A BRIEF HISTORY - Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides

Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides (2016)


Scotland’s earliest settlers are thought to have been Celtic-Iberians who worked their way up from the Mediterranean - they have left us evidence of their presence in the cairns and standing stones which are found all over the country. In recent years, archaeologists discovered the remains of a huge timbered building west of Aberdeen which pre-dates Stonehenge by 1,000 years.

By the time the Romans invaded Scotland in AD 84, the inhabitants of the northern region were the Picts, whom they dubbed ‘the painted people’. The Roman legions defeated the Picts but were spread too thin to hold ‘Caledonia’, as they called the area. They withdrew behind the line of Hadrian’s Wall, close to and south of the present Scottish-English border. The Picts left little evidence of their culture or language.

Christianity and the Norse Invasion

A Gaelic-speaking tribe from Ireland, the Scots founded a shaky kingdom in Argyll known as ‘Dalriada’. In the late 4th century a Scot, St Ninian, travelled to Rome and, on his return, introduced Christianity to Dalriada. His colleague, St Mungo, established the foundation that is now the Cathedral of Glasgow. However, Christianity remained fairly isolated until the arrival in 563 of the great missionary from Ireland, St Columba. For more than 30 years, from the remote island of Iona, he spread the faith that would eventually provide the basis for the unification of Scotland. Tiny Iona today remains one of the most venerated sites in Christendom.

In the late 8th century the Vikings swarmed over Europe setting up strongholds in the Orkneys and Hebrides and on the northern mainland. The Norsemen were to hold the Western Islands, Orkney and the Shetlands for hundreds of years.

Unification and Feudalism in the South

The unifying influence of Christianity allowed an early chieftain, Kenneth MacAlpin, to unite the Scots and the Picts in 843. In 1018 this kingdom, led by Malcolm II, defeated the Northumbrians from the south at the Battle of Carham and extended its domain to the present southern boundary of Scotland. The ‘murder most foul’ of Malcolm’s grandson, Duncan II, by Macbeth of Moray was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.

Malcolm III, also known as Malcolm Canmore, changed the course of Scottish history when he married an English princess in 1069. This was the highly pious Queen Margaret who was later canonised. She brought a powerful English influence to the Scottish scene and sought to implement a radical change, replacing the Gaelic-speaking culture of Scotland and its Celtic church with the English-speaking culture and institutions of the south and the church of Rome.


St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh

Mockford & Bonetti/Apa Publications

The rift that Margaret created was widened by her son, David I (reigned 1124-53). He embarked on a huge building programme, founding the great abbeys of Melrose and Jedburgh. He also brought Norman influence into Scotland and introduced to the Lowlands a French-speaking aristocracy and a feudal system of land ownership based on the Anglo-Norman model. He was not successful, however, in imposing this system on the north, where the social structure was based on kinship and where the clan chieftain held land, not for himself, but for his people.

The Shaping of Scotland

The death of King Alexander III (1249-86) in a riding accident touched off a succession crisis that began what was to be the long, bloody struggle for Scottish independence. The English king, Edward I, was invited to arbitrate among the claimants to the throne. He seized his opportunity and installed John Balliol as his vassal king of Scots. But in 1295 Balliol renounced his fealty to Edward and allied himself with France. In retaliation the English king sacked the burgh of Berwick, crushed the Scots at Dunbar, swept north, seized the great castles and took from Scone Palace the Sacred Stone of Destiny on which all Scottish monarchs had been crowned. Edward had earned his title ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Scotland seemed crushed. However, one man, William Wallace, rose up and led a revolt, soundly defeating the English at Stirling Bridge. Edward responded by routing Wallace at Falkirk. In 1305, Wallace was captured, taken to London and brutally executed.

William Wallace

After a comparatively peaceful interlude, England’s insidious interference provoked a serious backlash in 1297. William Wallace, a violent youth from Elderslie, became an outlaw after a scuffle with English soldiers in which a girl (some think she was his wife) who helped him escape was killed herself by the Sheriff of Lanark. Wallace returned to kill the sheriff, but didn’t stop there; soon he had raised enough of an army to drive back the English, making him for some months master of southern Scotland. But Wallace wasn’t supported by the nobles, who considered him low-born and, after being defeated at Falkirk by England’s Edward I, he was hanged, drawn and quartered. His quarters were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth.


William Wallace rallies his Scottish forces against the English

Public domain

Robert the Bruce then took up the cause. After he was crowned king at Scone in 1306, he was forced to flee to Ireland. The story goes that when he was most discouraged, he watched a spider spinning a web and, inspired by this example of perseverance and courage, he resolved never to give up hope. The next year he returned to Scotland and captured Perth and Edinburgh. In 1314 at Bannockburn, he faced an army that outnumbered his forces three to one and had superior weapons. However, Bruce had chosen his ground and his strategy skilfully and won a decisive victory. Bruce continued to hammer away at the English until 1328, when Edward III signed a treaty recognising the independence of Scotland. Robert the Bruce died the following year, honoured as Scotland’s saviour.

