Story of Scotland: Scots, Picts, Angles & Britons

Story of Scotland: Chapter 3



© Four Peoples - One Nation?

by Robert M Gunn©
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn



Four Peoples - One Nation?

There is a curious misconception among some, that Scotland is entirely a Celtic nation. In fact, until the writings of W. F Skene in his work “Celtic Scotland”, published in the 19th century, the opposite was the case. Until “Celtic Scotland” (the History of the Highlanders) was published, Celtic-Highland history was completely ignored or diminished to a minor footnote of history. Since then, oddly, the history of Scotland has become, to some, the history of the Highlanders. Neither view is correct as it lacks historic balance. Whether this misconception is due to the cultural similarities of the Highlanders to the Irish, or romantic ties to the ancient Celts is unclear. But, Scotland today is a more cohesive nation than it was earlier in its history. Over 90% of modern Scots speak English as their primary language and the native Gaelic speaking Highlander is becoming increasingly a rare and unique individual. Going back some three hundred years we can clearly see two Scotland’s: one of the Gaels and Highlander, the other of the Anglo-Celtic Lowlander. This cultural separation was more dramatic in historic terms than today. But the role these two different cultures play in Scottish history was considerable, and vital to our understanding of the nation’s history. Even before the Highland-Lowland division, four separate kingdoms comprised what is now modern day Scotland. Those four peoples and how they came to form one nation sets the backdrop for this chapter.

Even before the Roman withdrawal in 410 AD, the differing factions who would compete for the land and soul of Scotland were manifesting in four very different cultures. The most numerous were the Picts who’d been in Scotland before the Romans. The others, with the possible exception of the Strathclyde British, were relative newcomers. The Angles from Holstein, Germany and the Scots from Ireland would come to dominate the native Picts and Britons. But how did this happen? Who were these different people?

Celtic Horse Warrior - K McReynolds

[Celtic Horseman]
Since the Picts are the oldest race to occupy Scotland, it seems logical to begin with them. The Picts, the Celtic people of the Highlands and southern Scotland, are the most enigmatic. We first encounter the name ‘picti’ (probably meaning ‘painted ones’) from Eumenuis, a Roman historian in 297 A.D. Although they’d been generically called Caledonians before that, the Picts emerged as the strongest tribe as the Romans departed Scotland. Twenty-five years ago, archaeologists excavated an ancient Pictish hill-fort called ‘Craig Phadrig’. What was revealed were two concentric ramparts crowning the summit, which had become “vitrified” - stone, earth and timber structures that had likely intentionally been set on fire -- leaving the stone and earth fused together in an almost glassy, petrified state. Craig Phadrig was an important Pictish stronghold around the 5th century onwards. It was the seat of King Brude (one of many Pictish kings bearing this name) or Bridei mac Maelchu. The Venerable Bede, in his work, “The History of the English Church and People”, written in the early 8th century, describes Bridei as an ‘Over king’ of many local kingdoms. His lands comprised most of Pictland (Pentland) and extended from the Firth of Forth through the center and towards the north-east of Scotland as far as Orkney.






Pictish Stone
[Pictish Stone]
The Picti or ‘painted ones’ was probably a Roman nickname for the emerging Caledonian tribe of northern Scotland, although their lands would eventually include much of Scotland. The Picts were, like most “pure” races, were a mixture of peoples. As briefly discussed in chapter one, they are most likely a fusion of native Bronze-Iron Age inhabitants (Beaker People?) with proto-Celtic peoples that conquered or assimilated them circa 700-1,000 BCE. Dr. Anna Ritchie (“Picts” - Historic Scotland), says this:

“The Picts were Celts. Their ultimate ancestors were the people who built the great stone circles like Calanais on the Isle of Lewis in the third millennium BC in Neolithic times, and the brochs in the early Iron Age from about 600 BC to 200 AD.“

