So, this first episode will have 3 parts. One will be about the prehistory of Scotland, before the Romans come to Britain. Another will be about the regions and topography of Scotland, and the third will be me weeping with fear into the microphone.
Let’s start with the weeping with fear thing and try to get it out of the way. Let me paint a scene for you. You are in the car of a young, energetic and remarkably attractive publisher’s rep in his rather ropey Ford Orion going back home from some university or other. He’s tired, and yet remains devilishly handsome. Attractively, he turned on the radio, and om hearing that there’s a Clash number playing, re-tunes the radio to a programme about the peoples of the British Isles.
The programme has stuck in my mind, oops, I mean the publisher’s rep’s mind, for pretty much 30 years, because it made me howl with laughter. I was just out from 4 years of St Andrews, an Englishman at a Scottish university, and one at the time that was particularly plagued by English of the smarter type, and I had become well, and daily acquainted with the range of Scottish views which ranged as far as I could see from mild dislike to a sort of towering, monolithic, even heroic hatred. Anyway, the programme was a series of 15 minute talks by people from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, and the idea was that they would talk warmly about their neighbours and why they loved them so. It went very well for the most part; the Welsh spoke in glowing terms of the Irish, the Irish and Scots had a love in so intense it became frankly a little embarrassing. Britannia and the Union was clearly in rude health. It was a Scotsman who had drawn the ‘talk about how great the English are’ straw. For 15 minutes there was an outpouring bile of about the inequality and evils of English society and the general mendacity and gross moral turpitude of the English. The tension mounted, as it became clear that he was struggling to find anything positive to say. I could hardly breathe. What would it be? After 14 minutes 45 second of rant, it finally came; but despite all this he said, the English do have a good trait. Aahh what would it be? The English are lovely, he said, because they know full well that they are utterly rubbish.
I howled, gentle listeners, I howled. Nice one. You are now wondering why on earth I am saying all this, and there are two reasons. The first is a general therapy session for me – thank you, you may send me your consultation invoices. The second is the weeping with fear bit. The very idea of an Englishman, as sassanch, writing a history of Scotland is genuinely scary. It might be acceptable if it was a great historian, noted for his sagacity and the softness of his sandal leather, but some bloke in a shed? Nah. Polynesian, fine. American, no problem. English? Problem.
All I can say for any of you of Scottish descent is that I have always admired the Scots, and loved living there for four years. The only two things I can think of about Scotland that I don’t like is Murrayfield 1990 and that tooth delivery system otherwise known as the midge. And so for every minute of the following podcast series, for however it lasts, I shall do my very best to put my patriotic pride in the England and the English to one side, and be a proud advocate of everything Scottish.
So, there you go, that’s one part done. I thought the next best thing to do would be to take a sort of mini tour around Scotland, because what will follow over the next x number of episodes is a blizzard, a blizzard of names. At which point I also need to issue a formal and general apology for the butchering that will follow of any Gaelic name and place. Seriously, butchering is too mild a word. Any tips and hints greatly appreciated.
Talking about the regions of Scotland is a bit of a problem because of course the nomenclature changes according to the period, but some regional names seem to change more than others, and anyway let’s accept a bit of anachronism to make things easier for us. A general note not to be repeated hopefully is of course that Scotland doesn’t exist, and will not exist until Kenneth McAlpin, and even that of course is a matter of some controversy; so we are talking of northern Britain really, but hey, Scotland we understand. Physically rather than emotionally of course. Also in what follows, note that when I talk about climate and land use, I’m talking post Roman period, rather than the many thousands of years BC during which Scotland’s climate changes quite considerably.
