In the extreme north of Scotland, in the Orkneys, a small neolithic community builds a village in about 2500 BC on a site already occupied for many generations. There is no wood on the island, so the walls of the one-room dwellings are of stone. So is the built-in furniture. There are stone beds and shelves and recessed cupboards, with a hearth in each hut. Low covered passages lead from one dwelling to another. Earth is piled up around to give shelter from the wind. There is even a drain from each of the seven or eight houses, leading to a common sewer.
A sudden disaster of some kind causes Skara Brae to be abandoned. Rapidly covered by sand, it is preserved intact until unearthed in 1850.
Pre-Roman Scotland: to the 1st century AD
In the neolithic period Scotland shares with the Atlantic coast of Europe the tradition of massive stone architecture, of which Skara Brae is a rare domestic example. The isle of Lewis provides a magnificent example of standing stones at Callanish, where the stone circle is in use as a temple of some kind well into the bronze age (until about 1200 BC).
Like the rest of the British Isles, the region is subject to successive waves of immigrants from the continent of Europe. The most significant are the Beaker people and the Celts. The first written accounts of Scotland are by the Romans after their invasion of Britain. They list several tribes, of which the Caledonii are the most important.
Picts and Scots: 3rd – 9th century AD
With the frontier of the Roman empire established along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, the tribes to the north are free to engage in their own power struggles largely undisturbed by Roman interference.
Gradually a new tribal group establishes a dominant position. They are the Picts, first mentioned in a Roman document of the 3rd century as the Picti. This may be a version of their own name for themselves, or it may mean that they tattoo their bodies (picti, Latin for ‘painted people’). Theirs seems not to have been an Indo-European language, so they may have been indigenous people asserting themselves over the Celtic intruders.
The Picts, in their turn, are subdued by Celts – not from within Scotland but from overseas. In the 5th century a Celtic tribe from northern Ireland begins to settle on the west coast of Scotland. They are the Scots. (It is one of the endearing oddities of British history that the original Scots are northern Irish).
The Scots establish a kingdom, by the name of Dalriada, on both sides of the water. By the 9th century Dalriada in Ireland has succumbed to raids by Vikings. But from within Dalriada in Scotland there emerges the first Scottish dynasty. The kings of this line establish themselves, over two centuries, against constant Viking pressure from all sides.
The Vikings and the British Isles: 9th – 10th century AD
The coasts of the British isles are now dotted with monasteries, not yet rich by the standards of medieval monasticism but with sufficient wealth to attract Viking marauders. One of the most famous islands, Iona, is raided three times in a decade (in 795, 802 and 805). Even monasteries which seem secure, pleasantly sited on inland rivers, fall victim to Viking longships rowing upstream. But gradually, during the 9th century, the raiders settle.
Soon all the Scottish islands and the Isle of Man are in Viking hands, and the intruders are even seizing territory on the mainland of both Britain and Ireland. In 838 Norwegians capture Dublin and establish a Norse kingdom in Ireland. From 865 the Danes settle in eastern England.
At this time the territory securely in the hands of the Scots and Picts extends only from the great rift of Loch Ness down to the firths of Clyde and Forth. North of this central region, the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, together with much of the mainland, are in the hands of Vikings from Norway. In the southwest the border region of Strathclyde is often under threat from the Norwegian Vikings of Dublin. In the southeast Lothian is another border region. Until recently part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, it is exposed to the Danish Vikings, whose capital city is York.
But at least by now, in the mid-9th century, there is a recognizable Scottish kingdom.
The MacAlpin dynasty: AD 843-1057
The love of early historians for precise turning points has caused the year 843 to be selected as the starting date of the Scottish kingdom. It is said to be the year in which Kenneth MacAlpin, already king of the Scots (since 840), is accepted also as king of the Picts. In reality the merging of the two kingdoms seems to have been a gradual process throughout the 9th century.
The significant fact is that Kenneth’s male descendants provide kings in Scotland for the next two centuries; and during the early part of that period a separate Pictish kingdom fades from view. The name of Kenneth’s father is said to be Alpin. So he and his descendants are known as MacAlpin.
