When Did Scotland Become Scotland?
Dauvit Broun looks at the making of a nation, 1000-1300, which formed a crucial element in the shaping of medieval Britain.
In a recent article in History Today Patrick Wormald tackled the fascinating question 'when did England become England?' His persuasive answer was: in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when kings of Wessex conquered all England and established a new political order with the 'king of the English' at its apex. He emphasised, however, that the idea of 'the English people' was much older – as old as Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) – and played a vital role in lending legitimacy to the English state created in the tenth century.
So strong was the institutional framework and network of allegiance which embodied the newly-formed England that it not only survived the storms of defeat and conquest, but thrived to become the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England's claim to be sovereign of Britain. The repeated failure of Edward I and Edward III to win their wars against the Scots, despite victories on the battlefield, ensured that Britain as a single political entity would remain no more than an ideal until 1707. Even then, the Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society – law, education and the church – and did not create a homogenous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.
In this immediate sense, therefore, Britain's foundations cannot be explained wholly in terms of England's expansion from its tenth-century origins. To understand Britain's present structure, it is also necessary to consider Scotland's history in its own right. The question 'when did Scotland become Scotland? ' can therefore, be recognised as an intriguing part of the quest for Britain's medieval foundations just as much as 'when did England become England? ' Although Scotland was never able to pack a punch comparable to England's might, the contours of each kingdom's development does bear at least superficial comparison. The title 'king of the English' was first adopted by Athelstan (924-39); the Gaelic title of the kings of Scots, ri Alban, which eventually meant 'king of Scotland', is first found in 900. The kings of Wessex finally extinguished the independence of the Danish north in the mid-tenth century; in the early eleventh century the kingdom of Strathclyde (stretching from north-west of Glasgow down to Cumbria) was incorporated within the Scottish realm and the Scottish king's hold over Northumbria north of the Tweed was dramatically vindicated at the battle of Carham.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw not only the continuing growth of the king of England's power and influence, pushing west into Wales and Ireland, but also the expansion of the king of Scots' authority over northern Britain. Moray was conquered by David I (1124-53); subsequent revolts in Moray and Ross were finally quelled by Alexander II (1214-49); William I (1165-1214) and Alexander II led successful campaigns as far north as Caithness, and Alexander Il and Alexander 1II (1249-86) brought the West Highlands and Islands, including Mann (the present-day Isle of Man), within their control.
As Keith Stringer has perceptively observed, 'one of the most fundamental – if inconvenient – points about Britain's "medieval foundations" is that there were two powerful core areas seeking to absorb peripheral regions'. Patrick Wormald emphasised how England was not the logical outcome of a natural process of unification, but was created by conquest. The same is essentially true for Scotland as well, though beginning with a much smaller core area, extending almost from the Forth in the south to the Spey in the north and the Grampians in the west.
Scotland's early history was different from England's however, not simply because it was on a smaller scale, or because royal government was never so highly developed as it was in England. A striking contrast is that the idea of 'the Scottish people' did not precede the expansion of royal control – as the idea of 'the English people' was able to underpin the creation of an English state. An equivalent notion of Scottish ethnicity only emerged rather late in the day – probably as late as c. 1300, by which time Edward I had already conquered and lost most of Scotland for the first time. This will seem surprising, even shocking, to those who are used to reading how the 'Scots' arrived in Scotland back in the fifth century, and expanded from their original colony in Argyll so that, by the end of the ninth century, they had taken over most of the mainland Scotland (which had hitherto been settled by Picts). It may seem preposterous to suggest that these Scots had not an idea of 'the Scottish people'. More- over, was it not their success which put the 'Scot' into 'Scotland'?
