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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 21 - The Coming of the Scots to Ireland

In the previous chapter we traced the progress of the Scots from Scythia, that "workshop of nations," to Ireland. There can be no doubt regarding their starting point; but there is some variety of opinion touching the route by which they travelled. They may have crossed from the Cymric Chersonesus, and passing betwixt the mainland of Scotland and the Orkneys, entering Ireland on the north. Or they may have taken the longer and more circuitous road by Gaul and Spain. There is a concurrence of early Irish tradition in favour of the latter route, and in deference to that tradition we have adopted it as that by which these Scythic emigrants travelled. But it is of more importance to inquire, at what time did the Scots arrive in Ireland?

Some have placed their advent so early as the tenth or twelfth century before Christ. This opinion has neither proof nor probability to support it. If the Scots were in Ireland ten centuries or even five centuries before the Christian era, how comes it that of the historians and geographers that speak of Ireland, not one mentions the name of the Scots till the third or fourth century? Ptolemy, the geographer, in the second century, enumerates some score of different races as inhabiting Ireland, but the Scot is not of the number. Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Mela, Tacitus, Pliny, though they mention Ireland, know nothing of the Scots. The name by which the country was then known among the writers who speak of it, was Hibernia, Ierne, or Britannia Minor; and they had no name for its inhabitants save Hyberni and Hyberionoe. The first writer in whose pages the term Scoti appears is Ammianus Marcellinus in the end of the fourth century, and he speaks of them as a people who had been wanderers through diverse countries, and who even yet were hardly settled down in their new homes.1 Having made their appearance, the Scots do not again pass out of view. On the contrary, they continue to make their presence in Ireland felt, as they do also in the country on the higher side of the Irish Channel; and hardly is there a writer of any eminence in the ages that follow who has not occasion to speak of them. Claudian, Jerome, Orosius, Gildas, all make mention of the Scots. This is wholly unaccountable on the supposition that this people had been resident in Ireland for twelve or thirteen centuries, but it perfectly accords with the theory that makes their arrival to fall at the beginning of the Christian era, or soon thereafter. As spoken of by their first historians, the Scots have about them the air of a new people. They are of hardier fiber that the soft and peace-loving aborigines among whom they have come to dwell, but with whom they do not mix. Ammianus hints that the disposition to roam was still strong in them, and already, before they have well established themselves in their new abodes, they are on the outlook for larger territories, and have their curraghs ready to pass over and explore the land, whose blue mountain-tops they can descry on the other side of the narrow sea.

The world was then on the eve of one of its greatest revolutions. The north was about to open its gates and send forth its numerous hardy races to overflow and occupy the fertile lands of the south. The manhood of the Greeks and Romans was extinct. There was neither piety in their temples, nor virtue in their homes. The Senate was without patriotism, and the camp without courage. A universal dissolution of moral principle had set in, and society lay overwhelmed. Unless the world was to stand still or perish, new races must be brought upon the stage. The Frank was to be planted in Gaul, the both was to inherit Spain, the Vandal was to have possessions in Africa, and the Ostrogoth and Lombard were to pitch their tents in Italy. Of all this offspring of the fruitful north, it is a historic fact that the Scot was the first born. He occupied the van in this great procession of nations which we see about to begin their march to the south: for he was the first to leave his northern home and set out in quest of a new country. He arrived too early on the scene to fare well in this new partition of Europe, for Rome was still strong, and kept the gates of her fairest provinces closed against the northern hordes. Had he come later, when the empire was more enfeebled, the Scot might have been able to choose his lot amid the corn-lands of Spain, or the vineyards of Italy, like the Goths, the Huns, and other swarms who follow him. As it was, he was constrained to turn northwards, and fix his abode under the humid skies of Ierne, and amid the heath-clad mountains of Caledonia. Nevertheless his was the better part. If the inheritance assigned him lay at the extremity of Europe, and looked rugged and barren, compared with the happier allotments of others, it brought with it a countervailing advantage, which was worth, ten times over, all possible attractions of soil and climate. It made him all the more able to maintain his liberty and his faith. A new and deeper slavery was preparing for the nations. The Scot, standing afar off, was the last to come under the yoke of the second Rome, and among the first to escape from it.

