Scotland: The Story of a Nation

Scotland: The Story of a Nation

by Magnus Magnusson


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Hailed as a “vast, superb history [that] relates Scotland’s past over a dozen millennia” ( Kirkus Reviews ), Magnusson draws on a great deal of modern scholarship to redefine a nation’s history. He charts the long struggle toward nationhood, explores the roots of the original Scots, and examines the extent to which Scotland was shaped by the Romans, the Picts, the Vikings, and the English. Encompassing everything from the first Mesolithic settlers in 7000 B.C. to the present movements for independence, Scotland: The Story of a Nation is history on an epic level, essential reading for anyone interested in the rich past of this captivating land.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802139320
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/17/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 752
Sales rank: 332,325
Product dimensions: 8.76(w) x 6.02(h) x 1.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


England is the southern, and Scotland is the northern part of the celebrated island called Great Britain. England is greatly larger than Scotland, and the land is much richer, and produces better crops. There are also a great many more men in England, and both the gentlemen and the country people are more wealthy, and have better food and clothing there than in Scotland. The towns, also, are much more numerous, and more populous.

Scotland, on the contrary, is full of hills, and huge moors and wildernesses, which bear no corn, and afford but little food for flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. But the level ground that lies along the great rivers is more fertile, and produces good crops. The natives of Scotland are accustomed to live more hardily in general than those of England.


* * *

For three billion years Scotland was on a collision course with England.

    I am talking in terms of geology. Scotland's geological past involves a barely believable story in which whole continents moved around like croutons floating half-submerged in a bowl of thick soup; a story of great oceans forming and disappearing like seasonal puddles, of mighty mountains being thrown up and worn down, of formidable glaciers and ice-caps advancing and retreating behind mile-thick walls of ice as they melted andreformed again. Scotland itself has been a desert, a swamp, a tropical rainforest, and a desert again; it has drifted north over the planet with an ever-changing cargo of lizards, dinosaurs, tropical forests, giant redwoods, sharks, bears, lynx, giant elk, wolves — and also, in the last twinkling of an eye in the geological time-scale, human beings.

    And always it was on that inexorable collision course with England.

    In their learned writings, geologists tend to toss millions of years around like confetti. About three billion years ago what is now (largely speaking) 'Scotland' was part of a continent known as Laurentia, one of the many differently-sized 'plates' which moved slowly around the surface of the globe. Some eight hundred million years ago it was lying in the centre of another super-continent thirty degrees south of the equator. Over aeons of time it wandered the southern hemisphere before drifting north across the equator. By six hundred million years ago Scotland was attached to the North American continent, separated by an ocean called Iapetus from the southerly part of what was to become Britain and which was then attached to the European continent.

    And then, some sixty million years ago, the Iapetus ocean began to close. North Britain and South Britain came together, roughly along the line of Hadrian's Wall. That collision produced the Britain we know today (although it was still connected to Europe). But the weld continued to be subject to stress and strain long after the land masses had locked together: over a three-million-year period a chain of volcanoes erupting off the western seaboard of Scotland created many of the islands of the Hebrides, including Skye, Mull, Arran, Ailsa Craig, St Kilda and Rum.

    The foundation of history is geology and its related subject of geomorphology. The underlying rock has shaped the landscape and has influenced, through the soil, the kind of plants, animals, birds and insects in every part of the countryside; it has thereby shaped the lives and livelihoods of the human communities which have lived here.

    Agriculture would flourish on the productive farmland on the flatter east coast of Scotland. The more mountainous landscape of the west with its thin, acid soils was suitable only for subsistence husbandry. In the Central Belt of Scotland the abundance of coal and oil-shale entombed in the underlying rocks fuelled the Industrial Revolution and would foster the growth of the iron, steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding industries.

    Edinburgh Castle, at the heart of what became the nation of Scotland, would be built on the eroded roots of a volcano which had erupted some 340 million years ago, when Scotland still lay south of the equator. Castle Rock itself was carved into a classic crag-and-tail shape by the gouging passage of ice during the last glaciation.

    When Sir Walter Scott opened his Tales of a Grandfather with his summary description of the difference between Scotland and England, the modern science of geology was in its infancy (that science, incidentally, was created by Scotsmen like James Hutton and Sir Charles Lyell. Scott did not know why Scotland was so different from England; it took the pioneers of geology to explain it.