The broad story is that topologically speaking Scotland is divided into 3 regions; North there’s the highland region, then a central valley, and then the Southern Uplands. The Highland region is something of a simplification – and this qualifies as towering understatement btw. If you sit down with your map and a piece of string, and put one end on Dumbarton at the mouth of the River Clyde, and the other of the east coast at a place called Stonehaven, then you have your rough diving line. Many of you of course have absolutely no idea what I am talking about and are looking at some bloke opposite you in the train carriage or something with no opportunity to look at a map. But below the line in the central region would be Perth, would be Forfar, one day to be home of the bridie, Fife, and your Edinburghs, Stirlings and Glasgows and so on. Above the line though there’s a lot of variety, and I mean a lot. In the east around Aberdeen, and the coast of the table and the mouth of the great Loch there’s a deal of low lying, reasonable or even good quality land where crops can be grown. There is a delightful map on the website which shows the quality of the land for agriculture, and of course maps of all that follow in this episode, so I commend it to you. But in the Highland region, the vast majority of the soil is thin and acidic; it means that growing crops is very hard, and that mainly we are talking animal huisbandry.
So highlands, very quickly, left to right, starting in the south west with Argyll, on which we shall spend a lot of time. One interesting point to make is that from the Mull of Kintyre, which is in Argyle, to Ireland is just 19 miles. We’ll come back to that at some point in the future.
Scotland has a coastline larger than the eastern seaboard of the USA would you believe and as you move up the west coast you’ll understand why with a mass of islands and inlets. We will then cross over the Great Glen, home of the monstrous Nessie, and if you were a great giant with impossible super sight north of you over the great Glen are the rather harsh lands of Ross, Sutherland and Caithness, a combination of high land and bogland, though fertile areas near the coasts over to the east in Easter Ross and the Black Isle. I summarise horribly of course. And then off the north coast the Islands of Orkneys and further still to the Shetland islands; in both of these islands the soil is rather more conducive to growing crops.
If the Giant turned west instead of north he’d see chains of Islands – the inner Hebrides such as Skye, and the Outer Hebrides. The climate up here by the way is damp, obviously, everyone knows Scotland is damp, but also remarkably mild because of the North Atlantic Current. It means the weather is radically milder than places on similar latitudes such as Newfoundland, for example. So, interesting couple of wrinkles about the Scottish climate. The Inner Hebrides has a mean winter temperature of 5 degrees C, which is pretty much the same as SE England; While the equivalent temperature in Dundee on the East coast is 3 degrees. Huh. Secondly while it is heroically wet in the West, much of the East lives in its rain shadow, such as the driest place in Scotland which is Dunbar on the east coast, or Sunny Dunny as it has been known. Don’t get too excited. It’s not a desert yet.
Ok better speed up the geography lesson or you’ll go to sleep. Moving south and east then, south and east of the Great Glen but still in the Highlands is the straight coastline of the table and then south to the mountain range of the Grampians, genuine highland, in places sharing the characteristics of an artic environment. In the Grampians is a critical dividing line we will refer to a number of times called the Mounth. Thus is a high ridge of the Grampians running East and West, all over 1500 feet, and up to Ben Nevis the tallest mountain in both Scotland and the British Isles at 4,400 feet, or 1,344 metres. I know it’s not much, we’re proud of it.
The central lowlands then is the next main region, and here is where the majority of the good agricultural land of Scotland sits, from Angus and Fife on the eastern side to Strathclyde in the west. By the way, the temptation to run out my fake Scottish accent is almost unbearable, but rest assured I will resist, with all the strength at my disposal. The central lowlands contains a critical dividing line which is constantly referred to – this is the area connecting the firths of Forth and Clyde, the Clyde-Forth line as it will be known. Essentially this is like a waist running east and west (ah I remember waists); it is where the Roman defensive structure known as the Antonine Wall after the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius would be built; just 37 miles wide, as opposed to Hadrian’s effort at over 80. It is a pinch point that connects me with Anntoninus Pius; just as his folks identified that firth of Forth was a pretty fundamental barrier, so I sat in endless traffic jams trying to get over the Kincardine Bridge. There’s a close connection there between me and Agricola. Can I call you Aggie?
