A New History of Scotland Part 3: Were the Scots Irish?

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by Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

This is the title of an article published in Antiquity magazine in 2000 by Ewan Campbell of Glasgow University.  Most histories of Scotland happily accept the idea that the Scots, the Gaelic-speaking tribes that comprised the kingdom of  Dalriada, in Argyll, came over from Ulster around the year 500CE.  It is simply one of the ‘facts’ of history that everyone knows – and there’s the problem – everybody knows it but what if they’re all wrong?

 

 

by Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

This is the title of an article published in Antiquity magazine in 2000 by Ewan Campbell of Glasgow University.  Most histories of Scotland happily accept the idea that the Scots, the Gaelic-speaking tribes that comprised the kingdom of  Dalriada, in Argyll, came over from Ulster around the year 500CE.  It is simply one of the ‘facts’ of history that everyone knows – and there’s the problem – everybody knows it but what if they’re all wrong?

Campbell makes the point that the first reference to the Scots having originated in Ireland isn’t mentioned anywhere till two centuries later.  It is perhaps helpful to remember that before the arrival of Christianity there is no evidence of literature in Scotland.  Effectively this means the arrival of Columba, who it is believed set up his monastery on Iona around 563.  

Campbell considers other evidence apart from written sources.  He finds there is no archaeological evidence, either in buildings or artefacts, to support the idea that an invasion of Scots from Ulster ever took place.  He also tells us there is no evidence to suggest any pre-Gaelic, or Pictish place names around the Scottish capital of Dunadd  in Kilmartin Glen, which is what we would expect if an earlier group of inhabitants were replaced.  He believes there is no such evidence to be found.

So we find ourselves in a situation where there is no contemporary historical evidence, even Adomnan writing his Life of Columba thirty years before Bede gives us the story of the Scots’ Irish origins, mentions no such invasion.  It seems there is no real evidence for such an invasion, one of the cornerstones of what most of us think of as Scottish history. How has this happened?  Well if we accept Campbell’s suggestions –the article is online at www.electricscotland.com/history/articles/scotsirish.htm – what was going on?

Recent revisiting of the past makes it clear that old idea that the seas were a barrier to human movement are simply wrong, the seas were in fact more like a highway.  And it is of some relevance that the coast of Ireland is visible form Arran, Kintyre, Galloway and other parts of Scotland.  It would therefore be silly to think there was no contact across the North Channel of the Irish Sea.  Such contact had been going on for millennia before Columba’s time and we should perhaps be thinking of the likelihood of a society that was based around communication by water that included both sides of the Sheuch.

Campbell goes so far as to suggest that the most significant influence may have in fact have been from Scotland to Ireland.  But why would anyone want to make us think that one of Scotland’s indigenous peoples – which seems an unavoidable conclusion if Campbell is right – came from another land?  Bearing in mind that history is always susceptible to the needs of propaganda, what we should ask ourselves is ‘cui bono’, who benefits.

Bede was first and foremost Christian cleric, and given that Columba is accepted as the founder of Christianity in Scotland, emphasising the Irish connection could be seen as strengthening the Christian position.  Remembering that there are reports of pagan practices in Scotland up to at least the seventeenth century it is likely there was much more back in the eighth century.  There wee also plenty foreign pagans around too – called Vikings!

However there is another significant, and generally ignored aspect to this.. Dunadd, the capital of Dalriada, sits right in the middle of Kilmartin Gen, one of the most important early sacred landscapes in Europe, a place that had been the site of pre-Christian ritual for millennia before Columba was exiled from Ireland for causing trouble among his own people.  Back in the day, It was always Christian policy, to take over the “pagan precincts’ and raise their churches on their sites, but this would be impossible with the whole of Kilmartin Glen.  If the Scots were truly native there, they would have been the people who were the tradition bearers and custodians of the cairns, circles, standing stones and rock art of the area.  And the stones there had been first raised in the 4th millennium BCE.

By telling a story that the people there had only arrived a couple of generations before Columba, that link with the past would be broken.  And that new story, even if it took time to take hold, was in the form of writing.  After all this time it is unclear how exactly all this may have come about, but it does perhaps make sense and underlines that old cliché – history is written by winners.  Realising that the Scots may well have been as much indigenous as the Picts may also help explain their combined assault on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond in 360 CE, known to the Romans as the Barbarian Conspiracy.

Bede also informs us that the Picts originally settled in Scotland following the advice of the Irish, and that they were given wives by them too.  This can be seen as part of the same process of ‘spin’, talking up Ireland and diminishing the role of the indigenous peoples of Scotland.  After all Bede’s Northumbria had been originally Christianised by monks from Iona.  And from Bede’s point of view the interests of the Christian church were paramount – it hardly makes him a bad man but did lead to bad history.