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Issue 19 - Top of the historical pops

Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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Top of the historical pops

What are the most important events in Scotland's history? And where can you find out more about them? Ian Sclater makes his selection

We Scots like to think that we know our history. Stop any local on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and ask them about our nation’s most important events, and they are likely to bend your ear about inventions by Scots which changed the world (television, penicillin, Irn Bru), intellectuals and artists who influenced global culture (Adam Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Bay City Rollers) or bashing the English on the field of battle (Bannockburn and – well, Bannockburn).

But what were the most significant milestones in our long and often turbulent evolution? We asked the people who should really know; professors of Scottish history, representatives of our national cultural institutions, politicians, genealogists, tourism professionals and compiled the Scotland Magazine Guide to the Top 10 Events in Scottish History.

When an enthusiastic disciple of St Patrick crossed the Irish Sea to Scotland, he built a monastery on the island of Iona from which to spread the word of Christ among the Pictish tribes. Although the Rome-educated St Ninian had established a church on the Scottish mainland at Whithorn as early as 397, St Columba (the ‘dove’), as he became known, was effectively the founder of the Scottish Christian Church.

When Kenneth MacAlpin, ruler of the Scots (an Argyll-based hierarchy descended from Irish immigrants), invaded the indigenous Picts in the north and east of Scotland and claimed their throne (his mother was a Pictish princess), he became, in effect, the first King of Scotland. Within 20 years of Kenneth’s ascension Gaelic had superseded the Pictish tongue. Kenneth I’s coronation as King of Scots possibly took place atop Dunadd, a hill near the Kilmartin House Museum in Argyllshire, where a footprint on a rock shows where the early kings of Scotland stood to be crowned. In all Scottish coronation ceremonies, the Stone of Destiny, a biblical relic transported to Scotland from Ireland in c.500AD, was used as a throne, and when Kenneth travelled to Scone to rule his larger kingdom, it accompanied him and remained there until it was stolen by the invading English in 1296. Kenneth I is buried on Iona.

Widely regarded as the most famous document in Scottish history, the Declaration of Arbroath was a de facto declaration of Scottish independence.

Signed by Scottish lords at Arbroath Abbey, it was an eloquent plea for the liberty of man. (‘It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’) The Declaration was despatched to the Pope in Rome with an appeal to intervene in the bloody quarrel between Scotland and England and to recognise Scottish independence over English claims. The date of the document, April 6th, has been declared Tartan Day in the United States.

Before hostilities between Scottish and English football fans brought an end to ‘friendly’ fixtures between the two countries, ‘Remember Bannockburn’ was often seen emblazoned on Scottish banners. As the most decisive Scottish victory over an English army and the most famous battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence, Bannockburn has become imprinted on the Scots psyche. It secured the future of the throne for the legendary Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, and although the conflict would continue for another 43 years until the Treaty of Berwick in 1357, the victory clinched sovereignty for the nation.

Mary Queen of Scots’ Catholic piety and John Knox’s Protestant Reformist zeal make them two of the great nemeses in Scottish history. (Mary and her mother Mary de Guiase were the women Knox had in mind when he preached against ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.’) Offended by Catholics’ divergence from the ‘true word of God’, in particular their practice of ‘idolatry’ to religious icons, the Calvinist-trained Knox set out to reform Scottish religion back to what he perceived as the original teachings of Christ. A Confession of Faith was drawn up under Knox’s direction and ratified in 1560 by the Scottish Parliament, establishing Presbyterianism as the official religion of Scotland. It was in response to the rising resistance of the Scottish Reformers that Mary fled Scotland and, after a lengthy captivity by the English, was tried and executed for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I in pursuit of her claim to the English throne.

Knox was the first great advocate of universal education in Scotland, calling for a school in every parish, and for making the Church responsible for care of the poor in the community. The house in which he is alleged to have lived on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is now a popular visitor attraction.

Following the death of Elizabeth I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, King James VI of Scotland succeeded where his mother had failed and became monarch of England as well, thus finally uniting the royal houses of both countries.

However, Scotland quickly became the junior partner when James promptly decamped to the more populated London to become an absentee monarch, returning only once during his joint reign. Although Scotland retained its own legal system and religion, Scottish and English affairs became more and more intertwined and it would take another century before James’s ambition for a constitutional union was realised. James established the union flag (often wrongly referred to as the ‘Union Jack’ – named after James – the flag’s name only at sea), which merged the English cross of St George with the Scottish saltire (the St Patrick’s cross of Ireland was added in 1801).

Although James is commonly known in Scotland as King James VI and I (i.e. the sixth of Scotland and the first of England, and his brother who succeeded him as King James VII and II), British monarchs have subsequently given precedence to their English titles. As recently as 1953 there were Scottish nationalist protests when the present Queen was crowned simply as Queen Elizabeth II, rather than Queen Elizabeth II of England and I of Scotland.

In 1695 Scotland’s economy was ruined after an unsuccessful attempt to colonise the Darien Peninsula between North and South America in an effort to establish a lucrative sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. (The construction of the Panama Canal followed much later.)

Along with fever and hostile Spaniards with their own colonial and trade agendas, the absence of financial backing from England (fearful of trade competition from Scotland) scuppered the plan. Bankrupt, Scotland was forced to accept the Treaty of Union, which disbanded the Scottish Parliament and merged its political affairs with England. It would take nearly 300 years to return parliamentary powers to Scotland, albeit in limited form (see 1999).

The rout of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland army on Culloden Moor, the last battle to be fought on British soil, killed off the idea of a Scottish-based royal family.

Essentially a conflict between the Protestant Hanovarian occupant of the British throne and his exiled Catholic cousins (in which more Scots fought for the Government than against), post-battle atrocities inflicted by English troops underlined the ferocity of the Londonbased Government’s determination to control the north of Scotland. In the following century this gave momentum to the process of land reform which became known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, the forced emigration of Highlanders, most commonly, to the United States, Canada and Australasia.

The evacuation was made on principally commercial grounds, it being more profitable to raise sheep on Highland hills than people.

Another consequence of the Culloden defeat was a law banning the wearing of that most iconic Highland garb, the kilt, although the Black Watch Regiment, which had fought with the Government troops, was allowed to retain it. It was not until Victorian times that the kilt’s popularity was restored, when ‘tartanisation’ became a driving force in the nascent Scottish tourist industry.

1914-18 WORLD WAR I
The high casualty rate suffered by Scottish regiments in WWI, as evidenced by the presence of war memorials in even the smallest villages, delivered a devastating blow to Scotland’s economy and caused widespread deprivation in the mid-war years. With less than 10 per cent of the British population, Scotland provided 15 per cent of its army, and after the deaths were added up, it was found that more than 20 per cent of all fatalities were Scots.

The decimation of the workforce played a significant role in undermining such traditional industries as steel-making, ship-building and coal-mining. Between the two World Wars, unemployment soared to nearly 30 per cent, forcing many Scots to board emigrant ships. An estimated 400,000 (over 10 per cent of the population) left Scotland between 1921 and 1931.

Nearly 300 years after it was disbanded (see 1707) and some of its representatives shipped off to serve at Westminster, the Scottish Parliament wa reconvened in Edinburgh in 1999, albeit in a ‘devolved’ form – that is, with limited powers. That this came about at all was ironically a result of the success of the Scottish National Party in winning many Scottish hearts over to the idea of complete independence. To prevent the Scottish sovereignty movement from gaining further momentum, therefore, the Scottish Executive has been allocated powers over health, education and local government. Although there are some Scots for whom devolution has proved a disappointment, it is early days as yet and the majority remain optimistic.