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

500 AD
A dramatic change occurred with the fall of Rome and the withdrawal of its legions from Britain. In what is now Scotland, the Picts from the north and the Irish Scotti (Scots) from the west took advantage of the departure to flood the undefended areas. The Scotti, who had first come as liberators, stayed as settlers. They may have been originally invited by the Britons in their wars with the Picts. Under Fergus MacErc and his two brothers, a fresh Scottish invasion from Ireland strengthened their hold on Dalriada. The situation thus paralleled that which was happening further south at roughly the same time where the Anglo-Saxon "helpers" turned into "invaders" further strengthening "the great divide." Southeastern Britain was deluged as Saxons, Jutes, Angles and Franks greedily poured into the poorly defended, rich agricultural lands.

In what is now Scotland, the Irish Scotti were the invaders. In their newly settled lands, to the north and west, a renewal of Celtic spirit came up against the Romanized Britons in the east, creating a divide that still exists today with the peoples of Scotland and Wales on one side and those of England on the other. And so, very early on the foundation for the modern call for separatism was laid.

n most of lowland Britain, Latin quickly became the language of administration and education, especially since Celtic writing was virtually unknown. Latin was also the language of the Church in Rome. It was not too long before the old Celtic gods were forced to give way to new ones such as Mithras, introduced by the Roman mercenaries. They were again replaced when missionaries from Gaul introduced Christianity to the islands. By 314, an organized Christian Church seems to have been established in most of Britain. For it was in that year that British bishops were summoned to the Council of Arles. By the end of the fourth century, a diocesan structure had been set up, many districts having come under the pastoral care of a bishop.

In the meantime, missionaries of the Gospel had been active in the south and east of the land that later became known as Scotland. (It was not until the late 10th century that the name Scotia ceased to be applied to Ireland and become transferred to southwestern Scotland.) The first of these missionaries was Ninian who probably built his first church (Candida Casa: White House) at Whithorn in Galloway. He ministered from there as a traveling bishop and was buried there after his death in 397 AD. For many centuries, his tomb remained a place of pilgrimage, having been visited by kings and queens of Scotland. In 1427, King James I of Scotland offered his royal protection to those who wore the prescribed badge of the pilgrim while visiting St. Ninian's.

It was during the time of the Saxon invasions, in a relatively unscathed western peninsula that later took the name Wales, that the first monasteries were established (the words Wales and Welsh were used by the Germanic invaders to refer to Romanized Britons). They spread rapidly into Ireland and from there, missionaries returned to those parts of Britain that were not under the Roman Bishops' jurisdiction. Though preceded by St. Oran, who established churches in Iona, Mull and Tiree, Columba was the most important of these missionaries. He later became a popular saint in the history of the Christian Church, but even he built the nave of his first monastery facing west and not east. For his efforts at reforming the Church, Rome excommunicated him. His banishment from Ireland became Scotland's gain.

The island of Iona, just off the western coast of Argyll, is in present-day Scotland. It is been called the Isle of Dreams or Isle of Druids. It was here that Columba (Columcille "Dove of the Church") and a small band of Irish monks landed in 563 to spread the faith. And it was here that the missionary saint inaugurated Aidan as king of the new territory of Dalriata (previously settled by men from Columba's own Ulster).

Iona quickly became the ecclesiastical head of the Celtic Church in the whole of Britain as well as a major political center. After the monastic settlement at Iona gave sanctuary to the exiled Oswald early in the seventh century, the king invited the monks to come to his restored kingdom of Northumbria. It was thus that Aidan, with his twelve disciples, came to Lindisfarne, destined with Iona to become one of the great cultural centers of the early Christian world.

Iona remained an important center of Christianity despite the retreat of many of its monks to Ireland during the deprivations of the Vikings. To be buried in the ancient burial ground in Iona was a special privilege for early Christians. An ancient prophecy relates:

Seven years before the judgment,
The sea shall sweep over Erin at one tide,
And ever the blue-green Isla;
But I of Colum of the Church shall swim.
In "Macbeth", too, there is a reference to the holy isle when Macduff informs Rosse that King Duncan's body has been taken to Columskill, "the sacred storehouse of his predecessors and guardian of their bones." In addition to good King Duncan, it is said that some sixty kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway are buried in the cemetery of Reilig Odhrain, next to St. Oran's Chapel. King Kenneth MacAlpine selected Iona as his final resting-place in 860, and for two centuries, future kings of Scotland and many Highland chieftains were buried there.

