Where to begin in trying to tell the long story of Scotland? Most stories start at the beginning but when the beginning is so far back in uncharted time that is not so easy. Especially as it is not Scotland we are really talking about, but Alba, the Pictish Kingdom, Scotland , as such, not being so-called until the ninth century. The Gaelic name for Scotland is also Alba, pronounced “ullapa”, or (ALAPa}.The word or name is derived from an obsolete adjective ‘alb’ meaning white, and alp was originally a snow-capped hill or mountain. How far back in time the name Alba originally began is anyone guesses, personally I think it could have been as far back as 500 BC; I will talk more about this later.
When we talk about the beginning it is worth a mention that Geologists have shown from the very different rocks in Scotland and England that the two modern-day countries were pushed together by continental drift about 400 million years ago. Scotland was part of Laurentia, which includes most of modern day North America, and this landmass that is now Scotland virtually pushed what is now England up out of the sea when they collided. However, we can go back even further in time, some of the oldest rocks in the world can be found in Scotland, that date back as far as 3.3 billion years, now that is really old. I know this is not history but I could not resist a little mention about geology and how old some of our land is in Scotland.
Lets move forward in time now to about 10,000 BC and a little mention of some prehistory. The long winter of the last Ice Age relaxed its grip on Northern Europe and shaped much of Scotland as it is to day. The great Caledonian pinewoods covered a vast area of the new fertile land with native Ash, Birch and Oak growing on the lower planes, Wild animals were in abundance in those great dark prim evil forests: Such as the wolf, bear , deer and wild boar, as well as the ancestors of most of Scotland’s wild and domestic animal life of present day. It’s a sad legacy of our ancestors that there are only about 2-3% of the original Caledonian pinewoods in existence to day.
Between 8,000 – 4,000 BC (Mesolithic) came the nomadic hunting and gathering communities who were marooned on the newly formed misty Isles after the Ice Age. Traces of people who lived by hunting and fishing have been found around the coasts of Scotland.
Between 4,000 – 2,000 BC (Neolithic) the middle Stone Age represents farming communities using stone tools. They were seaboard peoples who probably originated from the lands around the Mediterranean. Apart from the introduction of agriculture practices they brought the establishment of territorial claims that probably led to a great deal more fighting.Their permanent settlements have left clearer evidence for archaeological research such as Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.
From 2,000 – 600 BC (New Stone Age) the Bronze Age saw the development of metal for tools and weapons increasing the necessity for defence. Tribal chiefs to afford defence and shelter for their followers built Stone tower ‘Brochs’. Substantial remains of them survive to this day. In Shetland the Broch of Mousa is the most intact example of all.
The Iron Age between 600 BC – AD 100 saw the physical immigration of new settlers, in this case the Celts who came from central Europe and probably Spain. Like any civilisation, they emerged and developed over centuries rather than sprang forth with one bound. Although they colonized many lands, they did not achieve or desire a cohesive political nationhood, nor were they imperial people. Their tribal and family unity as well as their motivation, might have been the perfect political model. they were a brilliant people, of the oral tradition, a superstitious people, who actively sought deeper beliefs, a practical people, but producing penetrating intellectual concepts. They enjoyed many sophisticated legal structures. In their wonderful gifts of craftsmanship in stone, metalworking and art, they have left a dominant cultural imprint forever. The word Celt according to the etymologists may derive from; Selt – prehistoric instrument with chisel edge’. We are now back to the early literary text of Alba and the Picts, this is where the story and history comes alive!
Who were these Picts of Alba, from whom we all descend? They were a Celtic people, for certain, and most likely came around 600 – 500 BC from Europe to settle a new land. The ancient connections between Spain and Scotland are strong and supported by many myths and legends. There are the dolmens, standing stones and the trail of “cup and ring” designs carved on stone by the Celtic people of Iberian as they make their way from Spain and Portugal and Northern France to Ireland and Scotland. This represents the earliest evidence of the movement of the Celtic people from Spain to the northern islands. There is further possible links to the Ancient Basque people of northern Spain once known to Rome as Pictones. Could the Picts be Descendants of the ancient Basque?
