaled themselves. The buried hearth stones of our country show us the dainties on which the Scottish contemporaries of these old Egyptians were used to feed. The wheat-fields of Manitoba and Transylvania had not been opened to them. To the vineyards of Oporto and Burgundy they had no access. Of the tea and coffee plantations of China and Java they did not even dream. But their own island, little as had as yet been done to develop its resources, amply supplied their wants. They could furnish their boards from the cereals of their straths, the wild berries of their woods, the fish of their rivers, the milk and flesh of their herds, and the venison of their moors and mountains. There is not a broch in Orkney that does not contain the remains of the rein or red deer. The red deer does not exist in Orkney at this day; the animal continued down to about the twelfth century.

A marked feature in the Scottish landscape of those days was the broch. The broch was peculiar to Scotland; not a single instance of this sort of structured is to be found out of the country. The brochs were places of strength, and they tell of hostile visits to which Scotland was then liable, and which made it necessary for its inhabitants to provide for their safety. The brochs were build of dry stones; mark of tool is not to be seen upon them; nevertheless, their materials, though neither hewn nor embedded in mortar or lime, fit in perfectly, and make their walls compact and solid. When danger approached, we can imagine the whole inhabitants of a district leaving the open country and crowding into the broch with their goods, and finding complete protection within their strong enclosure. They were circular ramparts, in short, planted thick in some places—the districts doubtless, most liable to incursion—and they must have given a fortified look to the land. Their average height was 50 feet, their diameter 40, and the thickness of their wall from 12 to 15 feet. Their door was on the ground level, but, for obvious reasons, usually narrow and low. It was little over 3 feet in height and 2 in width. They were open to the sky within. Their thick wall was honey-combed with chambers, placed row above row, with a stair ascending within, and giving access to the circular chambers. Their windows looked into the area of the broch; their exteriors presented only an unbroken mass of building. In some instances they were provided with a well and a drain. There is not now one entire broch in Scotland, but their ruins are numerous. Not fewer than 370 have been traced in the country, mostly to the north of the Caledonian valley. More may have existed at one time, but their ruins have disappeared. The construction of these fabrics, so perfectly adapted to their purpose, argues a considerable amount of architectural skill on the part of their builders, and also a certain advance in civilization. The discovery of Roman coins, and the red glazed pottery of Roman manufacture in these brochs, indicate their existence and use down to the occupation of the southern part of Britain by the Romans.

There remains one point of great moment. What knowledge did the inhabitants of Scotland of that age possess of a Supreme Being and a future state? This is the inner principle of civilization, and, dissociated from it, no civilization is of much value, seeing it lacks the capability of being carried higher than a certain stage, or of lasting beyond a very brief period. What hold was this principle acquiring on our ancestors? We have only general considerations to guide us here.

Noah, before sending his sons forth to people his vast dominions, doubtless communicated to them, as we have said above, those Divine traditions which were their best inheritance, and which the posterity of Seth had carried down from Eden. He taught them the spirituality and unity of God; the institution of the Sabbath and marriage—the two foundation-stones of society; the fall of man, the promise of a Saviour, and the rite of sacrifice. These great doctrines they were to carry with them in their several dispersions, and teach to their sons. As one who had come up out of the waters of the deluge—the grave of a world—the words of Noah, spoken on the morrow of the tremendous catastrophe, would deeply impress themselves on the minds of his sons, and would remain for some considerable time, distinct and clear, in the memory and knowledge of their posterity. How long they did so we have no means of certainly knowing. Without a written record, and left solely to oral transmission, these doctrines, so simple and grand, and fully apprehended by Noah’s immediate descendants, would gradually come to be corrupted by additions, and obscured by allegory and legend. We know it to have been so as a fact. Hence the world of heathen mythology which grew up. And grafted itself on the men and events recorded in early Scripture. When the tenth or twentieth generation of the men who had sat at the feet of the great Patriarch arrived on the shores of Britain, it is natural to suppose that parts of the primeval revelation were lost, and that what of it was preserved was greatly obscured. But in the darkest eras of our country, as we shall afterwards see, the rites of the worship were publicly observed. And with worship there are necessarily associated two ideas—a Supreme Being, and a life to come.

There is one fact which throws a pleasing light on these remote times of our country—No idol or graven image has ever been dug up in our soil. The cists and cairns of our moors contain the implements of the hunter and of the warrior, but no traces of the image-markers—no gods of wood and stone. The museums of Egypt are stocked by the thousand with the gods her inhabitants worshipped in old time, and scarce can we cast up a shovelful of earth in Cyprus, but we find in it some memorial of pagan idolatry. In the lands of Italy, of Greece, of Assyria, and of India, long-buried deities are ever and anon cropping up and showing themselves in the light of the day, but no such phenomenon has ever occurred on the soil of Scotland. Ancient Caledonia would seem, by some means or other, to have been preserved from a taint which had polluted almost every other land. Relics of all sorts have been found in our soil, but never idol of British manufacture; nor is one such to be seen in any of our museums. "The relics," says Wilson, "recovered from the sepulchral mounds of the great valley of the Mississippi, as well as in the regions of Mexico and Yucatan, display numerous indications of imitative skill. The same is observable in the arts of various tribes of Africa, Polynesia, and of other modern races in an equally primitive state. What is to be specially noted in connection with this is, that both in the ancient and modern examples the imitative arts accompany the existence of idols, and the abundant evidences of idolatrous worship. So far as we know, the converse holds true in relation to the primitive British races, and as a marked importance is justly attached to the contrasting creeds and modes of worship and policy of the Allophylian and Aryan nations, I venture to throw out this suggestion as not unworthy of farther consideration.5