Since some experts feel it was a people before the Picts, that constructed the stone henges, Ritchie’s conclusion stating the “ultimate ancestors [of the Picts]” is sound. It is very likely (and this has to be speculative) that some proto-Celtic tribes moved into Scotland, whether by conquest, marriage or both, affecting assimilation, thus linking the Iron Age builders of those monuments with the Celts that we now call Picts. We know that one King ‘Brude’, of Craig Phadrig, the center of Pictish power moved southward to Angus, Perthshire and Fife. This didn’t change the culture of the Picts, but seems indicate a shift in power. There were two distinct Pictish kingdoms: one of the north, they other in the south. The Picts left no decipherable written language, no records for historians to study them. What we do know of these enigmatic people we know from the writings of others - usually their enemies. Therefore, we are bound to get a biased or distorted view of them. Even the name itself - Picts - has a mysterious origin. Author, Charles Thomas, “Celtic Britain”, says that the Iron Age people called themselves Pretani or Pritani (from the Greek Prettania) that predates the word Britannia, to which it has obvious similarities. The Welsh name for Britain is Pyrdein, and a related word ‘Priteni, is probably a generic term for all the tribes beyond the Antonine Wall. Nevertheless, the word Pict might simply be a Roman word (picti) used to describe the ancient Pictish practice of painting or tattooing themselves with intricate designs. In the first century, Caesar remarks, “All Britons dye their bodies with woad which produces a blue color and this gives them a terrifying appearance in battle.” The name stuck, and the people in the north have been known as the Picts ever since. It is possible that the use of woad with the Picts continued long after the southern Britons had been romanized and ceased the practice.

Thomas believes that the British Celts came around 500 BC and imposed their own rudimentary tribal structure on the Bronze-Iron Age Inhabitants rather than conquering them much later. In the 11th century, we get another, if fanciful, name for the Picts - the Cruithne or ‘first Pict”. This comes in the form of a legend first recorded in the 11th century, of the seven sons (each naming his own district) as sons of this legendary Cruithne. Truth? Not likely, but legendary stories from this period are common.

One of the most important cultural oddities about the Picts is their system of matrilineal line of succession, which some attribute to Bronze Age cultures. This descent through the female line, instead of the male (as the Scots and Angles), would eventually lead to their virtual disappearance in history as a separate people.

Cassius Dio mentions another prominent tribe in Scotland known as the “Maeatae”. As far as can be established, the Maeatae were located in the area immediately behind the Antonine Wall, with the Caledonians a bit further north. It has been suggested that place-names Dumyat and Myot Hill in Stirlingshire can be attributed to the Maeatae.

The Picts seem to emerge the strongest of the four peoples, as we head into the 4-5th centuries, which suggests their dominance of the other tribes. Tacitus identifies the Picts racial type when he tells us that the Caledonians -- supposedly one of the name-groups of the Pictish race -- were "fair or reddish haired and long limbed". This closely matches the description that Ammianus Marcellinus gave of the Gauls: "Almost all the Gauls are tall and fair skinned with reddish hair"

Their society also seems to have strong similarities and parallels to the Irish or Scots, implying a Celtic heritage. There are also differences, especially in language, from the Scots. Place-names beginning with ‘Pit’ are found throughout Pictish areas and this is thought to be a survival of a Pictish term meaning a parcel of land, such as Pitlochry and Pitsligo. Their territory stretched all the way down the east coast to the Forth and up to the farthest northern reaches of Scotland.

Pictish Ornamentation
[Pictish Jewelry]
We do not know what they called themselves, but later others called them ‘Cruithne’: a word that certainly has a Celtic heritage. They seem to have been many tribes somehow divided into two kingdoms: the north and the south. What bound them together may have been the invaders themselves. From Pictish art, we know they were a horse-warrior society and that they had knowledge of the sea, just like the Scots. Occasionally, for reasons that are not clear, a leader (initially a northern Pict) would rule both North and South Pictland. There exists a list of Pictish rulers before they were conquered by the Scots, but such lists are tenuous at best as sources of history. The Scots once compiled a list going back to Adam - but that was intended for the eyes of a pope, and was probably a good maneuver.

Militarily, the Picts appear well organized and equipped. They outnumbered the Scots by more than nine to one, and with such organization, it is baffling how they could have been defeated in four centuries. They fought under commanders called ‘toiseachs’ and powerful local lords (later earls) known as ‘mormaers’. The Pictish centers (it might be too modern to pronounce them capitals) in the south were around Dunkeld and Scone. In the north, Forfar was the Circinn center. The great fortress of Burghead on the Moray Firth may have been an important Northern Pictish stronghold. In the far north, the people were few and spread out in wide areas. These areas seem to have had no centralized authority or fortification, but probably fell under the realm of the Northern Picts. As for a ‘clan system’, there is no evidence at all to suggest the Picts had anything like what the Scottish Highlanders would later develop.