The Roman, Eumenius, in AD 297, makes first mention to the Picts (Pitti) when they are defined as enemies of Rome in the same context as the Hiberni (Irish), Scotii (Scots) and Saxones (Saxons). Pict comes from the Latin Picti or pictus meaning pictorial or painted, it’s most likely the Romans were referring to the Pictish symbols on their standing stones, elaborate jewellery, or the fact that there is reason to believe the ancient Picts actually tattooed their bodies with designs. Perhaps the Romans saw the symbols as a pictorial language. Another school of thought believes that the term Pict indicates their ability to weave multi – coloured cloth – that is tartans, which for some reason the non – Celtic people never seem to have mastered. There is a possibility that the Romans knew about other references from the early Greek seafarers such as Pytheas, who as early as 300 BC refers to the islands Pretanikai Nasoi (meaning “Pretanic Islands”), which is based on a native name for Britain Ynis Prydain, which literally means Picts’ Island. Another scholar, Kenneth Jackson derives the name “Pritanic” from the Pictish tribe called Pritani, meaning “The People of the Designs.” So you can see the problem here what is the link? Then it could be there is a number of defined connections and we are only seeing small fragments of the bigger picture.
Perhaps we should refer to the Picts as the Cruithne being their own name for their nation. Indeed they gave the genealogy of their kings , going backwards from Cruithne to the Flood. The Gaelic word for Cruithne meaning wheat-grower could be significant, implying a settled civilisation of agriculturalists. This King Cruithne, period somewhat vague, was mac or son of Cinge, mac Luthtai, mac Parthalan, mac Agnoinn and so on right back to Japhelth mac Noah! This may have been Pictish propaganda but the Picts were like any other Celtic people with long memories and vivid imaginations. They claimed to have the most ancient origins and line of Kings in Christendom, going back 1070 years according to one authority, precisely 1360 years according to another from before the ninth century backwards and this would tie in with the 500 BC Celtic arrival to Scotland. Irish legend claims that a new group of Iberian settlers arrived in Hiberni (Ireland), the Irish called these new people “Cruitnii” – or the “People of the Designs” these people were the Picts according to Irish legend. I think there is more to this story and will come back to address it later. There is another interesting attribute to the Irish name “Cruitnii” (Pict), the P-Celtic speaking people spelled (Pict) as Pryten; this eventually becomes Briton in the tounge of the Teutonic invaders.
Before I get ahead of myself there is another name that has been immortalise in romantic, poetic and a popular folk ballad written by Dougie MacLean in 1977, that name can only be “Caledonia”. Caledonia is the Latin name (Caledonii) given by the Romans for Scotland when in AD 83, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia, marched north with three legions to the unconquered Caledonians. The name may be related to that of a large central Pictish tribe, the Caledonii, one amongst several in the area that the Romans gave Latin names to and perhaps the Caledonii were the dominant tribe, which would explain the binomial Caledonia/Caledonii. Other schools of thought believes it was more to do with the great Pinewoods that covered huge areas of Alba and the name was more of a place name to reflect this? Dùn Chailleann is the Scottish Gaelic word for the town of Dunkeld meaning “fort of the Caledonii, and possibly in that of the mountain Sìdh Chailleann, the “the fairy hill of the Caledonians, Some scholars claim Caledonia is derived from the tribal name Caledones (or Calïdones), which is etymologies as ” ‘possessing hard feet’, alluding to stand fastness or endurance”, from the Porto-Celtic roots Kal – “hard” and Qēdo – foot”.
