Early Scotland

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Editor: Jeff Wallenfeldt
Date: 2014
The United Kingdom: Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales
Publisher: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Series: The Britannica Guide to Countries of the European Union
Document Type: Country overview
Pages: 15
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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Early Scotland

Evidence of human settlement in the area later known as Scotland dates from the 3rd millennium bce. The earliest people, Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunters and fishermen who probably reached Scotland via an ancient land bridge from the Continent, were to be found on the west coast, near Oban, and as far south as Kirkcudbright, where their settlements are marked by large deposits of discarded mollusk shells. Remains suggest that settlers at the Forth estuary, in the area of modern Stirling, obtained meat from stranded whales. By early in the 2nd millennium bce, Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers had begun cultivating cereals and keeping cattle and sheep. They made settlements on the west coast and as far north as Shetland. Many built collective chamber tombs, such as the Maeshowe barrow in Orkney, which is the finest example in Britain. A settlement of such people at Skara Brae in Orkney consists of a cluster of seven self-contained huts connected by covered galleries or alleys. The “Beaker folk,” so called from the shape of their drinking vessels, migrated to eastern Scotland from northern Europe, probably beginning about 1800 bce. They buried their dead in individual graves and were pioneers in bronze working. The most impressive monuments of Bronze Age Scotland are the stone circles, presumably for religious ceremonies, such as those at Callanish in Lewis and Brodgar in Orkney, the latter being more than 300 feet (90 metres) in diameter.

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Ancient Times

From about 700 bce onward there was a distinct final period in Scottish prehistory. This period is the subject of current archaeological controversy, with somewhat less stress than in the past being placed on the importance of the introduction of iron fabrication or on the impact of large new groups of iron-using settlers. One key occurrence in the middle of the 1st millennium was the change from a relatively warm and dry climate to one that was cooler and wetter. In terms of technology, this period was marked by the appearance of hill forts, defensive structures having stone ramparts with an internal frame of timber; a good example is at Abernethy near the Tay. Some of these forts have been dated to the 7th and 6th centuries bce, which might suggest that they were adopted by already established tribes rather than introduced by incomers. Massive decorated bronze armlets with Celtic ornamentation, found in northeastern Scotland and dated to the period 50–150 ce, suggest that chieftains from outside may have gone to these tribes at this period, displaced from farther south first by fresh settlers from the Continent and later by the Romans in 43 ce. From 100 bce the “brochs” appeared in the extreme north of Scotland and the northern isles. These were high, round towers, which at Mousa in Shetland stand almost 50 feet (15 metres) in height. The broch dwellers may have carried on intermittent warfare with the fort builders of farther south. On the other hand, the two types of structures may not represent two wholly distinct cultures, and the two peoples may have together constituted the ancestors of the people later known as the Picts.

The houses of these people were circular, sometimes standing alone and sometimes in groups of 15 or more, as at Hayhope Knowe in the Cheviot Hills on the border between modern Scotland and England. Some single steadings, set in bogs or on lakesides, are called crannogs. Grain growing was probably of minor importance in the economy; the people were pastoralists and food gatherers. They were ruled by a warrior aristocracy whose bronze and iron parade equipment has, in a few instances, survived.

Roman Penetration

Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britain from 77 to 84 ce, was the first Roman general to operate extensively in Scotland. He defeated the native population at Mons Graupius, possibly in Banffshire, probably in 84 ce. In the following year he was recalled, and his policy of containing the hostile tribes within the Highland zone, which he had marked by building a legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Strathmore, was not continued. His tactics were logical if Scotland was to be subdued but probably required the commitment of more troops than the overall strategy of the Roman Empire could afford. The only other period in which a forward policy was attempted was between about 144 and about 190, when a turf wall, the Antonine Wall (named for the emperor Antoninus Pius), was manned between the Forth and the Clyde.