Pictish Stones

Class II Pictish Stone
[Class 2 Stone]
Possibly the strangest, or rather, most baffling mystery left to us from the ancient Picts are their ornately carved symbol stones. It has been postulated these were: tribal insignia to mark territory; signs of rank, or primitive heraldry; religious offerings or gifts to gods, or even a crude means of communication. Whatever their meaning, the detail carved into solid stone shows a mastery of stonework and tribal artistry that is truly unique to the Picts. These carved stones are divided into three classes. Class I stones are usually rough boulders incised only with the unique Pictish symbols. Class II stones are rectangular slabs that, in addition to Pictish symbols; contain relief sculpture of the Christian cross and narrative scenes. Class III stones are similar to Class II, but without the symbols. Many stones are still visible in the countryside; there are some very good examples at Aberlemno in Angus.








One of the Aberlemno Stones
courtesy of Tam Anderson
[Aberlemno Class 2 stone]
Rather than being a backward tribal society, the Picts were a cultured people with art and a sophisticated form of warfare. Many of the stones have been left in upright and original conditions. More amazing is what is carved onto these stones. Though the Aberlemno stones are still being deciphered, they offer tantalizing clues. The Glamis Stone, in the front garden of the Manse of St. Fergus’s Kirk at Glamis in Angus, dates back to the early 8th century and has earlier carvings representing a serpent, salmon and what is determined to be a mirror. A large Celtic cross is entangled with serpentine creatures and the opposite side has a legendary centaur, axe in hand, the head of a stag, two warriors, and disturbingly, a cauldron with two legs sticking out. Evidence of ritual cannibalism after combat? No one is certain.


[Sueno's Stone]
Sueno’s Stone, uncovered in the 18th century, has an elaborate ring-head cross on the front and a battle scene on the back. The battle scene, including severed heads, depicts both infantry and cavalry and has been suggested as being a defeat of the Picts by the Scots, but could well be a memorial to the Angle defeat at Dunnichen. (See Battle of Nechtansmere).

Going back to the late Roman occupation, in the 4th century, the Picts took the war to the Romans, and after a series of battles, counterattacks, and campaigns, the Romans were under siege.





Pictish Cross Stone
Courtesy Tam Anderson
[Pictish Cross]

In the mid-4th century, the Scots (based in Argyll) allied with the Picts and harried the Roman frontier once again. In 365, the Romans historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, clearly identifies Rome’s enemies in Britain at the time: the Dicalydones, Verturiones, Scots, Attacotti and Saxons. Aside from the Scots and Saxons, the other three tribes were probably branches of the Picts. Roman positions were under siege from three directions. To what extent there was collusion betwixt these is uncertain. The Saxon raid on the south of Britain, so long held at bay by Roman fortifications on the ‘Saxon Shore’, were not likely connected to the temporary Scoto-Pictish alliance. In 367-369 and again in 382 AD, the Scoto-Picts attacked in force in what Roman historians have called the “Barbarian Conspiracy”, and it took Rome considerable time and force to repel the attackers. The Picts, this time acting alone, attacked again in 396 but were eventually repelled by Roman general Stilicho. Clearly, the constant raids were having an effect, and with Rome needing its warriors at home, they left about AD 410, creating a power vacuum that would pit the Picts, Scots, Angles and Britons against each other.

Though we shall be talking more about the demise of the Picts under the topic ‘the Scots’, it is important to underscore the fact that the Picts did not simply ‘disappear’ or vanish from Scotland. What vanished was the name of the Picts. Through a combination of warfare and marriage, the Pictish Kingdoms, both north and south, would be completely absorbed by the Scots. Though the people themselves remained, what seems not to have survived was their language and culture. This is one sad fact of conquest throughout the ages. By the late Ninth century, the Picts as a separate and identifiable people would disappear from the history of Scotland. Assimilating into a dominant and quickly emerging Scottish culture, along with being forced out of the North and west by the Norse (chapter 4), the people who history refers to as ‘Picts’ -- became Scots.

Although Gildas, an early British historian with a tendency for theatrical writing, ranting, and raving, thought ill of the Picts, certain Pictish kings appear to have been strong and dynamic. Gildas venomously writes of the Picts:

“…[the] foul hordes of the Scots and Picts, like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock when the sun is high and the weather grows warm…”

One of the strong kings who may have incurred Gildas’s verbal tirades was Bridei (Brude). Bridei defeated the Scots and established a peace between the two for over 15 years. Adomnan (Columba’s biographer) said that Bridei had hostages from Orkney, (possibly to enforce peace), the king of whom was in Bridei’s court at the time. This infers a system of sub-kings under Bridei’s control, and that he ruled both the Northern and Southern Pictish kingdoms.

