A People's History of Scotland

BOOK: A People's History of Scotland
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CHRIS BAMBERY is a writer, broadcaster, TV producer and founding member of the International Socialist Group in Scotland. He is the author of
Scotland: Class and Nation
A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
(2006) and
The Second World War: A Marxist History

Chris Bambery

First published by Verso 2014

© Chris Bambery 2014

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG

US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201


Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

ISBN-13: 978-1-78-168284-5

eISBN-13: 978-1-78-168285-2 (US)

eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-654-6 (UK)

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bambery, Chris.

A people's history of Scotland / Chris Bambery.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-78168-284-5 (alk. paper) – ISBN 978-1-78168-285-2 (ebook)

1. Scotland–History. 2. Scotland–Social conditions. 3. Socialism–Scotland–History.

I. Title.

DA760.B36 2014



Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland

Printed in the UK by CPI MACKAYS

Scotland Emerges

magine you are travelling up one of the great sea lochs that penetrate far into the interior of the Scottish Highlands. Say, Loch Linnhe, which leads to the Great Glen stretching north-east to what is now Inverness. You are in a party of four or five in a canoe, and other canoes are being paddled behind. Men, women and children are travelling together. Physically the lochs, glens and mountains you see around you are the same as today, but with one important difference: they are covered in a dense forest. For this is Scotland 11,000 years ago.

The last Ice Age has come to an end and the great glaciers have retreated. The forests abound with red and roe deer, elk, wild cattle, boars, bears, wildcats and wolves. In the trees live pine martens, polecats and a variety of birds. The seas and rivers are alive with fish and shellfish. This is what has brought you here. Over the summer you will set up camp and feed on the wildlife, before sailing south to escape the winter. You have no fixed home because you travel constantly in search of game to hunt, or fruits, nuts and other foods.

Hunter-gatherers were the first settlers in Scotland we know anything about. It is likely they were not the first humans here because we know people had reached Britain before the glaciers overran most of the island. The ice, however, destroyed all trace of these earlier
humans. The hunter-gatherers were a highly mobile people, doing their rounds of seasonal sites. You can imagine them moving between these favourite spots, taking delight in the locations and joy in discovering new sites with an abundance of food. There were no monarchs, priests or other leaders; people pooled their skills and knowledge. For the first and last time they were living in relative accord with nature.

Flint tools have been found on Ben Lawers in Perthshire and at Glen Dee (a mountain pass through the Cairngorms), demonstrating that these people travelled inland, probably keeping to the high ground above the deep forest. At a rock shelter and shell midden at Sand, near Applecross in Wester Ross, facing across the sound to Skye, excavations have shown that around 7500
people had tools of bone, stone and antler, and were living off shellfish, fish and deer. They used pot-boiler stones as a cooking method, made beads from seashells and used ochre pigment and shellfish to make purple dye.

They were sophisticated in their ability to track the changing moon, and with it the tides and the turn of the seasons. In the summer of 2013 archaeologists reported a find in Aberdeen where a group of twelve pits appeared to mimic the phases of the moon, allowing their creators to track lunar months over the year. It was thought that the first means of measuring time had been created in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago, but this new discovery predated that by thousands of years. The leader of the project, Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham, noted, ‘The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the near east.'
Even as these hunter-gatherers arrived in Scotland, agriculture was being developed in the Nile Delta and on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq. The first traces in Britain of communities that farmed to some degree, made pottery and buried their dead in formal and elaborate tombs date back to 4000
. New arrivals from the east brought innovations in techniques for growing food and
domesticating animals, but the existing evidence suggests this movement of people was not an invasion. They seemed to have settled down with the natives. Neither was there any dramatic conversion from hunter-gathering to farming. The two co-existed for some considerable time.