The Stewarts

In 1371 the reign of the Stewart, or Stuart, dynasty began. While the family was intelligent and talented, it seemed also prone to tragedy. The first three kings all came to power while still children; James I, II and II all died relatively young in tragic circumstances. James IV, who ruled 1488-1513, was an able king who quashed the rebellious Macdonald clan chiefs who had been styling themselves ‘Lords of the Isles’ since the mid-14th century. In 1513 there was disaster: to honour the ‘auld alliance’ with France, James led his Scottish troops in an invasion over the English border. In the Battle of Flodden that followed, the Scots were crushed by the English in their worst ever defeat. About 10,000 lost their lives, including the king himself and most of the peerage. One result of the battle was to bring infant James V to the throne. His French second wife, Mary of Guise-Lorraine was the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. James died prematurely in 1542, six days after his wife had given birth to his heir.


The Apprentice Pillar in the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel

Douglas Macgilvray/Apa Publications

Flodden Wall

Following the Battle of Flodden, the residents of Edinburgh hastily built the Flodden Wall to protect the city from sacking. A section of the wall still survives in the Vennel (alley) just off the Grassmarket.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The tragic events of this queen’s life have captivated the imagination of generations. After the infant Mary was crowned, Henry VIII tried to force the betrothal of Mary to his son, Edward and thus unite the two crowns. At the age of five Mary was sent to France for safekeeping. Her pro-Catholic mother, supported by French forces, took over as regent, a move that was not popular with most Scots.

At the age of 15, Mary was married to the heir to the French throne. He died soon after becoming king, however, and in 1561 Mary, a devout young Catholic widow, returned to Scotland to assume her throne. There she found the Protestant Reformation in full swing, led by John Knox. A follower of Geneva Protestant John Calvin, Knox was a bitter enemy of both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Church. Mary’s agenda was bound to cause trouble: to restore Roman Catholicism and to rule as queen of Scotland in the French style. The Scottish monarchs had been kings of the Scots, not of Scotland so they were answerable to the people - a fundamental difference. She alienated the lords who held the real power and came into conflict with Knox, who heaped insults on her in public.

Mary spent just six turbulent years as Scotland’s queen. Scan­dals surrounded her. In 1565 she married Henry, Lord Darnley and the next year bore a son, the future James VI. Darnley was implicated in the murder of Mary’s confidential secretary at Holyroodhouse. Darnley himself was murdered two years later and many suspected Mary’s involve­ment. Doubts crystallised when, a few months later, she married one of the plot’s ringleaders, the Earl of Bothwell. Deposed and held captive, she made a daring escape to England, there to become a thorn in the side of her cousin, Elizabeth I and a rallying point for Catholic dissidents. Mary was kept in captivity in England for nearly 20 years until, in 1587, she was finally beheaded.


Mary, Queen of Scots

National Galleries of Scotland

Towards Union with England

After his mother’s death, James VI assumed the throne as Scotland’s first Protestant king. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James rode south to claim the English throne as James I. But the Union of Crowns did not bring instant harmony. The 17th century witnessed fierce religious and political struggles in Scotland. James and his son Charles I (1625-49) had to face opposition from Scottish churchmen. In 1638 Scots signed the National Cov­e­nant, giving them the right to their own form of Presbyterian worship.

When the civil war broke out in England, the Cov­e­nanters at first backed Par­lia­ment against Charles. After he was beheaded in 1649, the Scots backed Charles II. However, Presbyterianism was not formally established as the Church of Scotland until Catholic James VII (James II of England) was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought Protestant joint monarchs, William III and Mary II of Orange to the English throne (1689-1702). In 1707, despite widespread Scottish opposition, England and Scotland signed the Act of Union. The Scots were to have minority representation in the upper and lower houses at Westminster, they were to keep their own courts and legal system and the status of the national Presbyterian Church was guaranteed. But Scottish nationalism was not so easily subdued.

The Jacobites

Four times in the next 40 years the Jacobites tried to restore the exiled royal family to the throne. The most serious effort was the Rising Stewart, known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. This grandson of James VII was 24 years old when he sailed from France disguised as a divinity student to land in Scotland in July 1745. Within two months he had rallied enough clan support to occupy Perth and Edinburgh. In early November he invaded England, pushing to Derby by 4 December.


Bonnie Prince Charlie


However, English Jacobites failed to come to the aid of the rebellion and again, no help appeared from France. Charles’ troops were hopelessly outnumbered. Reluctantly he agreed to retreat north and, by 20 December, they were back in Scotland. From this time on, the Jacobite cause went downhill. The final blow came at the Battle of Culloden Moor which was fought near Inverness on 16 April 1746. The weary Highlanders were subjected to a crushing defeat at the hands of superior government forces under the Duke of Cumberland. In less than an hour, about 1,200 of Charles’s men were killed; many others, wounded and captured, were treated in a brutal manner that earned Cumberland the lasting sobriquet of ‘Butcher’. Charles escaped, aided by Flora MacDonald, who became Scotland’s ro­mantic heroine. After spending five months as a fugitive in the Highlands and Western Isles, he left his country for good aboard a French ship.