But, troubles were in store for Bridei: he is recorded as having died at the battle of Asreth, in Circinn, (southern Pictland) about 580 AD. The power then seems to shift from the Northern to the Southern Picts. In 603, the Anglian King Aethelfrith defeated Aedan (Aidan) of the Scots at the Battle of Degastan. Evidence suggests the Britons (later, the Strathclyde Britons) were in league with the Angles. Aethelfrith extended Northumbrian territory as far as the Firth of Forth, forcing the Scots out. The Scots would then turn their aggression and ambition for land on the Picts. And the Picts suddenly had new hostile neighbors in the Scots to the west, the Angles to the south. The Britons seemed to have made a temporary truce with the Angles, playing for time.

The Britons

The second important kingdom in Scotland’s infant history is that of the Britons: specifically the Britons of Strathclyde. [ Click for more specifics on this ancient kingdom ]. This kingdom included not only Strathclyde, but also Cumbria in northwest England. It is from these Britons, and their related cousins in England and Wales, where Britain gets its name. They spoke an ancient from of Celtic language that has been classified as Brythonic or Brittonic. It is identified by linguists as a member of the P-Celtic form of languages spoken by other Britons, Welsh and Cornish. Their center was at Dumbarton, or ‘Alcluyd’ as it was then called, and meant “fortress of the Britons”.

As the Scots were being taught Christianity by Columba at Iona, the Britons were being educated in the gospels by a missionary named Mungo (dearest beloved). His real name was Kentigern and Glasgow became his center. Today you will still hear people refer to Glasgow as the city of St. Mungo and the cathedral is the Cathedral of St. Mungo. The Britons were quicker to accept Christian teachings than either the Picts or the Angles. They occupied the Southwestern part of Scotland and the Northwest of England, known as Cumbria. Like modern Northumberland, it is important to understand that ancient Cumbria’s borders are not the same as Cumbria today. Cumbria is the latinized word for Cymry or Cymru, as in modern Welsh. This may very well have been the home of the legendary Arthur, whose fame included a series of 12 battles against the pagan Anglo-Saxons, though, for the present, this remains legend. This was the time of the Dark Ages in Britain.

The rule of the Britons of Strathclyde was at its height in the 7th century. When the kingdom of Alba was created under Kenneth MacAlpin (or see chapter 4), Strathclyde survived as a client kingdom, until the battle of Carham in 1018. There, the last king of Strathclyde, Owain the Bald, was killed. Rheged was another kingdom of the Britons but little is known of this kingdom, which was located near Carlisle and Galloway.

The Irish Scots

The Scots, or “Scoti, even Scottias” were Irish tribes from the north east of Ireland, roughly modern-day Ulster. They had been constantly invading the western shores of Britain since the 4th century. During the Roman occupation of Britain, their raids had been kept to a minimum, and their impact and influence on the native inhabitants was negligible. The name ‘Scottias’ is actually a Briton word probably meaning ‘raider’. These Irish-Scots had been getting more and more daring during late Roman rule, but after the Roman withdrawal, their attacks became severe. This is especially true in the 5th century under the fearsome King Niall. Ireland had been just beyond Rome’s frontiers for centuries, escaping the Roman domination that consumed much of the rest of Britain. Without this predominance, Ireland remained free to grow at its own pace. However, this freedom also had drawbacks. Ireland remained a primitive place without towns, cities or any real system of public works, like aqueducts, canals or governmental centers. Most of the population lived in or around farms surrounded by wooden or dry-stone defenses. While this maintained the Irish-Scots freedom (to an extent), they also suffered a lack of technical sophistication brought to mainland Britain by the Romans. Therefore, civilization, as used in the Greek use of the word -- ‘cities’ -- was late in coming to Ireland. To offer some protection, many used crannogs -- man-made islands -- to separate themselves from danger. This practice was also common in Scotland.

