History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past,
trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes,
and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.
-- Winston Churchill
I hope to offer a basic introduction to Scottish history, both as it might be known by characters associated with the country and as a resource for players writing backgrounds or plots. For the latter, I have attempted to highlight the unusual and the quirky as well as the historically vital.
This page provides an overview from the ice ages to the present. I have, of course, been selective in what I have covered - but I have attempted to provide some indication of contending theories where convincing alternatives exist.
-- Roxburgh, November 2012
Scottish History - A Populist Outline
Scotland is an ancient realm in which an array of peoples were long since melded into one racial and spiritual whole. Defending borders established in the mists of antiquity, the Scots have provided the world with unique gifts of culture, learning, industry and invention.
Never truly conquered, the Scots had to fight for centuries against the aggression of their larger Southern neighbour. In the process, great heroes of the standing of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Rob Roy McGregor rose to prominence and wrote themselves into the pages of history.
The final act of Scottish independence came, not with the bribe-bought Act of Union in 1707, but with the failure of "The '45". The Battle of Culloden saw the Highland clans cut down by Butcher Cumberland's red-coated army, and Bonnie Prince Charlie was chased out of his ancestral homeland by the forces of the German usurpers.
Though the authorities in London banned the use of tartans and attempted to suppress the Gaelic language, Scots culture could not be destroyed and sprang back into prominence through the efforts of literary greats such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, while philosophers of the class of David Hume and Adam Smith might be said to have given modernity itself to the world. At the same time, Scots merchants and inventors came to prominence in the nascent British Empire, with Scottish savvy and technical expertise crucial to the success of the Empire, the industrial revolution, and the growth of global trade.
As the 20th century progressed, Scottish cultural awareness increasingly influenced the political sphere. Various nationalist groups coalesced into the Scottish National Party, campaigning for independence. A referendum was held in 1979, but though most of the votes cast were in favour, independence was not achieved because the threshold total of votes wasn't reached. By the end of the century, the British Labour Party had moved so far as to grant Scottish autonomy, with the restoration of a parliament (albeit without full powers) to Edinburgh. In 2007, the Scottish National Party (in coalition with the Green Party) secured control of the Scottish Parliament, before gaining an outright majority in 2011. Late in 2012, permission was granted for a referendum on independence to be held in 2014.
Scottish History - An Historian's View
Little of the above is entirely true, and none of the complexities or contradictions of Scottish history are covered (though as a very brief summary, that should be little surprise). Indeed, even to speak of "Scotland" as an entity clearly identifiable throughout time is to read history backwards. The Scotti first settled in the region around 1500 years ago (in the third of the six periods below), and only part of the modern country was dominated by their descendants. The present borders have stood for just a quarter of that time, and even the meaning of "Scots" has changed dramatically, both in terms of whom it refers to and the language it describes.
First settlements, brochs, hill forts, and the start of Celtic influence.
Scottish pre-history starts after the retreat of the ice sheets at the end of the last Ice Age (around 14,000BC), though the region might not have been habitable until much later. Mesolithic sites in Scotland have been dated to 8,500BC, though more famous locations (such as Skara Brae) date to the Neolithic and are perhaps five thousand years old.
By 1400BC, bronze-working had reached Scotland. Perhaps by 450BC Celtic culture followed it, and from 400BC (but mostly in 100BC-100AD) the distinctive "brochs" were built - though it's unclear what culture or people might have been associated with them, or even what purposes they served. More conventional hill forts were far more widespread and in use for far longer, with an immense site at Eildon Hill in the Borders founded around 1000BC and estimated to have housed 3-6,000 people at its height.
Around 330-320 BC, the explorer and merchant Pytheas of Massilia circumnavigated Britain, describing trade links between the island and the Mediterranean in a text that also provides the first descriptions of the midnight sun, the aurora borealis, and polar ice.
By 100BC, Celtic culture appears to have permeated the whole of Britain, though the North (including Scotland) seems to have remained largely pastoral and disorganised while the South saw the development of clearly-identifiable kingdoms and the minting of the first coins.
The Romans did more in Scotland than you might think….