Such doubts seem plausible enough as long as only English terminology is considered. If we want to know how 'Scots' (or at least those whose writings we have access to) perceived themselves, we must first examine ethnic terminology in their own language: Gaelic. If we do so, we discover that Scots saw themselves ethnically and racially as 'Gaels' (Gaedil). Gaedil, however, referred to the (well-born) inhabitants of Ireland, not Scotland! This can be readily explained by the fact that the 'Scots' spoke Gaelic, as did the Irish, and that both they and the Trish shared the same Gaelic 'high culture'. The Gaelic-speaking 'Scots' saw them- selves unambiguously as an offshoot of the Gaels of Ireland (as it revealed in the tenth-century text Senchus fer nAlban, the 'History of the People of Scotland'). In short, the 'Scots' in this period had no idea of having a distinct ethnic identity: they simply saw themselves as Irish. The confusion caused by modern English terminology is largely a result of Gaedil's translation into Latin as Scoti: only later (as we will see) did Scoti acquire its modern sense of the inhabitants of the Scottish kingdom.
This is all very well as long as high culture and literacy remained predominantly Gaelic in the Scottish kingdom. Did this change in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, when Gaelic declined in the kingdom's heartland? The answer seems to be, no. Latin accounts of Scottish origins written by the new non-Gaelic literati in eastern Scotland not only restated the umbilical link with Ireland, but in two accounts gave it even greater emphasis. One account restructured its source to make Ireland the divinely-ordained land of the Scoti; the other declared that Ireland was their 'sure and perpetual home'. Yet another account identified the Stone of Scone with Tara and the kingship of Ireland. Scots continued to imagine them- selves as ethnically and racially Irish.
It is not until the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) that an account of Scottish origins can be found which fails to mention Ireland. The declining importance of the Irish connection was already evident, however, in the Scottish pleadings at the Roman curia in 1301 in which Ireland received little more than a passing mention. Perhaps the most striking text, however, is a long-neglected verse-history of the Scots, composed originally between 1298 and 1304, which declares that the Scoti take their name from Scotia, and urges that the Scoti should therefore only be so-called after they arrived in Scotland from Ireland. Clearly the author consciously rejected Irish identity, and was keen to portray the Scots as the people of Scotland, and as a wholly separate entity from the Irish or anyone else. The author of this verse-history, the Scottish proctors at the curia and the drafters of the Declaration of Arbroath were, it seems, the first generation to articulate fully a sense of ethnic Scottishness – the Scots as a distinct people with their own unique history and ancient origins.
An obvious difference between Scotland's early development compared with England's therefore, is that Scotland was not built on the foundations of an existing belief that there was such a thing as 'the Scottish people', unlike the making of England which was, as Patrick Wormald showed, considerably facilitated by the long-established idea of 'the English people'. In fact, when the comparable notion of 'the Scottish people' was first given literary form c. 1500, it was conceived as 'the people of Scotland': the existence of Scotland was already accepted as a fact of life. This suggests that, although Edward I's attempts to conquer Scotland must have contributed in some way to a sense of Scottish ethnicity, this was only a later stage of a longer process which began whenever Scotland became Scotland.
The most obvious and important fact about Scotland before the wars of independence is that it was a kingdom. It might seem natural, therefore, to answer the question 'when did Scotland become Scotland?' by outlining the kingdom's early development. This has often been portrayed as various stages of unification which gradually brought together the disparate peoples of early-medieval Scotland – Picts in the north and east, Angles in the south-east, Britons in the south-west, and the 'Scots' (i.e. Gaels) who settled at first only in Argyll in the west. In 843 (or thereabouts), we are usually told, Cinaed mac Ailpin (Kenneth I), king of the 'Scots' of Argyll, became king of the Picts. Because he 'united' Picts and 'Scots', he is regarded by some as the founder of the kingdom of Scotland'. Scottish kings, indeed, are traditionally numbered from Kenneth I. The Angles and Britons of the south, however, were only absorbed in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This was finally achieved by Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda (Malcolm II) (1005-54), who therefore sometimes vies with Cinaed mac Ailpin (Kenneth I) as the first king of a 'united' Scotland.
There is, however, an unavoidable whiff of anachronism in such an account of Scotland's early history. The claim that this is the story of Scotland's 'unification' can only be made retrospectively. This is especially true when a particular state is deemed to mark the beginning of Scotland. Moreover, it might be wondered whether 'unification' is an appropriate term for the developments which may have endured more because of chance than design. What would have happened, for example, if any of David I's five full elder brothers had had legitimate sons? On Edgar's death in 1107, Alexander I succeeded to the throne, but David acquired most of southern Scotland. Alexander was clearly unhappy with this arrangement and tried to retain some authority over David's lands. If the division had lasted into the next generation, however, it is conceivable that southern Scotland could have emerged as an independent entity – especially if it had expanded to include northern England (which David I controlled on his death in 1153).