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The still-impressive stone structure known as Hadrian’s Wall had been built between the Tyne and Solway Firth between 122 and 128, and it was to be the permanent northern frontier of Roman Britain. After a northern uprising, the emperor Severus supervised the restoring of the Hadrianic line from 209 to 211, and thereafter southeastern Scotland seems to have enjoyed almost a century of peace. In the 4th century there were successive raids from north of the wall and periodic withdrawals of Roman troops to continental Europe. Despite increasing use of native buffer states in front of the wall, the Romans found their frontier indefensible by the end of the 4th century.

At Housesteads, at about the mid-point of Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologists have uncovered a market where northern natives exchanged cattle and hides for Roman products; in this way some Roman wares, and possibly more general cultural influences, found their way north, but the scale of this commerce was probably small. Roman civilization, typified by the towns and villas, or country houses, of southern Britain, was unknown in Scotland, which as a whole was never dominated by the Romans or even strongly influenced by them.

From about 400 ce there was a long period for which written evidence is scanty. Four peoples—the Picts, the Scots, the Britons, and the Angles—were eventually to merge and thus form the kingdom of Scots.

The Picts occupied Scotland north of the Forth. Their identity has been much debated, but they possessed a distinctive culture, seen particularly in their carved symbol stones. Their original language, presumably non-Indo-European, has disappeared; some Picts probably spoke a Brythonic Celtic language. Pictish unity may have been impaired by their apparent tradition of matrilineal succession to the throne.

The Scots, from Dalriada in northern Ireland, colonized the Argyll area, probably in the late 5th century. Their continuing connection with Ireland was a source of strength to them, and Scottish and Irish Gaelic (Goidelic Celtic languages) did not become distinct from each other until the late Middle Ages. Scottish Dalriada soon extended its cultural as well as its military sway east and south, though one of its greatest kings, Aidan, was defeated by the Angles in 603 at Degsastan near the later Scottish border.

The Britons, speaking a Brythonic Celtic language, colonized Scotland from farther south, probably from the 1st century bce onward. They lost control of southeastern Scotland to the Angles in the early 7th century ce. The British heroic poem Gododdin describes a stage in this process. The British kingdom of Strathclyde in southwestern Scotland remained, with its capital at Dumbarton.

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The Angles were Teutonic-speaking invaders from across the North Sea. Settling from the 5th century, they had by the early 7th century created the kingdom of Northumbria, stretching from the Humber to the Forth. A decisive check to their northward advance was administered in 685 by the Picts at the Battle of Nechtansmere in Angus.


Christianity was introduced to Scotland in late Roman times, and traditions of the evangelizing of St. Ninian in the south-west have survived. He is a shadowy figure, however, and it is doubtful that his work extended very far north.

Firmly established throughout Scotland by the Celtic clergy, Christianity came with the Scots settlers from Ireland and possibly gave them a decisive cultural advantage in the early unification of kingdoms. The Celtic church lacked a territorial organization of parishes and dioceses and a division between secular and regular clergy; its communities of missionary monks were ideal agents of conversion. The best-known figure, possibly the greatest, is St. Columba, who founded his monastery at Iona, an island of the Inner Hebrides, in 565; a famous biography of his life was written by Adamnan, abbot of Iona, within a century of his death. Columba is believed to have been influential in converting the Picts, and he did much to support the Scots king Aidan politically.

St. Aidan brought the Celtic church to Northumbria in the 630s, establishing his monastery at Lindisfarne. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the king of Northumbria, having to decide between the Celtic and the Roman styles of Christianity, chose the Roman version. There had been differences over such observances as the dating of Easter, but no one regarded the Celtic monks as schismatics. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede the Venerable (died 735), a monk of Jarrow in Northumbria, is a first-rate source for the early Anglo-Saxon history and shows remarkable sympathy with the Celtic clergy, though Bede was a Roman monk.

