Scotland the Brave: Part One

A quick note: this post is not intended to be an exhaustive history of Scotland — I glossed over some things for brevity’s sake and summarized where I could.

When the average person thinks of Scotland, they usually picture something like this:

Plaid and poofy red hair.

Or this:

A bagpipes

Mmmm…. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or even this:

Irish Flag

Whoops. Irish Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of Braveheart and Mel painting himself blue, most people don’t know that much about Scotland. I’ve had people tell me it was part of Ireland and/or ask if it was its own island. D’oh.

Some people will brighten at the mention of Scotland and say something about castles and golf, whisky or mountains — or they’ll burst into their proud version of a not-so-Scottish brogue and beam. When this happens, I usually sit back on my heels and wonder how America became a world power for a moment. Then I remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bite my lip, say a small prayer to the FSM for the US school system, and go about my day.

In case you’re wondering, Scotland is here:

Location map of Great Britain and Ireland, wit...

It’s the bit at the top of the big island! Location map of Great Britain and Ireland, without national borders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is, Scotland has a long and fascinating history. People have been there for a rather long time. When the Egyptians were building their pyramids, the ancient settlers of Scotland had already erected massive stone circles like this one:

The Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar, Mainland Orkney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the last 10,000 years, there have been people there. It wasn’t until the times of the Roman Empire that the rest of the “civilized world” noticed, however. The Romans took heed when they ran into crazed, naked barbarians whilst attempting to bring all of the island of Great Britain into their empire, then prudently opted to instead build a wall to keep said barbarians out.

Those crazy Picts are the ones who would paint themselves blue with woad and go naked into battle screaming at the tops of their lungs. They had discovered, and rightly so, that yelling like banshees startled even regimented soldiers. I’ve no doubt that the Picts returned to their hearths and had a few laughs about the look on their opponents faces. Around the 5th century, the Gaels (Scoti) arrived from Ireland, and with the charming vikings graciously bestowing their red hair genes along the coastlines of Scotland, the various tribes of the land eventually settled into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century.

Gaelic became the language of Scotland — not to be confused with Irish, which is the language of Ireland. They are discrete languages, though they share some common vocabulary and grammatical structure. They bear similarities that can be approximated by the relationship between French and Italian — they’re not mutually intelligible, but knowing one can help you learn the other. Capiche?

The Gaelic language became an integral part of Scottish culture. By the time Scotland became a kingdom, Gaelic was the vernacular of the country. Scotland was also a tribal, clan-centered society. Contrary to common beliefs, clan did not always correspond to bloodlines, but people could be adopted into clans by their allegiance to the laird of the clan. Early (prehistoric) Scotland seems to have followed an interesting form of matrilineal succession — something that I’m curious to research more.

Music and stories (both in Gaelic) were the cornerstones of their culture. Prior to the Roman invasion, Scottish history was seldom recorded with the exception of a few remnants of ogham writing carved into stones and trees (a rather cumbersome way of marking territory). The tribes and clans of Scotland followed oral traditions for thousands of years, passing down legends and stories from generation to generation.

The Ogham Stone, , , Scotland. Not very photog...

And so Scotland progressed for several hundred years until the folks in London decided they fancied ruling the entire island and that those yokels in the north were in their way. I’ll let you watch Braveheart to get the gist of it (or you could read a history book and learn it for realsies), but we’re going to skip ahead to the 18th century when the genetics of the royal world skipped around in a circle, did a twirl, and plunked King James VI of Scotland on the English throne. You might know this guy better as King James I (apparently the previous five generations of his name didn’t exist to London), known for getting that big religious book translated into English and printed into perpetual bestseller-dom.

I’m sure a lot of head-scratching ensued when the two countries realized they now had the same king. And if you know your 18th century British history at all, you’ll know that James’s son Charles had some head-keeping issues to deal with later.

Back on the farm, however, there were a great many Scots (primarily in the Highlands) who didn’t take too kindly to their Catholic king governing a Protestant and historically hostile nation to the south. In 1715, these Scots (called Jacobites, because they supported James II of Scotland’s claim to the thrown after the Scottish parliament deposed him — they were rather a divine right, direct succession sort of folks) staged an uprising protesting the 1707 Act of the Union. This uprising was squished, but it paved the way for what happened thirty years later.

