Scottish Backgroundy Stuff

Welcome to a brand new series of Rex Factor! After reviewing all of England’s monarchs, we’re now setting our sights on the Kings and Queens of Scots, reviewing all the monarchs from Kenneth MacAlpin to James VI and deciding who among them is worthy of the Rex Factor. Before we start our reviewing, however, we started the series with a backgroundy episode, looking at Scottish history from the earliest settlers to the age of the Vikings.


The Early Settlers

Scotland was probably first inhabited from around 8,000BC (give or take a year or two!) with nomadic settlers moving with the seasons in tiny populations. At this point, Scotland was still linked to Continental Europe by land, so you could walk to the continent just as you could walk to England. However, in about 6,000BC the temperatures began to rise, and the ice melted, thus casting the entire continent of Europe adrift from Britain where it has remained ever since. This is often referred to as the end of the Ice Age but technically it was the end of the “last glacial period” – weirdly, the Ice Age is still ongoing!

Scotland would then have transformed into a more varied habitat that supported more trees, fruit and animals, which was good news for the human hunter-gatherers. They required a large territory for small populations who spent their time hunting…and gathering (and eating, presumably). This remained the norm for thousands of years until a new and exciting practice made its way from Levant and Mesopotamia to Scotland in about 2,000BC – farming! As it happened, quality of life at this point actually dropped because farming required harder, longer, daily work and all for less reward. On the upside, it offered greater security and nutrition, and supported much larger populations.

As for who these populations were, to a large extent we don’t know. They left no written record that tells us who they were or what they believed and so we are reliant upon archaeology to fill in some of the gaps. What we do know is that, during the Bronze Age, more sophisticated buildings started to emerge in the form of substantial stone houses, most notably Skara Brae (c. 3,000BC), a Neoloithic village consisting of seven self-contained buildings, completed with shelves and furniture, all linked together by a passageway and sharing a central hearth, rather like a human warren. It even featured a drainage system with a rudimentary version of a flush toilet!

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney

As Scotland moved into the iron age, it was advancing as a society with trade not just around Britain but across Europe. Such trade and metal production would have allowed for jewellery, speedier agricultural production and better weaponry. And as it happened, weapons were about to come in handy…

Roman Britain

The old question of “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is actually quite pertinent in Scotland. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland was never conquered by the Romans and consequently far less affected by the most militant sandal-wearers in history. However, that’s not to say that the Romans did not give it a try.

Claudius conquered and settled southern Britain in 43AD but it was not until 80-83 AD that the Romans made their first attempt to conquer Scotland. The first man to try was Agricola, the Governor of Britain, who quelled a Welsh rebellion, subdued northern England and southern Scotland before trying to conquer the rest of Caledonia (i.e. Scotland). In his way was a chap called Calgacus, who either famously stirred the Scots with a speech about how the Romans “make a desert and call it peace” or, alternatively, never existed and was invented by Agricola’s son-in-law and biographer, Tacitus, as a useful narrative device. Either way, Agricola was victorious at the Battle of Mons Graupius but soon afterwards was recalled to Rome and the Scots remained unconquered.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Next up, in 122, the Emperor Hadrian decided to draw a very big and literal line to mark the frontier of his empire in the form of a big stone wall, running 73 miles from the Tyne to the Solway Firth. It stood about 15ft high as a statement of Roman power but also a means of controlling taxes for the largely Romanised peoples living just north of the wall. And an inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, of course.

A map indicating the brief second-century craze for building massive walls across Scotland.

A map indicating the brief second-century craze for building massive walls across Scotland.

However, they’d only just finished building Hadrian’s wall when Hadrian died and the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, decided that it was ever so slightly too far south and so decided to build a new one, the Antonine Wall, from 142. Antoninus was something of an unknown so probably wanted to use the wall as a stepping stone to conquering Britain and establishing himself as a legendary emperor. His wall was built around 100 miles further north in the Central Belt of Scotland and, upon Antoninus’s death with Scotland still very much not conquered, was promptly abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall. Good to know that large, ineffective building projects aren’t just a modern invention!

The last Roman to really try to finish the job in Britain was Septimus Severus, who for two-thousand years was notable as Rome’s first African emperor (being of Libyan birth) but will henceforth be best known as the name-inspiration for Severus Snape in Harry Potter. Severus brought 40,000 troops over to Scotland and was slowly making progress until forced by ill health to retreat to York where he died in 211.

The Northern Mosaic

So, the Romans finally left Britain in 410, leaving a rather big power vacuum in their wake. England was beset by raids from those north of the wall until Vortigen invited Saxon mercenaries to come over and keep them out. This seemed like a good idea until the Saxons themselves became the invaders, gradually forcing the native Britons east and north. For Scotland, there gradually emerged four distinct peoples and kingdoms who would fight it out for dominance.

  • Britannia-640

    The four Scottish kingdoms and their territories (Cumbria is shown here as part of Northumbria but was previously British, allied with Strathclyde)

    The Picts (Pictland) – the native Celtic peoples descended from the hunter-gatherers who had resisted the Romans; based in the north and north-east of Scotland

  • The Scots (Dalriata) – confusingly, the Scots were actually Irish immigrants, based in western Scotland and the Inner Hebrides
  • The Britons (Strathclyde) – while a lot of native Britons found themselves in Cornwall and Wales, some went north into what is now south-west Scotland and north-west England
  • The Saxons (Northumrbia) – England now consisted of various Saxon kingdoms but one of the most powerful also extended into the south-east of Scotland


The different kingdoms spoke different languages and had different cultures and customs, but gradually they did all come to share one thing in common: Christianity. Ninian (397) was the first to try to do some converting but by far the most important figure was an Irish monk called Columba. Descended from a High King of Ireland but threatened with excommunication when he became involved in a dispute that led to a battle (things clearly escalated fast!), he chose redemption as a missionary.


