An ethnographic history of Scotland, Part II: The Germanic tribes

In recent years, the peoples of Britain have been steadily divided along national lines for political purposes, and a dichotomy has been presented between ‘Celtic’ Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England; which has been used to strengthen a false nationalism, not based on race, but on the extent of state authority. Yet history shows this simplification to be untrue, particularly in Scotland where the (mostly) Germanic English tongue is dominant today. This actually reflects a process that has been occurring in Britain for thousands of years, as the cultural influences from either the Atlantic (the West coast of France, Spain and Portugal) or Nordic (Scandinavia and the Low Countries) peoples have competed for dominance at various points in history. Last time, we looked at the Celtic tribes in Scotland, who represent a time of Atlantic supremacy. Today in Scotland, Nordic culture reigns supreme and this process began with the Roman invasion.

By the dawn of the First Century AD, the Roman army consisted of legionaries from Italy supported by auxiliary troops from the provinces of the empire. Most of the auxiliaries stationed in Britain were from Batavia in what is now the Netherlands, who mingled with the local population. Later on , as the Romans themselves grew weary of fighting for their leaders due to systemic corruption (sound familiar?) and the increasing occurrence of civil war, they came to rely on ‘foederates’, Germanic warriors enlisted from the borders of the empire who fought for the Romans in exchange for land within the empire. This proved to be their undoing, as the foederati generals became so powerful that they could simply rely on their loyal warriors to carve themselves kingdoms within the decaying empire.

Things happened a little differently in Britain, as the Roman armies had already left out of frustration with trying to maintain the difficult province by the time the empire started to crumble. The Romano-British were beset by raids from the Picts and Gaels (who the Romans called ‘Scoti’, from whom the Scots derive their name and is related to the word ‘Scythian’), so they decided to use the Roman tactic of recruiting Germanic foederati to fight them; as the Romanized Britons had become dependent on the Roman soldiers and were mostly unable to respond effectively with their own militias. The British tyrant ‘Vortigern’ recruited two leaders from Jutland (mainland Denmark) named Hengest and Horsa (both names meaning ‘horse’) and their warbands to defend the Britons against these invaders, in exchange for land in the South-East of Britain. Despite their success, the Romano-British nobles feared these heathen warriors and wanted them out of Britain. Vortigern tried to convince them to leave, but since he had given them his word that they could stay (and also married Hengest’s daughter and thus, to them they were family) they saw this as oathbreaking and reacted by making war on the Britons. They successfully conquered the South-East, and soon many other Germanic tribes from Angeln ( in Schleswig) and Saxony settled on the East coast. These tribes became what are today known as the Anglo-Saxons.

Throughout the 5th and 6th Centuries, the Anglo-Saxons had little to do with Scotland. An ambitious warlord named ‘Ida’ is said to have taken control of Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast and founded the kingdom of Bernicia. Though this region lay close to Scotland’s modern border, during this time they were more concerned with fighting the Britons (and each other) to the South. This was to change at the dawn of the 7th Century with the rise of a ruthless Bernician king named ‘Aethelfrith’. Intent on expanding the borders of Bernicia, he campaigned against his neighbours to the South and extended his hegemony into Scotland. He came to blows with another powerful warlord in Scotland at the time, Aidan MacGabran, King of Dal Riada (the Gaelic part of Scotland). They met at a place called ‘Degsastan’ somewhere in the Scottish Borders, and a battle ensued in which Aethelfrith would emerge the victor; which set the course for Anglo-Saxon domination in Scotland over the next century, having gained a foothold in the Borders region.

After Aethelfrith’s death, his kingdom was taken by his enemy, Edwin of Deira (Yorkshire), whose own kingdom fell apart upon his death. Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, then became king of Bernicia and went on the unite the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira to form what became known as ‘Northumbria’. Irish annals record a ‘siege of Etain (Edinburgh)’ in 638 during Oswald’s reign, which, while not mentioning who was involved, suggests that he managed to conquer the British kingdom of Gododdin (Lothian); which brought the realm of Northumbria to the borders of the Picts. After his death, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Oswy, who then became the most powerful king of Northumbria. He campaigned as far West as Galloway and as far North as Angus, and all of the most powerful kingdoms in Scotland and England paid tribute to him. After his death, his son, Egfrith, managed to reinforce his kingdom’s authority by defeating the Picts at the Battle of Two Rivers near Perth in 671. However, another Pictish rebellion 14 years later convinced Egfrith to launch an ill-advised mounted campaign once again into Southern Pictland, only to be defeated and killed at the Battle of Nechtansmere, probably at Dunnichen in Angus.