In the early 8th century the church among the Picts and Scots accepted Roman usages on such questions as Easter. Nevertheless, the church in Scotland remained Celtic in many ways until the 11th century. Still dominated by its communities of clergy (who were called Célidé or Culdees), it clearly corresponded well to the tribal nature of society.

The Norse Influence

Viking raids on the coasts of Britain began at the end of the 8th century, Lindisfarne and Iona being pillaged in the 790s. By the mid-9th century Norse settlement of the western and northern isles and of Caithness and Sutherland had begun, probably largely because of overpopulation on the west coast of Norway. During the 10th century Orkney and Shetland were ruled by Norse earls nominally subject to Norway. In 1098 Magnus III (Magnus Barefoot), king of Norway, successfully asserted his authority in the northern and western isles and made an agreement with the king of Scots on their respective spheres of influence. A mid-12th-century earl of Orkney, Ragnvald, built the great cathedral at Kirkwall in honour of his martyred uncle St. Magnus.

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The Norse legacy to Scotland was long-lasting, but in the mid-12th century there was a rising against the Norse in the west under a native leader, Somerled, who drove them from the greater part of mainland Argyll. A Norwegian expedition of 1263 under King Haakon IV failed to maintain the Norse presence in the Hebrides, and three years later they were ceded to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth. In 1468–69 the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland were pawned to Scotland as part of a marriage settlement with the crown of Denmark-Norway. Nonetheless, a Scandinavian language, the Norn, was spoken in these Viking possessions, and some Norse linguistic influence still remains discernible in Shetland.

The Unification of the Kingdom

In 843 Kenneth MacAlpin, King Kenneth I of Scots, also became king of the Picts and crushed resistance to his assuming the throne. Kenneth may have had a claim on the Pictish throne through the matrilineal law of succession; probably the Picts too had been weakened by Norse attacks. The Norse threat helped to weld together the new kingdom of Alba and to cause its heartlands to be located in eastern Scotland, the former Pictland, with Dunkeld becoming its religious capital. But within Alba it was the Scots who established a cultural and linguistic supremacy, no doubt merely confirming a tendency seen before 843.

As the English kingdom was consolidated, its kings, in the face of Norse attacks, found it useful to have an understanding with Alba. In 945 Edmund I of England is said to have leased to Malcolm I of Alba the whole of Cumbria, probably an area including land on both sides of the western half of the later Anglo-Scottish border. In the late 10th century a similar arrangement seems to have been made for Lothian, the corresponding territory to the east. The Scots confirmed their hold on Lothian, from the Forth to the Tweed, when, about 1016, Malcolm II defeated a Northumbrian army at Carham. About the same time, Malcolm II placed his grandson Duncan I upon the throne of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. Duncan succeeded Malcolm in 1034 and brought Strathclyde into the kingdom of Scots. During the next two centuries the Scots kings pushed their effective power north and west—William I was successful in the north and Alexander II in the west—until mainland Scotland became one political unit. Less discernible but as important was the way the various peoples grew together, though significant linguistic and other differences remained.

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Macbeth (died August 15, 1057, near Lumphanan, Aberdeen [now in Aberdeenshire]) was the king of Scots from 1040. The legend of his life was the basis of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Probably a grandson of King Kenneth II (reigned 971–995), Macbeth married Gruoch, a descendant of King Kenneth III (reigned 997–1005). About 1031 Macbeth succeeded his father, Findlaech (Sinel in Shakespeare’s play), as mormaer, or chief, in the province of Moray, in northern Scotland. Macbeth established himself on the throne after killing his cousin King Duncan I in battle near Elgin—not, as in Shakespeare, by murdering Duncan in bed—on August 14, 1040. Both Duncan and Macbeth derived their rights to the crown through their mothers.

