The land and its people
‘Scotland’ has been a meaningless concept for eight of the nine millennia people have been living in the part of northern Britain now designated by the term. Only in the last thousand years has there been any discernible sense of ‘Scottishness’ above the more local, regional, and dynastic identities which shaped people’s daily lives. Prior to this, not only was there no ‘Scotland’, but there was no ‘England’, no ‘Wales’, and no ‘Ireland’. Nor is there much to suggest that the boundary lines between these entities as they are today were in any way inevitable. At various times, areas of modern Scotland have been ruled from Ireland, from England, or from Scandinavia, and conversely, parts of what are now England and Ireland have been ruled from Scotland.
Our perception of Scotland’s early history is clouded, not only by the outlines of modern political geography, but perhaps more subtly, by the mental template of today’s heavily urbanized population, concentrated as it is in the towns and cities of the central belt, accustomed to moving around by car, and able to convey a message to Berwick or Lerwick merely by picking up the phone. It is hard to re-imagine the forests uncleared, the bogs undrained, and the uplands without their metalled roads; hard to re-imagine the impediment these formed to ready communication. Conversely it is hard to appreciate how differently the landscape would be perceived when the movement of people and goods was most easily achieved on water: along rivers and firths, up and down the elongated lochs of the west, and around the sheltered waters of the coastal seas. In this land without towns, the population was dispersed through the landscape, housed in the farmsteads of a single extended family and their dependants. Almost everyone was directly involved in agriculture, and each locality effectively self-sufficient in producing what the people needed from the land. Of course, not all land was as good as the best, but before the uneven effects of the medieval economic boom, the relative impoverishment of regions like the Highlands was not so marked and the population was more evenly distributed across the country than today.
The first people to settle in Scotland were Mesolithic foragers who gradually ventured north around 7000 BC after the final retreat of the great ice sheet. Our increasing understanding of Scotland’s rich archaeological record allows us to trace how the landscape was shaped by the descendants of these men and women and by the descendants of those who were to join them over the succeeding millennia in exploiting its natural resources. Any starting point for a ‘history’ of the people of Scotland can be only arbitrary, but the appearance of a first surviving fragment of language seems somehow to intensify our connection to the otherwise mute populations of our ancient past. The first documentary reference to Scotland, the first name we can apply, derives from an account of a voyage undertaken by the Greek mariner Pytheas about 320 BC. He mentions the name of the most northerly cape of the island of Britain: Orcas. That this Celtic word, apparently derived from the name of the local tribe, ‘the young boars’, survived to give modern ‘Orkney’ shows that it had real local currency and was not merely an external label. It probably implies that there were Celtic-speakers in the far north as early as the fourth century BC. This first reference, however, is precocious and we must wait almost four hundred years for further names to fill out the picture. When these come, in the first century AD, they show unequivocally that by the time of the first encounter with Rome a form of Celtic language was spoken all over Scotland, even in the extreme north and west. The handful of apparently pre-Celtic names, for instance Ebudai (the source of our ‘Hebrides’), do not alter this picture. They reflect, not the survival of separate populations of pre-Celtic descent, but rather elements of an Early Prehistoric inheritance within the common (Celtic) culture of the Scottish Iron Age, in much the same way as modern place-names of Gaelic origin in, say, Fife or Aberdeenshire reflect the Celtic heritage of these now English-speaking regions.
There is much debate among archaeologists and historians concerning the correlations, if any, between the ethnic labels applied by external observers to the late prehistoric peoples of north-western Europe and their observed social and political structures, art, material culture, religion, and language. It is clearly significant, however, that places, persons, and tribes in Scotland mentioned in classical sources have Celtic names. Moreover, familiar elements of pagan Celtic religion can be glimpsed in, for example, dedications to Celtic divinities such as Lugos and in places named nemeton ‘sacred place/shrine’. A religious practice of far longer standing, the ritual deposition of material in pits, bogs, and rivers, has ensured the preservation of most of the fine objects to survive from this period. These technically impressive and aesthetically appealing pieces of ‘Caledonian’ metalwork are decorated in the international art style known as ‘La Tène’. The spiral ornamented war-gear (swords, horse-trappings, and battle-trumpets), jewellery, and mirrors comprise the portable wealth of a Celtic warrior aristocracy concerned with armed conflict and the ostentatious display of wealth about the person. In this increasingly competitive world it is perhaps no coincidence that the first named Scotsman, the leader of the Caledonians against the Roman army at Mons Graupius, had a name, Calgacus, meaning ‘swordsman’.