Finally, we have the Southern uplands, again generally difficult land for growing crops, outside of some river valleys such as the Tweed. Galloway in the south West of the region is again a hop skip and a jump from Ireland – 12 miles at its closest point.
Sorry about that, probably a mistake, but try to take away Highlands and islands in the North, central lowlands, southern uplands; Ireland to the South West and jolly close. Try to also take away a reflection about communication. This is a point often made, and really I have always struggled to genuinely take it on, but a quick look at the coastline of Western Scotland and the coast of Ireland rather helps. In these days of roads and intense habitation, the sea and water is seen as an obstacle. This was not the case until reasonably modern times. The population of Scotland in 1500 was probably around 800,000 for example, with infrastructure to suit. Essentially, if you came across a large body of water, you very probably breathed a huge sigh of relief. Rather than tramping across land which was probably often very challenging, following valleys which might or might not go where you wanted, or getting caught up in a complex of peninsulas, with water it was flat ish, open and reasonably uniform. Obviously a long open sea voyage was a different matter, and not hard to get lost amongst the inlets of western Scotland, but definite advantages. So seriously, Galloway or Kintyre to northern Ireland – piece of cake. Inner Hebrides, Orkneys – joy and a delight.
I should really do rivers, but you’ll shout at me, so I’ll come back to those, but let’s get on with the history shall we? Or rather the prehistory for the moment, and talk about the very first settlers.
Of course it’s impossible to really know when the first inhabitants were knocking around given the difficulty of evidence from those periods, but an arrow head has been found from 11,000 years ago. I’m going to pause for a moment, though I appreciate I’ve hardly started, to tell a story from Neil Oliver’s book ‘A History of Scotland’, which is one of those constantly by my side, and of course who could not love Neil Oliver and his programmes? Anyway, he tells a story which absolutely blew my mind about archaeology of this period, the best thing I have ever read about archaeology. I may be getting carried away, which means it’ll be a disappointment to you but hey. So Neil Oliver was on a dig as a young man, when the leader of the dig took them to a small patch of earth from a dig he’d done some years before. Let’s call him Tom for the purposes of this podcast. Primarily because that was his name. Tom showed them the plans of the dig, which showed a seemingly random scatter of flint chips over a few square feet. After a lot of bewildered staring at the random scatter, Tom pointed out four little circular bare patches within the scatter; two slightly larger ones, two correspondingly smaller. Still Neil and his fellow students were unable to dig what it meant, arf arf. So Tom explained it. On that small patch of ground, a hunter gatherer thousands of years ago had knelt to work some flints to create an arrowhead or some other tool. The chips had flown from his work leaving the scatter and debris. The larger circular patches were his knees, the smaller ones his toes. Now, just look me in the eye and tell me that isn’t the coolest story you have ever heard? I mean I know there are far grander stories; Lord Caernarvon, or gazing on the face of Agamemnon, though apparently Schliemann never said that, or weirder like some of the stories I gave in the AS podcasts, like the woman buried face down on the high status woman with a stone on her back. But the immediacy of this one from Ayrshire in SW Scotland has to be the coolest – the immediacy of it, the idea of such a simple, transitory task being captured. Wild. Froody, even.
Anyway, that story, to which I have subjected each of my family, moves the narrative forward not one whit. The first major settlement appears to have been on the Island of Rum in the Inner Hebrides. Rather delightfully, rum is spelled RHUM, but it should really be spelled r-u-m – it acquired an H in Victorian times because the laird didn’t fancy being known as the laird of an alcoholic drink. Cute. Anyway, there from about 9,000 years ago is a settlement on the only good landing place at the place called Kinloch. Rum has a type of jasper called Bloodstone, particularly good for working for tools, and this is probably why they came. They were probably slightly smaller than us, with women no more than 5 5, and men no more than 5 9. These first arrivals were probably nomadic, with few if any animals except dogs, which are, as we know, man’s best friend just after diamonds. They’d move around the coastline in their small boats, no doubt travelling inland on occasion to hunt, they wore jewellery made from shells and tusks while they were alive. Around this time, incidentally, in the fertile Crescent in the Middle east, people were just thinking that this nomadic, Hunter gatherer lifestyle had elements of sucki-ness and wouldn’t it be better if they could grow their own crops, keep their own animals, and stay put?
