catholic by birth; scientist by choice; sinner by merit. gaidhlig-speaking neuroscience student at oxford. likes to question everything! @di_macd

Anonymous said: Tell me about Scottish history! (In particular, your favourite parts of the parts that you think more people should know).

There is no such thing as Scotland.

Historically, at least, Scotland is a mish-mash of different peoples, languages and even governments, fused together by necessity.

I provided a nice long answer, but I’ve had to simplify alot, so apologies to any history experts who think its a little cartoonish.

 In 1138, David I ‘King of Scots’ fought the English at the Battle of the Standard leading an army made up of “Normans, Germans, English, Northumbrians and Cumbrians, men of Teviotdale and Lothian, Galwegians and Scots.” This battle was in Yorkshire, and it was as a result of the King of Scots desire to rule over the north of England. He had Cumbria already and wanted Northumbria too, so he just invaded whilst the English were in the middle of a civil war. We were beaten, but that’s not why I bring it up. That eyewitness account of the composition of the King of Scots’ forces is helpful in showing the disparate people that have created Scotland.

We’ll start with the last on the list – Scots. Historians think ‘Scot’ comes from a Latin word meaning pirate, which was used to refer to the Irish raiders who attacked the west coasts of Britain during the AD 500s and 600s. (Indeed, the Romans called Ireland Scotia!) These pirates were Celts and they spoke a language called Old Gaelic, which is the ancestor of the language I speak ‘gaidhlig.’ During the Dark Ages, these Scots settled all over the Western Seaboard of Britain, but especially in Argyll. They called it Dalriada, named after their home in Ireland. In the 700s the Kings of Dalriada shifted from Ireland to their new territory in Scotland, which had been colonized by thousands of these Old Gaelic speakers. At that time the north of Scotland was under the control of a mysterious people called the Picts, who we only know from stone engravings, their language having been lost. In 843AD King Kenneth MacAlpin of Dalriada is supposed to have conquered these Picts and hence became the first King of Alba, or King of Scots. No one knows if the Picts were killed in genocide, or by plagure, or if (I think more likely) they were just absorbed into the Scots’ population. So, at MacAlpins’ death Scotland consisted of a Kingdom, north of the River Forth, uniting the Gaelic-speaking Scots (henceforth, we’ll call ‘em Gaels) and the unknown-speaking Picts.

I’ll sketch where everyone else was at that time, working back the way on our list from Scots. First – Galwegians. They were settlers of Norse origin living on the south coast of Scotland, who picked up the Gaelic language from the Scots and came to be know as Gall-Gaels, or ‘Foreign Gaels.’ The intermixing of Gael and Gall (i.e. Norseman) happened all the time in medieval Scotland. For instance, the Gaelic for Hebrides is Innse Gall (‘Foreign Isles’) because in the middle ages this now most Gaelic of places was brimming with Norsemen. The clan MacDonald is descended from Norse-Gaelic warrior called Somerled – he wrested control of the north-west coast of Scotland as well as the Hebrides from the Earl of Orkney (a Norwegian – this is confusing isn’t it?!) and set up the Lordship of the Isles. The Lordship of the Isles persisted as in independent state (or thorn in the side) to the King of Scots until well into 15th century and indeed, was the only truly Gaelic state in Scotland, because as we shall see the King of Scots was quick to abandon his Gaelic roots during the Middle Ages…

So, carrying on, our men of Teviotdale and Lothian, as well as our English and Germans, and Northumbrians, are representatives of the Anglo-Saxon speaking people that lived in the south-east of Scotland when MacAlpin united the kingdom. They weren’t under his rule yet though. King Malcolm the second grabbed them in the 1000s, and they were added to the Kingdom of Scots. However, they had a far higher population than the Gaels, and being on the east-coast were richer as they had better trade links with Europe. Their language – a variety of Anglo-Saxon – came to dominate urban life and Gaelic was gradually relegated to the countryside, and then to the wild Highlands, and then just to the islands. The Anglo-Saxons’ language came to be called Scots as most Scots spoke it, while Gaelic was disparaged as Erse (‘Irish!’). It’s interesting to note that this Anglo-Saxon language is not a dialect of English – English and Scots in fact share a common ancestor in Old German: they divided apart while still in Europe and came to Britain with different tribes.

The Cumbrians mentioned refer to the Britons (Welsh-speaking Celts) who lived in the south of Scotland during the Dark Ages. Their most important kingdom was Strathclyde, built around the River Clyde, but they were quickly absorbed the new Scots kingdom, and their language was wiped out, so they don’t much concern us here.

The Normans, however, are the same Normans who conquered England in 1066. They carried on to Scotland and made the king swear an oath to recognize Wiliam as his overlord – this was the basis all the subsequent English claims to the Scottish throne. Even after the armies withdrew, many Norman knights stayed in Scotland, and became the feudal aristocracy. Other Norman and Breton knights were induced to move there later thanks to generous offers from the King of Scots. Under Queen Margaret and these knights, Scotland was slowly Francophied, and it abandoned Gaelic. The last Gaelic king of Scots was old macBeth. After that, Anglo-Normans dominated. Even William Wallace was of Norman stock!

And speaking of Wallace, historians agree that these multifarious peoples I detailed above created for themselves a united national identity during the Wars of Independence. At Stirling Bridge the spearmen most definitely did not shout “FREEDOM!” – Gaelic, Scots, French and Norse would have been heard; none of which, however, were the universal language. There was no united Scottish culture when the English invaded at the end of the 13th century – there was no such thing as Scotland.  Anthropologist Anthony Cohen says that Scottish identity did not arise from a unifying Scottish language but from the certainty that whoever the Scots were they were most definitely “not-English.” Thus, the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s birth certificate, conceived national identity as ultimately that which was distinct from England. 

We started off with the Battle of the Standard, but that was the personal ambition of a feudal king - it wasn’t enough to create a nation.

But in 1314 at Bannockburn, under Robert the Bruce, a descendant of norman knights, we have Normans, and Anglo-Saxons (Scots?), and Gall-Gaels, and Norse, and Gaels fighting. And with that battle, and the many others, the lowland Scots become a nation. They become the Scots. And we have a Scotland…

But, interestingly, it’s from this century – the 14th century – that the Scots turn against the Lordship of the Isles, and against the Gaels. And from then on the Highland Line becomes a chasm and we have two Scotlands – Highland and Lowland.

But that I think is a story for another day.