Medieval Scottish History

by Gwyn ap Hywel

Part I - The Dark Ages - Migrations of Peoples

There was no such thing as "Scotland" in most of the Dark Ages. If I speak of Scotland, therefore, I mean the territory of Scotland today. The Southern Border was only (approximately) established in 1018. Before that, it was a different line that was most important as a borderline. This was the narrowest part of the country, between the firths of Forth and Clyde. It had been the northernmost Roman frontier and remained important in the course of state-formation which took place in the Migration Age. When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early years of the 5th century, Scotland was inhabited by two Celtic peoples. North of the Forth-Clyde-Line lived tribes that were to become the Picts, south of it were the Britons. Romanised Britons also inhabited the rest of Britain (thence its name), they were the ancestors of the Welsh and the Cornish. The British North had a developed culture and became Christian very early. The earliest documents of Welsh literature are from Southern Scotland. There were three main British kingdoms in the North, Gododdin with its royal seat in Edinburgh, Strathclyde with its centre in Dumbarton, and Rheged, the greatest part of which was probably in Cumbria. In the course of the 5th century, Germanic tribes began to expand from the south of England. The Angles reached Scotland around 600. Rheged disappeared from the scene, Gododdin fell in the middle of the 7th century and Strathclyde in the 8th. But the Angles were not the only people to move into Scotland. In fact they never made it further North than the Forth-Clyde-Line for any great period of time.

Yet another people had started settling the West Coast of Scotland, the Irish (Latin Scotti). Their colonies belonged to the northern Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, and by 500 these were so extensive that the Royal seat was moved to Scotland, probably to a place called Dunadd. The areas first settled by the Irish are called the "Coast of the Irish", Argyll, to this day. Eventually, Dál Riata became associated with Scotland alone and lost its Irish territory. But the land the Irish were taking over was not empty, and conflict with the native Picts was inevitable. For centuries, Picts and Irish tried to gain power over the others through violence and intermarriage, until finally in 843 both peoples were united under the Irishman Kenneth Mac Alpine.

Meanwhile, another Germanic people had turned up on the coasts, Norwegian Vikings. From the end of the 8th century, they raided Irish monasteries and soon started to spend winters on the coasts and islands of the North and West. In the course of the 9th century, they settled these areas, as well as the Isle of Man and parts of Ireland, and they began to take an active part in Irish politics. Indeed, it has been suggested that the appearance of the Vikings in some way prompted the fusion of Picts and Scots.

The Northern Isles were an important stepping stone for the Scandinavians, and their culture eventually superseded the native culture there. The Vikings also had great influence on the Irish West Coast, but here they also took over native cultural elements, allowing a mixed civilization to develop. In the middle of the 9th century, Danish Vikings gained dominance over Northern England and left Scotland largely isolated between Scandinavian spheres of influence. This situation reached a climax when Canute the Great ruled Norway, Denmark and England in the early 11th century. By this time the Scottish kingdom had taken over the remaining Anglian territories in the South and established the Tweed border.

This situation allowed Scotland to develop as a strong, independent kingdom, remaining on the periphery of European politics. At its fringe, the Scandinavian areas were going to go their own ways. In the West, the Lordship of the Isles was foreshadowed, which was to become a serious power within the kingdom. In the North, Orkney and Shetland remained in Norwegian hands for most of the Middle ages.

Part II - The Dark Ages and the Arrival of Christianity

After having dealt with the political situation in the Dark Ages in the last issue I will now turn to the arrival of Christianity which took place at the same time.

The earliest Christians within the present day borders of Scotland were probably Roman soldiers positioned on or near Hadrian's Wall. From the fifth century, after the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain, there is evidence of Christianity among the Strathclyde Britons. Bede tells us that St Ninian was sent to be a bishop there and founded the candida casa, Whithorn in Galloway. In the sixth century poem, Y Gododdin, the Eastern Britons too call themselves Christian.