The first people in Scotland (c.7000 BC)

One day in the early 1980s a ploughman was working on a potato field near the village of Kinloch, at the head of Loch Scresort on the island of Rum in the Inner Hebrides. As his ploughshare turned over the soil, he caught sight of a beautiful barbed and tanged stone arrowhead. He reported the find at once, and in 1984-85 archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones conducted an excavation of the area on behalf of Historic Scotland. What she unearthed was the earliest human settlement site yet discovered in Scotland, dating from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, nearly nine thousand years ago.

    It was a large camp-site rather than a formal settlement: arcs of stake-holes indicated the locations of several shelters, and there were many traces of fires and broken hearth-stones as well as numerous pits and hollows. These first 'Scots' had built small tent-like shelters out of wood, brushwood and skins; they made hearths on which they could prepare food and even smoke meat and fish to keep for the winter. The climate at that time was moist and relatively warm — perhaps 2°C warmer than today; much of the island was covered by open heathlands with shrubs of juniper and bog myrtle, but there was also light, low-canopied woodland, while copses of birch and hazel flourished in the more sheltered areas. Remains of carbonised hazelnut shells showed that nuts were an important part of the early inhabitants' diet.

    The most significant find at Kinloch was the discovery of an assemblage of more than 140,000 stone tools and discarded flint-like material. The Mesolithic dwellers on Rum had made a variety of tools from stone, including microlithic ('small stone') arrowheads, scrapers, awls, blades and flakes. They used flint which they collected as pebbles from the beaches; but they also had access to a good knapping stone known as bloodstone, which has similar properties to flint. The source of the Rum bloodstone was on the west coast of the island, ten kilometres from the Kinloch settlement: Bloodstone Hill (Creag nan Steàrnan).

    Good-quality stone for tools is rare in Scotland, and the presence of bloodstone made Rum very special to the early inhabitants of the western seaboard; we know from archaeological sites elsewhere that people from many of the surrounding islands and the adjoining mainland used bloodstone from Rum for their tools.

    Such were the first known inhabitants of prehistoric Scotland. They had moved up from the south (i.e. England) soon after the end of the last Ice Age, ten thousand years ago, during the Mesolithic period. This sounds very ancient indeed, but it is worth remembering that hunter-gatherers had been living in England for at least four thousand years before that; and in the much warmer climate of the Middle East, people were already living in cities and experimenting with woollen textiles, metal-working, pottery and the irrigation of farmlands.

    The Mesolithic incomers to Scotland were not 'settlers', as such. They were small family groups or communities of nomadic people who lived by hunting, fishing and gathering plants; they would establish camps where they could spend the winter and then make forays in pursuit of deer herds in the spring and summer. They made tools and weapons of stone, they used fire for cooking and warmth, and they dressed in animal skins. They were mobile on both land and sea, and soon established barter-links with other semi-permanent communities.

    It is impossible to say how large the Mesolithic population of Scotland was, but several sites have already been identified at places like Morton on Tentsmuir, north of St Andrews and at various other places from Grampian to Argyll.

    The Mesolithic period in Scotland lasted for about four thousand years, and merged into the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period around 3000 BC. By then the last land-link between south-east England and the Continent was submerged, and Britain had become an island. This change had involved an influx of new people from the south, people who started to clear the forests and farm the land. There were now permanent communities, such as the marvellous Neolithic village of Skara Brae, on Orkney.

Skara Brae, Orkney (3100-2600 BC)

In the winter of 1850 a ferocious storm stripped the turf from a high sand-dune known as Skara Brae in the Bay of Skaill, on the west coast of mainland Orkney. An immense midden was exposed, as well as a semi-subterranean warren of ancient stone buildings. What came to light in that storm turned out to be the best-preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe. And not only was it perfectly preserved — it was the earliest in Europe as well: the village of Skara Brae was inhabited around 3100 BC, more than half a millennium before the Great Pyramid of Egypt was built (2500 BC), and long before Stonehenge (2000 BC).

    A splendid new £900,000 Visitor Centre was opened in April 1998. It had taken ten years to plan and build, and it provides a graphic introduction to the story of Skara Brae, using interactive computer images and a replica of one of the original stone houses. But nothing can match the extraordinary experience of seeing the place for oneself.

    The 'village' comprises half a dozen separate houses and some associated structures, including a very large workshop for manufacturing stone tools. The houses are spacious and cellular, connected by covered passage-lanes. The village was deliberately embedded into the congealed mass of the midden up to roof height, to provide stability and insulation. The walls were made of local Orkney flagstone, which is easily worked and splits naturally into building slabs. All the fittings and furnishings were also fashioned from flagstone — the kitchen dressers, the cupboards, the shelves, the compartments for the beds. Some of the houses had under-floor drains for indoor sanitation.

