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Issue 4 - Seeds of the nation

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002


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Seeds of the nation

James Irvine-Robertson wades into the ‘exceedingly murky' history of the pictish peoples, direct predecessors of the men and women who united scotland as a nation

People first came to Scotland some 10,000 years ago when the first hunter-gatherers ventured into a landscape still raw from the retreat of the glaciers. To their remote Highland descendants, those early folk from prehistory became the legendary Fingalians who left the land studded with the massive stone monuments that predated the Pyramids. When the Romans arrived, the Greek geographer Ptolemy stated that Scotland held 12 tribes. Their way of life had hardly changed since the dawn of the Iron Age. War was their glory, the warrior aristocracy lauded by bards and druids. In the southern half of the land, the Romans interfaced with the tribes and named them but, in the unconquered north, they lumped the people together into Caledonians.

Scotland is the oldest continually existing nation in Europe, but it took a thousand years after the Roman withdrawal from Britain before its modern boundaries were established. In 410 AD, the country, like the rest of Britain, was parcelled out in tribal kingdoms. In the north were the Picts with their own language and civilisation. Their tongue no longer exists but they are believed to have been Celts. We have a list of their kings and they left spectacularly sculpted stones that show a considerable artistic skill but they left no writings and their culture is shrouded in mystery.

Straddling the English/Scottish border and stretching as far north as modern Edinburgh was the powerful kingdom of Northumbria. They spoke a version of Anglian: English that evolved into the lowland Scots tongue. To the west was Strathclyde whose inhabitants spoke a language akin to modern Welsh.

Christianity – and writing – came north in the dying days of Roman rule with Ninian who established a church in Galloway in the extreme south west circa 400 AD. After his death in 432, his missionaries continued to spread the gospel, travelling north and founding churches in the Pictish heartland.

The work of Ninian and his successors has been overshadowed by Columba who founded the famous monastery on Iona in 563. There were good political reasons for his prominence. He was an Irish aristocrat and he came to a part of the country which had recently been settled by immigrants from Ireland. These, the first Gaelic speakers in the country, named their small, Argyllshire-based kingdom Dalriada, and called themselves the Scotti or Scots. Columba and his followers carried this Gaelic culture with their mission.

But the Picts provided the foundations. Theirs was never a united kingdom. For most of their exceedingly murky history it seems that two groupings controlled the land north of the central lowlands and the high kings had to strive constantly to maintain their authority over the leaders of the seven provinces. The king’s successor was not his eldest son, but emerged from the kinship group or even from provincial kings. This pitted brother against brother, tribe against tribe, and continued to be a source of instability even when the country was largely unified.

All Europe was in turmoil at this time, the Dark Ages, when peoples struggled to control territory in the power vacuum created by the collapse of Rome. Battles were fought against the Scots, the Northumbrians, the Kingdom of Strathclyde and even the West Saxons.

A new and terrible threat appeared in 794 when the first recorded raid by the Vikings created havoc down the Western Isles, with settlements pillaged, burned and looted. In 802, the monastery at Iona was burned and, four years later, 68 monks were slaughtered including the abbot. The remains of St Columba had been moved to Dunkeld in the heart of Scotland for safety, but even here the Vikings raided and the relics were lost.

With their north under Viking occupation, the weakened Picts faced steady encroachment from the Scots. They created shifting alliances and their warlords married into powerful Pictish families. The date usually given for the founding of Scotland is 848 when Kenneth MacAlpine, a Scot whose background is obscure, was able to claim and hold the throne of both peoples and make his capital at Dunkeld. He brought with him the Stone of Destiny on which the Dalriadic kings had been crowned and placed it at the Pictish capital of Scone. Until Edward I stole it in 1306 and placed it in Westminster Abbey, all Scots kings were crowned upon it. The Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996 and is now in Edinburgh Castle alongside the Honours of Scotland – the Crown Jewels.

Although Kenneth was King, his realm was still evolving and under threat. Strathclyde, whose capital at Dumbarton had been captured by the Norwegians, became a Scottish dependency circa 945. Northumbria, which had been taken by the Danes in 866, became weak and was under attack from the West Saxons and the Scots. After the Battle of Carham in 1018, the southern boundary of Scotland was roughly fixed at the river Tweed although the Borders remained badlands for centuries to come.

Problems for the Scots monarch still remained in the north. In Moray, a separate fiefdom still existed. MacBeth, Shakespeare’s slayer of King Duncan, was one who emerged from there to take the Scots throne and show signs of greatness during his reign of 18 years before being overthrown by Duncan’s son, Malcolm Canmore, in 1058. The Western Isles were won from Norway after the Battle of Largs in 1263, but their remoteness allowed the Lords of the Isles to create a separate realm centred upon the island of Islay which lasted for 200 years before the king finally gained control. The last stitch in the national tapestry came in 1471 when the Orkney and Shetland Islands were annexed to the Scottish Crown after being pledged as the dowry of Margaret of Norway who married James III.

England was finally secured by the Normans in 1066, by which time Scotland had existed for more than two centuries. In future, the nation would at times struggle for its survival, but it was a Scottish king that became the first of a united Great Britain. Today, Scotland is again largely self-governing with its own parliament, yet the English are ruled from Westminster where both the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer are Scots. So perhaps Scotland’s expansion is not quite finished, but it may be unwise to warn the English about it.

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