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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 20 - The Cradle of the Scots

The drama in Scotland opens before the arrival of the main actors in it. The Scots had not yet appeared in the country, nor was there at this time a Scotland in existence—that is, a country passing under that name. But it does not therefore follow that the recital we have given is aside from the main story, or that the events we have detailed refer to a race wholly distinct from that which forms the Scottish nation of the present hour. On the contrary, the men with whom the Romans maintained so arduous a warfare, and whose country the masters of the world were able only partially to subdue, contributed their blood and bravery to form that heroic race which, in a subsequent age, fought under the standards of Bruce, and which, in a still larger age, rallied to the nobler battle for freedom which was led by Knox. In order to the formation of that race, there must be the accession of new elements, and there must also be the engrafting of finer qualities, but all this is seen to take place upon the aboriginal stock. There is no routing out of the old trunk, no planting of a new tree. The old root—the top rising continually higher, and the branches spreading ever wider around--which had hold of the ground when Agricola crossed the Tweed with his legions, and which refused to be torn up, even by the iron of Rome, remained fixed in the soil, and still stands rooted in it.

But what was destined to form the main constituent in the nationality now in process of formation had not yet arrived, and for the coming of the Scots, preparation had to be made both in the country they were to occupy, and on the race with which they were to be mingled, and which they were to impregnate with their higher qualities. We have seen what manner of country Caledonia was when history first raises the curtain and permits us a sight of it; and we have seen, too, what manner of men they were who inhabited it. Country and inhabitant alike present themselves before us in all the rudeness and savageness of nature. The former is scarred and broken, upheaved in sterile mountains, or laid down in swampy plains by the long continued action of volcanic fires, and the storms of countless winters, the only agents which as yet have moulded it; and the latter is deformed by the play of ignoble passions and familiarity with rude and violent pursuits; and yet in both are latent capabilities far beyond what the keenest observer might have guessed to be present, and which wait only the hour of development. Dreary as is the aspect of the country—a far extending vista of marsh and woodland, shut in by a wall of rocky mountain, and the sun able only at times to struggle through its thick air; yet its frame-work is such, that the hand of culture and skill may contrive to create in it landscapes more picturesque, and to fashion it as a whole into a more perfect and complete country than perhaps is to be met with in any other corner of Europe. And as regards the natives who know only as yet to paint their bodies to brandish the spear, to hunt the boar, and to shout their war-whoop as they join battle with the foe, they furnish a hardy and vigorous stock which, when its native robustness shall have been tempered by an engrafting of the nobler qualities of knowledge and patriotism, many one day yield fruits which will delight the world.

It is necessary to cast a glance back on that great movement of the early nations, which resulted in the second peopling of the earth. This will enable us to guess at the relation of the Scots to the other branches of mankind, and assign them their true place in the genealogical tree of the world. We have followed, in the early chapters of our history, the great wave of population, which, rising in the mountains of Armenia, and flowing northward betwixt the Exude and the Caspian, rolled down the slopes of the Caucasus, and finally touched the shores of Britain. We know only the beginning and the end of this great march, but that enables us with certainty to infer much of what lay between. When history returns to the scene, reinforced by the light of archeology and etymology, we can discern that this great people, though divided into numerous septs, are sprung of the same stock, the Gomeric—the same that set out ages before from the heights of Armenia.

This great Cimric family, which needed no inconsiderable part of the northern hemisphere to accommodate its prolific swarms, was again divided into two great septs or clans. We drop out of view the numerous smaller tribes, each occupying its own little territory, and each bearing its special name, of which these two great divisions of the Cimric race were composed. The mention of them would but confuse our aim, which is to present a general outline of the ethnical arrangement of Europe, say from one thousand to five hundred years B.C., in order to reach the native regions of the Scots, and fix the particular branch of the great ancestral tree on which they grew. The one Cimric family are divided into the northern and southern. The northern, who inhabit from the shores of the German Ocean to the confines of Asia, and beyond, are known by the general name of Scythians.1 The southern, who dwell in Belgium and France, and overflow—for their lands were fertile—into the mountains of Switzerland and the north of Spain, were the Gauls. Both peoples, as Tacitus informs us, spoke the same language, though differing slightly in dialect, and that language was the Gallic or Celtic.

