Many Scots today regard themselves as Celts but is Scotland really a Celtic nation? To find an answer to this puzzling question, we must go back in time. In the 14th century, the Declaration of Arbroath – a document which was sent to the Pope – affirmed Scotland’s legitimacy as a separate nation, far older in nature and character than England. Indeed, ancient Scotland was believed to have its origin in Egypt when a royal daughter, Scota, fled her enemies to find safety in a new land.
The very early native peoples of Scotland were referred to as Picts, the painted people, by the Romans. They were believed to have been wiped out along with the Britons of Strathclyde fighting the Romans, the encroaching Angles and Saxons from the south, and the Celts from the west. Then the Vikings exploded on the scene.
What happened to the Pictish women? Did the genetic layers of the encroaching warriors meld together as women were taken as slaves or wives? In the far north across Orkney, the picture becomes even more distorted for this society became strongly Norse, confirmed by the long political and social association with Norway. Across western and northern Scotland, we see the Norse settle with their families as farmers and traders. Later, the Lords of the Isles ruled their western kingdom, speeding across the sea in their birlinns. Throw in the Normans, the Gascons from Gascony in southern France and the Flemings from Flanders – now roughly-speaking Belgium, and the Scottish genealogical pie becomes even richer.
It seems to me that the women of Scotland ─ these daughters, sisters, wives ─ would have carried a curious racial mix forward in time. And now, modern day geneticists have discovered that one in ten men in Scotland carry a Pictish gene! So the legendary Picts live on today…
But how did Scottish society historically move so far away from the concept of clan and community, and were these particularly Pictish or Celtic concepts?
Perhaps, the clue lies somewhere in the 1100’s, following William the Conqueror’s earlier incursions northwards, when Scotland was a notoriously dangerous place. After his death in battle, King Malcolm Canmore’s sons were either killed or displaced. To escape the murderous intentions of his uncle, Prince David – Malcolm’s youngest son – sought sanctuary within the Anglo-Norman court in England. There he found a warm welcome. David was impressed with aspects of the feudal system which, in time, he transported back to Scotland – hospitals, the legal system and civil administration.
Critically, he also took with him a group of loyal, ambitious Anglo-Norman lords, offering them lands in return for bringing the wild north and southwest under control. From his mother, Margaret, daughter of the Atheling – the last Saxon royal family, David consolidated religion along papal lines. She had been brought up in the Hungarian royal court to which her father had escaped, and was influenced by that country’s strong religious views. King David had a vision for Scotland – a peaceable nation with a strong civil administration. Impacting upon Scotland’s resident Celtic church, he also introduced several religious houses from France to consolidate his mother’s legacy of caring for the sick and poor. Through the influence of this well-meaning king, we begin to see the foundation of Anglo-Norman patterns of society infiltrating and altering the face of Celtic Scotland forever. And it was into this Scotland that Robert the Bruce and his sisters were born almost two hundred years later.
In later centuries, Scotland hurtled head first into dire political unrest instituted by a line of Germanic kings, the subsequent denigration of all things Scottish, and the utterly brutal social and economic consequences of the clearances. We see the ‘Celtic’ influence being challenged on so many levels until Queen Victoria lauded the romanticism of the landscape and clan life, and kilts and tartans became fashionable attire.
With its amalgam of conflicting cultures and languages, Scotland’s nationhood took a very long time to mold itself into its current identity but it does beg the question why so many hold fast to their Celtic heritage over all others and whether Scotland can truly be considered a Celtic nation?
Websites: sistersofthebruce.com; robertthebruce.info