Scottish history is a compelling interwoven web, laced with heroic figures and defining battles. Events in the relatively recent past are well documented, but Scotland’s history stretches far back into the mists of times where myth and legend take precedence over sketchy facts and scant archaeological records.
- Early days
- Romans & picts
- Macalpin & canmore dynasties
- Robert the bruce & william wallace
- The stewart dynasty & the renaissance
- Mary, queen of scots & the reformation
- Covenanters & civil war
- Union with england
- The jacobites
- The highland clearances
- The scottish enlightenment
- The industrial revolution
- War & peace
Hunters and gatherers have left remains of shells and animal bones, providing fragments of evidence of the earliest human habitation in Scotland. These early people came in waves from northern Europe and Ireland as the glaciers retreated in the wake of the last Ice Age around 10, 000 BC.
Early Neolithic farming people moved into Scotland from mainland Europe and left behind an astonishing diary of human development including the incredibly well-preserved Neolithic village of Skara Brae, dating from around 3100 BC, and extraordinary chambered cairns such as Maes Howe, which indicate they had a belief in the afterlife. Today, the islands of Orkney are the best place to see such prehistoric sites, boasting Europe’s greatest concentration. Kilmartin Glen also has many prehistoric sites, including extensive rock carvings.
Next came the Beaker people who were responsible for leaving behind standing stones, such as those at Callanish; it is one of the most evocative sites in Scotland and testament to the advanced culture that had taken root by 3000 BC.
The Roman invasion of Britain by Emperor Claudius began in AD 43, almost a century after Julius Caesar first invaded. However, the Roman onslaught ground to a halt in the north, not far beyond the present-day Scottish border. Between AD 78 and 84, the Roman Governor Agricola marched northwards and spent several years trying to subdue the wild tribes the Romans called the Picts (from the Latin pictus, meaning painted). Little is know about the Picts who inhabited northern and eastern Scotland. The only material evidence of their culture is their unique carved symbol stones. These boulders, engraved with the mysterious symbols of an otherwise unknown culture, can be found in many parts of eastern Scotland.
By the 2nd century Emperor Hadrian, tired of fighting the tribes in the north, decided to cut his losses and built the wall (AD 122−28) that bears his name across northern England between Carlisle and Newcastle. Two decades later Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, invaded Scotland again and built a turf rampart, the Antonine Wall, between the Firth of Forth and the River Clyde. The Roman fort at Cramond marked its eastern end. In northern Britain, the Romans found they had met their match.
Eventually the Romans left Britain and at this time there were at least two indigenous peoples in the northern region of the British Isles: the Picts in the north and east, and the Celtic Britons in the south.
St Ninian conducted the first missionary work among the Picts. He remains a mysterious figure shrouded in myth, but there is little doubt that his influence was profound.
St Columba, Scotland’s most famous missionary, resumed St Ninian’s work. After fleeing Ireland in 563 he established a monastery on Iona, and Christianity became popular with pagan kings as it seemed to offer them supernatural powers.
According to legend, Columba was a scholar and a soldier-priest who went into exile after involvement in a bloody battle. After arriving on Iona he promptly set about banishing women and cows as he believed ‘where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief’. His manner of living was austere – he was said to sleep on the bare floor with a stone for a pillow. After his death he was credited with miraculous feats such as defeating what is today known as the Loch Ness monster. A visit to this holy island today to see the reconstructed 13th-century abbey and the many fine stone carvings is a highlight of the Inner Hebrides.
The Picts and Scots were drawn together by the threat of a Norse invasion and by the combination of political and spiritual power from their common Christianity. One story has it that Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of a united Scotland, achieved power at a ‘black dinner’ by setting traps underneath the benches of Pictish nobles. He made Scone his capital, and brought to it the sacred Stone of Destiny, used in the coronation of Scottish kings.
Nearly two centuries later, Kenneth MacAlpin’s great-great-great-grandson, Malcolm II (r 1005−18), defeated the Northumbrian Angles led by King Canute at the Battle of Carham (1018) near Roxburgh on the River Tweed. This victory brought Edinburgh and Lothian under Scottish control and extended Scottish territory as far south as the Tweed.
With his Saxon queen, Margaret, Malcolm III Canmore (r 1058−93) – whose father Duncan was murdered by Macbeth (as described in Shakespeare’s eponymous play) – founded a dynasty of able Scottish rulers. They introduced new Anglo-Norman systems of government and religious foundations.
Malcolm’s son David I (r 1124-53) imported monks to found the great Border abbeys; their fiery remains are major attractions in Melrose, Jedburgh and Dryburgh. He increased his power by adopting the Norman feudal system, granting land to noble Norman families in return for military service.
