Who Were the Picts?

As one of the peoples that contributed to the genetic and cultural lineage of Scotland, the identity of this enigmatic folk has been a mystery that has been debated for decades. Details about their language have proved elusive, and they have been associated with various cultural practices that put them at odds with their neighbours. No written texts in the Pictish language have survived, and so we are forced to rely on the commentaries of those other peoples that have ventured to our island; particularly the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited the lands to the South of Pictish territory, and the Romans, both of whom tried to subdue the Picts through conquest and ultimately failed.

In fact, the domination of the Pictish folk was only ever achieved by the Gaelic Scots, who instead relied on marrying Pictish noblewomen and inserting themselves into the Pictish aristocracy gradually. This allowed their language to proliferate to such an extent that the Scottish landscape is covered with Gaelic place-names, to such a degree that it gives some of us the impression that Gaelic culture is the ‘native tradition’ of Scotland. To consider the importance of Gaelic tradition as part of our heritage is worth acknowledging, however, it really is no more ‘native’ to Scotland than the Teutonic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen and Flemings. These cultures were all preceded by one which had been established much earlier and survived in modified form in the land North of the Forth, which retained distinct archaeological and linguistic characteristics throughout the Iron Age and the Dark Ages.

The most informative historian about the Picts was the Northumbrian monk known as Bede, who lived during the 8th Century AD. In his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, he gives us helpful ethnology concerning his nation’s neighbours, including the Picts. The origin story that he provides for the Picts (which he could have obtained from either a Gaelic or Pictish source), says that the Picts came from Scythia (that is, the Russian Steppe) and arrived in Ireland. They asked to settle in their land, to which the Irish replied that they could not, but instead gave them wives and told them that they could settle on another island to the East, which would be Britain.

While this story may seem far fetched, it can actually be explained by what we know about the earlier Aryan migrations that gave birth to the Copper and Bronze Ages. The archaeological culture ascribed to the ‘Beaker People’ is connected to the male genetic haplogroup R1b, which originated in the Russian Steppe with the Aryans. Their discovery of metallurgy allowed them to expand to the East and West, introducing the Indo-European languages to Europe, as well as Central and South Asia. However, it is very likely that this did not just consist of folk migration, where a whole tribe would move as one, but also expeditions by explorers who were able to spread scientific and spiritual knowledge to the other peoples that they encountered.

The oldest name for Britain is ‘Albion’, which may have originated in the Stone Age. However, the people that were said to inhabit Britain by the time of the Iron Age were known as ‘Pretani’, which is attested by the Greek geographer, Pytheas, who called the British Isles the ‘Pretanic Isles’. This indicates that both Britain and Ireland were inhabited by the same peoples, and that they have long been considered united in this respect. In Welsh, the Picts were once known as Brithwyr and their land as Prydyn, acknowledging that the Picts, rather than the Celtic Britons, were the earlier inhabitants, as the Celtic Britons referred to themselves as Cymry.

These ‘Pretani’, were the descendants of Aryan men who had intermarried with the women of Neolithic Britain, who were themselves a mixture of European hunter-gatherers and farmers from the Middle East. However, one of the customs which has set the Picts apart from other Aryan folk is the practice of matrilineality, whereby descent would be traced through the female line. This would have meant that their children would grow up speaking their mother’s language, as the preservation of the family lineage would depend on the woman. This ensured that, despite the proliferation of Aryan genetics across Western Europe, the languages spoken in this part of the World descended from the previous, Stone Age inhabitants and would have been spoken throughout the Bronze Age.

Archaeological evidence of the ‘Atlantic Bronze Age’ culture can be found from Scotland to Spain and the language family that was spoken in this part of the world most likely survives as the Basque language of the Western Pyrenees mountains, straddling the border between France and Spain. The Basques have also historically practised matrilineality until the 20th Century, which has allowed the language to survive as an isolated pre-Indo-European speech for thousands of years. If the Pictish language was related to Basque, it would be part of the hypothetical ‘Vasconic’ language family.

