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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When did Scotland Become Scotland?

According to contemporary wisdom (not to mention the wisdom of historians over the past few centuries) Scotland was the result of Irish immigration into northwestern Britain shortly after the fall of Rome. The reasons for this take on Scotland's origins are many, most notably the fact that Gaelic language and culture had overtaken a large part of the region. In addition, the natural response by the "native" Picts of the British isles against the incursion of the Roman empire, helped to spawn not only a resistance movement but a movement that would eventually culminate in the creation of a new national conscience.

Originally known to the Romans as the "savage Picts" who inhabited the northern lands of "Britannia", these early Scottish forefathers proved to be a nuisance to the massive juggernaut that was the Roman empire. In fact, many scholars believe that the construction of Hadrian's Wall in 122 A.D. was to defend the northernmost borders of the empire from the invading Picts (It is worth noting, however, that this hypothesis is often rejected by other historians who argue that the sparsely populated lands of the Picts were really no threat or match for the mighty Roman Army. And though that may be the case, the fact remains that the wall was built at great cost to the Emperor, who must have seen a need for it).

It was in the twilight years of the empire that historians believe the world of the Picts became increasingly influenced by migrating Gaels (early Irish) who left an unmistakable impression on the region through their culture and language. In fact, the Venerable Bede (a historian and monk of this era) even noted the migration of early Irish Gaels to the region and the origins of Bede speaks extensively about the creation of Dál Riata, which was a hybrid kingdom of Gaelic Irish and Picts that existed on the western coast of modern Scotland., In the 10th century the kings of the Scots produced a similar “foundation legend” which traced their lineage back to Irish ancestors who came to Dál Riata as conquerors.

But just how credible is this history? Certainly the majority of historians/archaeologists accept it as the most plausible explanation on the origins of what eventually becomes Scotland.

But not everybody is sold.

Renowned Scottish historian Dauvit Broun has challenged the status quo interpretation of Scotland's ultimate origins in the following article from History Today. I glean the following summary of Campbell's work from historian Tim Clarkson's blog:

If the Scots had arrived from Ireland in large numbers we would expect them to build dwellings of similar types to the ones they left behind. No such evidence has been found, nor do the place-names of Argyll [the quasi-capitol of Dál Riata] suggest that a mass of Gaelic-speaking immigrants supplanted an indigenous Pictish or British population. It is usual for traces of an earlier language to be visible among place-names coined in the speech of an invader but the Argyll names are so thoroughly Gaelic that they actually appear to be indigenous. Some historians believe that the Scots came to Britain as a small, elite group of kings and aristocrats. This could possibly explain the lack of archaeological evidence for a mass-migration but, as Campbell points out, high-status foreigners would have imposed the trappings of their own culture on the native elites whom they conquered or absorbed. We should therefore expect the decorated brooch – the ubiquitous badge of high-status among early medieval cultures – to show Irish characteristics whenever an example is unearthed in the archaeology of Argyll. Again, no such evidence is forthcoming: the brooches worn by the early Scots are of recognizably British rather than of Irish design.

What, then, of the foundation legend mentioned by Bede? Surely his testimony – having been written in the 8th century – must count for something? Campbell makes a strong case for believing that Bede was merely stating the earliest form of an origin-story that the Scots would later richly embellish in the 10th century. Such tales were very common in early medieval Europe and were often concocted as political propaganda to create suitably dramatic origins for dominant royal dynasties.

As an alternative hypothesis Campbell envisages no migration from Ireland to Argyll other than a cultural one arising from social and economic links across the narrow seas between the two areas. These links led to the adoption of Gaelic as the common language of trade and social interaction but, although the people of Argyll became Gaelic-speakers, their distinctive regional identity was strong enough to preserve their indigenous culture in the face of Irish influences. Campbell suggests that the linguistic shift from Brittonic to Gaelic was achieved during the pre-Roman Iron Age. Thus, when Roman writers spoke of the Scotti (Scots) of Ireland they were probably referring collectively to all Gaelic speakers – including the Scots of Argyll
An interesting hypothesis to say the least. Campbell does present some interesting questions on the lack of archaeological evidence of early Irish dwellings and the possibility that Gaelic was an indigenous language and not adopted at a later time. With that said, I still believe that these questions cannot refute Bede's account or the fact that the Picts clearly adopted Gaelic language and culture (The Pict language became obsolete shortly thereafter). And, of course, Scotland's ultimate sense of "nation-ness" doesn't emerge until after Wallace, Robert the Bruce, etc. (one could argue that they are still arguing over this concept now that they are a part of Great Britain). Personally, I believe that Scotland's ultimate origins are probably a hybrid of both of these schools. They are a little bit country (Ireland) and a little bit rock and roll (England).

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