Yet, as farming communities evolved, humans started to build shelters of wood and then stone, in settlements such as the one excavated at Skara Brae in the Orkneys. Farming gradually led to the destruction of the great forest that covered Scotland, for use as timber and to clear the way for pasture and crops. This coincided with, and may have contributed to, the cooling of the climate, which increased deforestation, created peat bogs where trees had once stood and rendered much of the uplands infertile.

As pressure on the land grew, boundaries were laid down as farming communities marked out their fields and pastures. They developed the skills to produce pottery and learnt how to polish and grind stone, techniques used in the making of axes to chop trees, and in the preparation of animal skins to provide clothing and waterproof shelter, and to cover timber-framed boats. Trade began to develop, as we know from axes found in Scotland from as far afield as Cornwall and the Lake District.

By around 2500
, grand monuments started to dot the landscape – henges with their standing stones and great ditches and burial mounds. Where once people had been buried together, these structures were now reserved for the great and the good, as is evident by the relative riches that accompanied the dead to the world beyond. The building of burial chambers and standing stone circles indicates that a process of societal differentiation was already taking place. Arguments would soon break out between communities in moments of scarcity and vulnerability. Wars began to occur.

With war came the emergence of warriors: strong men charged with protecting the community, its crops, animals and harvest. Over time they would emerge as chiefs or even kings. In other words, a class system was emerging.

Until this development, children had probably been brought up collectively; now the responsibility fell on the mother. Further, where
women and men had once been equals, now the priests and chiefs were male. This was what Friedrich Engels called the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex'.

By the late Stone Age period there were established settlements where people grew grains and barley, raised sheep, cattle and, increasingly, pigs, while continuing to exploit the natural resources around them. Farming also relied on communal effort to hoe, sow and harvest.

Around 2500
, bronze began to be smelted from copper and tin, and it was used to make weapons, tools, armour and jewellery. The tin had to be imported from Cornwall, and only the wealthy who had access to surplus food and livestock had the means to trade for it. The arrival of bronze, then iron, around 1000
(at the same time as the wheel), would have increased class division. A ruling, warrior class had a virtual monopoly of the new metals.

During this period the territory of modern Scotland was made up of tribes or clans. Warfare, particularly feuding and raiding, were endemic. Chieftains built hill forts, brochs (those strange beehivelike towers) and crannogs, artificial islands on a loch which were easily defended. We have no direct knowledge about the lives of the ordinary people, because they left no records that have come through to us. It would be left to an alien force to give us some inkling of what this society had been like.

‘They Create a Desert and Call It Peace'

As the Roman Empire extended itself into what is now England and Wales, it began to encounter people beyond its northern frontier. By the first century
, the Romans had given the name Caledonia to the country beyond the Solway Firth and River Tyne, meaning ‘the woods on the heights'. But by then most of southern and central Scotland was deforested. Having established control of the province of Britain, the Romans were inevitably drawn northwards.

80, a Roman army stood ready to battle a Caledonian army at Mons Graupius, somewhere in north-east Scotland (the battlefield has still not been identified with certainty). These were tribes who
lived north of the Forth and Clyde valleys. The tribes to the south were not under Roman control but had been absorbed through trade. Those to the north would prove resistant to any such integration.

The Roman historian Tacitus, who happened to be the son-in-law of the commander Agricola, identified the Caledonian leader as Calgacus, the ‘swordsman'. In Tacitus's account of the preparation for battle, Calgacus tells his men that the Romans ‘… create a desert and call it peace'. It's a pretty good description of Roman or any other imperial occupation, and the words have echoed down through the ages.

In fact, Tacitus was not there. As with many ancient historians, he simply made up the speeches of famous individuals in an attempt to convey their drive and spirit. The oration is the stuff of legend. Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.

Indeed, centuries later in 1820, Strathaven weavers carried a banner reading ‘Scotland: Free or a Desert?' as they marched to what they hoped would be the rallying point for a nationwide republican insurrection on the outskirts of Glasgow. For them Calgacus was fighting for ‘freedom' from oppression. Their lives in industrial Scotland were a million miles away from those of the Caledonians emerging from the Iron Age, but the Strathaven weavers faced oppression and exploitation too.