Another example of a cultural practice that is not known among most Aryan folk is the art of tattooing, which was unknown among the Gauls or Teutons, but was also practised by the Scythians. The practice was described among the Picts by the Roman historian Herodian and the Visigoth historian Isodore of Seville, the former mentions depictions of animals while the latter refers to the use of a pin to paint the tattoo (the Latin name ‘Picti‘ means ‘painted ones’ and refers to this practice). Though possibly another contribution from the Aryans, it is more likely to have been something adopted by the Scythians from the neighbouring Turks, as this has not been a widespread practice in Europe historically until recent times, with the exception of the Picts and the Britons (as well as Northumbrian warriors who were chastised by the Church for imitating such practices). Though tattooing was also practised by the Celtic Britons (likely adopting a local custom), this practice is not recorded among them after the Romans, and so it presumably died out under Roman rule.

The Celts arrived in Britain during the Iron Age as traders and craftsmen, much like the original Aryans, and they were also responsible for introducing ironsmithing to our island. The Celts were also patriarchal, as opposed to the matriarchal Picts, and so they were able to conquer Western Europe both culturally and linguistically. By colonizing rather than conquering, they were able to establish a permanent hold in Britain, where they survive today as the Welsh. This was probably a different scenario on the Continent, as the overland expansion would have facilitated conquest though force of arms. This meant that the Celtic colonization in Britain was less extensive than on the Continent, and so there was more of a cultural blending than domination, reflected in the continued practice of tattooing in Britain.

However, despite the fact that most of the Pritani adopted Celtic language and culture, those living North of the Forth resisted, and continued to practice matrilineality. However, they most likely adopted a patriarchal system of governance in order to compete with the Celtic Britons, as a Brittonic chieftain would simply have to marry a Pictish matriarch in order to bring a tribe under his dominion. Maintaining matrilineality meant that the Brittonic language could only infiltrate Pictish culture through intermarriage with Brittonic women, which eventually occurred and gradually introduced Celtic vocabulary into the Pictish language.

They also practised similar styles of warfare, with the exception that, while the Celtic Britons were willing to compromise and capitulate, the Picts would never do so for any length of time. It is for this reason that the Romans were never able to conquer the Picts, as they would inevitably suffer betrayal of treaties and constant aggression form the Picts, which was the result of three unsuccessful attempts in the 1st 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. While the Celtic Britons were eventually conquered by the Romans, the Romans found that attempting to hold the part of Britain known as Alban (the land North of the Forth which retained the pre-Indo-European name for the island) was an impossible task, and were forced to retreat behind the River Tyne, and eventually Hadrian’s Wall was built to solidify the border.

This may have been because, even if they held Southern Scotland (which was inhabited by Celtic Britons), they would be constantly attacked by the Picts. The Roman emperor, Antoninus, attempted to push the border beyond the Britons and even built a wall on the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but was forced to pull back after only twenty years due to persistent harassment by the Picts. The Picts were experts in skirmishing and would wear down the large and slow-moving Roman army through ambushes and hit-and-run tactics, luring individual soldiers away with livestock, killing them and then retreating into the forest. These strategies were only possible because the Picts made use of the once extensive Caledonian Forest, which stretched across the Highlands and gave them a place to hide and stage ambushes.

The Picts seem to have engaged in a more primitive form of warfare than their neighbours. No evidence of iron weapons has been found in Pictish territory, though they would have probably had some. The Roman historian, Dio, claimed that they had daggers and spears, which had bronze “apples” (orbs) at the butt that were used to make a rattling sound, for which there is archaeological evidence and is also shown on the Pictish Collessie Stone in Fife. According to Herodian, as iron is not plentiful in Scotland, the Caledonians (as the Picts were known until the 4th Century, a reference to the most powerful tribe, the Caledonii of Perthshire) wore iron as jewellery, and valued it as much as gold. Archaeological evidence, however, shows that they also wore bronze jewellery in the form of huge armlets, sometimes with a serpentine design. He also noted that they spurned armour, as they viewed this as a hindrance to their speed and agility.