In process of time the memory of their common parentage was lost, and the tribes or nations of later formation, the Scythians and the Gauls, began to weigh heavily upon the early Cimric races, by whom the various countries of Europe—empty till their arrival—had been peopled. The Scythic or Gallic masses began to shift about and gravitate to larger or more fertile territories, and the result of this pressure was to become mixed with their neighbours, and in some instances to displace them, and occupy, in their room. It was thus that Britain, whose population till now was the early Cimric, received into it three new varieties, the Gaul, the Pict, and the Scot. There exists abundant evidence to show that all the inhabitants of Britain, from this early period onward, were all sprung from the same stock, though they arrived in our island by different routes, and are known by different names. There is a remarkable agreement on this point among the writers of highest antiquity and of greatest weight. And their testimony is corroborated by the evidence arising from substantial identity of language and similarity of religious rites. The ancient BRETONS, who were most probably the early Cimric settlers, for the Cimric are found in Britain a thousand years before Christ; and the PICTS, the same people with the Caledonians; the BELGAE, or Gauls, in the south of England; and the SCOTS, in the west Highlands, were but four several branches from the same root, and that root Gallic or Celtic.1

The three quarters whence came the three importations by which the aboriginal population of Britain was partly mixed and partly displaced, were Germany, Gaul, and Spain. When Caesar invaded Britain, he tells us that he found the inhabitants of the south of England, Belgic, that is, the Galli. He concluded, and concluded rightly, from the strong similarity betwixt the population of the south of England and the great nation of the Gauls on the hither shores of what are now known as France, Belgium, and Holland, and their substantial identity in speech, in manners, in their style of building, and in their mode of fighting, that the former were a colony from across the channel, which the hope of plunder had drawn into Britain, and the rich pastures and milder climate of their new country retained in it. Tacitus, writing a century later, agrees in this opinion. And Bede, in the eighth century of our era, adds his testimony, when speaking of the same people; he says, "They were Celts, and came from Armorica," that is, Britany.

Caesar, moreover, made inquiry touching the sort of people that occupied the interior of the island, but could learn nothing of them. There were no written records, no traditions, and no monuments to throw light on their origin. He could tell neither the time when they arrived in Britain, nor the country whence they came, and in these circumstances he had recourse to the Greek idea, even that they were aborigines, that is, men sprung from the soil on which they lived.

We now turn our eyes in another quarter. Our main interest centres in that multitudinous horde which have found a dwelling beneath the northern Bear, and who go under the general name of Scythians. "The original principle of motion," observes Gibbon, "was concealed in the remote countries of the north." It is not difficult to discover the latent cause to which the historian refers, and which has given birth to the numerous emigrations, at times destructive, and at times beneficent, which the north has sent forth. It converted the vast tract of land in Europe vaguely described as Scythia, extending from the Exude to the shores of the Rhine, into a fountain-head of nations.3 The snowstorms and icy winds of that region made it the nursing-ground of hardy constitutions, and of adventurous and valourous spirits. Journandes called it the "workshop of nations."4 Its inhabitants were strong of arm and keen of eye; they were bold riders and dexterous bowmen. Their occupation was shepherds, but to the patient labourers of the fold they added the active exercises of the chase. They maintained their vigour, and perfected their courage and skill, by daily combats with the angry wild boar, or the not less ferocious tiger, ever ready to spring upon them from the thicket. And thus, though no two modes of life appear to lie farther apart than the pastoral and the military, all experience has demonstrated that the hardihood and patience learned in the one is an admirable training for the endurance and daring required in the other, and that nothing is easier than to transform the shepherd into the warrior. The terrible phalanxes which, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, did battle, at times as the allies, and at times as the enemies of Austria, were drawn from among the herdsmen of the Alps; and in their own day, in the British army, the regiments most distinguished for their heroism are those which have been recruited from the sheep-walks of Sutherlandshire. Scythia, a land of shepherds, became a school of war, and a camp of soldiers.

If we are to believe the Greek writers, this people were as distinguished for their strength of understanding as for their vigour of body. Dio bears his testimony to their intelligence. Thucydides says that the Scythians in point of valour and wisdom were the first of nations.5 And Herodotus testifies that they were both learned and wise.6 The names still survive of individuals among them eminent in law, in medicine, in philosophy, and in poetry. As regards their courage, let their enemies testify. When no Roman could be found to lead the armies of the empire in its last struggles for existence, two generals of this nation, Stilicho, a Vandal, and Belisarius, of Thrace, by their intrepidity and valour delayed for a short space, they could not prevent, the fall of Rome. In that age it was to Scythia, not to Italy, that men might turn in the hope of finding the virtues of temperance, of fortitude, of hospitality and humanity.

