Scottish Origins: Myths and Misconceptions

One of the most important papers of recent years is Ewan Campbell’s ‘Were the Scots Irish?’, published in the journal Antiquity in 2001. Campbell questions the scholarly consensus which envisages migrants from Antrim establishing an Irish colony in northwest Britain sometime around AD 500. The migration hypothesis has long been accepted as the correct view of Scottish origins, partly because it explains why the inhabitants of Argyll spoke Gaelic – the language of Ireland – at a time when everyone else in North Britain spoke a Brittonic language (i.e. British/Cumbric in the Lowlands and Pictish in the Highlands). Migration from Ireland was also mentioned by Bede in 731 when he referred to the origins of Dál Riata, the kingdom of the early Scots. In the 10th century the kings of the Scots produced a similar “foundation legend” which traced their lineage back to Irish ancestors who came to Argyll as conquerors.

As an archaeologist Campbell wonders why Argyll yields no material evidence of the alleged migration. If the Scots had arrived from Ireland in large numbers we would expect them to build dwellings of similar types to the ones they left behind. No such evidence has been found, nor do the place-names of Argyll suggest that a mass of Gaelic-speaking immigrants supplanted an indigenous Pictish or British population. It is usual for traces of an earlier language to be visible among place-names coined in the speech of an invader but the Argyll names are so thoroughly Gaelic that they actually appear to be indigenous. Some historians believe that the Scots came to Britain as a small, elite group of kings and aristocrats. This could possibly explain the lack of archaeological evidence for a mass-migration but, as Campbell points out, high-status foreigners would have imposed the trappings of their own culture on the native elites whom they conquered or absorbed. We should therefore expect the decorated brooch – the ubiquitous badge of high-status among early medieval cultures – to show Irish characteristics whenever an example is unearthed in the archaeology of Argyll. Again, no such evidence is forthcoming: the brooches worn by the early Scots are of recognizably British rather than of Irish design.

What, then, of the foundation legend mentioned by Bede? Surely his testimony – having been written in the 8th century – must count for something? Campbell makes a strong case for believing that Bede was merely stating the earliest form of an origin-story that the Scots would later richly embellish in the 10th century. Such tales were very common in early medieval Europe and were often concocted as political propaganda to create suitably dramatic origins for dominant royal dynasties.

As an alternative hypothesis Campbell envisages no migration from Ireland to Argyll other than a cultural one arising from social and economic links across the narrow seas between the two areas. These links led to the adoption of Gaelic as the common language of trade and social interaction but, although the people of Argyll became Gaelic-speakers, their distinctive regional identity was strong enough to preserve their indigenous culture in the face of Irish influences. Campbell suggests that the linguistic shift from Brittonic to Gaelic was achieved during the pre-Roman Iron Age. Thus, when Roman writers spoke of the Scotti (Scots) of Ireland they were probably referring collectively to all Gaelic speakers – including the Scots of Argyll.

This is only a brief summary of Campbell’s paper. I find his alternative view of Scottish origins convincing and compelling. It will not persuade everyone to change their views but it issues a bold challenge to conventional wisdom and cannot be ignored.

Ewan Campbell, ‘Were the Scots Irish?’ Antiquity 75 (2001) pp.285-92.

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18 comments on “Scottish Origins: Myths and Misconceptions

  1. nicola says:

    I’ll have to track down that paper. The notion of a people changing their language just for trade/social interaction is intriguing (though I find I’m sceptical; language *is* culture). But I love being forced to reexamine my assumptions. Thanks for the reference.

  2. Tim says:

    Scepticism is no bad thing, Nicola. We need a lot more of it, if only to question some of the big assumptions that still exist in this whole area of study.

    Your doubts about language change for social/economic reasons are worth stating. I wonder if analogous cases might show up in anthropological studies? If not, then Campbell’s hypothesis would make the Scots unique.

  3. Michelle says:

    Nicola, look around the world today and see how many people speak English. English is the language of commerce and science. I think people today are more sentimental about their language than they were in the past. I think that only when a dominant country tries to ban the language of a subjected country do the people in the subjected country cling to their language.

    How else does language diffuse? It can’t be simply by reproduction. There have been genetics studies that show that genetics and language do not match as much as you would expect if everyone stuck to their native language.