But the Highland clans, inaccessible in their glens, remained a law unto themselves for another 600 years. The exploits of Rob Roy, especially his daring raids into the Lowlands and reputation as a champion of the poor, typified the romantic notion of these wild clans. A cultural and linguistic divide grew up between the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and Lowlanders who spoke the Scots tongue.
When Alexander III fell to his death over a coastal cliff in Fife in 1286, there followed a dispute over the succession to the throne. There were no less than 13 claimants, but in the end it came down to a choice of two: Robert de Brus, lord of Annandale, and John Balliol, lord of Galloway. Edward I of England, as the greatest feudal lord in Britain, was asked to arbitrate. He chose Balliol, whom he thought he could manipulate more easily.
Seeking to tighten his feudal grip on Scotland, Edward – known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – treated the Scots king as his vassal rather than his equal. The humiliated Balliol finally turned against him and allied Scotland with France in 1295, thus beginning the enduring ‘Auld Alliance’ and ushering in the Wars of Independence.
Edward’s response was bloody. In 1296 he invaded Scotland and Balliol was incarcerated in the Tower of London; in a final blow to Scots pride, Edward I removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone and took it back to London.
Enter arguably Scotland’s most tragic hero, William Wallace. Bands of rebels were attacking the English occupiers and one such band, led by William Wallace, defeated the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace was knighted and proclaimed Guardian of Scotland in 1298. However, he lost a major battle at Falkirk, resigned as guardian and went into hiding in Europe – on his return to Scotland, he was betrayed, caught and executed in 1305. This betrayal was largely put down to the fickle loyalties of the Scottish nobility who sided with Edward.
After William Wallace was executed, Robert the Bruce, grandson of the lord of Annandale, saw his chance, defied Edward (whom he had previously aligned himself with), murdered his rival John Comyn and had himself crowned king of Scotland at Scone in 1306. Bruce mounted a campaign to drive the English out of Scotland but suffered repeated defeats. According to legend, while Bruce was on the run he was inspired to renew his efforts by a spider’s persistence in spinning its web. And the inspiration was not in vain – he went on to secure an illustrious victory over the English at Bannockburn. The exploits of this famous battle are enshrined in Scottish legend as one of the finest moments in the country’s young history.
After the death of Robert the Bruce in 1329 – he’s buried at Dunfermline, although his heart is buried in Melrose Abbey – the country was ravaged by civil disputes and continuing wars with England. Edinburgh was occupied several times by English armies and in 1385 the Kirk of St Giles was burned to the ground.
James IV (r 1488−1513) married the daughter of Henry VII of England, the first of the Tudor monarchs, thereby linking the two royal families through ‘the Marriage of the Thistle and the Rose’. This didn’t prevent the French from persuading James to go to war with his in-laws, and he was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, along with 10, 000 of his subjects.
Renaissance ideas flourished during James IV’s reign. Scottish poetry thrived, created by makars (makers of verses) such as William Dunbar, the court poet of James IV, and Gavin Douglas. Much graceful Scottish architecture is from this period, and examples of Renaissance style can be seen in alterations to palaces at Holyrood, Stirling, Linlithgow and Falkland.
No figure in Scottish history has had a more turbulent and troublesome history than Mary, Queen of Scots (r 1542−67).
In 1542 King James V, childless, lay on his deathbed brokenhearted, it is said, after his defeat by the English at Solway Moss. On 8 December a messenger brought word that his wife had given birth to a baby girl at the Palace of Linlithgow. Fearing the end of the Stewart dynasty, and recalling its origin through Robert the Bruce’s daughter, James sighed, ‘It cam’ wi’ a lass, and it will gang wi’ a lass’. He died a few days later, leaving his week-old daughter, Mary, to inherit the throne as Queen of Scots.
She was sent to France at an early age and Scotland was ruled by regents, who rejected overtures from Henry VIII of England urging them to wed the infant queen to his son. Henry was furious, and sent his armies to take vengeance on the Scots. The ‘Rough Wooing’, as it was called, failed to persuade the Scots of the error of their ways. In 1558 Mary was married to the French dauphin and became queen of France as well as Scotland.
While Mary was in France, being raised as a Roman Catholic, the Reformation tore through Scotland. The wealthy Catholic Church was riddled with corruption, and the preachings of John Knox, a pupil of the Swiss reformer Calvin, found sympathetic ears. To give you an idea of this influential man, Knox, concerned with the sway that political rulers wielded over the church, wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. It was an attack on three women rulers calling the shots in Scotland, England and France and linked his name to a hatred of women ever since.
