PRE-ROMAN SCOTLAND

Monday, November 3, 2008


The first people to settle in Scotland were Mesolithic foragers who gradually ventured north around 7000 BC after the final retreat of the great ice sheet. Our increasing understanding of Scotland’s rich archaeological record allows us to trace how the landscape was shaped by the descendants of these men and women and by the descendants of those who were to join them over the succeeding millennia in exploiting its natural resources. Any starting point for a ‘history’ of the people of Scotland can be only arbitrary, but the appearance of a first surviving fragment of language seems somehow to intensify our connection to the otherwise mute populations of our ancient past. The first documentary reference to Scotland, the first name we can apply, derives from an account of a voyage undertaken by the Greek mariner Pytheas about 320 BC. He mentions the name of the most northerly cape of the island of Britain: Orcas. That this Celtic word, apparently derived from the name of the local tribe, ‘the young boars’, survived to give modern ‘Orkney’ shows that it had real local currency and was not merely an external label. It probably implies that there were Celtic-speakers in the far north as early as the fourth century BC. This first reference, however, is precocious and we must wait almost four hundred years for further names to fill out the picture. When these come, in the first century AD, they show unequivocally that by the time of the first encounter with Rome a form of Celtic language was spoken all over Scotland, even in the extreme north and west. The handful of apparently pre-Celtic names, for instance Ebudai (the source of our ‘Hebrides’), do not alter this picture. They reflect, not the survival of separate populations of pre-Celtic descent, but rather elements of an Early Prehistoric inheritance within the common (Celtic) culture of the Scottish Iron Age, in much the same way as modern place-names of Gaelic origin in, say, Fife or Aberdeenshire reflect the Celtic heritage of these now English-speaking regions.


There is much debate among archaeologists and historians concerning the correlations, if any, between the ethnic labels applied by external observers to the late prehistoric peoples of north-western Europe and their observed social and political structures, art, material culture, religion, and language. It is clearly significant, however, that places, persons, and tribes in Scotland mentioned in classical sources have Celtic names. Moreover, familiar elements of pagan Celtic religion can be glimpsed in, for example, dedications to Celtic divinities such as Lugos and in places named nemeton ‘sacred place/shrine’. A religious practice of far longer standing, the ritual deposition of material in pits, bogs, and rivers, has ensured the preservation of most of the fine objects to survive from this period. These technically impressive and aesthetically appealing pieces of ‘Caledonian’ metalwork are decorated in the international art style known as ‘La Tène’. The spiral ornamented war-gear (swords, horse-trappings, and battle-trumpets), jewellery, and mirrors comprise the portable wealth of a Celtic warrior aristocracy concerned with armed conflict and the ostentatious display of wealth about the person. In this increasingly competitive world it is perhaps no coincidence that the first named Scotsman, the leader of the Caledonians against the Roman army at Mons Graupius, had a name, Calgacus, meaning ‘swordsman’.


In the early centuries of the first millennium, native society was undergoing profound political and social change. We see in the heightened development of social inequality and hierarchy the emergence of what anthropologists might term a ‘chiefdom society’. The appearance of souterrains (large underground stores) in the eastern mainland is but one reflection of ongoing attempts to maximize the extraction of wealth from the land and concentrate it in the hands of the few. All over Scotland, small-scale power structures founded on face-to-face relations were being superseded by far-reaching systems of control, distant authority delegated to local leaders in return for a share of the tribute. The rise and fall of the famous brochs are an architectural manifestation of the beginning of this trend away from the intensive and towards the extensive exercise of power, as hierarchies of space within a settlement (internally differentiated sites of similar form throughout the landscape) were replaced by new hierarchies between settlements (major centres controlling dependent sites). Political units, however, remained comparatively small. Identity was vested at the level of the tribe whose members might have numbered only a few thousand. Writing in the early second century AD, the Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria lists sixteen tribes in northern Britain, including the Uotadini (Lothian), Epidii (Argyll), and the Smertae (Sutherland), but there were surely more. The greater tribal confederacies glimpsed in the classical sources were loose and ephemeral, a response to the intervention of the Roman army and lasting only as long as the military threat.

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