collessie_stone_painting

Modern painting of image on the Collessie Stone, warrior with spear and shield

snake_bracelet

Bronze serpentine armlet

There is also a very interesting reference by the Roman historian, Tacitus, who wrote a biography of the Roman governor of Britain, Agricola, and his campaigns in Scotland. When describing their battle tactics, he not only says that they hurled masses of javelins and also had chariots, but that their ‘swords’ were huge and lacked a thrusting point. This does not sound much like a sword at all, but would probably have been more like the Aztec weapon known as a macuahutil. This is a long club that is edged with obsidian blades, capable of decapitation. Since obsidian can be found in Scotland and iron is comparatively rare, it is possible that this is the sort of weapon that the Picts used rather than a sword.

macuahutil

Modern reconstruction of an Aztec Macuahutil

During Agricola’s campaigns in Caledonia in the late 1st Century, his army had to endure constant evasion and refusal to meet on the battlefield from the Picts. Eventually, the Picts confronted the Romans at the Battle of Mons Graupius (possibly Moncrieffe Hill near Perth) and under the leadership of ‘Calgacus’ (‘the swordsman’ in Brittonic) they amassed their combined strength of around 30,000 men. Unfortunately, their large numbers were not enough to defeat the disciplined and tightly-formed Roman army. Tacitus notes that, though they had a massive army, after the initial skirmish their large ‘swords’ and small shields proved awkward during close combat, and so the Picts were not able to hold the line. The Romans gained the victory, and the Caledonians burned their own villages and fled to the Highlands, subsequently surrendering to Agricola. However, Agricola was called back by the Roman emperor, Domitian; as the Picts proved too much of a nuisance and there were more serious threats to the empire, such as the Dacians of Romania, though Tacitus attributes the decision to jealousy of Agricola’s achievements.

While so fiercely proud of their heritage that they would not relent in repelling an attacker, the Picts never sought to expand their territory, which meant that their tribes would continue to remain independent throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. In 367, the Picts conspired with the Britons in the South of Scotland, the Saxons in Germany and the Scots in Ireland to launch a multi-pronged attack on Roman Britain in an event known as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’, whereby each group attacked from the North, East and West. This event signalled the death-knell for the Roman rule in Britain, and they had abandoned the province by 410 due to constant raids from these peoples draining military resources which were needed more to defend Gaul and Italy from Teutonic invaders.

However, after the departure of the Romans, the Picts continued to raid the lands to the South, presumably because tribal warfare between the Picts and the Romano-Britons had flared up after the Romans left. By this time, the Picts had become proficient pirates, as they found that this was a more effective way to attack the Romans without the threat of fighting in a pitched battle, which they would certainly lose. It is quite possible that the Picts had simply become accustomed to raiding this way, and so the Romano-Britons recruited Anglo-Saxon warriors to defend what is now the East Coast of England.

Though this tactic proved effective in preventing Pictish piracy, the Romano-Britons eventually found themselves at war with the Anglo-Saxons, who then proceeded to conquer what is now England and the South-East of Scotland. In addition to this, two other groups settled on the West Coast of Scotland, the Picts of Galloway and the Scots of Dal Riada (Argyll). While we have been mainly concerned with the Picts in Scotland, it is worth noting that they also inhabited Ireland, and were gradually pushed North-East by Gaels from the South, who were a Celtic tribe originating in Northern Spain. The Gaels arrived in Ireland during the 2nd Century AD and began to dominate the Picts (who were known to the Gaels as Cruthin) and other Celtic tribes who had settled in Ireland. By the 4th Century AD, the powerful Gaelic O’Neill clan was pushing East into what is now Ulster, which in turn pushed some Cruthin into Galloway.

They were the folk that became known to the Welsh as Goidel Ffichti (‘Irish Picts’). Due to intermarriage with Gaelic women, these Picts spoke Gaelic and introduced the language to the South-West of Scotland. The Scots of Dal Riada were known by this name because they too spoke Gaelic (the Scoti were one of the first Gaelic tribes to arrive in Ireland from Spain and gave their name to the Gaelic language, known as Scottis during the Middle Ages), though they were not Picts, but rather one of the Celto-Germanic tribes that had migrated to Ireland from Belgium (known as the Belgae in Latin and Fir Bolg in Gaelic) and had been influenced by the Gaels linguistically through intermarriage. Bede claims that the Scots colonized what is now Argyll through “a combination of treaty and force”. The Scots became the Picts’ new neighbours and introduced the Gaelic tongue to the Highlands.