The Picts had shaken off the yoke of Northumbrian servitude once and for all, never again would the Anglo-Saxons march North of the Forth until the reign of Aethelstan of Wessex in the 10th Century, and so their territory was restricted to the South-East. The Picts then became the dominant power in Scotland during the 8th Century, gaining submission from the Gaels of Dal Riada and the Britons of Strathclyde. This was not to last, however, as all of the peoples of Britain would feel the fury of the Norsemen at the end of the 8th Century. The Norsemen were the last wave of Germanic heathen folk to invade Britain, as they began their raids first on Lindisfarne in 793, then on the Northern and Western Isles in 794. In subsequent years they settled on Shetland and Orkney as bases from which to launch further raids rather than sailing all the way from Norway. By the middle of the 9th Century, they had also colonized the Hebrides, mingling with the local Gaels (for some reason, no trace of Pictish culture survives from the Isles after this period, possibly because the local Picts were outnumbered by Norse settlers, which was not the case on the Gaelic Inner Hebrides).

It was during this time that the Jarl of Orkney, Sigurth the Mighty, launched campaigns onto the Scottish mainland, conquering Caithness and Sutherland (which was ‘southern land’ from an Orcadian perspective). His forays into Ross and Moray brought him to blows with the reigning Pictish king and his kinsmen, who were wiped out by Sigurth’s armies (though it was the Picts who had the last laugh, as the captured head of the Pictish king’s teeth rubbed against Sigurth’s leg, which became an infected wound and he died). This threw the Pictish kingdoms into civil war, shattering their collective power in Scotland. From the struggle for power emerged Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dal Riada (which was previously under Pictish control), who defeated his rivals in battle and became King of the Picts. Though still dependent on the support of the Pictish nobles, this marked the beginning of Gaelic supremacy in Scotland.

Norse settlement continued throughout this period, as Norse-Gaels from Ireland, led by Olaf the White, sacked the Strathclyde Briton’s stronghold of Dumbarton, forcing the Britons to relocate their centre of power to Govan further inland. These ‘foreign Gaels’ subsequently settled in Galloway. From this point on, however, favour began to swing in favour of the Scottish Gaels who, by the 10th Century, had annexed Lothian form Northumbria. By this time, their kingdom was centred at Scone and was known as ‘Alba’ in Gaelic and ‘Scotland’ in English and they shared power with the kings of Moray (also Gaelic), though this sometimes led to fighting between the two. It was at this point that the Picts ceased to form a distinct entity and disappeared from history following ‘Gaelicization’. The new unified kingdom then became threatened by the Saxon king Aethelstan, who gained submission from Constantine II following an invasion of Scotland. An attempt to regain power by the Scots, Strathclyde Britons and the Norse-Gaels of Dublin met with defeat at the Battle of Brunanburh in 934. However, Aethelstan’s power had still been sufficiently weakened by the long campaign, and the young kingdom of Scotland was able to survive.

In the 11th Century, Gaelic dominance in Scotland reached its peak, as Strathclyde and the Borders region were annexed during the reign of Malcolm Canmore. However, his reign also signalled the beginning of the decline for Gaelic culture, as Malcolm’s second wife was of the House of Wessex (whose family had fled to Scotland following the Norman invasion) and it was likely under her influence that English became the language of the Scottish court. Though the Scottish nobles tried to reverse this process by supporting Malcolm’s brother, Donald, and his claim to the throne after Malcolm’s death, it was too late. Malcolm’s sons had fled to England and were supported by the Norman king, Henry II. Despite the regime change imposed on England by William the Bastard in 1066, the hybrid Anglo-Norman culture was simply imported to Scotland by Malcolm’s sons after they returned to Scotland and overthrew their uncle with English support, particularly David I.