It is true, no doubt, that Scythia has become to be equivalent, in the vulgar apprehension, to Barbaric. But, as has been well observed, "their enemies have been their historians." There are some to whom virtue in a garment of Scythian fur will appear barbarism, and vice in the spangled robes of dissolute Italy, civilisation. The Scythians formed a main element in the Gothic inundation which, when the "original principle of motion, which was concluded in the countries of the north," had attained its perfect development, and the cup of Rome was full, rolled down upon the effeminate empire and crushed it. And though we have no wish to diminish the terrors, the sufferings, and the agonies of that awful time, it may yet be doubted whether the sack and burning and slaughter which accompanied the overthrow of the empire by the Goths was nearly so great as the butcherings and blood-sheddings, the holocausts of cities, and tribes and nations, by means of which Rome had, in a former age, effected the conquest of the world. It was partial displacement, not total extermination which the Goths inflicted. The victors mingled with the vanquished, and soon became one people with them. They did not destroy with blind barbaric rage; on the contrary, they spared much which they deemed tasteful in architecture, wise in legislation, and good in institutions. In that invasion, it is true, there were leaders of terrible name, for the mention of Attila and his Huns still thrills us, and it is also true that the progress of the northern arms was marked by some scenes which are to be ranked amongst the darkest in history; yet, as Pinkerton has observed, the preservation of "the language of Italy, France, and Spain, which is mere Latin corrupted by time, sufficiently shows that very few of the old inhabitants perished." "The Romans," he adds, "often shed more blood in one war than the Goths in conquering the Roman empire.5

In pursuing our argument, we have been carried past that point in our narrative where the Scots make their first appearance, not indeed as yet as a distinct nationality, for they still lie embedded in the great Scythic mass, and have not been blocked out, and made to stand apart on the human stage. We must turn back some centuries. Prior to the general outbreak of the Scythic nations by which the Roman empire was overthrown, smaller emigrations had gone forth from this prolific source of young and hardy races. About five hundred years before Christ, according to ancient writers, the Scythians began to press upon the Cimbri, or Celts, and pushing them before them, compelled they to fall back into the western parts of Europe, which they had been the first to people. One of these adventurous bands, by a long and circuitous route, found its way to Scotland. Almost all ancient testimony points to Scythia as the original cradle of the Scottish race.

And first, as to the name Scots. Though, as Innes8 observes, it is not met with till the third century, it can hardly be questioned that it is the same as Scyths. There is a resemblance betwixt Scythae and Scoti, and only a difference in the pronunciation according to the different accent of the several peoples that spoke of them. Thus as Gethi, Gethicus, are the same as Gothi, Gothicus, so also from Scythoe, Scythicus, come Scoti, Scoticus. Gildas, in the sixth century,9 and Nennius in the ninth, use the names Scyuthoe and Scoti for the same people.

King Alfred, in his translation of Bede, and other writers of that time, use Scytisc for Scottish, so that Scyt and Scot were synonymous. Several of the classic writers do the same thing, making use of Scythia and Scotia, and Scyth and Scot alternately. The Irish writers uniformly say that the Scots were Scythians, and Nennius tells us the same thing.10 Ware confirms this origin of the nation when he shows that Scythoe and Scoti were but different names for the same people, and that both are called Scutten by the Germans.11 The two names, Scythe and Scot, signify the same thing—an archer or bowman. The Welsh, as Camden observes, call both Scythians and Scots by the term Y-Scot. And from them the Romans, who now began to encounter them on the battle-field, called them Scoti.

We see the colony of shepherds and hunters setting out from their northern dwelling uncertain where their journey may end. They do not, like other emigrants, leave home and country behind them. Their tent is their home, and their camp is their country, and around them are their associates, their herds and flocks, and their whole possessions. Every few days’ march places them under fairer skies, and in the midst of richer pastures. They seek, if haply they may find a country which has not yet been drained, nor have the dykes of Holland been built to restrain the waves of the North Sea which overflow where, in a future age, meadows with their kine, and fair cities with their thriving populations are to be seen.

The Scythic host go on still towards the south. They are now in the territory of the Belgae. A vast champaign country; its surface, which is made up of woods, grazings, cultivated fields, and towns, stretches onwards to the Alps. The emigrants which we beheld leaving Scythia have been buried on the way, and the bands we now see wandering hither and thither amid the rivers, forests, and vinelands of Gaul are their sons of the second or third generation. The richer soil on which they now tread, invites them to become cultivators and strike permanent root, but the disposition to wander is still strong in them, and the Belgae are no ways enchanted with the prospect of having as neighbors those children of the north, who can play the warrior as well as the shepherd, and who may one day become their masters. They may pass through Gaul, but they cannot remain in it.