One other feature which distinguished the Picts from the peoples surrounding them are their elaborate symbol stones, which can be found all over the areas that the Picts inhabited. Examples of carvings are depictions of animals including salmon, geese, bulls, wolves, bears and horses, as well as the mythological kelpie, or water-horse of Scottish mythology. They also had unique symbols that were specific to the Picts and are difficult to interpret. In addition, they also showed images of people, either hunting, fighting on the battlefield or simply alone as on the Collessie Stone. One such stone found at Aberlemno, Angus, dates from the 8th Century and depicts the Pictish army engaged in battle with the Strathclyde Britons.

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Section of the battle scene from the Aberlemno Stone

By this time, the Picts had adopted the more conventional battle tactics of their neighbours, and they are shown using spears, swords and even pikes against the Brittonic cavalry. Noteworthy is the depiction of the Britons wearing helmets and mail coats, which are notably absent from the Pictish army, suggesting that they continued to reject the use of armour well into the Dark Ages. Later stones take on a different form, and become Christian cross slabs in the tradition of Celtic Christianity, depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Though their unique pagan religion became gradually replaced, the Picts still found ways to incorporate their own stone carving style into the high crosses, and continued to feature pictures of animals.

aberlemno_stone2

Older Pictish stone also at Aberlemno, depicting a snake, a mirror and a ‘z-rod’ symbol

It is after the Roman departure that the new religion of Christianity began to affect the Picts, and it was the Picts of Galloway who were first converted by Saint Ninian in the 5th Century AD, establishing a church at Whithorn in Galloway and later going on to convert the ‘Southern Picts’ (who were the group that lived south of the Mounth according to Bede) . However, a letter from Saint Patrick to the king of Strathclyde (which is where Saint Patrick was from) refers to the Southern Picts as ‘apostates’ suggesting that they had abandoned Christianity by the late 5th Century. The conversion of the Picts as a whole was a later process, and was also achieved through the efforts of the Celtic Church, which began with the establishment of a monastery at Iona by Saint Columba in the late 6th Century.

Though Columba himself managed to convert some Picts, the bulk of the conversion was done by his disciples, which allowed Gaelic culture to proliferate among the Picts through the establishment of monasteries. We know nothing about the pagan Pictish religion, and it is unclear to what extent it was influenced by Celtic culture and how much it retained an older form. Though the Picts were initially converted to the Celtic version of Christianity, they eventually switched to the Catholicism that was practised among the Anglo-Saxons in the 8th Century, which was more orthodox. By establishing their own bishoprics, the Picts were able to free themselves from the influence of Iona and assert their culture within the Church, though they then became more influenced by the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria conquered what is now Lothian in the 7th Century and the Picts had yet another new neighbour. However, unlike the Scots who were not interested in expanding into Pictish territory by force, the Northumbrian king, Oswy, attempted to subjugate the Picts, and succeeded in the only way that one could with the Picts; by having them as clients. Oswy was able to expand his hegemony through extracting tribute rather than through conquest, which would have been impossible with the Picts. Indeed, though Oswy’s son, Ecgfrith, defeated the Picts after they had refused to pay tribute, he would eventually be defeated by them. Initially, the Picts had been defeated by Ecgfrith at the Battle of Two Rivers, which would have been in a Lowland area of Pictish territory.

Under the leadership of King Bridei of Werturiu (the most powerful Late Pictish kingdom which consisted of Moray, Ross, Badenoch and Strathspey), the Picts lured Ecgfrith’s mounted warband into the Highlands, and crushed them at the Battle of Nechtansmere, which most likely took place near Dunachton in Badenoch. After this, the Picts became the dominant force in Scotland, and for the first time were able to assert themselves through shrugging off the influence of Iona and through making peace with the Northumbrians. During the 8th Century, the Picts began to extract tribute from their other neighbours, namely the Britons of Strathclyde and the Scots of Dal Riada. It was at the peak of their power that the Picts were to face their greatest threat, which lay the foundations for their final defeat.