In the early centuries of the first millennium, native society was undergoing profound political and social change. We see in the heightened development of social inequality and hierarchy the emergence of what anthropologists might term a ‘chiefdom society’. The appearance of souterrains (large underground stores) in the eastern mainland is but one reflection of ongoing attempts to maximize the extraction of wealth from the land and concentrate it in the hands of the few. All over Scotland, small-scale power structures founded on face-to-face relations were being superseded by far-reaching systems of control, distant authority delegated to local leaders in return for a share of the tribute. The rise and fall of the famous brochs are an architectural manifestation of the beginning of this trend away from the intensive and towards the extensive exercise of power, as hierarchies of space within a settlement (internally differentiated sites of similar form throughout the landscape) were replaced by new hierarchies between settlements (major centres controlling dependent sites). Political units, however, remained comparatively small. Identity was vested at the level of the tribe whose members might have numbered only a few thousand. Writing in the early second century AD, the Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria lists sixteen tribes in northern Britain, including the Uotadini (Lothian), Epidii (Argyll), and the Smertae (Sutherland), but there were surely more. The greater tribal confederacies glimpsed in the classical sources were loose and ephemeral, a response to the intervention of the Roman army and lasting only as long as the military threat.
The Roman interlude and its legacy
The knock-on effect in Scotland of the centuries of Roman occupation in southern Britain was considerable, but the actual Roman presence in the north was fleeting. The first incursion came in the summer of AD 79 when the Roman governor Agricola led his army deep into Caledonia. The campaign which followed was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and culminated in Roman victory at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83. Roman priorities, however, lay elsewhere, and Agricolan ambitions to bring all of Britain within the Empire were abandoned. A frontier was established much further south with the building of Hadrian’s Wall on the Tyne–Solway line in the 120s and 130s. In the middle of the second century southern Scotland was brought within the Roman province of Britannia when a second wall, of more modest construction, was built on the Forth–Clyde line, c.143. But this Antonine reoccupation lasted little more than a decade and the northern wall was abandoned in the mid-160s. A punitive campaign against the northern barbarians was waged by the Emperor Severus from 197, but his death at York in 211 brought the initiative to an end and Roman troops drew back to the Wall. In the extreme south-west of Scotland, around the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman presence was strong because of the legionary fortress of Carlisle, and more or less continuous until the mid-fourth century. Further north, military intervention was limited to these few discrete episodes, all of them short.
In attempting to assess the impact of all this on native society it is easy to be misled by the impressive physical remains of the military majesty of the Empire: the enormousness of Hadrian’s Wall itself, the monumental carved distance slabs from the Antonine Wall, the remains of the huge legionary fortress at Ardoch, Perthshire, the dazzling parade armour found at Newsteads in the Tweed Valley. Much harder to see is the kind of effect prolonged proximity to the Empire had on the society of northern Britain. It would be a mistake to assume constant local hostility to the ‘imperial oppressor’ for, in reality, the Empire held many attractions. The dichotomy was not so much between ‘Roman’ and ‘Native’, as between those inside and those outside the Empire. Recruits to the Roman army were drawn from all over the Empire including, after the initial period, Britain: a grave slab from Mumrills, on the Antonine Wall, commemorates a Briton, Nectouelius, serving in the Roman army in Scotland. From the very outset it is clear that some outsiders saw the Empire as something which they could exploit to their own advantage. One such was Lossio Ueda who proudly proclaimed himself ‘a Caledonian’ on an impressive Roman-style votive inscription at early third-century Colchester, Essex.