From this point two routes are open to them. They may traverse the Pyrenees and descend on Spain, or they may cross the sea and enter Ireland. Should they adopt the first, there ample room for their swarms on that magnificent and fertile expanse, which stretches along at the foot of the Pyrenees, now known as the plains of Castile; or, if that tract is claimed by earlier comers, they can turn to the vast and goodly mountain-chain that runs along on its northern edge, pushing its bold, towering masses far into the Atlantic, now known as Cape Finisterre. There they may follow the pursuits which had occupied them in their primeval home. The valley will afford pasturage for their flocks, and they can hunt the boar in their woods and rocks. Or, if they should direct their march on Ireland, they will find a thinly-peopled island ready to receive them, with a milder air than northern Gaul, and richer pastures, which the midsummer heats do not burn up.

The common tradition is, that they came round by Spain. Their stay in that country would seem not to have been long. The Iberia of that day was the battle-ground of the Carthagenians and the Romans, and the Scythic colony, or Scots, for we must begin to call them by the name, which they were afterwards to bear, quitted a land that was full of roils and misery, and crossed the sea to Ireland. Hardy and warlike, they fought their way from the south to the north of the island, and there, growing into a numerous people, they sent across a large colony, or, rather, successive colonies, to Scotland, which laid the foundations of the Scottish nation.

We have followed, as above, the course of these emigrants which, describing a compass by Gaul and Spain and Ireland, ultimately entered Scotland on the west. From them springs the line proper of Scottish nation. But some considerable time before their arrival, a body of kindred people had entered Scotland on its eastern side. The great Scythic stream flowing southward would seem to have parted on its way, and the diverging current, taking a westward course, crossed from Jutland to our shores; or, it may be, this last was an independent migration, originating in the same prolific region, and set in motion by the same propelling principles as the migration of which we have spoken. Travelling by a shorter route, they anticipated the others, and appeared in Scotland, probably about three hundred years before Christ. Nennium says that the Picts came to Orkney nine hundred years after Eli, which would fix their arrival in our island at the period we have mentioned, and would make it contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the supposed entrance of the Belgae into southern Britain.12

Tacitus, who is the first to mention them by the name of Caledonians, gives it as his opinion that they were of German origin. 13 And Bede says that they came from Scythia, the vague appellation, as we have said, of northern Europe. Though of Scythian origin, and therefore the kindred of the Scots, they do not make their appearance in history under that name, but as Picts or Caledonians. The former name they received most probably from their custom of painting of tattooing their bodies, after the manner of certain tribes inhabiting about the parts from which they had come. Displacing the ancient Cymric inhabitants, or, what is more probable, mingling with them, they came to occupy the eastern half of Scotland.

They brought with them to our island the northern iron. Nursed amid the icy blasts of Scythia, the rains and frosts of Caledonia did not dismay them. They were wild, hardy, brave. Their swift foot and sure eye bore them in safety over the treacherous bog, and through the gloomy, trackless wood. They were addicted to the chase, as the relics of their feasts attest. They were terrible in battle. They met Agricola at the foot of their own Grampians, and conducted themselves in such a manner as fully to satisfy his legions of their intrepidity and skill in war.

They rushed on the foe in their chariots. To their early predecessors, the Cymri, the war-car was unknown. We trace in this an advance in the arts. They joined the battle with a shout: they grappled with the enemy at close quarters, and while covering themselves with their small, round shields, they strove to pull their antagonist from his horse or his car, with their long hooks, and despatch him with their swords. Their common dead they buried: their great men they honoured by burning, selecting the most odorous of their woods for his funeral pile. The ashes were put into an earthen urn, and the barrow thrown up was in proportion to the rank of the chief whose remains it covered.

Their dress was a skin thrown over their shoulders, and a cloth tied round their loins. The Roman writers, who saw them only in summer, speak of them as going naked. It is possible that even their scanty winter clothing they deemed an encumbrance in the warmer months, and went abroad in their bare skin, the rich fanciful picturings on which were to them as a garment; a more modest attire, after all, than the transparent robes in which the Roman beauties of the period were beginning to array themselves. Their power of enduring hunger was great. They could subsist for days on the roots that were readiest to hand. But when they feasted, their voracity made amends for the rigour of their previous abstinence. They mustered in rows along the four sides of their great hall, their chief in the middle. The board groaned under whole carcases of roast boar, reindeer, horses, and oxen. To this substantial fare, freely partaken of was added a pot of goodly dimensions, brimful of mead or beer, from which the guests drank as oft and as deeply as they pleased, using for this purpose cups made of horn Then came the song of the bards, celebrating the last fought battle, and bestowing fitting praise on the heroes who had fallen in it. It was loud, wild, passionate, and highly metaphorical, but the better adapted on that account to delight an audience no ways critical.

