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.