Agricola won at Mons Graupius, but the Romans, having reached the Moray Firth, decided to withdraw southwards. Agricola then briefly established a frontier running from the Clyde to the Forth before he left Britain, his term as governor having ended, and the Romans withdrew to a line running from the Solway Firth to the Tyne. Sixty years later a Roman army returned and built a turf wall between the Forth and Clyde estuaries, but after fifty or so years they gave up direct control of the Lowlands, preferring to secure the frontier marked by Hadrian's Wall through treaties and alliances with the local tribes. The emperor Septimus Severus led another campaign against the Caledonians in
208–11, but that ended with his death.

The Romans called their northern adversaries the Picts, the ‘painted ones'. The Caledonians that Agricola encountered still painted their bodies with dye and paint, which had once been common across
Britain. The term was probably an insult but stuck. Remarkably little is known about the Picts, their exact origin or what language they spoke, which probably descended, like Welsh, from the earlier Brythonic language. They were probably matrilineal in the royal line of descent.

There is evidence that in
43 the King of Orkney travelled south by boat to the Roman headquarters at modern Colchester to submit to the Emperor Claudius. If true, it was some feat. Claudius stayed in Britain after his legions had conquered the south of modern England for only sixteen days, so the Orcadian visitors made a difficult journey, operating on a tight timetable.

This may sound farfetched, but excavation at Gurness, the royal capital of Orkney, has revealed Roman imports of pottery and wine. The Romans certainly knew of the Orkney Islands, and may have travelled there. Further, it was already common practice among some of the British tribes to enter into treaties with Rome rather than be conquered.

211 there was an encounter between the wife of the Roman emperor, Severus, and the wife of Argentocoxus, a chieftain of the Maeatae confederation of Caledonian tribes, which might have occurred after the capture of Argentocoxus or during treaty negotiations. Severus had conducted a campaign that had taken him into northern Scotland, before, sick and dying, he returned to York. The empress mocked that Caledonian women had free sexual intercourse with whichever man they chose. The retort she got was: ‘We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.'

This was of course written by a Roman man, who seems to be indulging in some sexual fantasy, but even so, I like the sense of freedom and pride of the Pictish woman. Severus's son, who succeeded him, quickly quit Britain and gave up any plans to subjugate northern Scotland.

The Roman Empire was now on the defensive, primarily concerned with maintaining what it had. As the empire weakened, the Picts and others were drawn into raiding the south for plunder. By the beginning of the fifth century the legions were gone from Britain, caught in one of the innumerable civil wars of the late empire, never to return.

As people moved westwards into the former Roman Empire, a new people had entered Britain, the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people pushed out of what is now Holland and Germany by population pressure. They arrived in eastern England as raiders and traders, the two scarcely indistinguishable, but began to settle. Previous arrivals from mainland Europe had consisted of relatively small numbers who integrated into existing society, smoothly or not. This new migration represented a real invasion: the Anglo-Saxons supplanted the existing British ruling class; yet the peasants continued to farm the land as this was in the interest of whoever ruled them.

Picts, Scots and Britons

500 western Britain (Wales) was divided among a number of small-scale rulers, some using the title king. In the south-east there was a similar patchwork of Anglo-Saxon rulers whose expansion westwards would be stopped along the line of the River Severn. Three British (Welsh) kingdoms – Rheged, Strathclyde and Gododdin – fought for control of the lands south of the Forth and Clyde. They seem to have been Christian. A Welsh poetic text, ‘Y Gododdin', records that around
600 King Mynyddog marched his army from his capital of Edinburgh to Catraeth, possibly Catterick in North Yorkshire, where they all died in battle: ‘The warrior … would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold … The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.'

BOOK: A People's History of Scotland
13.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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