The exact origin of British Christianity is unknown, competing theories claim that it was either an offshoot of Romano-British Christianity or that it had been introduced through sea trade with Gaul. In any case, British Christianity seems to have followed the teachings of the Roman Church.

More important for later developments was the landing of an Irish monk, St. Columba, on the West Coast in 563. He founded a religious house in Iona which was to become the centre of Scottish Christianity for several centuries. Iona was a part of the Irish Kingdom of Dál Riata which comprised parts of present day Scotland and Northern Ireland. From the very beginning, Iona was associated with the kingship of Dál Riata. Columba's Irish Church differed slightly from the contemporary Roman one as a result of long separation, the Irish however regarded themselves as Catholics. Columba, his followers and successors converted the Picts to Christianity. They spread to the North and East, and eventually reached Anglian territory.

Meanwhile, in 597, St. Augustine had landed in Kent with the papal mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons. His teachings reached Northumbria in the 620s, but shortly afterwards an Irish monastery was founded at Lindisfarne, and the two churches met. The ensuing conflict culminated in the Synod of Whitby of 664, which decided that Roman teaching was to be universally followed. The Christian Angles, who were expanding into Southern Scotland at that time, soon took over the diocese at Whithorn. The Picts also began to follow the Roman church and Irish Christianity eventually disappeared, though not without leaving its traces on the Continent where Irish monks assisted in the conversion of the Germanic peoples and got as far as Northern Italy.

In 793 the first recorded Viking raid devastated the monastery of Lindisfarne and opened a new chapter in the history of Christianity. The first attack on Iona followed two years later, and the coastal situation of many Irish monasteries suddenly became very dangerous. Soon the threat from the pagan Norsemen was so great that important monastic sites were evacuated and their treasures were moved inland. Iona's belongings were divided between Kells and Dunkeld. The Book of Kells may have been brought from Iona originally. No more than a few men stayed on the island although Iona did not loose its symbolic meaning.

The effect of the Viking arrival was not one sided. There is evidence that some of the Norsemen who settled in Scotland adopted Christianity at an early date and even took it to Iceland (where it eventually died out). The ultimate conversion of the Vikings did not happen until the turn of the millennium. This lead to great displays of faith and power such as the church built by Jarl Thorfinn in Birsay in Orkney.

Meanwhile in Irish dominated Scotland the ecclesiastical centre had finally moved from Dunkeld to St Andrews which held relics of St. Andrew.

Thus in the eleventh Century, Christianity was firmly established in Scotland, and the Southern border was fixed. The history of Scotland as we know her could begin.

Part III - The Lordship of the Isles

In the 9th century, a follower of Kenneth MacAlpine first called himself Rí Innse Gall, "King of the Viking Isles". His name was Godfrið Mac Fergus, which in itself was characteristic of the cultural makeup of the West: a Viking first name with a Gaelic patronym. Nevertheless, the title disappeared again during 300 years of Norse Rule on the Scottish West Coast. In the 12th century, however, Somerled Mac Gille Brigte, a direct descendant of Godfrið (also bearing a bilingual name), consolidated a great territory under his rule, which comprised most of the Inner Hebrides and the adjoining west coast of the mainland. The Title Rí Innse Gall was reborn, along with the power of the ruler of the Isles. At the death of Somerled in 1164, his territories were divided between his son Dougall and his Grandsons Donald and Ruairi, after whom the leading clans were named. Eventually, Clan Donald was to gain dominance.

With the decline of Norse domination, Gaelic had become the prominent language of the West. At its beginnings, the Lordship of the Isles as still owed allegiance to the King of Norway for its island parts, and already to the King of Scotland for its mainland territory. The Treaty of Perth in 1266 granted the Hebrides, too, to the king of Scotland. In actual fact, the Lordship of the Isles tried to stay as independent as it could. Culturally, it was neither bent to Norway nor to Scotland, but to Ireland, where Gaelic culture was still strong.