    I think we have an analogous situation in England. The British of Roman Britain accepted the English language but much of the material culture is still British or a blend of Anglo-British culture. These high status Anglo-Saxon graves including Sutton Hoo had a lot of British artifacts and style. I don’t think these are British imports as much as British culture remaining in Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

    There may have been Irish warlords who came into Dalriada over many centuries including during Roman Britain or before, and exerted political dominance to help the process along. I can’t help think that the Irish word Cruithin is the same for Ulster and the British Picts and what that means. Of course, Dalriada were also considered members of the Irish Cruithin. It also makes me think about what was happening in Scotland when Irish and British first separated into two languages. It would have originally been a very subtle shift.

  4. nicola says:

    …and uniqueness puts my probability detectors on amber alert.

    An interesting paper on culture and language is Richard Coates’ Invisible Britons.

    I think there are probably also a zillion studies of Australian and American peoples being forced to give up their language. Force takes many forms: religious, martial, economic. But I’m not aware of any culture that gave up its language willingly. Perhaps others out there are?

  5. Michelle says:

    The church willing accepted Latin as the language of the church, and education. There will always be a bilingual period. New immigrants who come to the US are not forced to give up their native language but they usually do within 2-3 generations.

    Besides I think Irish is the older language. British is influenced by the newer Celtic language from the continent. Its more that British (P-Celtic?) didn’t get to Ireland rather than Irish (Q-Celtic) coming over into Britain, if I recall correctly. Isn’t Campbell’s hypothesis that P-Celtic never made it to western Scotland, or that they resisted the change.

    I also can’t shake the idea that the Irish call everyone north of the Friths in Britain and also Ulster Cruthin (Pict). So you have Irish Cruthin of Ulster and British Cruthin (“The Picts”). Perhaps what separates the two types of Picts is that the British Picts east of Drum Alban accepted an early form of P-Celtic and the Cruthin west of Drum Alban retained Q-Celtic.

  6. Tim says:

    Yes, Michelle, Ewan Campbell’s theory sees the people of Argyll missing out on language changes affecting other parts of Britain due to their geographical isolation, hence their retention of Gaelic which was part of an archaic branch of Celtic.

    The name Cruithin or Cruithne was given to an Ulster people otherwise known as Dal nAraide. I don’t know a lot about them but some historians certainly refer to them as “Picts”, whatever this means in an Irish context.

  7. Michelle says:

    So, Nicola, this begs the question as to why the rest of Britain adopted a new version of Celtic. There are many individual tribes so its hard to believe that any one tribe exerted dominance long enough to force linguistic change.

  8. nicola says:

    Ah. Okay. That’s much clearer now, thank you. But let me just check I’m reading all this correctly: the people of Argyll spoke the old version of Celtic because the new version just didn’t take to begin with–not that the old version re-took the new version. If I am reading your argument correctly it makes much (much) more sense.

  9. Tim says:

    You’re reading it correctly, Nicola. The theory sees Argyll following the same linguistic evolution as Ireland, i.e. retaining an archaic Celtic language which became the ancestor of Gaelic. In the rest of Britain the old language developed along a different path to become Brittonic (Brythonic) which subsequently spawned Pictish as well as the ancestral languages of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

  10. nicola says:

    That’s a relief. I think I just had a couple of seriously dim days… Thanks, everyone, for your patience.

  11. Helias says:

    from Brittany:
    How do you tell “Cruth-neach” in a P-celtic language ?
    You’ll tell : ‘Preuss-nec’…
    The ancestors of the Picts may have come from Preuss ,forward baltic language area, in your Alban country(alb=alp=mountains). Part of the Celto-Gaelics invaders, before crossing North-sea in way to Ulster, may have sojourned in dano-baltic area .And there : share of toponimes,gods, myths , stories …Picts and gaelics had got ,in Preuss land and in Alba , many cultural common frames ; after , easy to convert them to a cultural irish-scot invasion .