Stewart standard

Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745 and raised the Stewart standard. He rallied 1,200 clansmen ready to battle for the British throne. Seventy years later, Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale built the Glenfinnan Memorial in memory of all the clansmen who had fought for the cause.


Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Stewart standard at Glenfinnan

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

The Aftermath

Although the Jacobite cause was finished, Highlanders had to face harsh consequences. The clan structure was destroyed, Gaelic suppressed and wearing of the kilt or plaid was banned. Clans who had supported the rebellion lost their lands. Thousands of crofters (farmers of smallholdings) had to abandon their homes to wealthy sheep farmers from the south under the Highland Clearances programme. Many ­emigrated to the United States and Canada. Today the Highland glens still remain empty.

While the Highlands were emptying, the less troubled part of Scotland was booming. Glasgow’s tobacco monopoly enriched its merchants and James Watt’s invention of the steam engine made the Industrial Revolution possible. Glasgow, with its famous shipbuilding industry, became the ‘Workshop of the Empire’. Edinburgh began development into an international intellectual and cultural centre. The so-called ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ produced philosophers like David Hume and poets like Robert Burns.

Unlike England, with its rigid class system, Scotland’s more democratic attitude made it far easier for poor boys to gain a university education. The work of Scottish ­scientists, writers, explorers, engineers and industrialists became famous worldwide. In the 1860s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert discovered the Highlands and made tartan apparel fashionable by adopting it themselves.

Yet with the political centre in Westminster and a system in place that gave precedence to English affairs, Scotland was never an equal partner in the union with England. During the privations of the Great Depression and the industrial downturn after World War II, Scots felt impotent and apathetic. But when North Sea oil was discovered, the failing Scottish economy did a turnaround, and with the new prosperity came a resurgence of Scottish national spirit.

Modern Scotland

In 1997 the Scots voted overwhelmingly for the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament. The new Scottish Parliament, which opened in 1999, gained control over all local affairs, such as education, economic development, agriculture and the environment, but with a limited ability to collect and control tax revenues. Nonetheless, many Scots saw this as a new beginning, a chance to assert their national identity and protect their culture and heritage. A state-of-the-art new Scottish Parliament building - way over budget and well past its original completion deadline - opened for business at Holyrood in 2004.

In the 2007 Scottish election, the Scottish National Party gained power by a one-seat majority with its leader, Alex Salmond, firmly installed as First Minister of the country. Over the next few years he pushed Westminster for further devolution culminating in a referendum in September 2014 when the Scots voted to stay within the United Kingdom by 55 to 45 percent. With the Scotland Bill poised to give more power, the SNP had a remarkable landslide victory at the May 2015 general election, returning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats under the leadership of the charismatic Nicola Sturgeon. Whether Scotland finally opts for independence in a future referendum or the union remains intact, but with further devolutionary powers, hangs in the balance.


Scottish Parliament building

Mockford & Bonetti/Apa Publications


c. 6000 BC First signs of human settlement in Scotland.

AD 84 Romans beat the ‘Caledonians’ in the Battle of Mons Graupius.

AD 185 Romans withdraw behind the line marked by Hadrian’s Wall.

5th century Gaelic-speaking ‘Scots’ enter the country from Ireland.

563 St Columba spreads Christianity in Scotland.

775-800 Norse forces occupy Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

843 Kenneth MacAlpin becomes the first King of the Scots.

1290 A succession crisis allows Edward I of England to seize control.

1296 The Sacred Stone of Destiny is removed to London.

1297 William Wallace leads a revolt.

1305 Wallace taken to London and executed.

1306-28 Robert the Bruce wins independence back for Scotland.

1371 Reign of the Stewart dynasty begins.

1513 Defeat to the English in the Battle of Flodden, King James IV killed.

1542 Mary, Queen of Scots crowned at just six days old.

1561 Mary returns to Scotland from France to assume her throne.

1568 Mary flees to England, where she is imprisoned.

1587 Mary is beheaded in England.

1603 James VI, Mary’s son, unites the thrones as James I of England.

1638 National Covenant signed, starting a long period of rebellion.

1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland.

1745 ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ takes back Scotland and invades England.

1750-1800 ‘Scottish Enlightenment’.

1765 James Watt invents the steam engine.

1780 Crofters lose their land in the Highland Clearances programme.

1997 Referendum votes in favour of separate Scottish Parliament.

2004 New Scottish Parliament building opened.

2007 Alex Salmond (SNP) is elected First Minister of Scotland.

2014 Scotland votes to stay within the United Kingdom.

2015 The Scotland Bill is passed promising further devolution; the SNP has a landslide victory in the general election under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon.