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Trisha Hughes

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THE TARTAN KINGS

 

Geologists tell us that Scotland has been on a collision course with England for billions of years. They toss millions of years around like confetti when they tell us that Scotland’s geological past involves a barely believable story of whole continents moving around like croutons half submerged in a bowl of soup. It’s a story of great oceans forming and disappearing like seasonal puddles. It’s a story of mountains being thrown up and worn down, of formidable glaciers and icecaps advancing and retreating behind mile-thick walls of ice as they melted and reformed again. Scotland 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 dinosaurs, giant redwoods, sharks, bears, lynx, giant elk, wolves. And also, in the last twinkling of an eye in the geological time-scale, human beings. But always on this unavoidable collision course with England.

Some eight hundred million years ago Scotland was lying in the centre of another super-continent thirty degrees south of the equator. Over eons 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.

Then, some sixty million years ago, the Iapetus ocean began to close. North Britain and South Britain gradually came together, roughly along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, and that collision produced the Britain we know today, although it was still connected to Europe. But the weld continued to be subject to stress after the land masses had locked together and 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. Edinburgh Castle itself 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 was carved by the gouging passage of ice during the last glaciation.

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

The story of Scotland begins much like the story of England with a race of people struggling to survive. Look in the mirror and you’ll see thousands of years of history looking straight back at you because written into our facial features are stories that go back countless generations. We look as we do through our genes, handed down through the centuries of conquest and bloody war.

The earliest evidence of people in Scotland comes from flint artefacts from around 12,000 BC with flint arrowheads at Howburn Farm indicating a hunter-gatherer population. Mostly nomadic, following seasonal rhythms of prey, they lived in groups of 10 to 20 with larger kinship networks.

 

Around 4,000 BC, evidence of new stone tools suggests an emerging farming economy, with the population producing enough food, such as wheat and barley, to stay in a particular location. 

Copper and tin were discovered around 2,000 BC and the Bronze Age began when men with bronze could easily defeat men brandishing sticks and stones to protect themselves. But then the unimaginable happened. Bronze was dumped when iron was discovered and it could not be disputed that for smashing skulls, iron was certainly best.

This was a society of farmers and fishermen, speaking a Celtic language and living in scattered settlements strewn across the countryside, holding their main allegiance to local chiefs. These simple people owned sheep, pigs and cattle and grew oats and barley. But they still struggled to survive.

At this time in history, Egypt was also suffering its own crisis within the Ptolemian empire where a fourteen-year-old girl by the name of Cleopatra was growing up in an Egypt full of turmoil. Seven years later, the vivacious twenty-one-year-old needed an ally to help her expel her brother, Ptolemy, from the Egyptian throne. 

No one has ever called Cleopatra a wallflower. True to her legend, she rolled herself up in a carpet and had herself delivered as a present to Caesar, who at the time had troubles of his own after defeating his rival, Pompey, in a civil war. The rest, so they say, is history.

Imagine 52-year-old Caesar watching the carpet unroll and from within, a scantily-clothed, and let’s admit it, precocious, guileful Cleopatra, unfolded herself. She would have stopped at nothing to excite the aging Caesar and within a short time, he became her pawn, completely besotted with her, not necessarily by her beauty, which has been greatly exaggerated by Hollywood, but by her wit and intelligence. The fact that he was disastrously in debt after the civil war, and Cleopatra was possibly the richest woman in the world at the time, would certainly have been a dangling carrot to him.

The next three years hurtled ahead for Cleopatra. Within one year, she was pregnant with Caesar’s twins and firmly seated on the Egyptian throne. One year later, she would deliver a son to Caesar and barely a year after that, Caesar would be assassinated.

This dynasty grew, as did Rome’s influence and power, throughout Europe. Eighty years later, in 43 AD, Emperor Claudius in Rome had been watching and hearing interesting stories about a green island over a passage of water to the west of Gaul. It was an attractive target and he began planning a conquest with a massive invasion. 

If things were hard for the Britons before, life was about to get even worse when they came up against the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Romans was on the march and things were about to turn ugly.

Emperor Claudius arrived in full Roman splendour with reinforcements, including elephants, and while some of the natives made reluctant deals with him, some fought savagely for their freedom and independence. It took the Romans a full thirty-four years of gradual advancement to become master of this new province they called Britannia and by 79 AD, all of England and Wales had been subdued. Only the far north remained – the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland. 

To the Romans, these were the Badlands inhabited by ferocious tribes with ‘reddish hair and large limbs’ and the newly appointed Governor of the Province of Britannia, Julius Agricola, turned his mind to an invasion of the untamed barbarians with a vigorous policy of subduing the native tribes north of Wales beyond current Roman control. In 83 AD he launched his blitzkrieg. 

In those early days, to have a massive army of crack Roman infantrymen supported by cavalry and squadrons of battle-hardened auxiliaries amounting to 25,000 men meant serious business. To back him up there was a fleet of warships shadowing his army’s progress. He began his march north and it took him a full year to advance up the coastal plains, taking out any native settlements on the way and building temporary marching camps. His plan was to bring the local tribesmen to their knees in a region called Caledonia. 