Iona suffered greatly from the raids of the Vikings and Danes. Under their deprivations, the Abbey was destroyed and the rule of St. Columba and the remaining Celtic Church brought came to an end. It wasn't until 1072 that St. Margaret was able to rebuild the destroyed Abbey. By that time, of course, the Norman invasions had inaugurated centuries of armed conflict and political tension between the English and Scottish kingdoms.

The Reformation of the 16th century, with its brutal suppression of the old religion and all that was connected with it, seemed to completely transform Scotland. However, traditions die hard, and in Ireland and Scotland, many Celtic customs survived. Some of them even survived the bloody battle of Culloden in 1746 that for all intents and purposes marked the end of the Gaelic way of life in Scotland. The survival of these traditions (and the hostility caused by brutal attempts to eliminate them) underlies much of today's Celtic resurgence.

Iona's spell continues to draw visitors to the misty island. The Iona Community, founded in 1938, has restored much of the Abbey that had been rebuilt in 1506 and again in 1900. On his visit to Scotland in 1773, Dr. Samuel Johnston, very unimpressed with what he saw and experienced on his travels throughout Britain, was highly moved by his visit to Iona. Boswell records his learned friend's words thus: "We are now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion."

We may question the learned Doctor's description of the highly cultured Celts as savages; he was unaware that their language developed from the same source as Sanskrit, the classical language of the Hindus. Their traditions and rituals were passed on through the spoken word so that their power would not be diminished by the blandness of the written word. In addition, full equality between men and women was fully accepted truth, even in battle. Even property was inherited through the female side of the family. The otherwise-learned doctor may have overlooked the fact that the Celts introduced the wheel to Europe and their skills in smelting and fashioning iron were legendary.

In 574, Columba is believed to have returned to Ireland to plead the cause of the bards, who were about to be expelled as troublemakers. According to legend, he sensibly argued that their expulsion would deprive the country of an irreplaceable wealth of folklore and antiquity. He also refused to chop down the ancient, sacred oak trees that symbolized the old druidic religion. Although the bards were allowed to remain, they were forced to give up their special privileges as priests of the old religion (Some modern writers, such as Robert Graves have seen the old traditions underlying much Celtic literature since the sixth century.)

In this period, the rapidly expanding Church adopted numerous Celtic saints. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, however, the Celtic Church, had its own ideas about the consecration of its Bishops, tonsure of its monks, dates for the celebration of Easter and other differences with Rome. The Church was more or less forced by majority opinion of the British bishops to accept the rule of St. Peter, introduced by Augustine, rather than of St. Columba. We can no longer speak of a Celtic Church as distinct from that of Rome.

Some differences remained, however. For one thing, the medieval church in Scotland differed from that of England. Specifically, it lacked a "metropolitan" or archbishop with authority over the various bishops. In 1192, the nine Scottish sees of the Scottish Church became "special daughters" of the papacy, enjoying equality under the authority of Rome (though Galloway stayed subordinate to the Archbishopric of York). In the 12th century, the Anglo-Norman practice of establishing field churches to serve the needs of particular nobles and estates spread into Scotland. During the rule of David I (1124-53), in the "proprietorial" churches, the exaction of tithes or 'tiends' became compulsory.

It was the increasing appropriation of tithes that helped finance the building of many splendid ecclesiastical monuments in Scotland. But as many historians have pointed out, it also led to the poverty of local parishes and their priests. The consequent discontent was one of the major causes of the later Reformation that completely transformed the Scottish Church with astonishing speed. Thus the greed of the ecclesiastical establishment, aided and abetted by the large landowners, (often in high Church positions) led to that sweeping reform that so affected the subsequent history of Scotland (and that of Ulster).

Chapter 1: Celtic Scotland Continued