Both written and archaeological evidence suggests that there was a Roman presence in much of Scotland before Agricola arrived in 79AD, though his campaigns have usually been taken as the point at which Roman troops arrived in the region. Within five years of his arrival, he is said to have defeated a great army of Caledonians at the battle of Mons Graupius, and Roman troops were strongly established on the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland. He sent a fleet around the Northern tip of Scotland to confirm Britain as an island, is said to have contemplated the conquest of Ireland, and he and other governors established a network of major fortifications and roads across the Southern and Eastern lowlands.
Within another few years, however, emergencies on the continent and the difficulty of governing the decentralised and scattered tribes caused the withdrawal of Roman troops from the Highlands, while in 122AD Emperor Hadrian started work on his famous wall a short distance South of the present Scottish border.
The wall rarely (if ever) served as a hard limit for Roman interests, and at times the Empire retook direct control of the Lowlands - e.g. during the periods of occupation of the Antonine Wall. Even when the Antonine Wall was not in use Rome maintained forts in parts of Southern Scotland until at least the 360s, while trade and other contacts continued to flow across the artificial boundary. Certainly, there were several periods of Roman fort- and road-building in various parts of Scotland, and the last expedition against the Picts was mounted in 398. More peacefully, a prolonged and wealthy Roman (or Romanised native) presence in the South-East is suggested by finds such as the vineyard terraces excavated beside the Forth estuary.
For the majority of the period, however, the Empire was content to foster buffer kingdoms in the Lowlands, while it seems that the tribes North of the Antonine Wall coalesced into two major federations that were seen as a threat to the province of Britannia. Though the border was never wholly subdued, the last century of Roman presence in Britain saw a dramatic increase in attacks from Caledonia, with the name "Pict" first appearing in 297 in association with sea-borne raiders sailing from Northern Scotland around Hadrian's Wall to plunder Roman Britain.
Melting Pot of Nations
Deadly plagues and an array of invaders. Christian missionaries and rivalries. The birth of Alba.
Though Brythonic kingdoms (Strathclyde and the Gododdin) and various Pictish realms emerged after the Roman withdrawal, this period is better known as “the Age of Migrations”. Settlers from Ireland (the Scots) arrived in the West around 500; the Northumbrian English conquered much of the Eastern lowlands (but were beaten back from Fife in the 7th century); the Norse conquered the isles and parts of the mainland in the 9th century; more settlers from Ireland (the Cruthin) arrived in Galloway; and plagues repeatedly struck – the European population halving between 550 and 700. During all this, an hereditary high king emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries to rule most of the mainland North of the Forth-Clyde valley.
At the start of the 10th century, “Alba” (previously referring to the whole of Britain) was appropriated as the name for this new Scot-dominated realm. Shortly thereafter, kings of Wessex first made claims of sovereignty over the whole island, and the array of Northern kings alternately fought against and acknowledged their ambitions. For much of the century Alba (later Scotland) and Wessex (later England) shared a common interest in dismembering Strathclyde and Northumbria: England even gave just-conquered Cumbria to its Northern ally in 945.
The first recorded missionary to the region was Ninian, said to have arrived in Galloway in the late 4th or early 5th century - but there were almost certainly Christian communities active before his arrival. The most famous subsequent missionary was Columba, credited with founding Iona, preaching to the Northern Picts and terrifying Nessy in the middle of the 6th century, though many other early saints (such as his rival, Donnan) have since been all but forgotten.
The distinctive "Celtic Church" form of Christianity, transmitted via Iona and Eigg, initially dominated the Northern half of Britain and influenced much of Western Europe - but the local balance of power rapidly became more complex, with Iona, Pictland and Northumbria constantly mixing competition and cooperation. Celtic influence remained immense on the art and attitudes of the Northern churches, and elements of an independent structure might have survived into the 14th century.
Wars of Conquest and Independence
The creation of the Kingdom of Scotland. Invasions, raids, learning and feudalism.
In the early 11th century Malcolm "the Destroyer" conquered Lothian, killed the king of Strathclyde and proclaimed himself "King of Scotland". Strathclyder and Northumbrian resistance was broken by 1070, leaving Scotland and England free to squabble over the lands taken from their victims. At the same time, Scots kings fought to subdue rivals and expel the Northmen from the mainland and then beyond, eventually gaining the Hebrides after the defeat of the last Norse invasion at Largs in 1263.