Unlike their neighbours in the south, Caledonians were not content to stand by and let the Romans plunder their lands. More than 30,000 of the Caledonians gathered, both young and old, under the command of many local kings and chiefs in close-packed tiers on the slope of a hill at Mons Graupius, a name that later became the Grampian Mountains. They careened back and forth, taunting the Romans, daring them to advance. And advance they did. The squadrons moved forward and although the tribesmen fought recklessly and fiercely with the limited and primitive weapons they had, there was never going to be any other outcome except defeat. By the end of the day, 10,000 Caledonians had perished with only 360 Romans dead. The remaining survivors scattered and fled into the wilderness. 

It was a crushing blow to the Caledonians and a significant victory to the Romans. Feeling buoyant by his success, and having already exceeded the normal five-year period as Governor, Agricola sent a reconnaissance fleet further north to confirm that Britannia was indeed an island. Satisfied the terrain was too rugged and not worth his effort, he ordered the completion of a fortress seven miles east of Dunkeld before being recalled to Rome the next year.  

Over the decades, uprisings by the highlanders became more and more violent and Roman emperors watched warily as governor after governor was sent to hold them back from Roman Britain. By the time Hadrian gained the imperial throne in 117 AD, the rebellions had reached a point where something major had to be done. A boundary had to be erected to keep the uncontrollable inhabitants of northern Britannia away from the more civilised southern people. 

Hadrian was more than ready to make his mark in history. His dream was to build a stone wall, providing years of work for thousands of soldiers, to firstly build the wall and secondly, maintain the structure. The Wall’s primary purpose would be as a physical barrier to slow up the raiders who were intent on getting into the empire for plundering purposes but it would also be a convenient observation point that could alert Romans of an incoming attack. It was to be the north-west frontier of the Roman empire and no one would be able to cross south of it without falling prey to Roman arrows. The way he saw it, it was a win-win solution. 

Construction started in 122 AD and took six years to build. The entire 73 miles of Wall crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. It was built with an alternating series of 14 forts, each housing as many as 600 men, with a guarded gate at every mile and two observation towers in between.   

Hadrian’s Wall appears to have continued successfully in its form until 180 AD when the tribes finally succeeded in crossing over, killing a general and the troops he had with him. Not many details are known but this probably led to the abandonment and deployment of the army.

By 214 AD, the Romans had finally withdrawn from the wall, leaving Scotland and its restless tribes to their own devices and their own domestic feuds. 

Left to their own devices, the Scots slowly evolved over the next eighty years unbeknownst to the Romans, who perhaps secretly hoped they would just internally kill themselves off. Gradually, terrifying stories began to circulate of sightings of a more barbaric, warlike people popping up in a kingdom stretching from north of the Firth of Forth to the Moray Firth. These people were reported to have hair touching their shoulders and shaved beards with only the upper part of their hair left to trail down their chest from their lips. They had bird heads painted on their chests and the sun was shining around their nipples with the light reaching their thighs. Faces were painted on their abdomen and fish scales on their calves. On their shoulders the head of a griffin was painted and their arms are crawling with pythons. 

To the Romans, coming across one of these barbarians was a terrifying thought to envisage. When the Romans actually did see them advancing towards them, it took a lot of courage to stand firm against them since their first instinct would have been to turn tail and run. Their whole presence screamed danger and the Romans gave these painted warriors an enduring name. The Picts. These ‘Picts’ were basically Celts who lived north of the Forth-Clyde line and were the tribal descendants of the Iron Age tribes. Their ancestors were the people who built great stone circles like Stonehenge during the third millennium BC in the Neolithic times. 

This new age was a ferocious time in the north. Tribal leaders tussled for power and in many parts they descended into bloody conflict where the need to fight and defend became the main focus of their lives. It was the age of ancient myths where warrior heroes rode on horseback armed with highly decorated glittering Celtic swords, creating romantic folklore.

While these legendary warriors attacked Roman Britannia simultaneously from all sides, Rome was having serious problems of its own back home. Germanic tribes had undergone massive technological, social and economic changes over the past couple of centuries and as they grew stronger, their main object was to challenge Rome. It was all rather good news for the Britons because it marked the end of the Roman Empire and the hold they had on Britannia as the Roman army finally left Britain’s shores. Behind them they left towns, cities, bridges, roads and aqueducts and a written language. A vast improvement on what they had before the Romans arrived.

But if the Britons thought they would be left in peace, they had a shock coming. This peace was all coming to a terrifying end. There was a new enemy surfacing and life would change for everyone. The Saxons from Germany had set their sights on Britain and of all the Germanic races, the Saxons were the most appalling. The Britons now lived under a worse menace coming from the sea that was more cruel and bloodier.

 

Saxons brought with them their own structure of Germanic life: fighting for life and control over men as hard-pressed as they were themselves and only winning because of their mastery, perhaps butchery, as war-leaders. With this new lifestyle came a long and intricate rivalry for leadership between the various Anglo-Saxon kings who all strived for mastery by force and savagery. To understand these days and their constantly changing rulers, we have to understand time frames. Five years was a lot in those days. Twenty years was the far horizon and fifty was antiquity.

These kings were the beginning of the House of Wessex south of Hadrian’s Wall. It was the time of Cerdic and his son Cynric and with these two savage leaders, we see signs of fear spreading throughout the whole country. Where once there had been law and order and a respect for property during the Roman occupation, a dark time fell and dawn rose with a poor, barbaric, divided England. Not far away in Ireland, the light of Christianity was burning brightly with the efforts of Saint Patrick and followers of his doctrine were flowing into Wales and England. And as for Scotland, it was just waking up.

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