An ethnographic history of Scotland, Part I: The Celtic tribes

To have an understanding of one’s heritage, you must recognise the struggles of the tribes and nations that came before you so that you can appreciate the cultures that your ancestors fought to preserve and how you can hopefully avoid being wiped off the map as a distinct group of people. That said, the folk that make up ethnic groups tend not to truly disappear (except in the case of deliberate genocide by a hostile invader), but rather live on in in the blood of people who may have adopted the culture of their ancestors’ enemies. Such is the course of history, and being able to recognise who is truly your racial enemy and who is simply another ethnic group living in the vicinity is essential to the survival of a folk. Some ethnic groups live side-by-side in a country, others come to dominate the whole country, while the unfortunate or weak-willed are trampled underfoot and forgotten. We must have an understanding of where we have come from if we want to know where to go as a folk.

Our country has a long history of human occupation stretching back at least 10,000 years to the Mesolithic, though earlier settlement will have become obscured by the devastating force of the glaciers during each Ice Age. Though the ways of these early prehistoric folk have long since faded, our Aryan heritage stretches at least back to the Bronze Age (around 4,000 years ago) with the introduction of metallurgy and pastoralism (although whether the Aryans were also responsible for the introduction of agriculture around 5,000 years ago is not entirely clear). Nevertheless, despite the many interesting things that could be said about our prehistory, for the sake of conciseness I am going to focus specifically on the history of the last 2,000 years, since our ancestral memory of earlier times has been clouded and also because it is in this period that the various peoples who form the basis of the European nations today emerge. Maybe another time we can focus on the truly ancient past.

For now we must do with what, unfortunately, other civilisations have had to say about our ancestors. The Classical Greeks knew of Britain and Ireland and even sailed there a few times. The name they gave for Britain was ‘Albion’, an ancient term possibly meaning ‘white’ and related to the name of the Alps. However, it is the Romans who give us the first true glimpses of our country’s ethnography, specifically because they were attempting to conquer it. The impression that they give us is that our ancestors were naked savages that knew nothing of civilisation and lived like animals, and that the only reason that the Romans couldn’t conquer their land was because it was so dreary and the climate so awful that no sane person would ever want to live there. Archaeology has shown this blatant propaganda to be false, as of course, our ancestors were engaged in agriculture for thousands of years and in fact, the area of Strathmore on the east coast has long been acknowledged as highly productive for growing grain. Therefore, the Romans have contributed nothing to our heritage aside form their ‘historical’ records and archaeological remains. Yet their accounts are still valuable, as they provide us with the earliest tribal and ethnic names that our ancestors may have used to refer to themselves.

The Roman historian Tacitus gives us some interesting details about the natives of this land in the eulogy to his father-in-law, British governor and general, Agricola, and his attempt to conquer Scotland. He refers to her inhabitans as ‘Britons’ and more specifically to the tribes north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus as ‘Caledonians’ (from whom our kindred takes it’s name). While it is tempting to presume that the folk of Northern Scotland were ethnically identical to those in the rest of Britain on this basis, there is evidence that this was not necessarily the case. In the Welsh Triads, Britain (known as ‘Prydein’) is split into three parts: Lloegyr (what is now Southern and Eastern England), Cymru (pronounced ‘cum-ree’ and consisted of Wales, Northern and Western England and Southern Scotland) and the area in question as Alban or Prydyn. While the Welsh refer to themselves as ‘Cymraeg’, they referred to the inhabitants of Prydyn as ‘Brithwyr’, which is very confusing considering that later on the Romans referred to the former as ‘Britons’ and the latter as ‘Picts’. Nevertheless, it has been proven through the analysis of place-names and Pictish personal names that the Picts spoke a Brittonic language in the same family as Modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Another group that appear to have been present in Scotland at this time are the Gaels. Though they have come to be seen by some as synonymous with Scottish identity, originally they seem to have had a fairly minor presence in Scotland, inhabiting what is now Argyll (which means ‘coast of the Gael’). It has been generally assumed that the Scottish Gaels originally came from Ireland, although the lack of Brittonic place-names in Argyll that would suggest the presence of an earlier Pictish population makes this unlikely. Thus, by the time the Romans arrive (and for that matter, by the time they leave) Scotland consisted of three distinct ethnic groups: Britons in the South, Gaels in the West and Picts in the rest (the Northern and Western Isles were probably Pictish too but it’s harder to be sure). They all spoke Celtic languages and had similar Iron Age cultures, but each group consisted of different tribes with their own traditions and ties to the land.