Macbeth’s victory in 1045 over a rebel army, near Dunkeld (in the modern region of Perth and Kinross), may account for the later references (in Shakespeare and others) to Birnam Wood, for the village of Birnam is near Dunkeld. In 1046 Siward, earl of Northumbria, unsuccessfully attempted to dethrone Macbeth in favour of Malcolm (afterward King Malcolm III Canmore), eldest son of Duncan I. By 1050 Macbeth felt secure enough to leave Scotland for a pilgrimage to Rome. But in 1054 he was apparently forced by Siward to yield part of southern Scotland to Malcolm. Three years later Macbeth was killed in battle by Malcolm, with assistance from the English.

Macbeth was buried on the island of Iona, regarded as the resting place of lawful kings but not of usurpers. His followers installed his stepson, Lulach, as king; when Lulach was killed on March 17, 1058, Malcolm III was left supreme in Scotland.

According to the Celtic system of succession, known as tanistry, a king could be succeeded by any male member of the derbfine, a family group of four generations; members of collateral branches seem to have been preferred to descendants, and the successor, or tanist, might be named in his predecessor’s lifetime. This system in practice led to many successions by the killing of one’s predecessor. Thus, Duncan I was killed by his cousin Macbeth in 1040, and Macbeth was killed by Malcolm Canmore (Duncan’s son, later Malcolm III Canmore) in 1057. Shakespeare freely adapted the story of Macbeth, who historically seems to have been a successful king and who may have gone on pilgrimage to Rome.

Until the 11th century the unification was the work of a Gaelic-speaking dynasty, and there is place-name evidence of the penetration of Gaelic south of the Forth. Afterward, however, the Teutonic English speech that had come to Scotland from the kingdom of Northumbria began to attain mastery, and Gaelic began its slow retreat north and west. This is not obscured by the fact that from the 12th century onward Anglo-Norman was for a time the speech of the leaders of society in England and Scotland alike. By the later Middle Ages the language known to modern scholars as Old English had evolved into two separate languages, now called Middle English and Middle Scots, with the latter focused on the court of the Stewart (Stuart) kings of Scots. After 1603 the increasing political and cultural assimilation of Scotland by England checked the further development of Scots as a separate language.

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The persistence of distinctively Celtic institutions in post-12th-century Scotland is a more complex question, as will be seen from the way in which primogeniture replaced tanistry as the system of royal succession. It can be argued, however, that a Celtic stress on the family bond in society persisted throughout the Middle Ages and beyond—and not only in the Highlands, with its clan organization of society.

The Development of the Monarchy

Malcolm Canmore came to the throne as Malcolm III in 1058 by disposing of his rivals and thereafter sought, in five unsuccessful raids, to extend his kingdom into northern England. Whereas his first wife, Ingibjorg, was the daughter of a Norse earl of Orkney, his second, Margaret, came from the Saxon royal house of England. With Margaret and her sons, Scotland was particularly receptive to cultural influence from the south. Margaret was a great patroness of the church but without altering its organization, as her sons were to do.

On the death of Malcolm III on his last English raid in 1093, sustained attempts were made to prevent the application of the southern custom of succession by primogeniture. Both Malcolm’s brother and Malcolm’s son by his first marriage held the throne for short periods, but it was the three sons of Malcolm and Margaret who eventually established themselves— Edgar (1097–1107), Alexander I (1107–24), and David I (1124–53). Such was the force of Celtic reaction against southern influence that Edgar and Alexander could be said to have owed their thrones solely to English aid, and they were feudally subject to the English king. The descendants of Malcolm III’s first marriage continued to trouble the ruling dynasty until the early 13th century, but the descendants of his second retained the throne. Until the late 13th century the heir to the throne by primogeniture was always the obvious candidate. It is noteworthy that in charters of about 1145 David’s son Henry (who was to die before his father) is described as rex designatus, very much like the tanist of the Celtic system. It is thus very hard to date precisely the acceptance of southern custom as exemplified by primogeniture.