After the religious turmoil that took over England during the reign of Cromwell following the execution of King Charles, the Jacobites wanted to place Charles Edward Stuart back on the throne. The son of the exiled Prince James III, the Jacobites preferred a Catholic monarch (and one of the Stuart bloodline). To make a long, bloody, and painful story shorter, the Highland Scots were outnumbered and out-gunned, and at the battle of Culloden in 1745, the English defeated the Jacobite cause. Bonnie Prince Charlie fled back to France, and what happened to to the Highland Scots is one of the more nasty periods of Anglo-Gaelic interactions.

The immediate retaliation against the Scots was swift and brutal. Homes burned, women raped, livestock butchered, children killed. Many highlanders fled the country for America, Canada, and Australia. Those who remained were subject to the Disarming Act, which forbade Scots from owning weapons, and the Dress Act, which forbade Scots from wearing tartans or kilts. In addition to this, their gatherings were limited to no more than six people, and the Gaelic language was outlawed. In the last three hundred years, the speaking of the Gaelic language has receded into only the northwest highlands and islands of Scotland.

What does all this have to do with me? Why does it matter? It matters because these are my people, and their history is also mine. It matters because with the loss of the Gaelic language, the music and the stories that had been passed down for generations evaporated. The storytelling culture of Scotland has all but been eradicated.

It matters because there is a growing desire in me to not only learn the Gaelic and Welsh languages of my predecessors, but to seek out the stories, the music, the memories and the history of our people. Because if there is anything I have learned from my own family, with both sides adamantly claiming Scottish ancestry when I had to go back nearly twenty generations to find it, it’s that stories have power. And that even after generations, those stories can remain, sometimes surfacing as the only tantalizing clue to the past.

And besides, a Scot is a Scot, even unto a hundred generations.

What stories have you learned from your family? What has been passed down to you?


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Gaelic Language, Scotland, Scottish Culture, Scottish History, Thorsday. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Loved this, Emmie! I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the west coast of Scotland, which is steeped in Viking lore. A lot of the Highland names come from the Norse — MacLeod, MacAuley, MacIver — and lots of place names. It’s fascinating.

    • Absolutely — that heritage is even more pronounced if you go to Orkney or Shetland. I spent a bit of time on Skye the last time I was there. I can’t wait to go back, hopefully sooner rather than later.

  2. Great post Emmie, It’s funny you should blog about this as the CD i’ve been awaiting for the last two months has finally clattered through my letter box. Its called ‘Orkney Symphony of The Magnetic North’

  3. A very enlightening post, ye bonnie lass *written in my not-so-Scottish brogue and beam*. I’m glad to hear you encouraging your gentle readers to value their family stories. That’s a major interest of mine and something I always speak about when I have the opportunity. So many important stories become lost forever and the more we encourage families to record them, the better! For people with some vague information of names and dates, the website is a good place to begin putting together puzzle pieces. I hope your wish to return to Scotland comes true soon!

    • I’ve actually been on Ancestry a ton lately — I’ve traced a few branches of my family tree as far back as the 12th century! It’s kind of amazing to see how much you can learn.

  4. All I can say is, you should teach history, missy. I think a lot more kids would be paying attention to have things presented in your delightful and humorous tone. You’ve got a knack for explanation, you know.

    That said: HURRAH FOR SCOTLAND. Also: Scots forever (though no, so sorry, I’m still just too far removed to attempt the kilt thing.)

  5. Loved getting a brief overview of Scotland, a country I don’t know much about. Thanks! And I’m really enjoying all of your travel-related posts that you’ve been doing lately.

  6. Thanks for such an in depth look at the country and culture. I spent two weeks hiking around the Highlands and wish I could get back. A beautiful and wonderful country.

  7. Keith "Popeye" Rayeski

    The one exception I have, is the assertion that the US became a super power because we brutalized Japan. That is historically and factually wrong HOWEVER, I hope we can stay focused on Scotland…that’s why we are here and you do an amazing service to that struggle. I don’t know enough about Scottish politics but I am 100% conservative and totally abhorred of liberalism! But I am also a Scot! I was adopted at 12 years of age but my genealogy is Munro (Monro) and of the highlands. I am proud to be Scottish and hope to one day see her free as she should be. And, I love your site!!

  8. Keith "Popeye" Rayeski

    Oh, one other thing, I have not yet purchased a kilt, but will and will THEN, be proud to wear it!

  1. Pingback: Scotland the Brave Part Two: The Painted Ones « Emmie Mears

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