A quick note: this post is not intended to be an exhaustive history of Scotland — I glossed over some things for brevity’s sake and summarized where I could.
When the average person thinks of Scotland, they usually picture something like this:
Or even this:
For all of Braveheart and Mel painting himself blue, most people don’t know that much about Scotland. I’ve had people tell me it was part of Ireland and/or ask if it was its own island. D’oh.
Some people will brighten at the mention of Scotland and say something about castles and golf, whisky or mountains — or they’ll burst into their proud version of a not-so-Scottish brogue and beam. When this happens, I usually sit back on my heels and wonder how America became a world power for a moment. Then I remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bite my lip, say a small prayer to the FSM for the US school system, and go about my day.
In case you’re wondering, Scotland is here:
The truth is, Scotland has a long and fascinating history. People have been there for a rather long time. When the Egyptians were building their pyramids, the ancient settlers of Scotland had already erected massive stone circles like this one:
For the last 10,000 years, there have been people there. It wasn’t until the times of the Roman Empire that the rest of the “civilized world” noticed, however. The Romans took heed when they ran into crazed, naked barbarians whilst attempting to bring all of the island of Great Britain into their empire, then prudently opted to instead build a wall to keep said barbarians out.
Those crazy Picts are the ones who would paint themselves blue with woad and go naked into battle screaming at the tops of their lungs. They had discovered, and rightly so, that yelling like banshees startled even regimented soldiers. I’ve no doubt that the Picts returned to their hearths and had a few laughs about the look on their opponents faces. Around the 5th century, the Gaels (Scoti) arrived from Ireland, and with the charming vikings graciously bestowing their red hair genes along the coastlines of Scotland, the various tribes of the land eventually settled into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century.
Gaelic became the language of Scotland — not to be confused with Irish, which is the language of Ireland. They are discrete languages, though they share some common vocabulary and grammatical structure. They bear similarities that can be approximated by the relationship between French and Italian — they’re not mutually intelligible, but knowing one can help you learn the other. Capiche?
The Gaelic language became an integral part of Scottish culture. By the time Scotland became a kingdom, Gaelic was the vernacular of the country. Scotland was also a tribal, clan-centered society. Contrary to common beliefs, clan did not always correspond to bloodlines, but people could be adopted into clans by their allegiance to the laird of the clan. Early (prehistoric) Scotland seems to have followed an interesting form of matrilineal succession — something that I’m curious to research more.
Music and stories (both in Gaelic) were the cornerstones of their culture. Prior to the Roman invasion, Scottish history was seldom recorded with the exception of a few remnants of ogham writing carved into stones and trees (a rather cumbersome way of marking territory). The tribes and clans of Scotland followed oral traditions for thousands of years, passing down legends and stories from generation to generation.
And so Scotland progressed for several hundred years until the folks in London decided they fancied ruling the entire island and that those yokels in the north were in their way. I’ll let you watch Braveheart to get the gist of it (or you could read a history book and learn it for realsies), but we’re going to skip ahead to the 18th century when the genetics of the royal world skipped around in a circle, did a twirl, and plunked King James VI of Scotland on the English throne. You might know this guy better as King James I (apparently the previous five generations of his name didn’t exist to London), known for getting that big religious book translated into English and printed into perpetual bestseller-dom.
I’m sure a lot of head-scratching ensued when the two countries realized they now had the same king. And if you know your 18th century British history at all, you’ll know that James’s son Charles had some head-keeping issues to deal with later.
Back on the farm, however, there were a great many Scots (primarily in the Highlands) who didn’t take too kindly to their Catholic king governing a Protestant and historically hostile nation to the south. In 1715, these Scots (called Jacobites, because they supported James II of Scotland’s claim to the thrown after the Scottish parliament deposed him — they were rather a divine right, direct succession sort of folks) staged an uprising protesting the 1707 Act of the Union. This uprising was squished, but it paved the way for what happened thirty years later.
After the religious turmoil that took over England during the reign of Cromwell following the execution of King Charles, the Jacobites wanted to place Charles Edward Stuart back on the throne. The son of the exiled Prince James III, the Jacobites preferred a Catholic monarch (and one of the Stuart bloodline). To make a long, bloody, and painful story shorter, the Highland Scots were outnumbered and out-gunned, and at the battle of Culloden in 1745, the English defeated the Jacobite cause. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled back to France, and what happened to to the Highland Scots is one of the more nasty periods of Anglo-Gaelic interactions.
The immediate retaliation against the Scots was swift and brutal. Homes burned, women raped, livestock butchered, children killed. Many highlanders fled the country for America, Canada, and Australia. Those who remained were subject to the Disarming Act, which forbade Scots from owning weapons, and the Dress Act, which forbade Scots from wearing tartans or kilts. In addition to this, their gatherings were limited to no more than six people, and the Gaelic language was outlawed. In the last three hundred years, the speaking of the Gaelic language has receded into only the northwest highlands and islands of Scotland.
What does all this have to do with me? Why does it matter? It matters because these are my people, and their history is also mine. It matters because with the loss of the Gaelic language, the music and the stories that had been passed down for generations evaporated. The storytelling culture of Scotland has all but been eradicated.
It matters because there is a growing desire in me to not only learn the Gaelic and Welsh languages of my predecessors, but to seek out the stories, the music, the memories and the history of our people. Because if there is anything I have learned from my own family, with both sides adamantly claiming Scottish ancestry when I had to go back nearly twenty generations to find it, it’s that stories have power. And that even after generations, those stories can remain, sometimes surfacing as the only tantalizing clue to the past.
And besides, a Scot is a Scot, even unto a hundred generations.
What stories have you learned from your family? What has been passed down to you?
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