The History of Scotland

People have lived in Scotland for at least 8,500 years before Britain's recorded history. At times during the last interglacial period (130,000–70,000 BC) Europe had a climate warmer than today's, and early humans may have made their way to Scotland, with the possible discovery of pre-ice age axes on Orkney and mainland Scotland. Glaciers then scoured their way across most of Britain, and only after the ice retreated did Scotland again become habitable, around 9600 BC. Mesolithic hunter-gatherer encampments formed the first known settlements, and archaeologists have dated an encampment near Biggar to around 8500 BC. Numerous other sites found around Scotland build up a picture of highly mobile boat-using people making tools from bone, stone and antlers.

Roman Invasion

Scotland's recorded history begins in the 1st century AD, when the Romans invaded Britain. The Romans added southern Britain to their empire as the province Britannia. They were unable, however, to subdue the fierce tribes in the north. To keep these tribes from invading Britannia, Emperor Hadrian had a massive wall built across the island from sea to sea. The Romans called the land north of the wall Caledonia, and they called the people Picts--from the Latin piclus, meaning "painted"--because they painted their bodies. Parts of Hadrian's Wall still stand on the Scottish border.

Around 141 AD, the Romans undertook a reoccupation of southern Scotland, moving up to construct a new limes between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, which became the Antonine Wall.  This is the largest Roman construction inside Scotland; a sward-covered wall made of turf around 20 feet (6 m) high, with nineteen forts.  It extended for 37 miles (60 km) and took twelve years to build.  The wall was overrun and abandoned soon after 160 AD.  The Romans retreated to the line of Hadrian's Wall. Roman troops penetrated far into the north of modern Scotland several more times, with at least four major campaigns.  By the close of the Roman occupation of southern and central Britain in the 5th century AD, the Picts had emerged as the dominant force in northern Scotland, with the various Brythonic tribes the Romans had first encountered there occupying the southern half of the country.  Roman influence on Scottish culture and history was not enduring.

Post-Roman Scotland

In the centuries after the departure of the Romans, four different groups emerged within the borders of what is now Scotland.  In the east were the Picts, with kingdoms between the river Forth and Shetland. In the late 6th century the dominant force was the Kingdom of Fortriu who raided along the eastern coast into modern England.  In the west were the Gaelic speaking people of Dál Riata with their royal fortress at Dunadd in Argyll, with close links with Ireland, from whom comes the name Scots.  In the south was the British (Brythonic) Kingdom of Strathclyde, descendants of the peoples of the Roman influenced kingdoms of "Hen Ogledd" (Old north). Finally, there were the English or "Angles", Germanic invaders who had overrun much of southern Britain and held the Kingdom of Bernicia, in the south-east.

Rise of the Kingdom of Alba

The merger of the Gaelic and Pictish crowns culminated in the rise of Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) in the 840s, which brought to power the House of Alpin.  When he died as king of the combined kingdom in 900 AD, Domnall II (Donald II) was the first man to be called rí Alban (King of Alba).  The term Scotia was increasingly used to describe the kingdom between North of the Forth and Clyde and eventually the entire area controlled by its kings was referred to as Scotland.

Claim to the Scottish Throne

After the Normans conquered England in 1066, many Anglo-Saxons from England settled in the Lowlands of Scotland.  Here the Scots gradually adopted English ways. Feudalism was established, and the chiefs of the clans became nobles.  Towns grew, trade increased, and Scotland prospered.

In 1290 Margaret, heiress to the throne, died.  Fourteen claimants contested the Crown.  Edward I of England claimed the right to bestow it and made John de Baliol king.  When Edward asked John for help against the French, however, John entered into an alliance with France.  For 260 years Scotland held to this so-called "auld alliance" with England's enemy.  Edward I of England crossed the border in 1296, took John de Baliol prisoner, and proclaimed himself king of Scotland.  To symbolize the union he carried off the ancient Stone of Scone, on which Scottish kings had long been crowned, and placed it in Westminster Abbey where it lay beneath the coronation chair.

The Scots rose again.  Led by William Wallace, they routed the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297 and pursued them across the border.  The next year Edward returned and inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Scots at Falkirk.  Wallace was later captured and executed, and the English dsiplayed his head on a spike on London Bridge facing north to Scotland.  This part of the history of Scotland was the foundation for the film "Braveheart".

The Scots' spirit was still unbroken, and they soon found another great champion in Robert the Bruce.  The last great battle in the war for independence was fought in 1314 at Bannockburn near Stirling Castle.  There Bruce inflicted a disastrous defeat on superior English forces led by Edward II.  In 1328 Edward III formally recognized Scotland's independence.

In the later Middle Ages, Scotland suffered from weak kings and powerful nobles.  For two centuries there was a constant struggle between the Crown and the barons.  Border clashes with England also continued.  James IV of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England, in 1503.  When Henry VIII went to war with France in 1512, however, James IV invaded England.  He fell, "riddled with arrows," at Flodden Field in the last great border battle (1513).

James V died brokenhearted after his army had been slaughtered at Solway Moss (1542).  The throne went to his infant daughter, Mary Stuart.

Meanwhile the Protestant 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 returned home to Scotland from Geneva, Switzerland.  Knox was a follower of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation.  With fiery eloquence he spread Calvin's Protestant doctrine.  Knox and others drove poor Mary out.  In 1560 Scotland's parliament adopted a confession of faith drawn up by Knox and established the Church of Scotland on a Presbyterian basis.

When Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate her throne.  She escaped, however, and fled to England.  Queen Elizabeth I made her a prisoner and finally had her executed.  Mary Stuart's son, James VI, was brought up as a Presbyterian.  When Queen Elizabeth of England died in 1603, James inherited the throne of England.  This is an important point missed by many historians - it was the Scottish king who took over the English throne, not the reverse.  In England he was called James I.  The two nations were thus 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.  The Scots took up arms against Charles I.  When civil war broke out in England, they aided the Puritans against the king.  After Oliver Cromwell executed Charles I without consulting the Scots, however, the Scots welcomed Charles's son as Charles II.  Cromwell then marched into Scotland and imposed his rule.  When Charles II was restored to the throne, persecution of Presbyterians continued.


Finally, after James II had been driven from the throne, Presbyterianism was firmly established as Scotland's national church.  The Highlanders 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.  In 1745 they supported his son, Charles Edward, known as the Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The Young Pretender's quest for the throne ended in 1746 at the battle Culloden when the Highland forces were defeated by the British.

Act of Union

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 both parliaments and established the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Importantly, Scotland now had free trade with England and the colonies.  As Britain's empire expanded the Scots played a great part in its development.  Scots were also a huge influence in the inventions that brought about the Industrial Revolution and in the wealth that flowed into Britain during that time.

The end of the 18th century has been called Scotland's most creative period.  David Hume won world fame in philosophy and history, Adam Smith in political economy, and Robert Burns in poetry.  In the next generation Sir Walter Scott made the land and history of Scotland known throughout the world.  During this period the Scots were also pre-eminent in establishing the fledgling colonies in America, Canada and Australia.

From that time on, the history of Scotland merges with that of the rest of the United Kingdom but Scots continued to play a part in world affairs far greater than their numbers might suggest.  Legal and education systems did remain separate (and superior) and in the second half of the 20th century many Scots began to demand a greater say in other areas of government.  Eventually a new Scottish parliament was established in Edinburgh and it is currently making its mark.  Since the 1950s, Scottish nationalism has become a strong political topic, with serious debates on Scottish independence, with a recent referendum in 2014 about leaving the British Union.