As we dimly descry him on his first appearance in Ireland, the Scot has about him a marked individuality. He is seen moving about, a man of iron among figures of clay. His arrival brings the country into historic light. He takes upon himself the burden of ruling the land, and he infuses something of his own spirit into the natives. The aborigines appear to have been a submissive and unwarlike people, who occupied themselves in tending their herds of cattle and swine amid their woods and bogs. Such at least would seem to have been the report brought of them to Agricola. The Roman general had been able to do little more than stand his ground before the Caledonians at the foot of the Grampians, with the Roman army in force, and yet he undertook, with a single legion and a few bodies of auxiliaries, to subdue and occupy Ireland.2 Plainly Agricola recognised a vast difference betwixt the spirit of the men on this side of the Irish Channel and on that. And such do the aborigines of Ierne appear, as seen in the earliest Irish writings which we possess. We refer to the "Confessions of Patrick."3 Being the autobiography of Patrick, and not the history of Ireland, it is only side-glimpses which it gives us of the inhabitants of the country; but these are full of interest, and amply bear out all that we have said regarding the character and relative position of the two races then inhabiting Ireland, the Hiberni and the Scoti. There is seen to be a marked distinction between the two. The Scots are the military class; they are the nobles. So does Patrick style them when he has occasion to speak of them in his "Confession," and also in his letter to the Irish Chieftain, Coroticus. But his language is different when he has occasion to refer to the aboriginal inhabitants. The latter are spoken of as the commonalty, the sons of the soil, a quiet, yielding, and inoffensive people, dwelling carelessly in their pleasant insular abode, plowing their fields, reaping their harvests, skilled in the rearing of cattle and swine, but inexperienced in the art of war, from the sight of which their situation happily removed them; yet destined, a few centuries later, to attain the fame of learning, and then Ireland would shine in a glory which would attract to its shore the youth of Europe, to drink in the wisdom of its schools.

Very different is that other people who now make their appearance, and whose career is destined to be so eventful. It is in Ireland that we first meet them. But Ierne is not their native soil. They have arrived in it, Ammianus Marcellinus tells us, after long wandering through many countries, and, doubtless drivers perils. They give kings to their adopted land. They send an armed expedition across the Channel, to aid the Picts in overrunning the Provincials, and driving back the Romans. They are constantly finding work for the legions which guard the frontiers of the now tottering empire. Now it is the Scots that conquer, and now it is the Romans, and the belt of country between the two walls becomes the scene of many a bloody fray. They go back again to Ireland, but soon they return in strength to Scotland, and settle down in it as if they felt that for better for worse this must be the future land of the Scots. They still cherish their warlike spirit, and are on the outlook for a foe. The Roman has vanished from Britain, but the SAXON has come in. The Scots unite their arms with the Picts, and push back the new intruder. At length the two form one people. The northern rover now appears on their shore, but it only to find a grave. The barrows on the northern and western coasts of our island, where sleep the Viking and his followers, "slain with the sword of the Scot," show that their prowess had not suffered decay. The Dane had conquered the SAXON, but he cannot prevail against the Scot. For ages the nation maintains its independence in a country which some would have deemed not worth invading, but which nevertheless was the object of repeated attack on the part of its powerful neighbours, but with no other result than to renew from age to age, and to work into the soul of its people, the love of country, and the passion of liberty. In this summary of the Scottish people we have gone a few centuries forward, and must now retrace our steps.


1.  Amian. Marcel., lib 27. Scoti per diversa vagantes.

2. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 24.

3. Confessio S. Patricii. We shall have frequent occasion to refer to this work at a subsequent stage of our history. All that we deem it needful to say of it here is, that it was written by himself in the fifth century, and first published by Ware from very ancient MS., and its authenticity is acknowledge by all the learned.



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