    Gaelic and baltic languages have many common IE toponimic roots …

  12. Jim (Breckenridge) Jensen says:

    Just a thought… since my ancestry includes both Danes and Scots and I have researched several historical accounts in a layman’s manner, and since the Vikings (Danes, Norwegians, Swedes) overwhelmed, conquered and owned the Island of Britain from 900ad to 1100ad, couldn’t there be an argument that modern Scotland was born of Viking blood and the native peoples (Gaelic, Argyll, etc., etc.)? Modern day Scots are a far cry from Irish and English only ancestry. The Wm. Wallace days recount the Scots as being fierce warriors, big and hairy and fearless (not like the Brits.) Maybe this has been hashed about before, but I believe Scotland was a melting pot of sorts, predominantly impacted by the seaworthy Vikings. We all know that Scandinavians are easy-going, unemotional (except when challenged) and tight with their money. Also, consider the order of St. Christopher and its motto “Thou cannot safely injure me.” Is that Viking dogma or what?

  13. scotbot says:

    Weren’t the Cruithin (Q-Celtic) the Irish form of the British Pretani (P-Celtic)? In other words, they were the same ethnicity and in Ireland were the remnants of the original population before the advent of the Míl Espáine.

    An Irish Bishop decribed in some ancient Irish book (I forget the name) of a language they used to speak (which had a heavy grammar and was quite difficult ot learn) before they spoke Irish. Only a few words were remembered, one of which was “ond” which meant stone. Was this Pictish?

    And what of the Irish tribe known as the Fir Domnann and the Damnonii of the Scottish central belt? Sounds ultimately like the same people to me.

    Of course, the problem with trying to understand the ethnic map and layout of peoples in dark age Britain and Ireland is that we assume that populations of any given region were completely homogenous and not a mix not unlike the map of modern Bosnia. Why should be treat Scotland and Ulster any differently?

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the trend of current scholarship in early medieval studies is moving away from old ideas about homogenous populations. I’ve drawn on this in my recent post on Coblaith of Skye.

      One idea about the Irish Cruithin is that they originally came from Britain. Their name certainly makes them an anomaly and will no doubt continue to be debated. No consensus seems to be building at the moment, so it looks as if the jury will be out for quite a long time.

      The names of the various Domn-/Dumn- peoples have been suggested as separate instances of a fairly general term meaning something like ‘belonging to the land’, although the possibility of some actual connection between these groups cannot be ruled out. One theory with regard to the Damnonii of the Clyde is that their name is a scribal error for Dumnonii, which would link it even more closely to the Dumn- and Domn- names of Devon/Cornwall and Ireland.

  14. scotbot says:

    Just to add to my previous post, it was the bishop and King of Munster, Cormac mac Cuilennáin, whom wrote this glossary known as the Sanas Cormaic.

    He called the language “iron speech” or Iarnnbélrae, Iarnbélrae, and Iarmbérla, saying that it was “difficult and dense”.

    T. F. O’Rahilly, on the other hand, called this Ivernic after a Gallo-Belgic group known as the Iverni (later Érainn), whom were listed on Ptolemy’s map.

    Could be then that the Cruitin / Pretani / Picts were a tribe related to the Gauls, perhaps Acquitanian, and hence Ivernic / Pictish may have had similarities to Basque, as perhaps suggested by the Lunnasting Stone?

    Indeed, having seen some translations of Pictish Ogham inscriptions I can see why the language might have been viewed as being hard.

  15. [...] colony also collapses when the sources are looked at more objectively. In an earlier blogpost on Scottish origins I looked at this topic alongside the archaeology of Argyll. Here, my focus turns to Ireland, to the [...]