Lower Terraces at Dunadd
[Lower Terraces of Dunadd]
Warfare was endemic, as tribal conflicts over leadership, land and resources were commonplace. It was more a matter of ritual, than of slaughter, most of the time. This ritualistic warfare has been noted by modern anthropologists in other, primitive cultures, where war is practiced as much for territorial dominance than actual conquest. But Ireland would see its share of invading cultures in future centuries. Small kingdoms existed but were constantly evolving and changing. It was not a stable situation in 5th century Ireland, so it should come as no surprise that some tribes decided to cross the Irish Sea for newer land. Each petty kingdom was similar to a large tribe led by a ‘king’, who might himself be occasionally subject to an ‘Ard Ri’ or, High King, such as King Niall. This ritual warfare over land and leadership would manifest itself strongly in the Highland clans of Scotland in later centuries. Whereas the south of Scotland, more influenced by the English, would adopt laws and law enforcers to quell disputes between neighbors, the Highlanders would settle theirs with blood feuds, murders and reiving. This turbulent lifestyle was also a peculiar side-effect of the constant warfare in the Borders, where reiving, stealing and blackmail would become a way of life by the 15th century. But for now, the clan system was just beginning - and so too were clan rivalries.

Map of Scotland showing DalRiada,
Pictland & Areas of Britons and Angles
[Map of Dalriada and Pictland]

The Irish-Scots tried to invade southern Wales, but the Welsh ruthlessly and efficiently crushed the attempts. The Welsh have a natural defensive barrier on much of their western borders. Later, this would also hinder the Vikings from truly colonizing Wales. To some degree, (it is difficult to assess how much) the Scotti’s raids on Britain were successful. However, the local British eventually repelled most of their attempts at land grabbing. The Irish-Scots (now they become known simply as Scots) had much better success in the north and the Western Isles. In some of these Isles and in lands around Argyle (the old spelling), the Scots made their new kingdom of Dal Riata, or Dalriada. The historic significance of this area is apparent in the many-recorded accounts by Irish chroniclers. It seems the invading Scots made Dunadd their center, or capital, many years before it was shifted to Scone.

It seems part of the Scot’s success may have been with the help of the Northern Britons, who were suffering ruthless attacks by the Picts and Angles, since the Roman withdrawal. The first recorded Scoti settlement in this area (they were already in the Islands) was under a chief named Cairbre Riada, dated from the 3rd century. If it is true that the Britons were initially helping the Scots - as a barrier against the Picts - then they were merely following a long-established Roman practice of playing one Celtic tribe against another.


The Scots

Around 500 AD the Scots came en masse to the Argyll coast and the Isles. This migration differed from the early raids in previous centuries. Unlike the Scoti involvement in the “Barbarian Conspiracy” against the Romans, and other raiding activity, this time they came to settle. The 7th century Irish “Senchus fer nAlban” or Tradition of the Men of Scotland, records the story of the semi-legendary Fergus Mor mac Eirc (Fergus mac Erc), King of the Scoti, who moved in strength from Antrim, in Northeast Ireland, to the southwest area of Highland Scotland (Argyll and Kintyre) and surrounding Isles. They were known as Dal Riata and spoke Gaelic, established a new kingdom in the territory of modern Argyll, which became known as Scottish Dalriada.

Picts eyeing the Scots at Dunadd
[Picts by Angus McBride]
This is the beginning of the ancient kingdom of Dalraida, whose inhabitants would later give their name to the entire kingdom of Scotland. From this point forward, historians make a separate distinction of Irish from Scots, although the two peoples continued to associate, marry, trade and even feud for much longer. Dal Riata’s strength was her naval power as her inhabitants were linked only by the sea. By the 8th century, its navy was able to engage in fleet actions in open sea. Their ships, as were those of the Picts, were often as simple as large hide-covered ‘curachs’, with wooden frames. It relied mostly on human power - oars -- for propulsion, but often did have a single sail. Larger ships were rare, but did exist. Naval might was but one method, albeit an important one, by which the Scots gradually overcame the southern Picts. This would not happen until the mid 9th century under one Kenneth Mac Alpin, and the new kingdom would be called Alba, not yet Scotland.






Dunadd

Fergus’s palace, if one should call it that, is thought to have been close to the fortification of Dunadd that was perched on a rocky crag, four miles north of Lochgilphead.

