Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 1: Celtic Scotland

There is evidence of human settlement in parts of present day Scotland that dates back to 6,000 BC. The inhabitants were hunters and fishermen. About two thousand years later, a second group arrived -- the Neolithic people. Some of their stone houses remain in Orkney; the well-preserved stone-built village, Skara Brae, attests to the wealth and stability of its builders. On the mainland, chambered tombs also show the sophisticated engineering of a settled, cooperative community. Then came the Beaker folk, named after the shape of their pottery. It is to these people that we owe the mysterious groups of huge stone circles and standing stones dotted hither and yon across the landscape.

The Bronze Age, or rather, the early and late Bronze Ages, from about 2,000 to 600 BC, introduced swords, knives, chisels, buckles, cauldrons and buckets, all evidence of a high level of civilization and creature comfort that was enhanced by the metal craft learned in the so-called subsequent Iron Age. Such objects were used by the indigenous Picts, who lived in the region north of the Firth of Forth, and the Celts, who had come to live in regions of Britain and Ireland further south.

It is to the invading Romans that we owe our written history of Britain; before their arrival, it simply wasn't the Celtic custom to entrust their history to anyone but the holy men and it was not to be written. The Romans, however, were always anxious to set down their military triumphs in writing, and from their historians a picture of Britain and its inhabitants began to emerge. In the fourth century, a Latin poem describes the people of Tartessos on the Atlantic coast of Iberia trading with the inhabitants of two large islands, Ierne and Albion (Ireland and Scotland), people who spoke a Celtic language.

Ptolemy's geography (written about 150 AD includes a group of five islands lying between Scotland and Ireland. On them was built, a new structural form, the broch (a fortified dwelling), an immense round stone tower. The best preserved is found on Mousa in Shetland. Because they are perched on hills and headlands, the brochs seem to have been built by resident lords to protect their settlements from sea-borne raiders.

In 55 and 54 BC following his success in subduing most of Gaul, Caesar turned his attention to the islands of Britain. However, for a few years afterwards, the Roman armies were fully occupied in suppressing the revolt of the Gauls on the continent under Vercingetorix, and so Britain was more-or-less left on its own, apart from its trading links with the Continent.

Under the Emperor Claudius, Rome again began to look westwards to the misty lands over the sea, to a land full of legendary mineral wealth as well as good grain-growing pastures. Overcoming what amounted to only token resistance in the southeast, the Romans set up the frontier, the Fosse Way, running from Lincoln in the north to Essex in the southwest. Their prosperous villas attest to settled, peaceful conditions in the agricultural lands to the southeast. It was in the more mountainous areas west of the line, however, that the much sought-after minerals lay. And it was there that resistance was fiercest.

The accounts given by Tacitus (written approximately half a century after those of Ptolemy) are particularly important, for his father-in-law was Agricola, appointed Governor of the Roman province of Britain. Agricola invaded what is now southern Scotland in 81 A.D. Before that, Roman garrisons had been established at Caerwent (near present-day Chepstow) in the south and Deva (Chester) in the north to keep a close eye on the Celtic tribesmen to the west, where the Romans found it necessary to destroy the Druid center of Wales on the Menai Straits.

Farther north, under Agricola, the Roman armies vanquished one tribe after another until a final, decisive battle against Calgacus "the swordsman" at Mons Graupius in 84 A.D. This ended effective resistance (the Western Isles and the Highlands were left alone and up until the Clearances of the 18th century remained very much Celtic countries in language and culture). Though Agricola may have wished to add Ireland to his conquests, no Roman expedition was ever taken across the Celtic Sea to that large, relatively unknown western island.

The Romans gave the country north of present-day Stirlingshire the name Caledonia. Much of the terrain is rugged and mountainous. In fact, three fifths of Scotland are mountain, hill and wind-swept moorland, unsuitable for agriculture and therefore not interesting to the Romans. In the Welsh language, widely spoken throughout the area when the Romans arrived, it was known as Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest), inhabited by spectres and madmen, including Myrddyn Wyllt (Mad Merlin). Tacitus refers to the inhabitants of the region as britanni.

It was not only the nature of the terrain that caused the Romans to abandon their attempts at conquest but the unimagined terrors of this Celtic world. After the Roman armies had been recalled to Rome, following Mons Graupius, their strategy towards Scotland was mainly a defensive one. In 121 AD, upon a visit to Britain, the Emperor Hadrian had this still-impressive wall built from Solway in the West Coast to Tyne in the east.

Twenty years later, the turf-built Antonine Wall, stretching from the Clyde to the Forth, followed its more famous stone predecessor. The Caledonians quickly learned to master the art of guerrilla warfare against a scattered, and no-doubt homesick Roman legion in the North, including those led by their aging and frustrated commander Severus. It wasn't long before the Antonine Wall was abandoned, and the troops of Rome withdrew south to the well known and much longer, stronger defensive barrier built by Hadrian. Trouble at home meant that by the end of the fourth century, the remaining Roman outposts in Scotland were abandoned. Any civilized benefits of Roman rule enjoyed by southern Britain were thus denied to their northern neighbors who were having troubles of their own.

At the time of the withdrawal, Scotland (Alba or Alban) was divided between four different races. The Picts of Celtic, perhaps of Scythian stock, predominated lived from Caithness in the north to the Forth in the south. The Britons of Strathclyde stretched from the Clyde to the Solway and further south into Cumbria. The late arriving Teutonic Anglo-Saxons, held the lands to the east south of the Forth into Northumbria and the kingdom of Dalriada, to the west, including present-day Argyll, (the land of the Gael). The Scots, from Northern Ireland occupied Kintyre and the neighboring islands in the third and fourth centuries. In perhaps typical Celtic fashion, the Picts and Scots spent more time fighting against each other than against their common enemies.

Chapter 1: Celtic Scotland Continued