Saturday, March 12, 2011

Celts to Vikings 13: Picts and Scots

On Monday, the day before my exam, I gave my students in Celts to Vikings a little lecture about the origins of Scotland. I find this instructive because Scotland is now full of nationalistic people who think there is something important and profound about being Scottish. Yet Scotland originated from a disparate group of peoples. The natives were people the Romans called the Picts, which just seems to be another version of the same word that gave us Britons. They spoke a Celtic language. Before the Romans they were already different from the wealthier and more commercial societies of the south, which is one reason the Romans decided to wall them off from the part of the island worth ruling rather than try to conquer them. By the time the Romans left they were even more different.

After the empire fell, the southern part of modern Scotland, up to Edinburgh, was ruled by Welsh kings and was culturally part of Britain. The north remained Pictish. The western isles were overrun by invaders from Ireland, who at the time were called Scots. They brought their language, Gaelic, with them, as well as their bards, stories, and music. The Highlanders of the western isles, considered by many people today to be the heart of Scotland, are Irish immigrants. Then the Anglo-Saxons came and overran much of southern Scotland, where their language became dominant. Then the Vikings, who conquered the northeast and settled heavily in the Shetland and Orkney islands and some coastal areas. And then the Normans, who were invited in by the Stuart kings after 1066 and supplied much of the Scottish leadership in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Nor is this division all ancient history. Scotland was divided by intense and bitter conflicts in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, many of them pitting conservative highlanders against the modernizing commercial elite of Glasgow and Edinburgh. And yet somehow, through some political alchemy, these elements fused enough to form a Scottish identity. The Scottish people have already partially seceded from Britain and may yet take themselves all the way out. I find this all bizarre, but then as I have said many times nationalism is something I simply don't understand.


dgilmour1 said...

Despite their differences, they found a common enemy in the British. Well, most of them... What bonds enemies is a greater threat, and that is at least one strong factor in the rise of nationalism.

dgilmour1 said...
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Anonymous said...

for a start there were no stuart kings on the scots throne in 1066 , it was the house of atholl ... also according to sykes and his genetic roots of britain study the vikings had very little genetic impact on the scots except the orkneys and shetland and the outer hebrides .the angles even less apart from the borders of southern lothian.. the bedrock of scottish dna remains pictish and gael ...the highland clearances also blurred the differences between highlander and lowlander as they swamped the southern towns and cities looking for work thats why so many lowlanders have mac or mc surnames ... the scots are basically pre celts, picts, strathclyde welsh, and gaels all mixed ... overwhelmingly celts ... you shouldnt be giving lectures based on half facts ..

John said...

As for the DNA, we'll check back on that in a few decades. I am highly skeptical of all those studies showing population continuity from the neolithic to the present in Scotland and Ireland. It is not at all clear that our current DNA technology can distinguish Celts from Germans. If there was no significant entry of Angles into southern Scotland, why do most Scots speak English? Scottish lowlanders have spoken English since at least the 15th century. To me, that pretty much proves a large English presence, since at that point there had been no long-lasting English political and cultural dominance. As for the limited presence of Vikings outside the Orkneys and Shetlands, that is what my own post says.