David I (1124–53)

David I was by marriage a leading landowner in England and was well known at the English court. He was nevertheless an independent monarch, making Scotland strong by drawing on English cultural and organizational influences. Under him and his successors many Anglo-Norman families came to Scotland, and their members were rewarded with lands and offices. Among the most important were the Bruces in Annandale, the de Morvilles in Ayrshire and Lauderdale, and the Fitzalans, who became hereditary high stewards and who, as the Stewart dynasty, were to inherit the throne in Renfrewshire. (After the 16th century the Stewart dynasty was known by its French spelling, Stuart.) Such men were often given large estates in outlying areas to bolster the king’s authority where it was weak.

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David I, detail of an illuminated initial on the Kelso Abbey charter of 1159. David I, detail of an illuminated initial on the Kelso Abbey charter of 1159; in the National Library of Scotland. By permission of His Grace the Duke of Roxburghe

The decentralized form of government and society that resulted was one of the many variants of what is known as feudalism, with tenants in chief holding lands from the king—and having jurisdiction over their inhabitants—in return for the performance of military and other services. An essentially new element in Scottish society was the written charter, setting out the rights and obligations involved in landholding. But the way in which the Anglo-Norman families, in their position as tenants in chief, were successfully grafted onto the existing society suggests that the Celtic and feudal social systems were by no means mutually incompatible, though one stressed family bonds and the other legal contracts. The clan system of Highland Scotland became tinged with feudal influences, whereas Lowland Scottish feudalism retained a strong emphasis on the family.

David began to spread direct royal influence through the kingdom by the creation of the office of sheriff (vicecomes), a royal judge and administrator ruling an area of the kingdom from one of the royal castles. Centrally, a nucleus of government officials, such as the chancellor, the chamberlain, and the justiciar, was created by David and his successors; these officials, with other tenants in chief called to give advice, made up the royal court (Curia Regis). This body became formalized in various ways; by the mid-13th century it might have been meeting as the king’s council to discuss various types of business, and before the Wars of Independence the royal court in its capacity as the Supreme Court of Law was already being described as a Parliament. The almost total loss of all the Scottish governmental records from before the early 14th century should not lead one to underestimate the efficiency of the Scottish kings’ government in this period. Historians have done much to assemble the surviving royal documents from scattered sources.

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Medieval Economy and Society

From David’s time onward the burghs, or incorporated towns, were created as centres of trade and small-scale manufacture in an overwhelmingly agrarian economy. At first all burghs probably had equal rights. Later, however, royal burghs had, by their charters, the exclusive right of overseas trade, though tenants in chief could create burghs with local trade privileges. Burghs evolved their own law to govern trading transactions, and disputes could be referred to the Court of the Four Burghs (originally Berwick, Edinburgh, Roxburgh, and Stirling). Many of the original townspeople, or burgesses, were newcomers to Scotland. At Berwick—the great trading town of the 13th century, exporting the wool of the border monasteries—Flemish merchants had their own Red Hall, which they defended to the death against English attack in 1296. Besides commercial contacts with England, there is evidence of Scottish trading with the Low Countries and with Norway in the period before the Wars of Independence.

Ruins of the cathedral of Moray at Elgin. A.F. Kersting Ruins of the cathedral of Moray at Elgin. A.F. Kersting

The church was decisively remodeled by David I and his successors. A clear division emerged between secular and regular clergy according to the normal western European pattern. A complete system of parishes and dioceses was established. But the system of “appropriating” the revenue of parish churches to central religious institutions meant that the top-heaviness in wealth and resources of the church in Scotland was a built-in feature of its existence until the Reformation. Kings and other great men vied in setting up monasteries. Alexander I had founded houses of Augustinian canons at Scone and Inchcolm, while among David’s foundations were the Cistercian houses of Melrose and Newbattle and the Augustinian houses of Cambuskenneth and Holyrood. Augustinian canons might also serve as the clergy of a cathedral, as they did at St. Andrews. Prominent foundations by the magnates included Walter Fitzalan’s Cluniac house at Paisley and Hugh de Morville’s Premonstratensian house at Dryburgh. Later royal foundations included the Benedictine house at Arbroath, established by William I.