It might seem more meaningful, therefore, to discuss the question of when Scotland became a 'state' in the same sense as England was a state in the tenth and eleventh centuries, as Patrick Wormald argued forcefully. The emergence of a 'Scottish state' may be sketched roughly in the following way. The Scottish kingdom before 1100 had only the most embryonic royal government. The twelfth century, however, saw the arrival of a number of household officials – such as the chancellor, chamberlain and steward – and the beginnings of a network of local royal officials (the sheriffs) – all to a greater or lesser extent derived from English practice, and accompanied by an influx of Anglo-Norman knights and clerics.
Only in the early thirteenth century, though, can it be said that royal charter-production became truly official; while arguably the effective division of the entire country into sheriffdoms was not finally attempted until the reign of John Balliol (1292-1304). The king and his council began to take a more active interest in legislation and the administration of justice, and the 'common law of Scotland' began to take shape – again, by borrowing and adapting from England. As far as landholding is concerned, a regularised system of royal justice cannot be posited earlier than the mid-thirteenth century.
Royal succession had, however, already been settled according to the rule that precedence was given to the deceased king's eldest son (or eldest son's eldest son), rather than whoever was deemed the best qualified male member of the royal family. A crucial moment was the recognition of William I's infant heir, Alexander, by William's brother, David, Earl of Huntingdon, in a special ceremony in 1205 – four years after the rest of the nobility had paid homage to Alexander as heir to the throne. This was arguably more significant than the succession of David I's twelve-year-old grandson, Malcolm, in 1153, when there was no obvious rival within the royal family. Another key issue was the independence of the kingdom from England. This had been surrendered by William I in 1174 following William's defeat and capture while invading Northumbria, and was not finally asserted successfully (at least de facto) until the reigns of Alexander ll and Alexander III.
Finally, an important aspect of Scotland's territorial cohesion must be the extension by the Scottish crown of its authority over northern Scotland and the West Highlands and Islands in the thirteenth century. Taking all these elements together (from what is of necessity a selective survey), it may be concluded that, by the mid-thirteenth century at the latest, Scotland had 'arrived' as an independent and consolidated kingdom. It is true, of course, that Scottish kings never developed anything like the financial resources and mighty bureaucracy of their English counterparts, and depended on local magnates for the exercise of much of their regional power and influence. Nevertheless, the kingdom ruled by Alexander III (1249-86) evidently had an internal cohesion which made it eminently durable – sufficient even to withstand Edward I's best efforts to eliminate it.
Historians, whose subject habitually requires them to deal with long-term developments which are difficult to comprehend fully, should probably not be surprised to discover that Scotland's emergence as a durable entity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was gradual and complex, involving many different developments which were all inter-related and to some extent mutually dependent. It would be unrealistic to expect to find a freeze-frame of 'when Scotland became Scotland' in the fluid and multi-layered process out- lined above. There is another way of approaching the question, however, which gives a vivid impression of when Scotland became Scotland – by focusing on contemporary definitions of 'Scotland'.
To appreciate what this is about, it is necessary to bear in mind that 'Scotland' is Scotia in Latin and Alba in Gaelic. What is striking is that Scotia and Alba have not always denoted all of what is now Scotland: 'Scotland' meant something much less, territorially, than Scotland today. It is not until the reign of Alexander II (1214-49) that it is possible to find Scottish sources habitually referring to the area south of the River Forth and the Firth of Clyde – south of Stirling and Loch Lomond – as part of 'Scotland'. Before this 'Scotland' was even understood to mean only the area north of the Forth, south of Moray and east of the Grampians. The author of a tract probably written sometime between 1202 and 1214 refers on one occasion to the mountains of Breadalbane as dividing Argyll and 'Scotland' Scotia.