The tiger and other beasts of prey have their combats and their victories, but they never celebrate their wars in verse. Their conflicts never rise above the low groove of mere animal passion and brute rage. Not so man: not so even barbarian man. With his combats there always mingle in some degree mental and moral sentiments. It is these when the strife is over, and the animal passions have subsided, that vent themselves in song. Hence war, with all its miseries, is, in rude ages, an educating and elevation process. The beasts fight for food or to gratify their rage, and never get beyond these sordid objects. The lion is not a more chivalrous combatant to-day than he was a thousand years ago. He but caters for his cubs, or he ravens for himself. Man fights, first, to display his prowess, next he combats for his clan, and finally he does battle for country and liberty, all the while the brute instinct in him is weakening, and the higher faculties are developing apace, and embracing in their aims still grander objects. Of the songs of love and war sung on the occasions, and they were many doubtless, not one remains. The very language of the Picts has perished. Only one word has come down to us, preserved by Bede, Peanfahel.15 It is thought to mean "the head of the wall," that is, the eastern end of Antonine’s wall, and to be identical in site with the modern town of Keneil. The universal language of Europe at that day was the Celtic in its various dialects, and it is probable that the speech of the Picts differed only slightly from that of the Scots, the Welsh, and the Gauls. It is hardly necessary to add that the religion of the Pict was Drudism, and he repaired to the oak wood and the stone circle to worship


1. "The ancients," say Strabo, "commonly called the northern people Scythes." —Strabo, lib. xi.

2.Such is the conclusion at which Buchanan arrives, after an exhaustive examination of all existing Greek and Latin authorities, together with the early English chroniclers, and though Pinkerton demurs somewhat to Buchanan’s conclusion, it has not been seriously disturbed, much less overthrown, and may now be said to be all but universally acquiesced in.

3. Tacitus and Pomponius Mela call this vast tract Germany, and make it include all the northern nations of Europe to the Artic Ocean. Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny, and, after them, Bede, speak of it as Scythia.

4. Jornandes, De Rebus Giticis, lib. i. cap. 4.

5. Thucyd., lib. ii. cap. 21.

6. Herod., lib. iv. Cap. 46.

7. Pinkerton, Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians, or Goths, Preface, xi.

8. Innes, vol. ii. 536, Lond. 1729.

9. Gildas, cap. 15.

10. Pinkerton, ii. 46.

11. Pinkerton, ii. 49.

12. Innes (Crit. Essay, vol. i. p. 47) makes the Picts a detachment of the Belgae, and brings them from Gaul. There is nothing in this inconsistent with the view given in the text. They were not Cymric, but Celtic, and were probably, the second grand immigration which reached our shores, coming either by way of Gaul, or across the German Ocean. The Picts are first mentioned by Eumenius in his panegyric on Constantius, A.D. 297, then by Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century. They appear too, in the verse of Claudian. Dr. Skene, in his "Four Ancient Books to Wales," says, "The inferences to be drawn from tradition clearly range the Picts as a people with the Gaelic division of the great Celtic race." In the sixth century the Picts of Buchan were the same race as the Scots of Down

13.Tacit., Vit. Agric., c. 11.

14. The Geloni in Thrace, Virgil informs us, were accustomed so to adorn themselves. And Claudian, speaking of them (lib. i.), says, "Membraque qui ferro gaudit pinxisse, Geloniis."

"And the Geloni who delight

Their hardy limbs with iron to imprint."

The same poet mentions the Getae in Thrace as ornamenting their bodies in a like fashion. Other Gothic tribes did the same. When the Romans built their wall across the island, it is probably that of the natives whom it parted in two, all on the south, under the sway of Rome, ceased to paint their bodies, while those on the north continued the practice, and so were specially denominated Picts.

15. So was it when Sir Walter wrote the "Antiquary," Since that time there has been discovered a considerable number of Pictish words. The phonetic changes in these exhibit Pictish as occupying an intermediate place betwixt Cymric and Gaelic. Dr. Skene thinks that Cymric and Gaelic has each a high and low dialect, like high and low German, and that Pictish was a low Gaelic dialect.—Forbes’ Life of St. Ninian; Histories of Scotland, vol. v. p. 277; Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, p. 138.



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