From the standpoint of a later age, when the monasteries had lost their spiritual force, the piety of David I especially seemed a misapplication of royal resources. But the original monasteries, with their supply of trained manpower for royal service, their hospitality, and their learning, epitomized the stability that it was royal policy to achieve.

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The ruins of the cathedral seen through the West Port of the precinct wall, Saint Andrews. The ruins of the cathedral seen through the West Port of the precinct wall, Saint Andrews. Kenneth Scowen

From at least 1072 the English church, particularly the archbishop of York, sought some control over the Scottish church; in the face of such a threat, the Scottish church was weakened through having no metropolitan see. But, probably in 1192, the papal bull Cum universi declared the Scottish church to be subject only to Rome, and in 1225 the bull Quidam vestrum permitted the Scottish church, lacking a metropolitan see, to hold provincial councils by authority of Rome. However, such councils, which might have served to check abuses, were seldom held.

It has been argued that the cultural developments encouraged by the church in pre-Reformation Scotland were not as great as might be expected, but this may be a false impression created because the manuscript evidence has failed to survive. The monasteries of Melrose and Holyrood each had a chronicle, and Adam of Dryburgh was an able theologian of the late 12th century. Surviving Romanesque churches show that Scotland partook of the common European architectural tradition of the time; good small examples are at Dalmeny, near Edinburgh, and at Leuchars, in Fife. Glasgow and Elgin cathedrals are noteworthy, and St. Andrews Cathedral is impressive even in its ruined state. There are also distinguished examples of castle architecture, such as Bothwell in Lanarkshire, and the castles of Argyll may reflect a distinctive mixture of influences, including Norse ones.

David I’s Successors

Malcolm IV (1153–65) was a fairly successful king, defeating Somerled when the latter, who had been triumphant over the Scandinavians in Argyll, turned against the kingdom of Scots. Malcolm’s brother, William I (“the Lion”; 1165–1214), subdued much of the north and established royal castles there. After his capture on a raid into England, he was forced to become feudally subject to the English king by the Treaty of Falaise (1174); he was able, however, to buy back his kingdom’s independence by the Quitclaim of Canterbury (1189), though it should be emphasized that this document disposed of the Treaty of Falaise and not of the less-precise claims of superiority over Scotland that English kings had put forward over the previous century. William’s son, Alexander II (1214–49), subdued Argyll and was about to proceed against the Hebrides at the time of his death. His son, Alexander III (1249–86), brought the Hebrides within the Scottish kingdom in 1266, adroitly fended off English claims to overlordship, and brought to Scotland the peace and prosperity typified by the commercial growth of Berwick. In the perspective of the subsequent Wars of Independence, it was inevitable that Scots should look back on his reign as a golden age.

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The Wars of Independence

With the deaths of Alexander III in 1286 and his young granddaughter Margaret, the “Maid of Norway,” four years later, almost two centuries of relatively amicable Anglo-Scottish relations came to an end. A complete uncertainty as to the proper succession to the throne provided Edward I of England and his successors with a chance to intervene in and then to assimilate Scotland. Although the two countries were feudal monarchies of a largely similar type, the English attempt was, in practice, too tactless to have any hope of success. Besides, the struggle for independence disclosed that a marked degree of national unity had arisen among the different peoples of Scotland. Through the Anglo-Scottish conflict, Scotland developed a basic tendency—to seek self-sufficiency and also to look to continental Europe for alliances and inspiration—that persisted at least until 1560.