It was he who founded the burghs of Scotland and imposed ecclesiastical reform that brought the Church of Scotland in line with the rest of Catholic Europe. He stripped the kingdoms of Moray and Galloway of their remaining autonomy and invited Norman and Flemish knights from England and gave them the land and titles that he had taken from the displaced nobles. It was also during his reign that Edinburgh became the capital. David’s successor, William, spent much of his reign launching failed campaigns into Northumberland in an attempt to annex the region. It was not to be though, and so under his successor, Alexander II, Scotland’s border became fixed to what it is today (with the exception of Berwick, which would change hands over the centuries). Alexander was focused on a more realistic acquisition, the Hebrides.

While the Hebrides had formed their own kingdom with the Isle of Man, they had recently come under Norwegian domination, as the Northern Isles had been for two centuries. Alexander died on his way to the Hebrides to begin his campaign, but the fight was taken up by this son, Alexander III, who managed to drive away the army of the Norwegian king, Haakon the Old, at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Haakon retreated to Orkney and died there and his son, Magnus VI, had no interest in reasserting his father’s claim; and so he ceded the Hebrides to Scotland and acknowledged Scottish authority over Caithness, which had also been disputed. From this point, Gaelic culture became dominant in the Hebrides, while the Northern Isles still belonged to Norway (for now). As Norse culture in Scotland went into retreat, Germanic culture still found room for expansion in the Lowlands, as the dichotomy between the Gaelic Highlands and Germanic Lowlands would become a feature of later centuries.

The Celtic and Germanic peoples had a lot in common, they all worshipped Wotan as the chief god in heathen times (though they obviously had different names for him) and they also practised a mixed economy of pastoralism and agriculture supplemented by some hunting traditions. There were, however, noticeable differences; not just linguistic, but also cultural. In general, the Teutons tended to focus on the solar solstices and equinoxes as the most important times of the year, while their Celtic counterparts placed more emphasis on lunar festivals, though these were all present in both cultures. This displayed a heavier emphasis on agriculture by the Norse and Anglo-Saxons and pastoralism by the Picts, Gaels and Britons. To the Celts, cattle were considered the most sacred animals, while the Teutons held more reverence for the boar (cattle-raiding was not a feature of Germanic culture). There were also differences in political structures; while the Celtic peoples retained a more decentralized tribal structure, the Anglo-Saxons had been influenced by the military hierarchy of the Romans, and so the loyalty of the warband to their leader was more important than loyalty to their tribe. Though Anglo-Saxon kings were much more answerable to their folk than the later Norman kings (who saw the folk as mere ‘subjects’), this meant that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were more centralized and homogeneous, unlike the complex system of high kings and sub-kings present in Scotland and Ireland.

There were also differences in their styles of warfare; Germanic warriors preferred to meet their foe on the open battlefield most of the time, in contrast to the heavy reliance on skirmishes and ambushing by the Celtic peoples. The main formation of Germanic armies was the shieldwall, which placed more emphasis on teamwork than the Celtic preference to fight for individual glory (although there is evidence that the Picts adopted the shieldwall and used it against the Northumbrians at the Battle of Nechtansmere). Germanic swords, shields and spearheads also tended to be larger than those used by Celtic warriors and they seem to have utilized more armour in the form of mail shirts and iron helmets, which could be very richly decorated. The Teutons also had light cavalry, but they were primarily infantrymen; and so the Norse became famous for their skills with the axe and, because of the increasing reliance on armour from the 10th Century onwards, chose to forego the shield and used much larger axes wielded with two hands (a style which was adopted not only by the Anglo-Saxons, but also by the Irish and Hebrideans). Yet the warrior culture of all these diverse peoples was the same, they all celebrated their victories in the mead hall and treasured honour and loyalty as the highest virtues. They are sister-cultures which compliment each other well, and it is a shame that they are sometimes seen as antithetical to one another.

To be continued…

Wulf Willelmson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s