Society in the Lordship was clan-based. This type of organisation came from Ireland. A clan is a group of people who follow an elected chief. They need not necessarily be related by blood, but they acted as if they were ("clan" is from Gaelic clann "children, descendants"). Land did not belong to individuals but to the clan as a whole. The chief protected his men in return for military and civilian service. Social class existed but was insignificant, and although the society as a whole was male-dominated, women had many liberties. The chief patronised poets, genealogists, lawyers, physicians and clergymen, whose offices were normally hereditary. The court of the Lord of the Isles was organised in a similar fashion, and among his office-holders were the MacMhuirichs (poets), the MacBeths or Beatons (physicians) and the Morrisons (lawyers). The Lord of the Isles was invested and supported by a council of at least four times four men of different social standing (ideally four of each class), who normally met at the Court at Finlaggan on Islay, but they could meet at any place where the Lord of the Isles happened to be. They also acted as Supreme Court, whereas minor grievances were settled by the individual clan chiefs. At the same time, though, Feudalism was introduced into Lowland Scotland. As subjects of the King, the clan chiefs were also officially Feudal lords and landholders. Within their own territory, this did not make a difference.

Although three clans shared Somerled's inheritance, soon there was only one left: Clan Donald. Clan Dougall was the first to go when it took the wrong (Balliol) side in the War of Independence. The clan retained some territory, but lost all influence. Meanwhile, the close relationship of Angus Óg, the MacDonald leader, with the Bruce strengthened his clan. Clan Ruairi disappeared when the last in the male line of chiefs was killed in 1346 and the heiress was married to Angus Óg's son John of Isla. John soon styled himself dominus insularum "Lord of the Isles" and later married as his second wife the daughter of Robert, Steward of Scotland, who was to become King Robert II. Other than this, nothing bound him to the throne of Scotland, and he opposed the politics of the Scottish Parliament. In John's time, the church of the Isles was still officially part of the diocese of Trondheim in Norway. In the same period, the Isles were split from The Isle of Man, and when in 1387 a schism occurred in the papacy, John supported the opposite side from England and Man. John was succeeded by Donald, the eldest son from his second marriage, whose brother Ranald was the founder of the sub-clan Clanranald. The most important event in Donald's reign is the Battle of Harlaw (on the East Coast) of 1411. Donald invaded the mainland for reasons unknown to us. He may have been trying to annexe the Earldom of Ross, but the campaign may also have been an attempt at the Crown of Scotland. Whatever the motive, the final battle was indecisive, and Donald was persuaded to retreat in the following year. in 1415, the heiress of Ross resigned the Earldom to John, Earl of Buchan a descendant of Robert II.

Donald's successor Alexander finally did manage to become earl of Ross in 1436, although he probably did not have complete control. Also, his position on the mainland negatively affected his involvement with the Isles, and indeed this was the beginning of the end for the Lordship. He died in 1449.

His son John succeeded him at the age of 15. He was to be the last Lord of the Isles. Though his marriage he got involved with the Douglas family, who made several moves against the King. These were connected to the Wars of the Roses, where John sympathised with York, while the King sympathised with Lancaster. The climax of this was the Westminster-Ardtornish Treaty of 1462, an alliance of Edward of England and the Lord of the Isles with the aim of dividing the rest of Scotland between them.. The treaty was made public after Edward's peace with James III of Scotland. John was summoned to Parliament in 1475, but never appeared . Consequently, his lands were forfeited in the following year. He got them back for a short while in the 1490s and lost them for good in 1493. For another fifty years, his descendants fought in vain to re-establish the Lordship until Donald Dubh died without children in 1545.

The results of the Lordship are seen to this day. For several centuries, parts of Scotland were under Gaelic rule and culturally linked to Ireland, while the Lowlands adopted a Germanic language, Scots, and Norman culture. The political difference enhanced the effect. By the 15th century, the two parts of Scotland had drifted so far apart that a physical division began to emerge, the so-called Highland line. Up to the industrial revolution, the edge of the Upland between Glasgow and Nairn divided the country into two "different Scotlands".

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