Competition for the Throne

Before the death of the Maid of Norway, the Scottish interim government of “guardians” had agreed, by the Treaty of Birgham (1290), that she should marry the heir of Edward I of England, though Scotland was to be preserved as a separate kingdom. After her death 13 claimants for the Scottish crown emerged, most of them Scottish magnates. The Scots initially had no reason to suspect the motives of Edward I in undertaking to judge the various claims. It emerged, however, that Edward saw himself not as an outside arbitrator but as the feudal superior of the Scottish monarch and therefore able to dispose of Scotland as a fief. That Edward’s interpretation was disingenuous is suggested by the fact that he had not invoked the old and vague English claims to superiority over Scotland while the Maid of Norway was still alive and he had made a treaty with Scotland on the basis of equality, not as a feudal superior claiming rights of wardship and marriage over the Maid.

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Sir William Wallace

Sir William Wallace, undated engraving. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: cph 3c20690) Sir William Wallace, undated engraving. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: cph 3c20690)

One of Scotland’s greatest national heroes, William Wallace (born c. 1270, probably near Paisley, Renfrew, Scotland—died August 23, 1305, London) was the leader of the Scottish resistance forces during the first years of the long, and ultimately successful, struggle to free Scotland from English rule.

His father, Sir Malcolm Wallace, was a small landowner in Renfrew. In 1296 King Edward I of England deposed and imprisoned the Scottish king John de Balliol and declared himself ruler of Scotland. Sporadic resistance had already occurred when, in May 1297, Wallace and a band of some 30 men burned Lanark and killed its English sheriff. Wallace then organized an army of commoners and small landowners and attacked the English garrisons between the Rivers Forth and Tay. On September 11, 1297, an English army under John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, confronted him at the Forth near Stirling. Wallace’s forces were greatly outnumbered, but Surrey had to cross a narrow bridge over the Forth before he could reach the Scottish positions. By slaughtering the English as they crossed the river, Wallace gained an overwhelming victory. He captured Stirling Castle, and for the moment Scotland was nearly free of occupying forces. In October he invaded northern England and ravaged the counties of Northumberland and Cumberland.

Upon returning to Scotland early in December 1297, Wallace was knighted and proclaimed guardian of the kingdom, ruling in Balliol’s name. Nevertheless, many nobles lent him only grudging support; and he had yet to confront Edward I, who was campaigning in France. Edward returned to England in March 1298, and on July 3 he invaded Scotland. On July 22 Wallace’s spearmen were defeated by Edward’s archers and cavalry in the Battle of Falkirk, Stirling. Although Edward failed to pacify Scotland before returning to England, Wallace’s military reputation was ruined. He resigned his guardianship in December and was succeeded by Robert de Bruce (later King Robert I) and Sir John Comyn “the Red.”

There is some evidence that Wallace went to France in 1299 and thereafter acted as a solitary guerrilla leader in Scotland; but from the autumn of 1299 nothing is known of his activities for more than four years. Although most of the Scottish nobles submitted to Edward in 1304, the English continued to pursue Wallace relentlessly. On August 5, 1305, he was arrested near Glasgow. Taken to London, he was condemned as a traitor to the king even though, as he maintained, he had never sworn allegiance to Edward. He was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and quartered. In 1306 Bruce raised the rebellion that eventually won independence for Scotland.

Many of the stories surrounding Wallace have been traced to a late 15th-century romance ascribed to Henry the Minstrel, or “Blind Harry.” The most popular tales are not supported by documentary evidence, but they show Wallace’s firm hold on the imagination of his people. A huge monument (1861–69) to Wallace stands atop the rock of Abbey Craig near Stirling.

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The claimants to the throne, who had much to lose by antagonizing Edward, generally agreed to acknowledge his superior lordship over Scotland. But a different answer to his claim to lordship was given by the “community of the realm” (the important laymen and churchmen of Scotland as a group), who declined to commit whoever was to be king of Scots on this issue and thus displayed a sophisticated sense of national unity.

The sixth Robert de Bruce and John Balliol, descendants of a younger brother of Malcolm IV and William, emerged as the leading competitors, and in 1292 Edward I named Balliol king. When Edward sought to exert his overlordship by taking law cases on appeal from Scotland and by summoning Balliol to do military service for him in France, the Scots determined to resist. In 1295 they concluded an alliance with France, and in 1296 Edward’s army marched north, sacking Berwick on its way.

