A Brief History

A wonderful read: The Lion in the North by John Prebble (SBN: 436 38608 9)

One more: A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver (ISBN: 978-0-7538-2663-8)

And more for the road: The Lords of the Isles by Ronald Williams (0-7011-2268-4)

A very special mention: If you're interested in the people, places and events in Scottish history (quote!) you really aught to have a look at the YouTube channel of the 'stand-up comic come tour guide' (another quote!) Bruce Fumey. A great many short 15 minutes videos in which Bruce tackles often complicated subjects. His presentation is unique! 'In the meantime.......let me tell you a story' (yet another quote!)

The Romans and Hadrian's Wall

Although the Romans finally conquered England, Scotland proved to be a problem.

The difficult terrain, the logistics and the ferocious resistance of the tribes finally forced the emperor Hadrian to abandon his ambitious plans to extend the Empire just that little bit further. He ordered a wall to be built across the island from sea to (shining) sea. The Roman landowners however continued to expand their holdings north of the wall and became very vulnerable to raids. Around 142 AD, the new emperor Antoninus Pius set out to build another wall just that little bit further north. This venture, the Antonine Wall, for many different reasons soon came to a grinding halt and although the legions sometimes did venture into the Highlands, the wall of Hadrian became once again the final frontier.

Arrival of the Scotii

Over the centuries many Irish (Scotii), had made the crossing to Cruithentuath (Gaelic for Pictland). It was only the Dál Riata tribe however that managed to establish a firm foothold in spite of the fierce resistance of the Picts. It is said (very conjectural!) that, at some stage, the Dalriadic king (The "Rí na Dál Riata") called for help from Ireland and it was Fergus Mor Mac Earca with his brothers Loarn, Óengus,  Gabrán, Comgall and their powerful following who in 498, the Roman legions had long since left, answered the call.

Fergus moved for reasons of defence the royal seat of Dál Riata to Dunadd in Argyll. It was to become Scotland’s cradle. It would take another 350 years before Dál Riata and Pictland were finally to merge and become 'Alba'. By the 11th century it was more commonly known as Scotia or Scotland, but Alba remains the Gaelic name for Scotland today. For a better understanding of the different terms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology_of_Scotland


In Argyll there were four main Dál Riatan kindreds (Cenéls) each with their own chief:

  • Cenél Loairn (kindred of Loarn) in north and mid-Argyll, who gave their name to the district of Lorn.
  • Cenél nÓengusa (kindred of Óengus) based on Islay
  • Cenél nGabráin (kindred of Gabrán) based in Kintyre
  • Cenél Comgaill (kindred of Comgall) based in east Argyll, who gave their name to the district of Cowal.

Although they originated from the same stock, the different Cenéls were often quite literally at each other's throat when it came to the High Kingship.


Battling the Vikings

At the beginning of the 13th century the Firth of Clyde was frontier territory.

Although the mainland was Scottish, the islands of Bute and Cumbrae and the whole of the Hebrides gave its allegiance to the Vikings, who had plagued Alba already for hundreds of years. In spite of the fact that their often savage raids had, over time, evolved into trade and settlement, both Haakon IV of Norway and Alexander II of Scotland were determined to expand their authority. Both men regarded the Hebrides (Innse Gall) as lying within their sphere of influence.

Over the next decades forces loyal to Alexander II and Haakon fought a vicious running battle in the islands.

Alexander's obsession with winning the Hebrides proved fatal when he sailed up the west coast with a powerful fleet in 1249. He died of a fever as he tried to persuade island lords to sever links with Norway.

Alexander III ordered raids deep into Norse territory. It was a brutal show of force. Haakon, in response  led his fleet through the Hebrides, island by island, demanding allegiance.

By the time he reached the disputed territories of the Clyde, he had 120 ships and up to 20,000 men at his command.

A sudden storm however destroyed most of the Viking fleet and the Battle of Largs petered out into a long distance and sporadic shooting match. Neither side had won.

The Norse king's decided to disperse the fleet and spend the winter in Orkney determined to return in the spring to have his bloody revenge on Alexander.

But Haakon died in Orkney on 16 December 1263.

His son Magnus the Lawmender was not interested in continuing the fight and gave up the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland, in return for 4,000 marks in silver and an annual payment, under the Treaty of Perth.

At the same time the Scots recognised Norwegian rule over Shetland and the Orkney Islands.

For the descendants of the Vikings in the Hebrides things were beginning to change too.

There a ‘new’culture started to develop that would culminate into the Lordship of the Isles.


Influx of the Normans

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, many Anglo-Saxons and Norman adventurers settled in the lowlands of Scotland, where they gradually introduced English ways. Feudalism was established and the chiefs of lowland clans became ‘nobles’. Scotland prospered.


Lordship of the Isles

"Ni h-eibhneas gan Chlainn Domhnaíll. Ni comhnairt bheith’na n-éagmhais an chlann dob fhearr san gcruinne gur dhiobh gach duine céatach." (It is no joy without Clan Donald. It is no strength to be without them. The best race in the round world. To them belongs every goodly man.): A poem by MacMhuirich bard, late 15th century


The Western Isles of Scotland were controlled by various Norse and Gaelic rulers who owed their allegiance to the kings of Norway rather than the kings of Scotland.