Saint Columba tells the Loch Ness Monster where to go.

Columba set up a monastery of the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, which became the centre of Scottish Christianity. Columba helped advised the Dalriadan kings, and his followers would go on to found the abbey of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Also a man of legend, Columba supposedly frightened a Pictish king by opening his locked doors through the power of prayer and followed this up by making the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness Monster (though technically she was in the river, according to legend). It may well have been the last sighting of Nessie because he scared her off when she tried to eat one of his followers!

The Columban church lost some of its influence after the Synod of Whitby (664) in which it was decided to follow the Roman observance of Easter. However, the church still had an important role to play. Columba’s biographer, Adomnan (the 9th Abbot of Iona) created the Lex Innocentium (Law of the Innocents) in 697, which was a sort of Dark Ages Geneva Convention. It sought to protect, women, children and monks from harm in time of war, stipulating the various means by which women should not be killed, which worryingly included “fire”, “beast”, “pit” and “dogs”!

Scottish Game of Thrones

It can be a bit difficult to follow the up’s and down’s of the next couple of hundred years, with various kings establishing brief periods of dominance for their kingdom before slipping back into chaos. The historian Neil Oliver has commented that the various lists is a bit like reading Tolkein’s Silmarillion, giving a sense that orcs are about to appear on the scene! However, keeping things simple, this is roughly what happened…

In the sixth century, the Picts were largely dominant. Bridei mac Maelchu (555-84) inflicted a crushing defeat on Dalriata, killing their king and exiling his son, Aedan mac Gabrain. He was, however, the king who was intimidated by Columba’s door-opening shenanigans and with Columba’s support, Aedan returned and restored Dalriata to power after Bridei’s death. However, when Columba and Aedan died, things went into a decline for the Scots in the early 600’s and the Picts were once again the dominant force.

In the seventh century, it was the Saxons who were expanding their territories. It was in this period that the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were forged into Northumbria, initially by King Edwin (616-33). There was something of a rollercoaster ride for a while with Edwin being killed by Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia (pesky pagans!), his son Oswald killing Cadwallon but being killed by Penda and then Oswald’s brother Oswiu finally killed Penda! It was Oswiu who called the Synod of Whitby and when he died in 670, Northumbria was the predominant power in Scotland with puppet rulers in Pictland.


A Pictish symbol stone commemorating their victory over the Northumbrians at Nechtansmere.

The next king, Ecgfrith, took this even further with victories against Mercia in England, further subjugation of the Picts and even slave-raiding in Ireland. Northumbria had the potential to be the dominant power across Britain until the Battle of Nechtansmere (685), when against the advice of his counsellors (including future saint Cuthbert) Ecgrfrith pursued a Pictish army, was taken in by a feigned retreat and was slaughtered along with his men  in an ambush. This was one of the most important battles in post-Roman Britain, ending Northumbrian dominance in both Scotland and England and restoring the Picts to the premier position in Scotland.

At the start of the ninth century, the Picts looked ready to become the permanent kingdom of power. Dalriata was reduced to tributary status, Strathclyde saw its capital of Dumbarton sacked while the Venerable Bede in Northumbria grumbled about the “tyrannical slaughter” by Angus I of the Picts. The church was reformed, a new palace was built at Forteviot and links made with the great Charlemagne in Europe. This was a sophisticated kingship with grand ambitions and no one could stand in their way.


The Book of Kells, a magnificent work of illuminations which may have been started in Iona

The Book of Kells, a magnificent work of illuminations which may have been started in Iona

No one, that is, apart from the ninth-century bad boys extraordinaire – the Vikings! A shortage of farming land in Scandinavia saw raiding parties head out across Europe, plundering what they found and bringing the treasure home. The first attack in Britain came in 793 at Lindisfarne but Iona was next in 795. Churches were a source of particular interest for Vikings, being locations that not only housed treasure but also tended to be staffed by peaceful people without weapons. Indeed, Iona was attacked so frequently that the monks eventually gave up and moved to Kells in 810, possibly taking with them the beginnings of the magnificent book of illuminations called the Book of Kells (though also known as the Book of Columba).

From 800, the Vikings took control of Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and Caithness – no longer just raiders but now larger armies looking to settle. In 839, the Picts (possibly with Dalriatan troops in support) took the Vikings on in battle, and as the Annals of Ulster recorded, things didn’t go terribly well for them:

“A battle was fought by the heathens against the men of Fortriu, and in it fell Eoganan, Oengus’s son, and Bran, Oengus’s son, and Aed, Boanta’s son; and others fell, almost without number.”

In other words, the Pictish king, his sons and brother and nephews were all killed – the Pictish royal line was effectively wiped out in one go. This catastrophic defeat left another power vacuum, which would ultimately be filled by one Kenneth MacAlpin – the subject of our next podcast!

To listen to our podcast episode on Scottish Backgroundy stuff, just click the link below:

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3 thoughts on “Scottish Backgroundy Stuff

  1. Pingback: Scottish Backgroundy Stuff | morse922

  2. Pingback: Constantine II (900-43) | Rex Factor

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