Following the death of her sickly husband, the 18-year-old Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. She was formally welcomed to her capital city and held a famous audience at Holyrood Palace with John Knox. The great reformer harangued the young queen and she later agreed to protect the budding Protestant Church in Scotland while continuing to hear Mass in private.
She married Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, in the Chapel Royal at Holyrood and gave birth to a son (later James VI) in Edinburgh Castle in 1565. Any domestic bliss was short-lived and, in a scarcely believable train of events, Darnley was involved in the murder of Mary’s Italian secretary Rizzio (rumoured to be her lover), before he himself was murdered, probably by Mary’s new lover and second-husband-to-be, the earl of Bothwell!
The Scots had had enough – Mary’s enemies finally confronted her at Carberry Hill, just east of Edinburgh, and Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567. Her son, the infant James VI (r 1567−1625), was crowned at Stirling, and a series of regents ruled in his place. Meanwhile in England, Queen Elizabeth Iof England died childless, and the English, desperate for a male monarch, soon turned their attention north. James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain and moved his court to London and, for the most part, the Stewarts ignored Scotland from then on. Indeed, when Charles I (r 1625–49) succeeded James, he couldn’t be bothered to travel north to Edinburgh to be formally crowned as king of Scotland until 1633.
Civil war was to strangle Scotland and England in the 17th century. The arrogant attempts by Charles I to impose episcopacy (the rule of bishops) and an English liturgy on the Presbyterian Scottish Church set off public riots in Edinburgh. The Presbyterians believed in a personal bond with God that had no need of mediation through priests, popes and kings. On 28 February 1638 hundreds gathered in Greyfriars Kirkyard to sign a National Covenant affirming their rights and beliefs. Scotland was divided between the Covenanters and those who supported the king.
In the 1640s civil war raged in England between the Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. Although there was an alliance between the Covenanters and the English parliament against Charles I, the Scots were appalled when the Parliamentarians executed the king in 1649. They offered his son the Scottish Crown provided he signed the Covenant and renounced his father, which he did. Charles II (r 1649−85) was crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651 but was soon forced into exile by Cromwell, who invaded Scotland and captured Edinburgh.
After Charles II’s restoration in 1660, he reneged on the Covenant; episcopacy was reinstated and hardline Presbyterian ministers were deprived of their churches. Charles’ brother and successor, the Catholic James VII/II (r 1685−89), made worshipping as a Covenanter a capital offence.
James’ daughter, Mary, and her husband William of Orange (1689−1702) restored the Presbyterian structure in the church and kicked out the bishops, but the political and legal functions of the church were subject to parliamentary control. And so Scotland’s turbulent reformation came to an end.
The civil wars left the country and its economy ruined. During the 1690s famine killed up to a third of the population in some areas. Anti-English feeling ran high: William was at war with France and was using Scottish soldiers and taxes – many Scots, sympathetic to the French, disapproved. This feeling was exacerbated by the failure of an investment venture in Panama (the so-called Darien Scheme), which resulted in widespread bankruptcy in Scotland.
The failure of the Darien Scheme made it clear to the wealthy Scottish merchants and stockholders that the only way they could gain access to the lucrative markets of developing colonies was through union with England. The English parliament favoured union through fear of Jacobite sympathies in Scotland being exploited by its enemies, the French.
On receiving the Act of Union in Edinburgh, the chancellor of Scotland, Lord Seafield – leader of the parliament that the Act of Union abolished – is said to have murmured under his breath, ‘Now there’s an end to an auld sang’. Robert Burns later castigated the wealthy politicians who engineered the Union in characteristically stronger language: ‘We’re bought and sold for English gold – such a parcel of rogues in a nation!’
The Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century sought to displace the Hanoverian monarchy (chosen by the English parliament in 1701 to succeed the house of Orange) and restore a Catholic Stuart king to the British throne.
James Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender, was the son of James VII/II. With French support he arrived in the Firth of Forth with a fleet of ships in 1708, causing panic in Edinburgh, but was seen off by English men-of-war.
The earl of Mar led another Jacobite rebellion in 1715 but proved an ineffectual leader better at propaganda than warfare. Once again the Old Pretender made his way to Scotland and Mar, who met him, demonstrated his propaganda skills by sending news to encourage his army and the people: ‘Withouth any complements to him and to do him nothing but justice, set aside his being a Prince, he really is the finest gentleman I ever knew…and has the sweetest temper in the world.’ His campaign fizzled out soon after the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir.