It’s too early for that, though, in Scotland, but this is clearly a period of growth, as the climate warmed up, Glaciers retreated, and more people came into the area. The hunter gatherer lifestyle is very demanding of land; it’s been estimated that each family needed 4 square miles of land to maintain them, and that’s a lot of land. So as new groups arrived and saw signs of habitation, they’d move on to find empty spaces, and so Scotland filled up. Dogger land probably disappeared by 6500 BC, and dogger bank by 5000 BC. At this point it’s worth noting that Britain was not an island. Gasp, nope, not an island, due to the presence of dogging off the east coast in the form of Doggerland. Doggerland now survives only in the act of poetic genius that is the Shipping Forecast, because it is below the sea – but at this time before the warming climate had raised sea levels sufficiently, there was a land bridge, helping folks fill the land. The sharper amongst you will say ‘huh, so what? Far easier getting around by boat anyway.’ Good point, good people, good point.
While we are on it, who else out there is vaguely addicted to the Shipping Forecast? For those of you non-British folks, it’s an utterly functional weather forecast on BBC radio, announced 4 times every day in a standard format for the sea regions around the British coast, and somehow it manages to acquire a certain beauty. I suppose it’s the slightly esoteric names and the deeply wonderful;; qualities of a litany. A litany is a deeply re-assuring and comforting thing, is it not? ‘Tyne, dogger. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.’ Ah, love it. My personal favourites are North Utsire and South Utsire; obviously North Utsire is significantly preferable to the southern variety, but both are good.
You will note that in this episode you’ll hear more about the islands than in any episode following probably. And why, I hear you ask, why is it that so many of the ancient remains are found here? Well, I don’t know the answer but one will be that these days, the islands are sort of considered to be a long way away. In those days, the concept of ‘long way away’ would be an extraordinarily odd one, quite probably of a level to find you buried with a stone on your back. Long way away from where, exactly? So I mean by this two things. One was that surviving evidence may have been rarer inland because more of it has been disturbed, destroyed and built over. Secondly, the islands were just easier to get around as long as you had a boat as we said; and with the North Atlantic Current, milder to boot. Having said that there is clearly evidence on the mainland too. ,
The switch to farming probably began around 4,000 BC ish, and presumably would have been a hit and mis affair; some areas were just not good for cultivation, hate it or loathe it. But by 2500 BC, farming and all its accompanying complications was probably the majority occupation. Now there are plenty of consequences of the move to farming, quite apart from no doubt flowering of signs telling to you keep your dog on a lead or be drowned in acid and your name erased from the human record. It’s likely that initially at first a slash and burn approach would have been favoured; and as the spread of farms sped up, combined with cooler temperatures that began to appear as we move towards AD, led to widespread deforestation.
But of course, the big one is that once you are stationary, and have some land, other people can find you and pick on you, and after all despite the fairy tales, generally speaking the race is indeed to the swift and the battle to the strong. And so you begin to develop hierarchies. Also, you have time to sit and think great thoughts and make stuff, and to have a sense of belonging to a very particular patch of land. Society gets more complex, some snippets of culture begin to come down to us.
Obviously culture is appallingly difficult to track without stone buildings and writing. But there are little whiffs in the construction of houses – houses for the dead normally, and houses which were often used for different generations. There could be a suggestion here that the attitude to death was very different, or at least that talking with or joining the ancestors was a part of the culture.
Now then, let us suppose you lived in the Orkney islands off the north coast of Scotland in 1850. You would probably have known very well the big mound in the village of Sandwick. Well, one night in 1850 you would have been cowering in your house, stoking the fire against the cold, rain and wind of an unusually vicious storm battering the coast. Eventually when the storm had gone, the mound had gone as well, stripped away by the high seas of the storm.