Edward easily forced Balliol and Scotland to submit. National resistance to English governance of Scotland grew slowly thereafter and was led by William Wallace, a knight’s son, in the absence of a leader from the magnates. Wallace defeated the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297 but lost at Falkirk the next year. He was executed in London in 1305, having shown that heroic leadership without social status was not enough. When the eighth Robert de Bruce, grandson of the competitor, rose in revolt in 1306 and had himself crowned Robert I, he supplied the focus necessary to mobilize the considerable potential of national resistance.

Robert I (1306–29)

In several years of mixed fortunes thereafter, Robert the Bruce had both the English and his opponents within Scotland to contend with. Edward I’s death in 1307 and the dissension in England under Edward II were assets that Robert took full advantage of. He excelled as a statesman and as a military leader specializing in harrying tactics; it is ironic that he should be remembered best for the atypical set-piece battle that he incurred and won at Bannockburn in 1314. The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 is perhaps more informative about his methods. Ostensibly a letter from the magnates of Scotland to the pope, pledging their support for King Robert, it seems in reality to have been framed by Bernard de Linton, Robert’s chancellor. In committing Robert to seeing the independence struggle through, it likewise committed those who set their seals to it. Some of them were waverers in the national cause, whether or not Robert had proof of this at the time, and his hand was now strengthened against them.

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In 1328 Robert secured from England, through the Treaty of Northampton, a recognition of Scotland’s independence; the following year the pope granted to the independent kings of Scots the right to be anointed with holy oil. However, Robert also died in 1329. By the appropriate standards of medieval kingship, his success had been total, but, because of the nature of medieval kingship, his successor was left with the same struggle to wage all over again.

David II (1329–71)

Robert I’s son, David II, has perhaps received unfair treatment from historians contrasting him and his illustrious father. Just over five years of age at his accession, he was soon confronted with a renewal of the Anglo-Scottish war, exacerbated by the ambitions of those Scots who had been deprived of their property by Robert I or otherwise disaffected. In the 1330s Edward Balliol, pursuing the claim to the throne of his father, John, overran southern Scotland. In return for English help, he gave England southern lands and strongpoints not recaptured fully by the Scots for a century. After the Scottish defeat at Halidon Hill near Berwick in 1333, David was forced to flee to France in the following year. Berwick itself fell to the English and was never again in Scottish hands except in the period between 1461 and 1482.

The Scots gradually regained the initiative, and in 1341 David was able to return to Scotland. In 1346, however, he was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham. He was released in 1357 for a ransom of 100,000 merks, to be paid in nine annual installments. This ransom, three-fourths of which was eventually paid, constituted a serious burden on Scotland, and there is evidence that Parliament used this national emergency to establish some checks on the actions of the crown. In addition, the representatives of the royal burghs, which were important as an accessible source of finance, established a continuing right to sit in Parliament with the magnates and churchmen from the 1360s on, thus constituting the third of the “Three Estates.”

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Complex evidence relating to these transactions has been uniformly interpreted in a way discreditable to David, though another interpretation is possible. That he collected revenues more assiduously than he made ransom payments may indicate a reasoned attempt to strengthen the crown financially; and his negotiations, especially of 1363, whereby a member of the English royal house was to succeed him on the Scottish throne, may have been a diplomatic charade. Whatever his faults, David left Scotland with both its economy and its independence intact.

The long wars with England necessarily took their toll, retarding Scotland’s economy and weakening the authority of its government. The buildings that have survived from this era are inferior to earlier work, much of which of course suffered damage during the wars. War was increasingly expensive, and taxation was increased drastically to pay David II’s ransom. But, again, a rosier picture can be painted, suggesting that the burgesses were able to meet the increased taxation because of increased prosperity through the still-continuing trade with England.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3807900017