Whether the term Scot is derived from ‘Scoti’ (meaning raider), a name probably given them by the Britons, or from Scotia, the ancient name for Ireland is complex. There is a persistent myth that Scotia was the name of an Egyptian Pharoh’s daughter, and that she somehow came to Scotland. This is not factual. Texts that refer to the name are often dated inaccurately when analyzing down to the very year. Since one source may have been written based upon another it is impossible to say which is the first origin of the word ‘Scot’. Nevertheless, from their center at Dunadd the Dal Riata Scots would eventually come to dominate all the land, giving the country, it’s name.

[Dunadd] The hill-fort of Dunadd, in mid-Argyll, (pictured left, the fort was at the top), is but one of many power bases for the old kingdom of Dalraida, and perhaps the most important. The site consists of a series of defended terraces, surmounted by a summit fort. It has been excavated three times in the 20th century. Finds, dated from the sixth to the ninth century, include fine metalworking, with many brooches and tools. Recent archaeological excavations have shown that Dunadd was irregularly occupied from 500 to as late as 1,000 AD. Evidence of skilled craftsmanship, including jewelry, bronze, silver and gold work was found. Dunadd was also a major trade center with Ireland and the west coast of Britain and even to the Mediterranean. They exported hides, leather and metalwork to Europe and received various goods in return.

[Image of a boar in rock near Dunadd] Below the summit fort, on one of the lower terraces, are a rock carving of a boar (pictured at right), an enigmatic description in ogam writing, a rock basin, and the outline of a footprint, all giving rise to speculation that this was the site where rulers of Dalriada were inaugurated. These ceremonies probably would have had elements of both Christian and pagan ideologies. In the initial years the pagan aspects would been predominant but as time passed, and the Scots were more Christianized, the pagan elements would become more and more negligible as the powerful influence of Christianity increased.

Stone Footprint in Rock
[Footprint perhaps used in Dar Riata inaugurations]

Some experts have gone as far as to suggest that the importance of the footprint (which is now covered by a replica) is to signify the king’s relationship to the land. According to this belief, the would-be king placed one foot in the designated footprint, the other on the land, symbolizing his unity with the land and the deity. Dunadd would remain a spiritual stronghold and center until the capital was moved to Scone in the ninth century.





The Gododdin

While the Picts were the power in the north, another kingdom had been developing (from the ancient Votadini) south of the Firth of Forth circa 600 AD. In Lothian and specifically Din Eidyn, the Votadini emerged as the ‘Gododdin’, from old Welsh. The Latinized from of the name (Votadini) phased out by the language of the old Britons, reclaiming their name. The events are recorded in the epic poem Y Gododdin by Aneirin. It tells of a party of about 350 warriors living in splendor, deciding to attack the Angles. A battle took place at ‘Catraeth’, (Catterick in Yorkshire). It is written in the Gododdin as an epic, heroic poem. Even so, several years later, in 638 AD, Din Eidyn or Dun Edin was attacked and captured by the Angles in revenge, and the city renamed to an Anglicized form, Edinburgh. The Anglo influence in the city has remained strong ever since.

The Angles

The warlike and expansive peoples known as the Angles came to Scotland, initially, as auxiliaries for the Roman Empire. They take their name from the shape of the land in Holstein, Northern Germany from whence they came. When the Romans withdrew in the early 5th century, the Angles, whose main base was in East Anglia, decided to expand north of the Humber River. They took Northumbria (north of the Humber) by force and tried to include much of Scotland in their rapidly growing kingdoms. (Northumbria, Mercia and Anglia).

In AD 547, the Angles were ruled by King Ida, ruler of Bernicia that stretched from the Tees as far as the Firth of Forth. Later, they merged with their natural allies, the Germanic Saxons, and soon the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the British Isles forced the native Celtic peoples to the fringes: Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Bernicia or the Angles of Lothian, were the only pagans left in Northern Britain, and are the Angles that affected Scotland. It wasn’t until one of Columba’s (more on him later) disciples, St. Aidan, was sent to Northumbria that they, too, adopted the Christian faith.