Territorial ambitions extended elsewhere, and as late as the 14th century Scotland laid formal claim to Northumbria - while England in return could point to a string of formal submissions and territorial concessions from the 10th century onwards as support for their kings' claims to lordship over the whole of Britain.
The crisis that broke upon the death of the last clear claimant to the Scottish throne in 1296 affected France as well as the whole of the British Isles. An heavily intermarried French-Norman-Celtic aristocracy was torn apart in a form of civil war: almost every great noble family owed fealty to more than one king, and many switched sides repeatedly over the course of decades of conflict.
Amidst the bloodshed, nationalism emerged as a driving force among the gentry and commonfolk, and it was only after Robert de Brus aligned himself with the "common" war begun by Andrew Murray and William Wallace that the tide gradually turned in favour of Scottish independence. Even so, most of Scotland temporarily fell to an English-backed candidate after Robert's death, and the Anglo-Scots wars only came to a definitive close in the 1560s - with cross-border raiding continuing much as it had for centuries, until it was violently terminated following the Union of the Crowns.
For each of England and Scotland, arguably the most humiliating defeats in their histories occurred while trying to subdue the other. Scots Kings died in battle in England in 1093 and 1513, and two others were captured after invading England in 1174 and 1346. Conversely, the battles of Stirling Bridge and especially Bannockburn still stand as cornerstones of Scottish pride: the present "unofficial national anthem", Flower of Scotland, commemorates the latter.
Struggles in the ecclesiastical hierarchy occurred alongside the secular wars. Though first recognised as a "special daughter" of the Papacy in 1172, the Scottish church was not given its own archbishopric until 1472 and was often treated as subordinate to English prelates. Scottish clergymen frequently intrigued to play off York against Canterbury and plead the case for autonomy with the Pope. Often far more united in their devotion to an independent Scottish state than either the nobility or the common folk, churchmen played a prominent role in Scotland's long succession of wars against England.
Culturally, this period saw a dramatic shift in emphasis. Previously, the focus and power of the Kingdom had lain in the North – from now on, it lay in the more fertile South. There and in the East of the country, Gaels had never been in a majority, and the Lothian dialect of English ("Inglis" in contemporary documents) won out over the various Celtic tongues to be the dominant language. Yet from the 15th century, "Inglis" began to be known as "Scots" – until then the term for the language of the Gaels, the descendents of the Scotti settlers from Ireland. Their language now became "Erse", Irish, and the term "Scot" was increasingly taken to mean a Lowlander rather than a Highlander.
Modernity and Enlightenment
Reformation, feuding queens and Union. Revolution, enlightenment, invention and trade.
Though Scottish monarchs sometimes aspired to a grand role on the international stage, for the most part the kingdom existed on the fringes of European politics and culture. Often used by France as a convenient satellite (useful for distracting England during continental disputes, but otherwise largely ignored), Scotland spent much of the 15th and 16th centuries embroiled in internal squabbles between the nobility and the crown. Great families rose and fell, and civil war broke out more than once.
Dramatic change came as a result of new ideas developed on the continent. Profoundly affected by the Reformation, the version of Protestantism that took strongest hold in Scotland was Calvinist in nature. Decades of in-fighting eventually, in spite of French aid for the Roman Catholics, swung the way of the Reformers – who managed over time to secure their position and convert the majority of the South and East of the country. When Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned by her English cousin Elizabeth, Scotland was left largely to the Reformers.
In 1603 James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England from Elizabeth. Becoming King James I of England, he moved to London to enjoy the vastly greater wealth of the larger kingdom, leaving Scotland to be governed by proxy. He did bring an end to the endemic cross-border raiding and attempted to forge a new "British" identity - but the idea gained little real popularity, with each kingdom retaining its own parliament, church, laws and dominant local power-groups.
The hold of Scotland's "Kirk" upon the country extended and tightened until, in the 1640s, an aristocratic theocracy was established during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Having attempted to impose Calvinism upon the rest of the British Isles while helping to overthrow King Charles, the Scots rulers fell out with and were then conquered by Cromwell in 1650-1.