Underneath, and now revealed, was one of the most remarkable finds of the Neolithic age, from 3100 BC or more recent – Skara Brae. Although it would take quite a long period of excavation to reveal, here was a complete village of 12 stone houses, a really sophisticated and sturdily built settlement. Each house had a dresser – which is interesting, because it suggests a display of valuable items, this was not just survival here. There were sleeping places marked out, and a hearth; it might even be that there was a running water channel by the houses, with the suggestion of a flushing toilet therefore. And that surely is the height of civilisation, just behind 4 ply toilet paper obviously.
The third millennium BC though, was a millennium of change, though that’s a slightly daft statement, since I cannot image a millennium without some change in it. But anyway, a few themes. Firstly, the climate got colder and wetter; as a result peat bogs spread, less land was suitable for cultivation – all of which led to pressure on land and probably a falling population therefore. Secondly, bronze appeared. Now bronze is interesting in that a worked metal was more efficient, obviously, than wood, stone or antler tools. But it’s also interesting for what it does for trade; bronze as you will of course know is an alloy of Tin and copper. Copper could be found in Scotland, though it wasn’t always easy to get at; but Tin was found in Devon and Cornwall only. Scarcity meant that stone would continue to be used therefore, but the presence of Bronze swords and artifacts in Scotland is a cast iron, arf arf, a cast iron indication of the existence of quite sophisticated trade routes across Britain, probably mainly by sea.
Around 2500, the beaker culture arrived. When I was a lad, this was all about the Beaker people, rather than just Beaker culture – the change indicating that just because there are these bell-shaped beakers appearing does not mean that they came with people, and that there was some massive influx of a new ethnic group; there could have simply been a spread of cultural ideas and forms from the continent instead. Fair point. Of course the main problem with the Beaker people is that it is quite impossible to avoid thinking of a bunch of muppets wandering around Britain, or at least I find it so. Probably you lot are more mature. So in the interests of maturity I should return to the more important point about cultural change and ethnic change. Very often all these changes have been presented as mass migrations, changes of ethnicity, bringing with them new cultures; and there will be many others such as the appearance of the Picts, and the gaels and the Angles. Of course it is very difficult indeed to know whether it is genuinely a mass migration or just the adoption of a new cultural habits, especially at this distance.
DNA evidence might present answers; but the thing about DNA evidence is how tricky it is; in fact the variety of conflicting reports is quite remarkable, with all sorts of claims being made here there and everywhere, it’s sort of chaos. There was a slew of articles about a study that seemed to suggest that there was indeed a close genetic connection between the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and indeed Cornwall. Then, latest study I saw in the new was from oxford University, which would seem authoritative enough, which said that actually the genetic make up of these groups are very different – they might all be Celts, but if they are they seem to come from different groups of Celts, so much so that the Cornish for example are more similar to the English. Something I bet they are not keen on. It did show a genetic cluster crossing the NW of Ireland and SW Scotland; and interestingly that there are two groups one relating NW Ireland to the Highlands, the other to SW Scotland, which rather plays to a story of the Gaels and the Picts, which we’ll come to in the future. 25% of the population in the Shetlands and Orkneys are descendant from Norse roots, and that seems to be the most dramatically differentiated group in Scotland; but even that shows that the Vikings didn’t replace the existing inhabitants, they inter married with them. The idea of a close relationship with the Celts of Spain doesn’t seem to have much evidence to support it, but the idea that the Welsh are the closest to the original Britons does indeed have support. Then I saw another conflicting article in the Times over my toast and marmalade this very morning.
The net effect is a cop out – that DNA evidence is still being gathered, but at the moment we don’t know, and that claims like 1% of Scottish DNA are Berber for example are a bit suspect, and anyway marginal to the main story. It seems likely that continuity is more important than violent change, and that the biggest influence by far on genetic make-up is from these first settlers. We might suspect that there is a small scale constant traffic that goes on – so for example, genetic similarities came up in the study between Scotland and the north of France, which may have happened between the initial migrations and the arrival of the Romans. Another way of summarising this is that who you think you are is actually a lot more important than where you biologically come from.