The impact of Rome on those who stayed behind in the north varied greatly according to region. Archaeologists perceive a cultural boundary at the Tay, 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. There is no doubt that Roman influence on the ‘near zone’ of southern Scotland was profound. The presence there of low-value Roman items reflects the functioning in this frontier area of a limited monetary economy, of markets and of merchants. In the unconquered ‘far zone’, north of the Tay, it is trinkets and a few luxury items which are found circulating amongst the elite, as far as Shetland and the Outer Isles. Prestige goods are found in the south too: the great early fifth-century hoard from Traprain Law, East Lothain, alone contains more than 50 lb of silver (it has been suggested, only half in jest, that Rome’s biggest contribution to Scotland consisted of silver plate!). Differential access to the great wealth and prestige of Rome had a disruptive effect on local politics. Those who failed to take advantage of these new resources to express and enforce their social position might find themselves squeezed out by more favoured rivals. A similar pattern of political and social destablization can be seen all round the rim of the Empire especially after imperial power began to collapse in the generation before c.400. The complete lack of Roman pottery in the ‘Inter-Wall’ region from the second half of the fourth century suggests that trade had effectively ceased there by then. This decline in the ready supply of Roman goods may help explain the references in fourth-century Roman sources to devastating seaborne raids from beyond the Walls. The concerted attacks of the 360s were particularly intense and involved not only Picti and Scotti but also Saxons from across the North Sea.
The economic and political impact of Rome can be quantified to a greater or lesser extent, but what of the cultural impact? The Roman view of the Caledonians, as expressed by Tacitus, was as ‘the last men on earth, the last of the free’. Participation in long-distance trade brought the inhabitants of northern Britain into contact with an international economic system which was centred on the Mediterranean. Did direct contact with Roman citizens give them, for the first time, a sense of their own peripherality? Without doubt the most important and enduring intellectual legacy of Rome dates from the end of the period: the introduction of Christianity. Since the early fourth century Christianity had been the prevailing religion of the Empire but we are sorely ignorant of the means by which it reached northern Britain.
We have no contemporary accounts and are forced to rely almost exclusively on archaeology. The only documents we have were written centuries later and present a version of events tailored to fit greatly changed political circumstances. Mounting archaeological evidence reveals the osmotic spread of the new religion from Christian communities in the Roman frontier zone, focused on the bishopric at York, via Carlisle, to Galloway and along the river valleys of Liddesdale and the Tweed basin to Lothian. This first phase of Scottish Christianity can be traced in the new ‘long-cist’ cemeteries as far north as Angus. These were ordinary Christian cemeteries of slab-lined graves oriented east-west. The burials of the privileged few might also be marked by a cross-slab or inscribed stone. The earliest of these is the fifth-century memorial to Latinus and his young, unnamed daughter at Whithorn. In its lettering and layout this monument reflects the Roman roots of the new faith, but the family were not incomers. Although Latinus was given a name of Roman origin, the name of his grandfather is a Celtic one.
At about this time, British missionaries, most famously of course Bishop Patrick, were actively evangelizing beyond the Empire in Ireland, but we have no contemporary evidence for such campaigns among northern British pagans. Attempts have been made to find a north British equivalent of the missionary Patrick in the shape of Ninian of Whithorn, but on close inspection the evidence for such a figure is slight, some would even say non-existent. As we have it, the legend of Ninian is a creation of the eighth century, clearly shaped by the desire of both Picts and Angles to assert Christian origins independent of, and pre-dating, those of Gaelic Iona. The later prominence of the cult of Ninian has obscured the efforts of other early churchmen. The Briton Uinniau (Finnian), a major figure of the mid-sixth-century Church who was known as an early teacher of Columba, has strong associations with the southwest. Later in the sixth century Kentigern was head of an episcopal church associated with the British kingdom of Dumbarton, and further east, at least according to Brittonic sources, his younger contemporary Run, son of the British king Urien, worked among the Angles, baptizing the English king Eadwine (Edwin) and a great number of his followers.
The wine and oil required for the rituals of the new religion came to the lands bordering the Irish Sea from the eastern Mediterranean and, later, from the emporia of Atlantic Gaul. All that remains of this important, though short-lived, trade is the distinctive pottery which contained and accompanied it. Whatever perishables these commodities were exchanged for, long-distance trade was tightly focused on royal sites and, by allowing kings to control the flow of goods to their own ends, played a significant role in the political development of the Celtic West. Though direct contact with the Mediterranean can be traced only from the late fifth to mid-sixth centuries, links with Gaul were maintained till the end of the seventh and provided a conduit for artistic and intellectual innovations from the Merovingian Church, above all profoundly influential ideas about monasticism.