For the remainder of the century, elements of the Kirk struggled, sometimes violently, against the power of the crown, with the last person to be executed for blasphemy in the British Isles dying at the hands of the Kirk in 1697. That trial, however, proved a turning point in educated opinion, and by the middle of the 18th century the country was home to the "Scottish Enlightenment", whose luminaries (most notably David Hume and Adam Smith) created many of the philosophical and economic ideas that would be associated throughout the West with the idea of "modernity" for the next 250 years. It was matched by an enthusiasm for practical as well as philosophical investigation, with Scottish engineers responsible for many of the technological break-throughs of the Industrial Revolution.
Less successfully, a vast array of Scots opted to back the notorious Darien venture, investing up to a fifth of the total capital of the country. Intended to create a Scots colonial and trading empire, the mismanaged scheme - which relied on seizing land claimed by Spain, then selling woollen attire to the residents of an equatorial swamp - instead resulted in national financial disaster and thousands of deaths.
Perhaps the last change induced by the Reformation was the final fall of the Stuart monarchy, as the Protestant majority of England, Wales and Scotland rejected the rule of King James II and VII. By 1715, the House of Hanover had inherited the throne, but four rebellions occurred from 1708 to 1745, aiming to restore James and his heirs. All were backed by foreign troops and money, none achieved majority support in any portion of Britain, and the Stuart cause petered out as the elite of the country embraced new concepts of prosperity and progress.
Political change had already taken place, with the Acts of Union merging the Kingdoms of England and Scotland into the single state of Great Britain. The Scottish Act was controversial, surrounded by scandal and accusations of bribery, and many Scots doubted that the promised benefits (chiefly, access to England's growing overseas possessions) would manifest. They did indeed take decades to bear real fruit.
Empire and Autonomy
Ships, industry, and progress. The loss of Empire and the return of nationalism.
In time, Scotland became one of the powerhouses driving forward the expansion and profitability of the British Empire. Glasgow became the largest centre of ship-building in the world, fed by huge coal and steel industries. Manufacturing towns sprang up across Central and Eastern Scotland, producing everything from textiles to linoleum.
The concept of "progress" had firmly taken hold, leading to many benefits for the country – agricultural methods were the most visibly transformed, dramatically improving the quantity and quality of crops – but also creating huge urban slums and other problems. The Highland Clearances are perhaps the most famous tragedy, with many of the heirs of the old clan chiefs heavily involved in a process that saw mass displacements of small-holding tenants to clear the way for more profitable farming ventures.
Change also occurred in the Kirk. Hit hard by reported abuses of power in the late 19th century, its mainstream gradually turned away from its Calvinist past. Though still Presbyterian in organisation, the Church of Scotland is no longer the harshly judgemental organisation it once was – for example, it now maintains amicable relations with the Roman Catholic church, which would once have been unthinkable.
"Progress" also helped to whittle away at the remaining elements of Scots-Gaelic society, with the promotion of a unitary culture and a single written language through the famed Scottish education system and the Sunday schools of the Kirk. Gaelic remains a living language to this day (and is believed by many to be the "ancestral language" of the whole country), but only a tiny percentage of the population have any familiarity with it, let alone use it on a daily basis.
For a long time, Scotland was largely untouched by the political nationalisms developing elsewhere in Europe. There was a romantic interest in its colourful past, with the invention during the 18th and 19th centuries of much that is now considered quintessentially Scottish, but little in the way of agitation for autonomy, let alone independence. Active involvement in the Empire was simply too profitable to consider breaking away.
Nationalism only rose to the fore as the Empire – and the industries which had supported it – wavered, then declined. Minor groups coalesced into a new Scottish National Party, which eventually, in 2007, formed a minority government in Scotland.
A decade before, the Labour party had granted Scotland a parliament with limited autonomy, in the hope of capping agitation for devolution of power. There has only been the one, controversially unsuccessful, referendum on independence for Scotland. The SNP promised to bring in legislation to deliver another in 2010, but (expecting to lose the vote) chose not to do so; approval has now been granted for one to take place in 2014.
I highly recommend Michael Lynch's award-winning "Scotland, A New History" as a very readable general history of the country. It incorporates a great deal of comparatively recent scholarship and covers debates absent from older populist histories (such as John Prebble's enjoyable "The Lion in the North"), though there is a continual supply of new titles on Scottish history and it is doubtless outdated in some regards.
Online, Wikipedia's Scottish History section contains many well-researched articles - but I'd strongly recommend that accounts found on the wide array of clan and "fan" sites with sections on Scottish history are checked against reputable sources.