From their mountainous and sea-swept homes in Noway, the Vikings began to raid the Northern and Western Isles at the beginning of the 9th Century, and subsequently settled there, establishing their culture, language and pagan religion. From there, they went on to invade the mainland, and the Pictish kingdom of Cait (Caithness and Sutherland) fell under the control of the Orcadian Norsemen. Eventually, they descended on Werturiu, and the Pictish royal family were slaughtered by them, bringing the carefully constructed Pictish high kingship into chaos and civil war. The linchpin that held the Pictish kingdoms together was the able rulership of the kings of Werturiu, and once they were defeated it fell apart.

Despite attempts by other Pictish kings to gain control, they were eventually subjugated by the king of Dal Riada, Kenneth MacAlpin, through treachery and murder of the other Pictish kings at Scone. He then began the domination of Gaelic culture among the Picts by establishing patrilineal descent and his successors went on to unite the Picts and Scots into one folk. While the Scottish kingdom retained the ancient name of ‘Alba’, it was no longer culturally Pretanic, and as such became absorbed into the wider Indo-European world after resisting for so long. The Pictish language had probably died out by the 11th Century, and so all that survives are place-names and the names of Pictish kings. Though many of these are Brittonic in form, this is due to the partial adoption of that language because of their close proximity to the Celtic Britons, as Bede makes it clear that they spoke different languages.

During the conquests of Edward I of England, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, he made every effort to undermine Scottish royal authority by destroying as many texts as he could pertaining to Scottish history. In addition to the sacking of abbeys during the Reformation, this has ensured that if any texts were ever written in Pictish, they do not survive and so we have no real idea of what their language looked like, what they called themselves or what their mythology would have been. Though the Picts of Galloway retained their cultural and political independence until the 12th Century, the cultural and religious reforms under David I meant that they too were finally absorbed into the Scottish kingdom, though they had long abandoned the Pictish tongue in favour of Gaelic.

It is for this reason that we have suffered a cultural disconnect with our ancestors, and so many of us who are interested in reviving their traditions have either the Gaelic or Teutonic paths to choose from. Yet the Picts still remain a feature of history that are unique to both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Though known under different names, they formed a continuum with the earlier, pre-Indo-European culture of the British Isles, one which was sadly broken over a thousand years ago. Even though we do not know what gods they worshipped or what their customs were, we can still look back on them as an example to be proud of our heritage and to never give up or give in to invaders. Despite this loss, we still inherit the same blood and inhabit the same soil.

Wulf Willelmson

An ethnohraphic history of Scotland, Part III: Highlander and Lowlander

Within the endless romanticism of Scotland’s past, the conflict between the Gaelic Highlanders, representing ancient traditions, pastoralism and a ‘noble savage’ mythos; and the Germanic Lowlanders, representing the ruthless expansion of modern ideals from the towns and cities of Scotland into her countryside, has been a recurring theme. While these notions are based on historical reality, the idea that the ways of the Highlanders (as portrayed by the modern tourist industry and false nationalists) represent authentic Scottish culture, while the Lowlanders embody an invasive imitation of English culture (or, at the very least, is largely ignored in romanticism) is as absurd as it is false. Much of the animosity surrounding the Jacobite Wars and the later Highland Clearances has more to do with the increasing domination of British state authority on all the peoples of our island than on the desire for Germanic Lowland culture to become dominant (though, realistically, this has become the case). They both represent two sides of our overall culture that are suited to folk in different parts of the country.

At the dawn of the 12th Century, this division did not exist; at this time, Brittonic culture had been extinguished in Scotland with the annexing of Strathclyde and Gaelic was the predominant language spoken in Scotland (with the exceptions of the Borders and the Northern Isles). This began to change with the reforms of David I, whose establishment of the burghs and invitations to entrepreneurs (mainly from Flanders) to settle them marked the beginning of what would become Lowland culture. This process had already begun beforehand, as English refugees fleeing the Norman invasion settled mostly in Southern Scotland and had influenced the local culture since the 11th Century. While throughout the Wars of Independence from England, the Middle English (French influenced) tongue was restricted mainly to the South-East and the areas surrounding the burghs, there was a definite preference for this language among the Scottish nobles (as well as, of course, French).