So I mentioned that one of the consequences of cultivation was that once you had to stay put people could find you and pick on you. Another way to put that would be that society came to have a greater sense of place, and a sense of ownership. That ownership of property defined wealth and your chances of success, and that implicit of course in this is the idea of winners and losers. So as cultivation became the dominant form of subsistence, so grew social differentiation; the growth of elites. There is now evidence from burials of growing differentiation; quite simply also there never seem to be enough space in tombs to hold all the dead of a community which suggests some sort of selection. The very, highly likely implication of this, is that this is a society where violence is now a standard part of life, that these settlers have bosses and elites amongst them who tell others what to do, that with increasing pressure on land, raiding is part of the weft and warp of survival.
There’s further evidence of this along with the next wave of technological changes, the arrival of the wheel around 1000 BC, and the arrival of Iron. There are also the brochs and hill forts that survive around Scotland’s country side. Broch is an old Norse word in fact, and the brochs were round, dry stone towers. Brochs had a wall, small rooms and an open central space probably used for cattle. There are 571 sites identified around Scotland, from rather impressive survivals such as the broch of Musa in the Shetlands, to a blip in the grass which looks as though it could equally have been caused by a mole. Their distribution is heavily towards the Shetlands, Orkneys, North and west of Scotland. There has been a full and frank exchange of views about the purpose of Brochs. Originally, it was concluded that these were for defence. Some hairy band of warriors appears on the horizon, you take your cattle and run for the Broch. Then it was felt no, this doesn’t fit the evidence, these are basically castles. No, no, that can’t be right; OK so they must instead be simply evidence of hierarchy, of the houses and status symbols of the elite. Oh dear me, but that doesn’t work either, some of these are in terribly grotty places. Essentially many historians now say that individual Brochs may have been built for different purposes. But whatever each one was produced for, their existence points to the arrival of hierarchies and elites, leaders and the led.
There’s another controversy also about Brochs; seriously the things raise the passions like nothing else. One view has it that Brochs are an emblem of the distinctive culture and people of northern Scotland; others, some Irish historians in particular, instead view them as a part of the wider Celtic culture – the same sort of thing as the Irish stone fort the Cashel, or indeed of Iron Age stone forts in northern Spain. Once again, it is impossible to be definitive either way. The Celtic thing, by the way, we must discuss at some point; possibly alongside language – next time maybe.
For now though, you’ll have noted that I didn’t say there were Brochs all over Scotland…so what was going on in the central lowland and southern upland bits? Had they remained free of the curse of hierarchy, like a glowing light of independence and equality?
Sadly not. Elsewhere, hillforts sprung up like mushrooms. These were often very large enclosed spaces, some of them could fit up to 6,000 people within the earthen walls. Given that water was difficult to get at the top of the hill, and that they were normally in exposed locations, it doesn’t seem that these were places people stayed permanently – they were for special occasions. Special occasions like running away from death to take refuge with all your worldly goods, along with more pleasant festivals such as singing and dancing. But again, hillforts emphasised difference and elites.
Okally dokally, so the super summary is that by the end of the 1st Millenium BC, at the joint where Julius Caeser was dusting down his sandals, wondering which socks went best with them, burnishing his armour and thinking about nipping across the channel for a tour of Britain, the society of the people who lived in the north of Britain was increasingly sophisticated, connected by trade to other communities in the British Isles, Scandinavia and the continent, with a culture that sadly we can hardly glimpse at. At some point, they were now going to receive some visitors.
Which seems like a good place to stop; we’ve managed 10,000 years or so in half an hour, so the rest of Scottish history should only take a few minutes at this rate, and we can move on to Wales. Or maybe we’ll slow down a bit! Let’s see how we get on next time.