Christianity Comes to Scotland

Page from the Book of Kells
[A page of the ornate Book of Kells]
Although Columba gets the lion’s share of credit for bringing Christianity to Scots, there were missionaries before him. The first known bringer of the Christian Faith to Scotland was St. Ninian. Like Patrick, he was originally a Briton, who dedicated a church at Whithorn in 397, which is increasingly regarded as the cradle of Scottish Christianity. At Whithorn in Wigtownshire he built his ‘Candida Casa’, or White House, which served as a church and was probably situated in the grounds of the present kirk. He went on to establish a group of monastic cells on the Isle of Whithorn and from there did his missionary work among the Britons of Strathclyde and the Picts of Fife and Angus. He or some of his disciples may have traveled north as far as Orkney and Shetland. A more obscure missionary, St. Serf, is said to have worked among the people of Fife from a base at Loch Leven and at Culcross may have educated a future monk: St. Kentigern. Of Welsh or Cumbrian stock, Kentigern was brought up by monks; changed his name to Mungo and found a monastery round which the town of Glasgow was to grow. St. Aidan’s successor, St. Cuthbert, is the most revered saint of Angle ancestry and is treasured in Edinburgh.

[Painting of Columba by William Hole] Generally known as the Celtic Church, the early church in Scotland grew to produce the monastic settlements of the Culdees, probably from the time of the Irish missionary St. Columba, (pictured at right), who was based on Iona, from 563. The Celtic Church or Culdee differed from the Mainland Catholic church in Rome in matters of rites and on the method of calculating the date of Easter. The biggest difference was the Pope himself. The Celtic church lacked the organization and structure that was already present in the Roman Catholic Church. The Celtic Church was monastic and did not have a set hierarchy or priests. St. Columba and St. Aidan were both of the Irish-Celtic Church. This would all change a few centuries later when the center of government was moved south into the Lowlands of Scotland and a Saxon queen, who was Roman Catholic, married the Scottish king. But, the Culdee Church would suffer setbacks even earlier, due to the conflicting dates of celebrating Easter. The Celtic Church used an older method to calculate the dates and it put them at odds with the powerful Roman Catholic Church. The wife of Northumbrian King Oswald was an Anglo-Saxon Christian and disdained celebrating two Easters a year. Exerting influence upon Oswald, the king of Northumbria called for a Synod at Whitby in Yorkshire in 663. At Whitby, Wilfrid of Ripon voiced a feeling of superiority that those in southern Britain felt they possessed even then. Admitting their fathers might even have been saints, Oswald scolded the Scottish monks asking if they should be preferred over “the Universal Church of Christ” - meaning Rome. The measure was passed and from that time on the Celtic Church was in slow decline.

Columba's Shrine or Reliquary

[Reliquary of St. Columba]

The most known and celebrated Scottish missionary was St. Columba. His life is surrounded by so much myth and legend it is nearly impossible to discern the facts. Some of the legendary things Columba was involved in are: he quelled the Loch Ness monster; he made a sign of the cross on the gates of the Pictish king’s palace, forcing the doors open, and compelling him to convert. Columba seems to have come to Scotland under circumstances quite different than expected. According to legend he had copied another man’s religious book, a Psalter, leading to a public scandal and a small war in Ireland. Columba was excommunicated and advised to leave the country. In 563, at the age of 42, he arrived at the Island if Iona with twelve followers. His influence quickly spread and part of the reason, in reality, was that he was a warrior-monk. Columba was not opposed to conversion at sword point and because he was a warrior, he was more readily accepted by the warrior societies of both the Scots, and later, the Picts. Columba also seems to have come from some royalty in Ireland and Dalriada, and this would serve him well in spreading the gospel. Through clever use of politics, force and religion, Columba managed to persuade the Scots to choose his third cousin, the Scots sub-king of Argyll Dalriada, as their ruler. Aidan the False was inaugurated circa 575. According to the story, Columba laid his hands upon the new king and spoke these words:

“Believe firmly, O Aidan, that none of your enemies will be able to resist you unless you first deal falsely against me and my successors.”

Columba helped convert some of the Picts to Christianity, and by the middle of the 8th century there was an abbot established in the heart of Pictland - St. Andrews, or Kilrymond as it was then called. Pictish art flowered under the hand of Christianity and Nechtan, the King of the Southern Picts was converted. But conversion was slow and it took many decades before all the trappings of paganism were gone from Scotland. Even so, Christianity took even longer to foster and grow in the Northern Pictish kingdoms.

The boundaries of modern Northumberland do not quite equate with the ancient kingdom as borders with the Picts, the Britons of Strathclyde, and Mercia were constantly shifting. After the collapse of the Gododdin, the aggressive Northumbrian Angles continued to extend their influence beyond Edinburgh into Pictland. The center of Pictland, by then, had moved again from Inverness south to Abernathy and Scone, beside today’s city of Perth. This new center was called the Kingdom of Fortriu. In the period 653-685, much of this area was under control of the Angles. Their presence in southern Scotland, especially around Edinburgh and Lothian, is strong. Around 685, the Picts would meet the Angles at Dunnichen to decide the fate of Scotland.