The Old Pretender’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender, landed in Scotland for the final uprising. He had little military experience, didn’t speak Gaelic and had a shaky grasp of English. Nevertheless, supported by an army of Highlanders, he marched southwards and captured Edinburgh, except for the castle, in September 1745. He got as far south as Derby in England, but success was short-lived; a Hanoverian army led by the duke of Cumberland harried him all the way back to the Highlands, where Jacobite dreams were finally extinguished at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Although a heavily romanticised figure, Bonnie Prince Charlie was partly responsible for the annihilation of Highland culture, given the crackdown and subsequent clearances following his doomed attempt to recapture the crown. After returning to France he gained a reputation for mistreating his subsequent mistresses and at the age of 52 married a young princess, but she fled his drunken violence and he never got the heir he wanted.
In the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellions, Highland dress, the bearing of arms and the bagpipes were outlawed. The Highlands were effectively put under military control and private armies were banned. The relationship of Highland chief to clansman changed dramatically and landowners were tempted by the easy profits to be made from sheep farming.
The clansmen, no longer of any use as soldiers and uneconomical as tenants, were evicted from their homes and farms to make way for the flocks – in Easter Ross the year 1792 was known for decades afterwards as the Year of the Sheep. A few stayed to work the sheep farms; many more were forced to seek work in the cities, or to eke a living from crofts (small holdings) on poor coastal land. And many thousands emigrated – some willingly, some under duress – to the developing colonies of North America, Australia and New Zealand.
If you do much walking in the Highlands and islands, you are almost certain to come across a ruckle of stones among the bracken, all that remains of a house or cottage. Look around and you’ll find another, and another, and soon you’ll realise that this was once a crofting settlement. It’s one of the saddest sights you’ll see in Scotland – this emptiness, where once there was a thriving community. The Mull of Oa on the island of Islay, for example, once supported a population of 4000, but today there are barely 40 people living there.
During the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740–1830) Edinburgh became known as ‘a hotbed of genius’. The philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith and the sociologist Adam Ferguson emerged as influential thinkers, nourished on generations of theological debate. Medic William Cullen produced the first modern pharmacopoeia, chemist Joseph Black advanced the science of thermodynamics and geologist James Hutton challenged long-held beliefs about the age of the Earth.
After centuries of bloodshed and religious fanaticism, people applied themselves with the same energy and piety to the making of money and the enjoyment of leisure. There was a revival of interest in Scottish history and literature. The writings of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry of Robert Burns, a true man of the people, achieved lasting popularity.
The development of the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution. The Carron Ironworks near Falkirk, established in 1759, became the largest ironworks and gun factory in Britain, and the growth of the textile industry saw the construction of huge weaving mills in Lanarkshire, Dundee, Angus and Aberdeenshire. The world’s first steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, sailed along the newly opened Forth and Clyde Canal in 1802, and the world’s first sea-going steamship, the Comet, was launched on the Clyde in 1812.
Glasgow, deprived of its lucrative tobacco trade following the American War of Independence (1776−83), developed into an industrial powerhouse, the ‘second city’ of the British Empire (after London). Cotton mills, iron and steelworks, chemical works, shipbuilding yards and heavy-engineering works proliferated along the River Clyde in the 19th century, powered by the coal mines of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Fife and Midlothian.
Scotland largely escaped the trauma and devastation wrought by WWII on the industrial cities of England. Indeed, the war brought a measure of renewed prosperity to Scotland as the shipyards and engineering works geared up to supply the war effort. But the postwar period saw the collapse of shipbuilding and heavy industry, on which Scotland had become over-reliant.
After the discovery of North Sea oil, revenues were siphoned off to England and this, along with takeovers of Scots companies by English ones (which then closed the Scots operation, asset-stripped and transferred jobs to England), fuelled increasing nationalist sentiment in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) developed into a third force in Scottish politics, taking 30% of the popular vote in the 1974 general election.
In 1979 a referendum was held on whether to set up a directly elected Scottish Assembly. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted said ‘yes’ to devolution, but the Labour prime minister James Callaghan decided that everyone who didn’t vote should be counted as a ‘no’. By this devious reasoning, only 33% of the electorate had voted ‘yes’, so the Scottish Assembly was rejected.
From 1979 to 1997 Scotland was ruled by a Conservative government in London for which the majority of Scots hadn’t voted. Separatist feelings, always present, grew stronger. Following the landslide victory of the Labour Party in May 1997, another referendum was held on the creation of a Scottish parliament. This time the result was overwhelmingly and unambiguously in favour.
Elections to the new parliament took place on 6 May 1999 and the Scottish parliament convened for the first time on 12 May in Edinburgh; Donald Dewar (1937−2000), formerly the Secretary of State for Scotland, was nominated as first minister (the Scottish parliament’s equivalent of prime minister).
The Scottish National Party recently won power in Scotland’s third election and wants full independence from England. It is making plans for a referendum on the issue which will also give voters an option of more devolved powers from London (such as control over North Sea oil and gas revenues).