There is a chronicle reference (doubtless contemporary in origin) which casually mentions that William I 'returned from Moray to Scotland' (Scotia) in 1214. Scotia in these instances is evidently translating the Gaelic 'Alba', which was itseIf also limited at one time to the area north of the Forth, south of Moray and east of the Grampians. There are placenames in Moray, Ross, Argyll and Ayrshire which mention an Albanach – an inhabitant of 'Scotland' (Alba) – for example, the mountain in Argyll called Stob Coir, an Albanaich, 'stob of the corrie of the Scot (Albanach) '. Presumably names like this were coined by people who considered an Albanach to be sufficiently unusual to make it worth distinguishing something by naming it after him. This must mean that the people in the vicinity did not consider themselves to be inhabitants of 'Scotland' Alba.
In fact, before the mid-thirteenth century there was some confusion and contradiction in the usage of 'Scotland' (Scotia/Alba). An early thirteenth-century attempt to describe 'Scotland' geographically simply resorted to giving two different options: either it could mean the mainland north of the Forth and Clyde (though not Caithness), or it meant the mainland north of the Forth but not including either Argyll or the Lennox. Apparently its author was eager to define a 'greater Scotland', but was not sure how this should be done.
Perhaps we should imagine that, as late as the early thirteenth century, there were two senses of 'Scotland' – Scotland 'proper', as it were, between the Forth, Moray and the Grampians; and an imprecise 'greater Scotland' – neither of which were coterminous with the kingdom itself. Eyebrows would have been raised at the suggestion that Edinburgh or Glasgow were in 'Scotland' – even though the former had been in Scottish hands almost continuously since c. 960.
What this means is that 'Scotland' was radically redefined in the mid- thirteenth century to denote the entire territory of the kingdom. With the exception of the addition of Orkney and Shetland in 1468-69 and the loss of Mann and Berwick, Scotland had become what it means today. The kingdom was no longer a patchwork of regions – 'Scotland' (Scotia) Moray, Ross, Caithness, Argyll, Lothian, Galloway – but was a single country. This was achieved, it seems, not by royal decree, but was founded on a general consensus (at least among those who could write or could commission scribes). It appears that, in the wake of increasingly effective royal government, belonging to the kingdom had now become a more meaningful experience, so that older regional identities ceased to be predominant (although they certainly remained important).
Along with the redefinition of 'Scotland' there was a new sense of who were 'Scots'. In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries Scoti had also been used to denote the inhabitants of Scotland north of the Forth, or merely of 'Scotland proper' between the Forth, Moray and the Grampians. Before the thirteenth century the kingdom had therefore been not only multi-country, but multi-racial. Kings saw nothing amiss in addressing their charters to the English, French (often called 'Anglo-Normans' by historians), Gallovidians (the people of Galloway), Scots and Welsh (of Strathclyde) of their realm in various combinations, as appropriate to the area concerned. In about 1180, however, this was dropped, and the kings addressed their charters to Scots alone.
This, however, may have been decided more in order to keep in line with English usage (as was frequently the case) than because of a general sense that all these ethnic-groups were now 'Scots'. As far as the chroniclers at Melrose in the eastern borders were concerned, 'Scots' continued to mean the inhabitants north of the Forth, even as late as the 1250s. Although they referred to their area as part of 'Scotland' from 1216, they implicitly did not consider that the people in the environs of Melrose, or they themselves, were 'Scots'. They were, it seems, still either English or French.
By the late thirteenth century this had changed, and they could refer without embarrassment to Guy de Balliol, an Anglo-Norman knight who bore Simon de Montfort's standard at the battle of Evesham (1265), as 'by race a Scot'. It may have taken a couple of generations before the new sense of Scotland encompassing all the kingdom's territory was followed by a new sense of Scottishness shared indiscriminately among the king's subjects (or at least those that were well-born). Once this had taken root, perhaps not long before Edward I first threatened Scotland's independence, we are surely entitled to say that Scotland had indeed become Scotland in a sense we can readily recognise today. All that remained was for Scottish literati during the first war of independence to rewrite the story of Scottish origins to make sure that a sense of the Scots as a distinct people, inhabitants of an independent kingdom, was properly articulated.
Dauvit Broun is a lecturer in the Department of Scottish History, University of Glasgow. He is the author of The Charters of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland in the Early and Central Middle Ages (CUP, 1994).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology