How British is Scotland?

Pictish warriors

Warriors on a Pictish stone at Aberlemno (8th century AD)

A recent post by Ross Crawford at the website of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish & Celtic Studies summarised a two-part lecture on the theme How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland. The speakers were Professor Stephen Driscoll and Dr Ewan Campbell – familiar names to students of early Scottish history and archaeology.

Modern perceptions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Scottishness’ are obviously topical in the run-up to September’s referendum, but their roots lie deep in the past, reaching back to the so-called Dark Ages of the first millennium AD. As with all abstract notions of nationality, the origins of both terms are too complex for a simple explanation. Current thinking envisages a fluid pattern of ‘ethnicities’ and cultural affiliations in early medieval Scotland. Older theories are being questioned, among them a popular belief that the Scots originated in Ireland – a subject I’ve blogged about before. As far as the Picts are concerned, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to write the name ‘Pictland’ on a map without wondering if such a concept ever existed in the Pictish mindset.

Below is a link to Ross Crawford’s post at the CSCS website.

How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland

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22 comments on “How British is Scotland?

  1. The whole mini-series of lectures on Britishness and Scottishness is v interesting. Was that the last lecture or will there be more?

    • Tim says:

      Not sure, Liz. The schedule of seminars/lectures at the CSCS website doesn’t list any more in the series. Maybe it continues in the autumn term?

      • CSCS says:

        Hi there! We’ve now updated the schedule on our blog and we can confirm there is one more lecture in the ‘How British is Scotland’ series.

        On Tuesday 10 June Prof Murray Pittock discusses ‘How British is Scotland? Flying the Flag for the Union? Scotland 2014: Yes or No, What Happens Next’.

        This will be held in the Boyd Orr Lecture Theatre 1 at 5.30pm.

        To keep up-to-date with our seminars, give us a ‘like’ on Facebook (if you have it!):

        Thanks for linking to our blog, Tim. Much appreciated!

  2. Appreciate the information and link – this situation always confuses me

  3. David says:


    Thanks for this information, as well as for that link ;

    Well, I also wanted to suggest others who might be interested, to watch the two following lectures by Prof. Dauvit Broun, which appear on youtube, and relate to Pictish identity:

    Rethinking Scottish Origins

    Britain and the Beginning of Scotland

    • Tim says:

      Interesting videos. The whole issue of Pictish identity seems to be up in the air right now.

      • David says:

        Hello again, I’ve just wanted to apologize for posting the two web links for youtube videos which can be found above, as they take up so much space up there ;
        I’ve actually only meant to post their url addresses up ;
        I’m sorry for that.

  4. Jo Woolf says:

    Hi Tim, this is an ongoing discussion that will continue for some time, I think! I love the quote that Dr Campbell used from ‘1066 and all that’! So true! The trouble comes when you try to define ‘British’ and ‘Scottish’ anyway – there’s a lot of misunderstanding and propaganda which isn’t helping the situation!

    • Tim says:

      Somewhere in the pipeline I’ve got a blogpost on the misuse of the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ in the independence debate. Although I’m a bystander in the referendum, I’m intrigued by the weird notion that the Scots would somehow cease to be British if they vote Yes in September. For me, this runs against a few basic facts of geography and history. I think I’ll move the post higher up the pile, now that I’m getting back to blogging.

  5. dearieme says:

    “I’m intrigued by the weird notion that the Scots would somehow cease to be British if they vote Yes in September. For me, this runs against a few basic facts of geography and history. ” I am similarly intrigued by the weird notion that the British aren’t European. And I loathe the low trick of using “Europe” to denote the EU.

    I sometimes wonder, though, if the patch of earth that we called “The Continent” when I was in school in Scotland might have been called “Europe” in English schools. Does anyone know?

  6. David Hillman says:

    So Scotland before meaning all the lands ruled by the king of Scots meant the land North of the Forth and more particularly the Eastern part of this – so not in this more particular sense including Dalriada or Moray. What puzzles me is why the word Scot became to be used by English speakers (in Scotland too) as the equivalent of Gaelic Alba. Why did they use a word that should describe Irish and Dalriadans? So it looks like the word Scot which should describe those to the northwest in contrast to the presumably Picts of the North East, later means the opposite.

    • Tim says:

      The jury is still out on this one. At some point between 850 and 950, the Picts started identifying as Scots. How and why this happened remains a mystery. To muddy the waters still further, it seems likely that ‘Alba’ was a Gaelic term for Pictland. Getting to the root of it all is hindered rather than helped by the medieval sources, none of which offers a clear explanation. These were massive cultural and political changes but the processes behind them are virtually invisible.

  7. dearieme says:

    Could it be to do with the Christianisation of the Picts?

  8. David Hillman says:

    Picts become Scots. Is it just due to a contingent change in the English language – that is that Scotland became the English translation of Alba because of some quirk of scribes in the service of Northumbrians or Kings of Wessex? Or did it reflect a changing sense of identity amongst the Picts themselves as aspects of their culture became more Gaelic?

    • Chris Pickles says:

      There were ‘Kings of the Picts’ up to around 900AD and thereafter ‘Kings of Alba’

      Since the Picts were a people and Alba was an area of land, there is no need for there to have been any actual change at all beyond the name.

  9. David says:


    I wonder, to what extent can one actually rely upon written sources, some of which may also be no less politically ( or rather, economically ) motivated in their own ways, than those which one may come to consider reviewing at present times ?
    Although that I do not claim to have any much knowledge, if at all, of past or present states of affairs, then I personally as yet happen to think that the possibility of supporting or promoting a divide and conquer policy, or at any rate, one which may have to do with economical goals, may come to pronounce itself on various official documents, even if culture and society are not matters which should necessarily have cooperate with oppression, or at leat not solely with it.

    However, even if the following could mean attempting to consider periods of history which commenting upon by myself might be quite negative, or at least, meaningless, as I have neither any much data, nor any new possible outlooks which to offer upon them, then is it possible that at least some of the people who have dwellt in northwestern scotland, might come to have had , over a certain periods of time, some contact with a branch of what is called “Proto-Uralic” ?

    At any case, if this above comment may appear rediculous to some, then I’d wish to beg for your fogiveness ;
    However, why is it that considering contact or influence by Romans, who indeed, have left a plethora of archaeoligical and other evidence of their culture in and around the area of different parts of Scotland, or so, might come to be any more reliable than lasting influence by a Branch of Proto-Uralic ?

    If Norway, for instance, whose prehistory have included some variety of cultures, some of which might come to have had a contact with groups of people who have been dwellers of different areas of Scotland, over some seperate parts of history, then why not consider this option as well, or so ?
    I have no intention of saying here that it is necessarily correct, which happens not to be of my own personal opinion as well, but I should just wish to offer it as an uneducated guess, that is all.

  10. David says:

    p.s. : And again, if what I wrote above appears to either lack relevance to your current discussion, or to be on a lower level than it in general, or to rather just be taking up space over there, then I wish to pologize for that.

  11. David says:

    On another matter : I have used the term of “Proto-Uralic”, in quite a general sense, since there had been no particular piece of information appearing, towards of which I then had the intention of pointing out to.
    There is no single cultural complex, whose influence in particular is one which I would wish to hereby include, i.e., when reviewing prehistoric societies of Scotland, which people today indeed tend to commonly refer to, as one which relates to Proto-Uralic, or so.

    And aside of that, then it might interest some of you to consider what appears on the following article; it appears to be an extract from a longer essay, which was written by Dr. Robert Mailhammer :

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