When did Scotland become Scotland?

One of my earlier blogposts looked at the origins of the Scots, and at the old idea that they came from Ireland versus a more recent theory that they were indigenous to Britain. Since writing the post, I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a sequel which would examine why other peoples, such as the Picts and North Britons, eventually became ‘Scots’. I still hope to produce something along these lines, when I get around to it. In the meantime, I’m putting up a signpost to a useful article that touches on this topic. It was published fifteen years ago, in the journal History Today, and is currently available online. The author, Dauvit Broun, is one of the foremost authorities on medieval Scotland and has written a number of groundbreaking papers on the evolution of the kingdom. This one is somewhat less academic than his usual output but it provides a good summary of where his ideas were taking him in the mid-1990s. It argues that the concept of a unified Scottish nation, and the political reality of a country called Scotland, were fairly late developments. Professor Broun (as he is now) suggests the 13th century as a plausible context. England, by contrast, already had a well-defined sense of unity and nationhood by c.1000. The article is a quick and easy read but it gives an excellent overview of a complex and controversial subject. At a time when Scottish independence is back on the political agenda the question of how the country came into being has a certain relevance.

Dauvit Broun, When did Scotland become Scotland? History Today vol.46, no.10 (October 1996), pp.16-21

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4 comments on “When did Scotland become Scotland?

  1. Here are some extracts which you might find interesting –

    ‘…The making of the Scottish nation was thus the result of a long process of which it is impossible to detect the beginning, and even the formation of a single state, with the geographical boundaries we know, had many stages.
    Briefly, the kingdom took shape through the amalgamation of five peoples….’ – p. 15,

    ‘…The Scottish state did not gain even formal possession of the main areas of Scandinavian settlement until comparatively late – the western isles by treaty in 1266 and Orkney and Shetland as part of a marriage-dowry in 1468-9.
    These transfers of territory from Norway were made by formal written instruments: it is much harder to understand the processes by which the other inhabitants of Scotland had come together in a single kingdom. We do know that in or about 844 the Irish settlers and the Picts were joined together in the kingdom of Alba, comprising most of the land north of the Forth and Clyde. But the circumstances are quite obscure. Accounts of what happened are of Irish origin, and naturally represent the union as one of conquest. This sounds rather unlikely….’ – p. 16,

    ‘…The acquisition by Alba of the English territory in the south-east seems to have been the result of straightforward military aggression. Probably most of Lothian was conquered in the tenth century, and the battle of Carham, on the Tweed, in 1018, is regarded as marking the consolidation of Alban hold on the south-east. Almost simultaneously, as a result of intermarriage between royal houses, the grandson and heir of the king of Alba succeeded to the British kingdom in the south-west and when he also inherited his grandfather’s kingdom, in 1034, his dominions extended to the Tweed on the east coast and across the Solway on the west. Propoganda to the effect that the Irish ‘Scots’ had ‘expelled the Britons’ is no more true than their claim that they had ‘destroyed’ or ‘rooted out’ the Picts…’ – p. 17,

    ‘…Something very like national pride in the independence of Scotland had been expressed as early as 1189 by a monk of Melrose, although he was a member of an order with its headquarters on the continent and of community situated in the far south of Scotland, endowed by Norman landholders and presided over by abbots of English or French descent…Kings ceased to address the various races of their people: all of them were simply subjects of the king of Scots, and therefore themselves Scots. The time came when a baron of Norman extraction who spoke French, a bishop whose tongue took more readily to Latin than to English, the English-speaking traders and farmers of the burghs and the plains and the Gaelic-speaking pastoralists from the mountains, all began to look on themselves not as a collection of different races ruled by a single sovereign, but as one nation.
    In view of the lack of an obvious frontier between north and south Britain, the existence of physical barriers within Scotland, the differences of race and language among its people, the contrast between Highlands and Lowlands and the affinities between the Lowlands and England, it is remarkable that a separate state, with its frontier at the Tweed and the Solway, ever came into existence and preserved its identity. No doubt the persistence of some native institutions despite all southern innovations had something to do with it, and no doubt the retention by the monarchy of its ancient trappings contributed too, but the full explanation remains mysterious. One element was this: Picts and Britons, Scandinavians, Angles and Normans, all alike laid aside their particular memories of the past and adopted as their heritage the history and mythology of the original Scots, who had come as Irish invaders. What else, it may be asked, but the acceptance of a single history, or what men imagined to be history, could have made one nation? The mythology was symbolised and enshrined in the royal line, for which a quite unhistorical antiquity was claimed in remarkable flights of fancy which may, however, represent some vestigial folk-memory of early migrations.
    …Needless ro say, the forty-five kings from ‘Fergus I’ to Fergus, son of Erc, were a fabrication, typical of the Irish readiness to present claims to territory and allegiance in genealogical form.’ – pp. 23-24.

    SOURCE: ‘Scotland: The Shaping of a Nation’ by Gordon Donaldson (published 1974), ISBN 0 7153 6904 0.

    Michael Follon

    • Tim says:

      These extracts demonstrate why Donaldson’s book, although nearly forty years old, is such a worthy study. Like Archie Duncan’s Scotland: the making of the kingdom, published in the following year, it helped to dismantle the long-established theories of Victorian scholars such as WF Skene. Both were of course preceded by Marjorie Anderson’s Kings and kingship in early Scotland, which is still an indispensible book for anybody working on this period.

  2. esmeraldamac says:

    Thanks for that link. It’s a subject I find fascinating as it seems only an accident of history that my home, Cumbria, ended up on the English side of the border. We seem quite Scottish, in some ways – !

    • Tim says:

      My favourite example of Cumbrian ‘Scottishness’ is a late-night takeaway delicacy …. haggis & chips.

      I think you’re right about the accident of history, Diane. The Anglo-Scottish border might now be at Penrith if things had turned out differently a thousand years ago.

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