  16. John Coleman says:

    Bryan Sykes: “The DNA of Scotland” “What of the results? We were very adept at identifying Viking DNA and, sure enough,we found plenty of it. In the Caithness and along the stunningly beautiful north coast from the Kyle of Tongue to Loch Eribol and Durness we found, by the same tests we had used in Orkney and Shetland, that 15 per cent of the DNA was Norse in origin. Like the Northern Isles, this was true both of Y-chromosomes and of mitochondrial DNA,so it liked as though it was by establishing family based communities that the Vikings came to settle here, however unlikely this sounds in relation to their folk memory as bloodthirsty plunderers. However, in the Western Isles and Skye and , the genetic evidence for a more typecast male-dominated Viking colonistion began to emerge when we looked at the results. There are twice as many Norse Y-chromosomes in Skye and the Western Isles as there are Norse mitochondria; 22 per cent of the Hebridean Y-chromosomes, but only 11 per cent of mitochondrial DNAs, had a Norse origin. The further down the west coast, the lower the Viking component became until, in Argyll, it was down to 7 per cent for Y-chromosomes and only 2 per cent for mitochondria. The diminishing Viking input and its increase asymmetry between the sexes as we travel down the west coast seems to me best explained by a gradual process of Viking settlement from the early bases in Orkney and Shetland. Some men took their women with them , or returned to Orkney to bring their families once had laid claim to a plot of land; others intermarried with local Gaelic or Pictish women. In general we found the same detailed Norse Y-chromosomes along the west coast and in the Hebrides as we had already discovered in the Northern Isles. It really didn’t look as though there had been a rush of fresh arrivals from Scandinavia.
    If that was the level of Norse DNA, what of the rest? Could we assign this to Celtic or Pictish origin? For this, I made a start by comparing our results from the Pictish regions of Grampian and Tayside with the west coast locations. I could tell straightaway that they substantially different. Not only that – there was also a big difference between the three regions in the west. Much as I had divided Pictland into Grampian and Tayside, so I split the west into three. They were the Highlands from Durness to Fort William, then from Oban south to Kintyre, which I grouped together as Argyll, and, thirdly, the Hebrides, which combined Skye and the Western Isles.
    On clan comparisons alone, the Hebrides stood out as very different from the other two. Argyll, at this crude level, was far more like the Pictland regions of Grampian and Tayside than the Hebrides. The Highland coast was somewhere in between. Even when I removed the Norse DNA, the picture was the same. At the greater level of detail reviled by the precise sequences, in the case of the mitochondria or the profiles of the Y-chromosomes, the stark differences between the regions still stood out. For the mitochondrial comparisons, on the scoring system of similarity that I introduced in Pictland, which goes from 0-100 (the higher the score, the greater the similarity), Argyll vs Pictland scored 60, the same score as Argyll vs Highlands but much higher than the Hebrides scored in this equation of similarity with either of them.. However, the Y-chromosomes told a different story. The Argyll Y-chromosomes were much more like their Hebridean counterparts than those in the Highlands.
    If your head is spinning, you are feeling just as I did when I first tried to decipher these results. It seemed to be going well. We had identified the genetic legacy of the Vikings and we had found that, just as archaeology and history leads us to expect, they did not settle in Pictland to any great extent. We had seen thier diminishing genetic impact as we traveled further and further away from their forward bases in Orkney and Shetland. Until then everything made sense. But then, the simply story, based on our historical assumptions, began to unravel. Far from the Pictland being genetically distinct from the Celtic heartlands of Dalriada and Argyll, they were remarkably close, on the the maternal side at least. However, this similarity is not reproduced by the Y-chromosome, where Argyll has a low gene-sharing score with Grampian, even after the Norse component has been subtracted. To me this is the familiar signal of maternal continuity. What we have here, I think , is the imprint of Scotland’s Pictish ancestry, on the maternal side, spread more or less uniformly across the land. This is the bed rock of Scottish maternal ancestry on which more recent events have been overlaid. The maternal gene pool is more or less the same in Pictland, in ‘Celtic’ Argyll and in the Highlands. In Orkney and Shetland, the Pictish bedrock has been overlain by a more substantial and identifiable Norse settlement than anywhere else in Scotland, but it is still there nevertheless. On the male side, we can see plainly what must be the Pictish bedrock in Grampian and Tayside, but in Argyll it has been substantially overlain by new arrivals. The Argyll Y-chromosomes are in between the Irish and Pictish values and, although these estimates are approximate, a 30-40 per cent replacement of Pictish by Gaelic Y-chromosomes would account for this. It is much harder to be accurate in this case than it was judging the Norse contribution to the Northern Isles because of the basic similarity between the Irish and Pictish Y-chromosomes which, incidentally, makes it almost impossible to detect the genetic effect of the Ulster plantations. However, the genetic signal, as far as I can judge, points to a substanial and, by the look of it, hostile replacement of Pictish males by the Dalriadan Celts, most of whom relied on Pictish rather than Irish women to propagate their genes.
    In the Western Isles, along the west coast, there was a certain arcane thrill at the possibility of a Viking ancestry, but this was eclipsed by an affiliation with a Celtic past, whatever that actually meant. People were keen to expose an Irish ancestry, if there was one, but most showed no real interest in the prospect of being of Pictish descent.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this information, John. Anything DNA-related is over my head but I know many people who visit this blog are interested in the genetic side of their ancestry. The Sykes book sounds like something they will want to get hold of, if they haven’t done already.

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