It is at this point that I wish to clear up a misconception about one of our national heroes from the Wars of Independence: William Wallace. Though sometimes portrayed as a son of the Highlands, he was from Strathclyde, a place geographically part of the Lowlands. As a member of the nobility, he was taught how to read French and Latin, but probably conversed in English on a day-to-day basis. His comrade, Andrew Moray, was also a nobleman (of a higher rank than Wallace) and would have also been immersed in the culture of the burghs. Yet many of the common soldiers and clansmen that fought for Scotland’s freedom were Gaels, as they all fought against the tyranny of Edward the Hammer of Scots, despite their linguistic differences. Though Robert the Bruce was of a French-speaking Norman family, as King of Scots he would also needed to have been able to read Latin, and probably also knew at least some Gaelic (which would have been handy during his campaigns in Ireland). This began to change, however, in the Late Middle Ages. As the Norman influence began to wane among the nobility, both the nobles and the common folk in the South-East, the Central Belt and the North-East coast adopted English almost exclusively. Conversely, the inhabitants of the rest of the kingdom would have spoken Gaelic on a daily basis.

This linguistic separation continued right through the 15th Century, as the Scottish form of English diverged from that spoken in England. This language came to be known as ‘Scots’ (known to Scots speakers as ‘Lallans’) and its distinct literature became a feature of Scottish culture during the reign of the Stewart dynasty in the 15th and 16th Centuries. In this period, Scots and English became mutually unintelligible; as English underwent significant changes, Scots retained more features of Middle English and displayed considerably more influence from Norse and Latin. Scots wasn’t the only new language to have emerged in Scotland during the Middle Ages. The variety of Norse spoken in the Northern Isles was known as ‘Norn’ and was distinct from Norwegian. However, with the granting of sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland to Scotland by the King of Scandinavia, Eric of Pomerania (who, apparently, needed the money), Norn came to be replaced by Scots, though it was not extinct until the 19th Century.

Gradually, throughout the Early Modern Period, Lowland culture expanded in Southern and Eastern Scotland and Scots became the language of the folk in the hills and on the plans, while Gaelic was retained by those in the mountainous regions (with the exception of Galloway), creating the Highland/Lowland dichotomy we know today. While at the beginning of the Stewart’s reign, the whole of Scotland was Catholic, this was to change in the 16th Century during the reign of the first (and, arguably, last) Scottish queen: Mary Queen of Scots. Though she herself was a Catholic raised in France, many folk in Scotland became disillusioned with the corruption and dominance of the Catholic Church and sought to emulate those in England and elsewhere in Europe who had challenged its power and established Protestant churches. Protestantism appealed more to the Lowlanders, whose lives in the burghs and more densely populated communities felt the need for change, as many could not reconcile the poverty among their folk with the power of the fabulously wealthy Catholic Church. The Highlanders, on the other hand, saw less need for reform as their own pastoral traditions had continued from heathen times and the issues surrounding wealth distribution had less impact on their largely tribal way of life.

The Protestant Reformation in Scotland was spearheaded by a fiery preacher named John Knox, who preached a deterministic Protestant doctrine known as ‘Calvinism’, which maintained that only those chosen by God can attain ‘Salvation’ and that God is the supreme authority. Calvinism also made allowances for usury, which facilitated the beginning of banking and capitalism in Scotland, and so was favoured by the merchant class. Eventually, he and his followers persuaded many Lowlanders with his teachings and an orgy of destruction of all that was ‘popish’ ensued, resulting in a loss of literature and damage of architecture not seen since Edward’s invasion. The Church of Scotland was reformed with English support, and the new doctrine was known as ‘Presbyterianism’, which came to distinguish the Lowlanders from the still largely Catholic Highlanders, whom this cultural revolution did not affect. Now a sectarian divide reinforced the linguistic and cultural differences between the Highlanders and Lowlanders, and relations between the two deteriorated over time.