May we not infer from a circumstance so anomalous and striking that the ancient Briton had not lapsed into the gross polytheism top which the Greeks and Romans abandoned themselves. Lying off the highway of the world, and shut in by their four seas, they would seen to have been exempt, to a large extent, from the corrupting influences which acted so powerfully on the classic nations around the Mediterranean. They stood in "the old paths,’ while the latter, yielding to an idealistic and passionate temperament, plunged headlong into a devotion which at length crowded their cities with temples and altars, and covered their valleys and hills with gods and goddesses in stone.

We do not lay much stress—although some lay a great deal—upon the mode of burial practised by the ancient Briton as a means of spelling out his creed. His weapons were interred along with the warrior. "Why?" it has been asked. "Because," it has been answered, "it was an article of his belief that he would need them in the spirit world." In times still later, the war horse of the chief, his favourite hound, his attendants in the chase, or his followers on the battlefield, were all interred in company, that all might together resume, in a future life, the occupations and amusements in which they had been wont to exercise themselves in this. With fleeter foot would they chase the roe and hunt the boar. With even keener delight would they mingle in the strife of battle, and as on earth, so again in the world beyond, they would forget the toil of the chase and the peril of the conflict in the symposia of the celestial halls.

It was not within the gates of Valhalla only that the departed warrior was permitted to taste these supreme joys. Between him and the world in which he has passed his former existence, there was fixed no impassable gulf, and he had it in his power to return for a space to earth, and vary the delights of the upper sky with occasional pastime under "the pale glimpses of the moon." Popular belief pictured the spectral warrior mounted on spectral steed, returning from the halls of Odin and entering his sepulchral barrow and becoming for a while its inhabitant. There, joined by those with whom he had fought, and hunted, and revelled, and whose bones lay in the same funereal chamber with his own, he would renew those carousals with which it had been his wont to close a day of battle or of chase during the period of his mortal life. The tumulus or barrow was sacred to his memory. His spirit was believed to haunt it, and might on occasion hold fellowship with surviving relations and friends who chose to visit him in it. The wife would enter it and lie down by the side of her dead lord, in the idea of having communion with him, or she would bring meat and drink to regale him, which she would place in little cups provided for the purpose. Helge, one of the heroes of the Edda, returned from the hall of Odin on horseback, and entered his tumulus accompanied by a troop of horsemen. There his wife visited him, and for some time kept him company in his grave. This superstitious idea protected these barrows from demolition, and to it is owing the preservation of so many of them, forming as they do the only contemporaneous and authentic record we possess of the age to which they belong. On the advent of Christianity, burial with "grave-goods" ceased.

It is one of the lessons of history that unaided man, whatever his stage of civilization, always paints the life to come in colours borrowed from the life that now is. His heaven is the picture of earth. It is a freshened, brightened, glorified life which he promises himself, but still, in its essentials and substance, an earthly life. The thinking of the mightiest among the Greeks on the question of the life that is to come, moved, after all, in the same low groove with that of our early forefathers. The philosopher of Athens, when dying, fancied himself departing to another Academe, where the same subtle speculations, and the same intellectual combats, which had ministered so much pleasurable excitement to him in the Porch or in the Grove, would be resumed, with this difference, that there his powers would be immensely refined and invigorated, and consequently should have attendant on their exercise a far higher and purer happiness than he had ever tasted here. The idea of a new nature, with occupations and pleasures fitted to that new nature, was an idea unknown alike to the Greek and to the barbarian. It is a doctrine revealed in the Bible alone.


1. It is curious to mark that the order in which the four metals are arranged in the image of Nebuchadnezzar is the same with that, generally speaking, of their discovery and prevalent use in the world. In the image the head of gold came first; next the breast and arms of silver; then the belly and thighs of brass; and fourth, the legs of iron. In the earliest days gold was the most plentiful metal, though, from its great softness, of little practical use. It is found frequently with the bronze in our cists, and recent explorations in the plain of Troy attest its great abundance in that age. Next comes silver, though scarce, and represented by the short-lived kingdom of Medo-Persia. Third comes the period of bronze and brass, as exemplified in the powerful brazen-coated Greeks. And fourth comes the iron kingdom of Rome. These four metals came into use and dominancy in the same order in which they are seen in the image. The historic eras are, the golden, the silvern, and brazen, the iron.

2. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals; Dawkins, Early Man.

3. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals, pp. 353, 354.

4. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals of Scotland, ii. 146; Thurnam Davis, Crania Britannica, Part xii.; Greenwell, Ancient British Barrows, p. 450.

5. Wilson, Pre-historic Annals, pp. 341, 342.



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