Bede tells of the new king of the North Umbrian Angles, Oswald, in about 668 AD. Oswald was successful in gaining territory in Southern Pictland and in Dalriada (kingdom of the Scots), but did not occupy it. This led to confrontations between the Picts and the Angles: part of southern Pictland being under control of the Angles for 30 years. After several brutal defeats at the hands of the warlike and expansive Angles, the Picts faced them in battle for control of all Pictland, under Bridei mac Bili. Bridei was more successful than his predecessors were against the Angles and his fleet nearly destroyed the growing power of Orkney in 682. But it was in AD 685 that Scottish history took a dramatic turn when the Picts squared off against the powerful Northumbrian army. Most historians tend to give more weight to the influence of Scottish history to such decisive battles as Bannockburn or Culloden. However, many Scottish scholars are coming to a general consensus that a much earlier battle might have been even more pivotal - and we have the Picts to thank for this part of history.

The Northumbrian threat had been a continual problem for both the Picts and the Scots. Angle power, now in Benicia (Lothian) was pushing northwards threatening the very doorstep of the Picts. Exactly what led to this climactic battle isn’t clear, but the Picts seem to have been expecting an Angle advance.


The Battle of Nechtansmere

On 20 May 685, southeast of Forfar, at a place known as Dunnichen Moss, the Pictish confederation lay in wait. Around mid-afternoon, the Northumbrians (Angles) came into view, and the Picts struck. The lightly armored ‘fyrd’, the common Angle soldier not of the warrior aristocracy, were the first to fall. Showers of missiles, spears, and sling-stones fell upon the surprised Angle army, dropping the fyrd by the score. Pictish King, Bridei mac Bili, had chosen his ground well.


Image by Wayne Reynolds
[Dunnichen or Nechtansmere]
On the other hand, Angle King Ecgfrith, taken by surprise, could not deploy his men into a shield formation under the rain of missiles. Probably the only the armored warriors would have been the Angle warrior elite, the rest being unarmored or wearing simple leather jerkins and a crude metal skull cap. The Angles had advanced far enough to put Dunnichen Hill behind them, and a lochan, called in Anglian “Nechtansmere”, to the south and rear. By the time Ecgfrith and his elite warriors formed up for a defense, much of their fyrd (common levies) were already dead, wounded or in full retreat. The lochan itself (between Dunnichen and Leithan) no longer exists, nor is there any trace of settlement. Details of the battle are sketchy or non-existent. There were no chroniclers or Roman historians present to record the battle, and ascertaining the numbers involved is purely speculative. It is believed that the Picts, expecting the Angles, probably had superiority in numbers. Certainly, the mere mention that the Picts are described as a ‘confederation’ implies warriors from many Pictish kingdoms, not just one warband. Historian Philip Warner suggests that the Angles had at most 5,000-6,000 men. In a pitched conflict that could only have lasted a few hours, at most, the victory was total. Ecgfrith and his invading Angle army were destroyed and those that fled were probably hunted down by Pictish horse warriors. Up until the Battle of Nechtansmere, the Angles had often had their way against the Scots and Picts. The Battle of Nechtansmere put paid to Northumbrian ambitions to advance their territory north. It is a tremendous victory for the Picts, and indeed the future Scotland, although they may not have realized this at the time. It really isn’t an overstatement to say that had the battle gone the other way - there might never have been a ‘Scotland’ at all. As it was, the Angles age of ‘heroic’ kings faded, and the Picts reclaimed Lothian. Although the Picts and Scots were still at odds, (they would battle for over 150 more years), the rough borders of Scotland had been defined. The fate of the Britons was uncertain and areas such as Cumbria, the Kingdom of Reghed, would later be obtained by as yet unborn Scottish kings. But for now, the Picts and Scots controlled the fate of Scotland. Angle influence in Lothian and Edinburgh (home of the Goddodin) and most of southern Scotland would remain strong even today.

Next, in chapter 4 of "Viking Menace and Unification",we will examine the influence of the Viking attacks on Scotland and how the Scots and Picts became unified under one ruler.

  • Chapter 4 - 'Viking Menace and Unification'-coming in late December, the birthing pains of a forming nation

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