With the ascendancy of James VI of Scotland (who was our first Protestant king) to the English throne to form the United Kingdom, the 17th Century marked the beginning of the end of Gaelic Highland culture. By now, the Lowlanders referred to the Highlanders as ‘Erse’ (‘Irish’), while the Highlanders used the term ‘Sassenach’ (‘Saxon’) to describe the Lowlanders. This reflected the mutual animosity between the two and their desire to cast the other as foreign and not ‘true Scots’. This situation wasn’t helped by the fact that James VI settled Presbyterian Lowlanders in Northern Ireland to ‘de-Gaelify’ Ulster, introducing Lowland culture there and setting the stage for future sectarian troubles.With the outbreak of the civil war in Britain and Ireland in 1642, most Highlanders rallied behind the king, while many Lowlanders considered themselves ‘Covenanters’ and resented Charles I’s attempts to impose Anglican liturgy on their Presbyterian services. Despite the fact that Cromwell’s victorious regime was overthrown and Charles II restored as king, this was not the end of the struggle.

His successor, James VII, was an open Catholic, which proved to be enough reason for the English parliament to force him to abdicate in favour of the bankers’ choice, William of Orange from Holland (who was married to James’ sister, Mary II). The ensuing struggle came to be known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 by Protestants and continues to represent the bitter hatred between Catholics and Protestants over the next few centuries. The men that supported James VII came to be known as ‘Jacobites’ (after the Latin ‘Jacobus’ for ‘James’) and became synonymous with the Highlanders, despite the fact that this was a political rather than cultural affiliation. The Jacobites were successful at first, routing their enemies at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. However, their subsequent defeats at the Haughs of Cromdale in Scotland and the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland (both in 1690) saw the end of the revolution and victory for William.

The following uprisings occurred several times in the early 18th Century in response to a new monarchy beginning with George I of Hanover. The ‘Hanoverians’ represented the dominance of a degenerated Germanic culture characterized by capitalism and secularism, which was encroaching on peoples all over Northern Europe and other parts of the world. The most notable Jacobite uprising was that of the ‘Young Pretender’, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1745, as this time they were more successful and briefly managed to gain control of Scotland. Unfortunately, the Jacobite army was unsuccessful in taking England and they were driven back to the Highlands, where they were defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France, and the retribution against the Highlanders was that their clan system was dismantled and their way of life degraded.

Many clan chieftains were replaced and the system of landownership was reorganized so as to make the chieftain the landowner rather than the clan using the land communally. This eventually resulted in what became known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, a painful memory for our folk as much of Highland culture was destroyed following the displacement of folk from their ancestral lands that were now tenants rather than clansmen in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. This happened because the traditional practice of cattle droving was unprofitable and the lairds struggled to receive enough rent from their tenants. An available alternative was to invest in the wool industry by replacing cattle droving with sheep farming. However, because sheep farmers were of a different occupation than the cattle drovers, they had to be imported from other parts of Scotland, so many of the previous tenants were evicted and had to move either to other parts of Scotland, or to British colonies like Canada or New Zealand. A similar process also occurred in the Lowlands, however, this mainly had to do with land reorganization, so most of the affected simply moved into the cities or other parts of the Lowlands, and so many Lowland communities remained intact. Highland society, on the other hand, was drastically altered (along with the Highland environment, which has been largely made barren by extensive sheep farming) and English replaced Gaelic all over the Highlands with the introduction of standardized education. Again, the same thing happened in the Lowlands, but with less vigour and likely with less ethnic hostility involved.

What was it that made the Highland and Lowland cultures seem to incompatible over the last few centuries? The answer has to do with long-standing cultural differences between the Celtic and Germanic peoples in addition to the division and strife that has characterized the most recent phase of Kali Yuga. In my last post, I described some of the differences between Celtic and Germanic culture, and these differences still applied in this period. Cattle-raiding was not a feature of Germanic culture, a fact which became bothersome to Lowland cattle-farmers who saw the Highlanders cattle-rustling as mere thievery, rather than a time-honoured tradition of proving their manhood and leadership capabilities to their folk. There were also noticeable differences in fashion; for example, trousers were ubiquitous to all of the Germanic peoples and remain a feature of their culture even in modern times.