An indication of the conscious merging of the Picts and Scots under one rule is the use of Scone as the royal site of the MacAlpin dynasty. Situated in the east of Scotland (by contrast with the western base of the Scots in Dalriada), it has been strongly associated with the Pictish kings. Tradition maintains that as a gesture of unified rule Kenneth MacAlpin brings to Scone the sacred coronation stone, known now as the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny.
The MacAlpin kings win no territory from the Vikings on their northern borders. But they do significantly extend the boundaries of Scotland in the south.
During the MacAlpin dynasty the border regions of Strathclyde and Lothian are firmly established as Scottish.
In 945 the English king Edmund I subdues the independent kingdom of Strathclyde and then declares it subject to the king of Scotland; when the last king of Strathclyde dies, in about 1025, the region is merged with the Scottish realm. Similarly the English king Edgar, in 973, accepts Scottish control of Lothian – a state of affairs subsequently emphasized by a resounding Scottish victory over the English at Carham in 1018.
Duncan and Macbeth: AD 1034-1057
The death of Malcolm II in 1034 causes a succession crisis in the MacAlpin dynasty and a civil war in Scotland. He has only a daughter, Bethoc, whose son Duncan succeeds to the throne. But Duncan is challenged by Macbeth, also descended in the female line from the royal family.
Contrary to Shakespeare’s version of the story, Duncan is a young man – probably younger than Macbeth – and Macbeth may have an equally good claim to the throne (there is no precedent in the dynasty for inheritance through a female line). Nor does Macbeth murder Duncan in his bed; he kills him in battle near Elgin in 1040.
Macbeth reigns seventeen years as the king of Scotland (or king of Scots, in the more authentic phrase), and on the whole he rules well. Indeed the kingdom is calm enough for him to go on pilgrimage in 1050 to Rome, where he is said to have demonstrated his status by ‘scattering money like seed’.
Duncan’s son, Malcolm, eventually rises against Macbeth and kills him, in a battle at Lumphanan in 1057. Both men are members of the MacAlpin dynasty, and the fact that Macbeth is buried in the holy island of Iona suggests that his contemporaries do not consider him a usurper. Macbeth is immediately succeeded by his stepson, Lulach. But Malcolm kills him too, in an ambush in 1058, before himself being crowned at Scone.
The Scottish kingdom: AD 1058-1286
The Scottish crown remains in the family of Malcolm III for more than two centuries. During this time Scotland becomes more prosperous and more civilized, with the founding of great monasteries in the southern parts of the country.
Meanwhile the north is gradually recovered from the Vikings. A turning point is the battle of Largs, in 1263. The king of Norway lands a fleet to assert his long-standing right over the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. He is defeated by the Scottish king, Alexander III. In 1266, at a treaty agreed in Perth, the Norwegians cede the western isles to the Scottish king. Only the Shetlands and Orkneys remain in Norse hands.
The most significant theme during these reigns is the relationship of the Scottish kings with their Norman neighbours to the south. It is one of considerable complexity, involving both cooperation and hostility. In several generations the royal families of Scotland and England intermarry. The Scottish kings give land and power to great Norman families. They introduce into Scotland the structures of Norman Feudalism.
Yet at the same time the border between the two kingdoms is a region of almost constant warfare. And the relationship between the kings themselves is one of prolonged struggle within a feudal framework.
The kings of England like to consider the Scottish kings their vassals, and at certain periods this status is accepted in Scotland – most notably for a while after 1174. In that year William the Lion is captured raiding into Northumberland. After a humiliating journey south, with his feet tied beneath his horse, he is imprisoned by Henry II. He is released only when he does homage to the English king ‘for Scotland and all his other lands’.
In the long run neither side prevails in this uneasy relationship, until matters are brought to a head by a vacancy on the Scottish throne. In 1286 Alexander III dies. His only heir is Margaret, a young Norwegian princess, the child of his deceased daughter Margaret and of Eric II, king of Norway.