Before the times of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, Scotland had a chequered history. Many prehistoric sites and relics have been found, and the Romans occupied part of the country during their stay in Britain. The early kingdoms of Dalriada, Gododdin, the Picts, and the British, were eventually consolidated to become the kingdom of Scotland. The Vikings also influenced the development of the country. This node will look at some of the early periods and tribes in Scottish history, and the influence they had in forming the Scotland of today.

Early geography

It should be remembered that the geography of Scotland in the times when people first occupied the country was quite different from that which we know today. Much of the land was boggy, marshy, carse, which could be walked over, but not ridden on. Roads and bridges were scarce, and almost non-existant in the north. Scotland itself did not take shape until 1018, when the country was unified under Malcolm II. Early maps pictured the country with Sutherland bent over to the east, since it was thought that any further north would be too cold to live in.

One of the key towns in Scotland throughout this period was Stirling, which was located in a key position near where the River Forth and River Clyde almost met, with only marshland between. It was often said that "He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland." North of Stirling was Scotia, the Scottish heartland. Stirling was a key trading post, as ships could sail up the Forth with goods bound for further north.

Scottish prehistory

When we look at the first major period of Scottish history, we find there are many signs of Scotland's prehistoric past: there are standing stones at Callenish on the Isle of Lewis and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands. Also on Orkney is the well-preserved neolithic village at Skara Brae. Iron age circular double-walled forts known as "brochs" can also be found. A 'dun' is another name for a prehistoric fort, and this name can be seen as a prefix in many Scottish placenames; for example, Dumbarton, Dunvegan, and Dundonald.

Roman occupation

Recorded history in Scotland began when Roman armies occupied lands, primarily in the south and north-east of the country, although signs of occupation have also been found as far west as Irvine and as far north as Elgin. Their main religion at first was that of the god Mythras, although some would be converted to Christianity towards the end of the period of Roman occupation.

There were no major Roman cities in Scotland, but they did at least name some of the major tribes - the Caledonii and Votadini, for example, and the Brigantes in north-east England. These tribes were Celtic peoples, often using animal symbols in their artwork. It should be remembered that while certain tribes may be associated primarily with certain regions, tribes throughout Europe were very fluid, with constant battles and struggles for control of regions held by other tribes. The Picts became known for the number of carvings by them which have been found, and there has been speculation that they may have used pictograms to write.

As the Romans withdrew, the remaing Romano-British were left defenceless, and employed Saxons, Angles and Jutes as mercenaries. Their influence can be seen in English names like East Anglia, and Saxon names like Wessex, Essex, and Sussex. The original Britons were gradually pushed out into the Celtic fringe of Wales, Strathclyde, and Cornwall.

Historical records show that by the sixth century, Scotland was divided into four main kingdoms: Dalriada, Pictavia or Pictland, Strathclyde, and Gododdin (Lothian). Gododdin was the name given to Edinburgh and its kingdom.


The first of the four kingdoms was Strathclyde. The inhabitants of these early Celtic kingdoms, spoke Brythonic, an early form of the Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages. This can be seen in Scottish placenames like Troon - "tron" means "nose" in Welsh. The name Strathclyde comes from the Welsh "Y Strad Clud", the Clyde Valley.

The kingdom of Strathclyde had its main fortress at Dumbarton Rock, or Alt Cluid. Its palace was at Partick in Glasgow, and an early religious centre was at Govan, on the site of the current parish church. Govan was more important than Glasgow until the reforms of David I increased its stature. The kingdom was long-lasting, with fluid borders, which sometimes stretched as far north as Loch Lomond, and as far south as Gwynedd in Wales. Aeron or Ayr was a subkingdom of Strathclyde. Aer was a pre-Celtic river god.


The second of the four post-Roman kingdoms was Dalriada. The kingdom of Dalriada grew up in the Western Isles and coastline. Many Irish people settled in this area, since to such seafaring folk Scotland was only 12 miles from Ireland. Thus Ireland was far easier for the Scots to reach than the other coast of their own country. Saint Columba of Iona was almost king of Ireland, and sailed on a pilgrimage to Scotland. He remained an influential man. Dalriada and its tribes were recorded in detail in the Senchus Fer N'Alban, written in the tenth century.

The Picts

The third kingdom was that of the Picts. The Picts are best remembered for their beautiful stone carvings, often with animal symbols. Christian symbols can also be seen in later carvings, especially crosses decorated with Celtic knots. The Picts had a royal palace at Forteviot, a hill fort at Dundurn, and a fort and naval base at Burghead. The harbour walls at Burghead were covered with bull's heads, but it was destroyed around the ninth or tenth centuries, perhaps by Vikings.

There has been a myth that the Picts believed in matrilinear succession, ie that the sons of the female line would inherit, but in fact it was the strongest candidates who held power by force. This system was known as tanistry; anyone of the derbfine (bloodline) could become king. The tanaise, or heir, was theoretically named before the death of the king, but this often led to much bloodshed.

In 685,Brude mac Bile or Bridei, king of the Picts, led his forces against Northumbrian forces at the battle of Nechtansmere, in a bid to stop Northumbrian expansion northwards. The event was commemorated in many carvings, one of which depicts two ravens pecking out corpses' eyes, and a cauldron, indicating that they had killed the Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith - drowning was thought to be the only way to kill a king.


The fourth kingdom of the time, Gododdin, probably owed its origins more to the Angles than the Celts. The major source of information about Gododdin is the collection of Welsh poetry called Y Gododdin, dating from the 13th century. It describes a number of warriors and battles against the Bernicians, in the sixth or seventh century. The capital of Gododdin seems to have been at Edinburgh, which was besieged and captured in 638, perhaps by Ethelfrith of Northumbria's son Oswald.


During this period, Scandinavia had major influences on western Europe, with their noted ability in seafaring and exploration. While the Vikings received a bad press, it should be remembered that the Church was the prime source of literate people capable of recording the history of the times. As the holders of much portable, ill-defended wealth, the Church was often a victim of raiding parties, and some monks were kidnapped as slaves, leading to a somewhat biased viewpoint. Lindisfarne and Iona suffered particularly from these raids. Other Vikings traded and settled peacefully, but these were largely ignored in the historical records. One Viking, Rollo, was eventually made Duke of Normandy, in return for promising to leave the French king and his lands alone. Others explored the Mediterranean Sea and Russia - some sailed down rivers and reached as far as the Black Sea.

The Norse earls evolved to become Lord of the Isles in Scotland. Dublin and York were the main Viking towns. One story relates how Vikings sailed down the Clyde and crossed overland with their boats before continuing to sail down the Forth.

This brings to an end my brief look at early Scottish history, and its major tribes and influences. In 1018, Kenneth mac Alpin formed the main body of Scotland, uniting its kingdoms. These kingdoms had, of course, traded, intermarried, and intermingled for many years by this time. The united Scotland was to face many struggles in the years ahead, during the Scottish wars of independence.

The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Oxford University Press
Lecture notes from evening classes at the University of Glasgow, given by Thomas & Sheilagh Macfadyen.

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