So removed from Scottish control were these islands that these rulers referred to themselves as 'King of the Isles' (in Gaelic, 'Ri Innse Gall'). From the origins of these semi-autonomous island kingdoms the 'Lords of the Isles' would emerge.

While elsewhere in Scotland the nobles were building castles to protect themselves from the English or their own neighbours, the Lordship of the Isles, a unique political institution was taking shape amongst the Gaelic people of the west.

At a time when the King of Scots himself was forced by his enemies to take refuge in France, the Lord of the Isles was able to live in peace and safety among his own kin. the Lordship provided the Gaels of Scotland with a political unity and cultural focus that was never to be equalled. It represented a tradition that stretched back to the days of St Columba and the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.

At one point almost a third of Scotland was under the control of Clan Donald. This did not come about by accident, but by great skill in politics, diplomacy and war. Above all, it came about because of the loyalty and affection the Lordship inspired among its people, not just those of Clan Donald but also the other confederate clans.


The English state their claim

By the end of the 13th century dark clouds gathered. In 1290 the Scottish throne was vacant and 13 claimants (among whom the Dutch count Floris V) contested the Crown.

Edward I of England was called in to make a final decision. They really shouldn’t have done that as the English warrior king, claiming ‘overlordship’ (look for the Treaty of Falaise), demanded acknowledgement of his feudal sovereignty first.

The claimants after long deliberations acceded (oh dear) and Edward chose John de Baliol, a rather malleable personality, as King of Scots and answerable to himself. This  infuriated Robert the Bruce, another claimant.

When Edward haughtily demanded Scottish troops against the French, Baliol however rebelled and entered into the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France.


The Wars of Indepence

Edward felt betrayed in his trust and crossed the border in 1296. To set an example he allowed his troops to massacre nearly the whole population of Berwick-on Tweed, took Baliol prisoner and proclaimed himself king of Scotland instead. ( see also: The Wars of Independence )

The Scots led by William Wallace, revolted and in 1297 routed a massive English host at Stirling Bridge.

The next year a furious Edward returned and annihilated the Scots at Falkirk. Wallace was later betrayed, captured and executed in London.

The Scots soon found another great champion in the son of Robert the Bruce, named Robert as well, who finally saw his chance for the glory, denied to his father a few years earlier.

He proclaimed himself king and in 1314, after years of bloody conflict, Bruce inflicted a disastrous defeat on a superior English host led by Edward II himself at Bannockburn near Stirling.

It was still not enough.

Another 14 years went by before Edward III, exasperated with the incursions of the Scots, finally recognized Scotland's independence.

In the late middle ages, ineffectual kings and powerful nobles created the perfect opportunity for England to pursue their ancient claim of overlordship.

Border clashes in the ‘debateable land’ were endemic. James IV of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England in 1503, but when Henry VIII went to war with France in 1512, James IV, in the spirit of the ‘Auld Alliance’, invaded England. It was a total disaster. At Flodden Field the King of Scots died ‘riddled with arrows’.

His son James V died broken hearted (quite a story in itself) after his army had been beaten at Solway Moss in 1542 and the throne went to his infant daughter, Mary Stuart.


The Reformation

Major changes were in the air. The Reformation had swept across Europe and into England.

Scotland was still a Roman Catholic country. Its young queen, Mary Stuart, was in France when John Knox, a follower of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation, came home to Scotland from Switzerland.

In 1560 Scotland's parliament adopted a confession of faith drawn up by Knox and established the Church of Scotland.

Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, but was later imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate her throne.

She escaped however in 1568 and fled to England, where Queen Elizabeth I made her a prisoner and finally, in 1587, had her executed at Fotheringay.


Mary Stuart's son, James VI, was brought up as a Presbyterian. He inherited the throne of England as James I when Elizabeth died in 1603.

The two nations were now united under a single king, but Scotland remained a separate state with its own parliament and government.
England tried repeatedly to impose the Anglicans' Episcopal form of worship and church government on the Scottish Kirk.

For anyone interested: You might check out the following link: http://www.covenanter.org.uk/whowere.html

The Scots took up arms against Charles I and when civil war broke out in England, they aided the Puritans against the king.

After Oliver Cromwell executed Charles I without consulting the Scots, they were furious and welcomed Charles's son as Charles II.

Cromwell then marched into Scotland and imposed his rule.

When Charles II was restored, persecution of Presbyterians continued and only after James II had been driven from the throne, Presbyterianism was firmly established as Scotland's national church.


Merging of the Kingdoms

The age-old rivalry between Scotland and England ended formally in 1707 when the parliaments of both nations “agreed” to the Act of Union.

This act merged the parliaments of the two nations and established the Kingdom of Great Britain.


The Last Act

The Highlanders however long remained loyal to the exiled Stuarts. In 1715 they attempted to restore the house of Stuart to the throne; James Stuart, known as the Old Pretender, was proclaimed James III. The uprising however failed miserably.

Twenty eight years later, in 1745 a number of clans (oft grudgingly) supported his son, Charles Edward, known as ‘the Young Pretender’ (Bonnie Prince Charlie). Although the 'Jacobites' did very well initially (they got quite close to London!), it all finally ended in 1746 with the battle of Culloden when the Highland forces were defeated by the English.

For a listing of the early rulers in Scotland: Early Rulers of Scotland

More information? Try here!