Their way of life most likely depended on what sort of land they lived on. Tribes that inhabited the low-lying plains (yes, they do exist in Scotland) would have focused more on agriculture and may have had more settled lives, growing grains like barley, oats and spelt wheat as well as vegetables such as leeks, kale and turnips. Those tribes that lived on the hills would have practised pastoralism and moved up or down from the hills depending on the season. Though they would have herded sheep, goats and pigs (chickens being relatively rare in this period), their main focus was on cattle, who were considered so valuable that cattle-raiding has been a long-standing tradition in Celtic culture. This usually took place during Autumn and was a chance for young warriors to prove their worth among their tribe through acts of bravery. As you would expect, these folk survived on a diet mainly consisting of meat and dairy, although they would also have grown crops, the emphasis here being that these differences in lifestyle between tribes were not necessarily exclusive, more the predominance of agriculture or pastoralism in a particular area. The tribes that lived on the coast or on islands would have relied more on wild sources of food, such as fishing and whaling as well as hunting for seabirds and their eggs. They were the ones who best preserved the ancient ways of the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic (as reflected by the lack of archaeological finds from Scottish islands in this period), although they also practised what agriculture and animal husbandry they could.

The style of warfare among Iron Age tribes in Scotland was fairly primitive, there is little evidence for armour and what armour there was (chainmail and possibly bronze helmets) would have only been worn by the chieftains or champions who were given lavish weapons and armour as gifts. Spears, javelins or darts (which may have been tipped with iron or bone) and small shields would have been the mainstay of warriors at this time, with a focus on light, mobile warfare consisting of hit-and-run tactics and ambushing. Though they seem to have reserved this style of warfare for the Romans, who could not be defeated in a pitched battle (as evidenced by their defeat at the hands of Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius according to Tacitus) and had to be dealt with through guerilla warfare; attacking and then retreating into the mountains and forests to wear them down through attrition (which seemed to do the trick given that the Romans basically gave up on conquering Scotland, if not for want of trying). They used light cavalry but they also had chariots, which were more suited to the smaller ponies native to Britain and had gone out of fashion in the rest of Eurasia. It is unclear what their swords were like, Tacitus says that the Caledonians used ‘huge swords’, but all of the archaeological evidence from Northern Britain (albeit, none has been found in the region of Alban) suggests that swords weren’t much longer than the average gladius, which is more likely considering that iron isn’t particularly abundant in Scotland, and the style of warfare in Northern Britain and Ireland suggests the use of short swords.

Amongst themselves battles were probably more ritualized, with an emphasis on display through both ostentatious torques and tattoos as well as taunts, songs and chants as a prelude to combat. The battle may have begun with an exchange of javelins from skirmishers and charioteers (as suggested from Tacitus account of Mons Graupius) before the more experienced warriors would charge at each other. Battles in this era were probably rather short, and would have depended on the performance of the most skilled warriors, with the lighter armed and less experienced warriors providing support through missile-fire and shouting. Given what Tacitus says about the amount of warriors that fled Mons Graupius (most of them) we can assume that these warriors were used to breaking once the better warriors began to rout and so while the losing army returned to their wives and mothers in shame, they at least lived to fight and maybe win again another day. The winners celebrated their victories in the mead hall (probably the house of their chieftain) and feasted, drank and sung of great deeds on the battlefield and heroes of the past. Battles would have usually taken place in the Summer (it was a separate sort of engagement from the cattle-raiding), and could have occurred for all manner of reasons, vendettas and slanders by a member of one tribe against another were likely reasons. Single-combat between champions was also aspect of Iron Age warfare, since this emphasizes the conflict between individuals rather than whole tribes and could have been used to resolve disputes without a battle taking place.

To be continued…

Wulf Willelmson

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