The Roman conquest of the land that is now England and the majority of Wales was a gradual process, beginning effectively in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, whose general Aulus Plautius served as first governor off Roman Britain (Latin :Britannia} or , later, Britannia, “the Britains”). The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first literary text about the Caledonii. He describes how his father-in-law, Agricola, in AD 84 fought and defeated a great force of 30,000 tribes men at the Battle of Mons Graupius (Grampian), the slopes and plaines of Bennachie is the most favourable site of the battle. tacitus tells us the Caledonii were led by a leader called Calgacus, his name can be interpreted as Celtic “call-ac-os”,” possessing a blade”, or swordsman, and is seemingly related to the Gaelic “calgary”. Whether this was his name, or was it the title given to a great Pictish warrior, is not very clear? A year after his disputed victory Agricola was recalled to Rome. The Romans were unable to consolidate their hold on the Northern tribes and with drew their legions. There is more to this story and I will give a more detailed account in the near future.
The Irish legend that claims the new Iberian settler that came to Hiberni were the “Cruitnii – or the “People of the Designs” (Picts) has to be questioned. One of the key periods in Scottish history makes the beginnings of modern Scotland and the introduction of a new people into the geographical area of Scotland. The “Scotii” (Scots) a new people, who were ultimately to give their name to the modern nation of Scotland, may have been part of that contingent of “Cruitnii” from Iberia. Contrary to believe the Scotii came to the western seaboard of Kintyre and Argyll around AD 300, and perhaps even before this date. Across Europe in this period there was a great wave of migrations of tribes and peoples, it seems only logical therefore, to expect evidence of this in relation to the Scots. The date of AD 300 is not as arbitrary a start point as it sounds, because in AD 297 complaints were made of attacks on the fortified Roman frontier by two people the “Picts” and the “Scotii”. Two peoples who were to be heavily involved both with each other and ultimately in forming the Kingdom of Scotland. Once more this story merits a more detailed explanation and I will write about the Scots in the near future.
Alba, land of the free, the last of the free according to the Romans, and despite many attempts by the Romans, Celtic Alba was never conquered by them. Alba is certainly an ancient name, according to various authors, the early Basque seafarers from north of Spain, as wells Greek shipmasters navigated around the mysterious isles (as early as 300 BC) and referred to them as Alba or Albion ( meaning “white”). Ptolemy spells it as Alouion around 127 AD, and later on Pliny refers to the Island as Albion. What better name for a land that is dominated by snow caped, majestic, mountains that provide a spectacular backdrop of beauty and foreboding character, Alba says it all, a land that is strong and bold.
The journey of the Celtic people, of course, took untold centuries – but the Celts have long memories, and vivid imaginations. By working their way, in waves of emigration through Europe into Spain where they left the Basques, France the Bretons, to Ireland, and from there to Cornwall, Wales and Alba (Scotland), all the Celtic lands of modern day Europe. The Celts presumably absorbed the prehistoric nomads, and possibly some of their language, place names and rivers, as they migrated to new lands all over Europe. Celtic language has two distinctive tones the Q – Celtic (Gales or Gaidheal) as in the Scottish Gaelic, and P – Celtic, akin to Welish. There is a lot of divided scholastic opinion regards what the Picts spoke, I do think there is more of a mixed early Celtic language, and the subject merits more investigation, which I will do,in a future blog.
What I have set out to do is show how far back our Celtic blood line goes as a people and nation that makes up our proud and ancient country Scotland (Alba). Make no mistake about this our ancestors were the Picts of Alba, their name may have vanished in history by the end of the 9th century, but the blood line with some Dalriada Scots mixed in is still in many of us, if not the majority of us, and then in latter years there is some Norse, Norman, and even English blood in the mix.The Picts out numbered the Scots by 10-1, or 95% of the population back then was Pictish. Many centuries before the union of Alba and Dalriada in 843 AD the Picts and Scots had lived, loved and married , and were more often allies than foe. There is some mystery to why the Picts started to call themselves Scots and their kingdom Scotland instead of Alba. This probably happened only gradually from this time on by the end off the 9th and beginning off the 10th centueies, yet sometimes the ancient name of Alba often reappears in Scottish history and it is still the Gaelic name for Scotland. I will address some of the above issues in a future blog.
In my next blog I will write about the Stone of Destiny, the Honours of Scotland, and Scotland’s national flag the Saltire.
Alba gu bràth