In contrast, the Celtic peoples (beginning in the Dark Ages) saw trousers as the mark of a peasant and so most Highlanders went bare-legged in accordance with this custom. It is from their cloak and knee-length tunic combination without trousers that the modern kilt derives. The weaving of ‘tartan’ was not exclusive to the Highlands, but it was certainly the norm there, in contrast to the Lowlands where clothes were more likely to be of one colour. Unlike in modern times, a particular tartan was the mark of a local weaver rather than a particular clan and did not have this significance as it does today. Highland culture was also exclusively rural and pastoral, while Lowlanders could be found in urban or rural places. This led to the perception of the Gaelic Highlanders as ‘country bumpkins’, whole uncivilized lifestyles conflicted with those of folk in Lowland Scotland and England.

The organization of each society also differed; whereas Highland society retained the tribal bond between kinsmen as the basic structure of a clan, the Lowlands were centred on the burghs, which acted as redistribution centres for the surrounding countryside and worked on a financial rather than familial model. However, despite these differences, one area where they shared many similarities (especially towards the end of this era) was warfare. Despite the fact that most of the king’s army was drawn up from Lowland knights and commoners, while the Gaelic clansmen were used more like mercenaries, their weapons and tactics in battle were very similar. Both consisted of elite, armoured skirmisher cavalry supported by lightly or unarmoured infantry (though the Highlanders were less likely to be armoured) consisting of spearmen and archers. During the Wars of Independence, the ‘schiltron’ came into use, a tactic where pikemen were arranged in an oval formation similar to a phalanx. This tactic was used unsuccessfully as a defensive formation by William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, only to be successfully utilized by Robert the Bruce to push the offensive at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

From this point on, Medieval European warfare came to be dominated by infantry, as innovation in creating new types of pole-arms resulted in a wider range of weapons that could be used against cavalry (including glaives, bill-hooks and war axes) in addition to pikes. In the Late Middle Ages, this necessitated the use of larger swords that could only be wielded with two hands, which paved the way for the creation of the weapon that signifies the Highland warrior: the claymore. ‘Claidheamh-Mor’ means ‘great sword’ and, despite its unique association with the Highlands, ‘great swords’ could be found all over Europe, even the Lowlanders had their own design. However, the style of the claymore was exclusive to the Highlanders, who were famed for their skills with the sword, which has come to represent strength and masculinity.

As firearms came to dominate the battlefield, armour became gradually obsolete, as it was more useful to be mobile than heavily protected in an age of long-range combat. The Highlanders never seriously lagged behind their Lowland counterparts and in the Early Modern Period, they used a combination of targe (shield with straps) and broadsword with pistol and musket. The fearsome ‘Highland charge’ gave the Jacobites many of their victories, but could be outmanoeuvred by cavalry. It was this factor that led to the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden rather than inferior military tactics or equipment. New research suggests that the Jacobites were as well trained as the British army, but that their lack of cavalry proved decisive in their defeat. The differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders were never so wide as so clearly show one society as superior to the other, and the perspective of Gaelic inferiority was simply used as propaganda by the British establishment to justify the suppression of the Jacobites and Highland culture.

Today, Scotland is somewhat more uniform in her culture; mass media and standardized education has made us more similar to the English and, more recently, to the Americans. The English tongue reigns supreme, as Scottish Gaelic is only spoken by a small minority of the population (mostly in the Western Isles), while Scots is still spoken interchangeably with Scottish English mostly in the North-East and Shetland. Yet, in addition to this, there are also immigrants from England and Ireland as well as other parts of Europe and the world. The large influx of Polish folk in particular is beginning to add a Slavic element to our culture. As the dichotomy between the Highlands and Lowlands now exists largely within geography rather than society, this current cultural climate will also change. What will the future of Scottish culture be? Hopefully it will incorporate our historical Celtic and Germanic traditions and help to reconnect our folk to their heritage in addition to borrowing customs from other Aryan brothers and sisters living on our land.

Wulf Willelmson

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

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