    The houses are roofless now. Visitors walk along the tops of the walls and look down into the interiors of the houses. There is a startling sense of intimacy, peering down into these comfortable, well-furnished homes: it is easy to imagine the families who lived there for some twenty generations, from 3100 to 2600 BC. The village evokes a vivid sense of immediacy, of instant identity with that close-knit, self-sufficient farming and fishing community.

    They lived well. The womenfolk owned a lot of jewellery (necklaces, pendants and pins made from bone, as well as ivory and pumice) which they kept in a recess above the bed. They cooked with homemade pottery on a square stone-built hearth in the centre of the room. Farming consisted of keeping cattle and sheep and a few pigs, and growing barley; the sea provided cod and saithe, lobsters and crabs, cockles and mussels. The nearby cliffs were a cornucopia of seabirds' eggs. Wind and weather drove whales, dolphins, porpoises and walrus ashore on their doorstep.

    It was a stable, unchanging lifestyle. Then the village was deserted, around 2600 BC — no one knows how or why. There is no archaeological evidence of sudden emergency or destruction.

    The merging of the Neolithic Age into the Bronze Age also saw the flowering of an extraordinary architectural phenomenon — the erection of stone circles and standing stones. On Orkney, not far from Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brogar survive. But the most imposing, and probably the oldest, of the megalithic ('big stone') monuments of Scotland is the great complex at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis — Scotland's 'Stonehenge of the North'.

Calanais (Isle of Lewis): 3000-2000 BC

It used to be called 'Callanish' or 'Callernish'. Before that it was 'Classerniss'. But now the original Gaelic form of the name will be enshrined in the next Ordnance Survey maps of the Western Isles of Scotland, so 'Calanais' it is, officially.

    Calanais on the Isle of Lewis lies at the head of Loch Roag, some twenty-four kilometres west of Stornoway. It was built in stages from about 3000 BC and was certainly completed by 2000 BC. Briefly, it is a circle of thirteen standing stones huddled round a massive central monolith, 4.75 metres high, and a small chambered cairn. A double line or 'avenue' of stones comes in from the north, and ragged tongues protruding from the circle create a rough cruciform shape.

    The importance of Calanais has long been recognised. In the seventeenth century the people of Lewis called the standing stones Fir Bhrèige ('False Men'):

It is left by traditione that these were a sort of men converted into stone by ane Inchanter. Others affirme that they were sett up in places for devotione.


By then the complex had been all but drowned in a layer of peat some 1.5 metres deep. In 1857 the owner of Lewis, Sir James Matheson, ordered the peat to be cleared, and the site became a Mecca for visitors. When the first Ancient Monuments Act was passed in 1882, Calanais was in the primary list of sixty-three prehistoric or later monuments to be scheduled for protection.

    The landscape setting, and the setting of the stones themselves, have changed considerably since then. The local inhabitants, who had lived in a row of crofting houses built in the 1860s at the southern edge of the site, were 'cleared', like the peat. Various excavations of dubious value were undertaken. Early in the 1980s a 'proper' excavation was mounted, led by Patrick Ashmore of Historic Scotland, to clarify the precise positions of fallen and missing stones and to repair and conserve the site; in 1982, in a BBC documentary to celebrate the centenary of the Ancient Monuments Act (Echoes in Stone), I filmed the tricky re-erection of one of the stones at Calanais. There is now a new Calanais Visitor Centre next door to the Edinburgh University Field Centre; here, visitors can find out about the main site before going on to admire the stones in situ.

    Calanais has a special aura of enchantment, of marvel and majesty and mystery. What was it originally intended to be? That is its continuing enigma. A temple? A huge funerary complex? A megalithic astronomical observatory to mark important events in the movements of the sun and the moon and the stars? Or all three, perhaps? The engineering and surveying skills required to construct such a complex monument are astonishing; they argue a high level of sustained social organisation, and the sophisticated and purposeful use of regional power to express ancient beliefs and rituals which we still cannot fathom.

    These beliefs and rituals were given their most impressive and enduring monument in the great prehistoric chambered tomb of Maes Howe, at Tormiston Mill on the Orkney mainland.

Maes Howe on Orkney (3000 BC)

In 1861 an assiduous local antiquary named J. Farrer, along with a friend, George Petrie, dug their way into the heart of a great green mound known as Maes Howe. They had no idea what to expect. First they tried to make their way along the entrance passage. When they found it blocked solid, they broke through a hole in the top of the mound. They dropped into a central chamber choked with clay and stones, and had it cleared by their workmen. What they found disappointed them: it was clearly a burial chamber, with three built-in recesses or cells for bodies, but all they found was a fragment of a human skull and some horse bones and teeth.

    They also discovered, however, that they were not the first 'moderns' to have broken into Maes Howe. In the middle of the twelfth century AD, a band of Norse crusaders ('Jerusalem-farers') had dug a hole in the roof of what they called 'Orkahaug' and dropped in, and the signs of their incursion were still apparent when Farrer and Petrie made their entry. The Norsemen had had their reasons for breaking into the chamber: they knew that the kings of antiquity had been buried in huge burial mounds accompanied by their choicest treasures and weapons, and ransacking burial mounds was a favoured diversion for viking heroes. But the crusaders had found nothing to satisfy their greed in Maes Howe, and had scrawled their disappointment — and their excuses for failure — in runic graffiti on the walls:

To the north-west a great treasure is hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he who finds the great treasure.

It is surely true what I say, that treasure was taken away. Treasure was carried off in three nights before these Jerusalem-farers broke into this howe.

I make no excuses for returning to Orkney on this lightning tour of prehistoric Scotland, for Orkney is an archaeological paradise, with more outstanding monuments and sites than any other part of Britain of similar size. Maes Howe itself, which is acclaimed as the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe, is associated with the Orkney farmers who built the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brogar, and whose ancestors may have lived at Skara Brae. It was built within a century or two of 3000 BC. The mound stands more than seven metres high, and measures thirty-five metres across. The lofty central chamber is relatively small (some 4.6 metres square) and is approached by a low, stone-flagged entry-passage. The passage points south-west, and in the evenings around the shortest day of the year (21 December) the rays of the setting sun shine directly into the burial chamber.

    Maes Howe is a miracle of early engineering. It is built almost entirely of huge flagstone slabs (megaliths), the largest of which weigh more than thirty tonnes. The walls of the central chamber converge in overlapping slabs of stone to form a vaulted ceiling; the final square of space was closed with slabs.

    But Maes Howe has even more to offer than this amazing feat of prehistoric architecture, and for that we have the Norsemen to thank. The graffiti carved by the Orkney crusaders are not the only inscriptions in this fascinating place. After the first Norse break-in, the old burial chamber seems to have become a popular venue for courtship. One boastful inscription states boldly, Thorny bedded: Helgi carved [it]. Another, more gallantly, says, Ingigerð is the sweetest woman there is. Another refers obliquely to the amorous activities of the local merry widow: Ingibjörg the fair widow: many a woman has lowered herself to come in here; a great show-off. Erlingr.

    They form part of the largest collection of runic inscriptions anywhere in the viking world — and the fact that their subject-matter is so commonplace gives them, for me, a special value. These are not the epics of kings and heroes which you find in the Icelandic sagas, but the authentic voices of the ordinary folk who, throughout history, are usually as anonymous as a flock of birds. Maes Howe was the ancient, brooding, mysterious place which the Norsemen of Orkney made their own.

The Broch of Mousa

Round about 2000 BC the advent of the Bronze Age brought another revolutionary social change to Scotland with the introduction of metallurgy. A new metal, bronze, which was tougher than silver or gold or copper, underpinned the development of sophisticated social hierarchies based on wealth and power. Bronze brought about an increase in trade and an increase in the effectiveness of weaponry; and the new weaponry enabled ambitious leaders to indulge in territorial aggression.

    It was now that Scotland made another uniquely Scottish contribution to architecture — the brochs. They were magnificent edifices: tall round towers, with tapering double-skinned dry-stone walls bonded together at intervals by rows of flat slabs. Between the double walls were stairs leading to galleries and small rooms on separate storeys. There was room for livestock at ground level, which had only one small, low and easily defended entrance. There were no windows. The brochs were practically impregnable.

    There are some five hundred brochs, or traces of brochs, still surviving in Scotland. They were built in large numbers in the north, especially in the Northern Isles, the Western Isles and Caithness, with occasional examples in the southern part of the country.

    When were they built, and why? They seem to have originated in Orkney early in the Iron Age, around 200 BC, and were being built until about AD 200, when they were more or less abandoned; their stones were robbed for newer buildings in the farming communities which had been growing around them. They can only have been built as powerful symbols of local authority and prestige, which could also act as strongholds for the local people in times of danger: part refuge, part status symbol.


Excerpted from SCOTLAND by MAGNUS MAGNUSSON. Copyright © 2000 by Magnus Magnusson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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