Probably the least violent period in Scotland’s history was the arrival of Mesolithic people around eight thousand years ago. There was no one here for them to fight, otherwise it would, no doubt, have been a different story!
These hunter gatherers had crossed the English channel from France during the last ice age when much of the world’s oceans were tied up in the ice sheets. Sea levels were so much lower that they could actually walk from France to England.
This does mean, of course, that some nameless individual would have been the very last person to make that walk before rising sea levels made it too dangerous and the route was lost for centuries.
These stone age people gradually made their way up from England to Scotland over the next few thousand years.
The end of the ice age in Scotland just twelve thousand years ago saw firstly an invasion of wind blown seeds like grasses and silver birch trees. These were quickly followed by the heavier seeds carried by birds and animals - holly, rowan, blackthorn, wild cherry then hazel and oak. The heavier wind blown seeds also spread northwards. By six thousand BC, most of Scotland was covered in the most wonderful forest which became known as the Caledonian Forest.
Sadly, only tiny remnants of this forest exist today as it was all cut down, beginning in the bronze age and continuing until the industrial revolution. Where did the timber go? To make charcoal for the smelting of bronze, iron and other metals. All of those forests gone forever in the name of progress. Readers wishing to experience one of the last truly original areas of this great forest which managed to survive the plunder should visit Glen Affric in Inverness-shire.
We know very little about these early Highland people because they lived in caves and makeshift shelters. Their existence may well have been tribal and that, no doubt, will have led to the odd slit throat or smashed skull, but we have no written records of that time. What little we do know has been gleaned by archaeologists sifting through meagre evidence.
At some point, about three thousand years later, some of these Mesolithic Highlanders came up with a great idea. They planted crops. The Neolithic era had begun.
Now growing crops and domesticating animals, their makeshift shelters were no longer very suitable. They gathered stones, timber and grass and built permanent houses.
This provided them with more security, the archaeologists with a treasure trove called a garbage pit and the neighbouring tribes with a more pressing reason to kill them and steal their growing number of possessions!
Around this time and over the next thousand years or so, these stone age peoples, living in a Highland climate which was more like the south of France, found that they had time to lie on their backs and stare at the sky. An understanding of the physical movement of heavenly bodies developed although with not the least idea of what they actually seeing.
Staring at the moon, sun, stars and planets probably inspired an interest in what the universe was all about and religion will have been invented. Shocking violence, hatred and bloodthirsty concepts would inevitably follow, whether it be placating the gods with sacrifices, killing others in their deity’s name or just because they did not believe in the same concepts! Religious wars had been invented.
Prehistoric stone circles and burial chambers still litter the Highlands of Scotland in evidence of their understanding of the rising and setting of both moon and sun.
While cremation was the end of choice, it was hardly the incineration of today. Something more like a roast joint of granny was put in the cairns. No wonder they probably evicted the rotting carcass the moment the equinoctial sunbeam had permitted the spirit to ascend towards the sun god.
If we could understand them, the mysterious cup marks carved into some of the cairn stones and standing stones may hold clues to their beliefs.
Historians are split over whether or not these stone cairns were used for multiple burials, single burials or even single one-off burials. The ring cairn at Clava near Inverness may be an example of the latter. The cairn at Corrimony was constructed four thousand years ago, yet the last remains there date back three thousand years. They comprised a stain of a cremated female internment on the ground just at the interior end of the passageway. Not even in the centre of the chamber.
Tribal life continued to develop with its jealousies, greed and power struggles, but tinged with family loyalties and respect which may eventually have provided some of the basis for the clan system.
By the middle of the Bronze Age the Celts, on their ten thousand mile, ten thousand year journey from the Indian subcontinent, had finally begun to cross the Irish Sea into Argyll.
More sophisticated than the resident Highlanders, they probably quickly eliminated the males and absorbed the females.
Strengthening the gene pool and reinforcing the tribal system, these early pagan Celtic invaders, established the rudiments of a kingdom. They were described by others as the Picts and were without doubt one of the dual cores of the current Highland people.
The Picts reigned supreme in the north for more than a millennium, seeing out the Iron Age and the early Dark Ages. Little detail is available, but we do know the names of some of the leaders. This knowledge comes mainly from their interaction with others, for the Picts left no written records other than a strange series of cut marks called Ogham, which may well have been no more than named boundary markers.
In the sixth century the leader in the north was King Brude or King Bridei. He ruled from just outside the Highland city of Inverness. For those with an insatiable interest in all things Pictish, it is still possible to find some of the stones used in his fortress overlooking the modern city at Craig Phadrig. It is also possible that he had a less defensive home beside the river where the current Inverness castle stands today, but modern building on the site means that there is no archaeological evidence for such a structure until the mid-medieval period.
King Brude would have been a very concerned man, for he was constantly under threat from the Britons, the forerunners of the English – those strange folk dwelling south of the Scottish border. The main threat to the Picts, however was the invasion going on in the southwest of King Brude’s nation, where Argyll is located today.
At the time, the country known in the twenty-first century as Eire and Northern Ireland was sometimes called Scotia, meaning that the people invading the southwest of Pictland or Alba were called Scots. The word Scotti was also used to mean pirate and is certainly used for the people who occupied Dalriada, the regions known today as Ulster and Argyll.
When viewing an ancient map of the region it would not be unexpected for modern people to wonder why the kingdom of Dalriada should be split by the Irish Sea. What they would not appreciate is that the most convenient way of travelling at the time was by boat. Dalriada was not split by the Irish Sea, it was joined by it! It is important to understand such concepts when looking at the history of a people whose land comprises hundreds of islands and is surrounded by sea. It also explains how the tiny Hebridean island of Iona became the spiritual centre of Christian Scotland.
Was the coming of the Scotti a gentle coming together of similar peoples or was it a more violent struggle between competing nations? Who knows? We are aware of some interaction, because a Scottish (meaning from Ireland) missionary called Columba made a successful attempt to introduce Christianity to the Highlands. Previous attempts had failed, including that by Cumin around a century earlier. The village in the geographical centre of the Highlands, known as Fort Augustus in English, has the Gaelic name Cille Chumein meaning “Church of Cumin”.
In 565AD Saint Columba visited Brude at Inverness and we do know that he converted many of Brude’s people to Christianity, but not the King himself, at least not during that visit. He did, however, get on very well with Brude and it is believed that the two men met on several occasions. The photograph shows a statue of St Columba in the northeast face of the Fort Augustus Abbey bell tower.
On his way to meet King Brude on the first occasion he supposedly encountered a fearsome beast in, of all places, Loch Ness! However, an examination of the account written by St Columba’s biographer, Adamnan tells us that the saint encountered monsters everywhere he went in Scotland and, guess what, he used the word of God to scare off these abominable creatures on every occasion.
Monster hunters, of course, conveniently ignore all of the monsters he encountered elsewhere, preferring to promote the one he met at Loch Ness.
So, were there violent clashes between the Picts and the Scots? Again little is known other than major events and Brude actually won an important victory in the southwest, laying waste to the Scots’ farms. Perhaps if he had continued his thrust he may have even expelled them.
These battles would have been very bloody affairs with soldiers killing with, and being killed by axes, swords and daggers in the main. It is easy to say this or see it written, but the reader should also imagine the effects of such warfare. Even minor wounds were susceptible to infection and subsequent disability or death, one often following the other in a drawn out and agonising manner.
Now we need to jump forward a couple of hundred years to, say, the early ninth century. The Scots are still fighting the Picts. The Picts, of course, are still fighting the Britons, which they had always done except when they fought the Roman occupiers of the south instead, and the Vikings, by now, were fighting absolutely everybody. Life expectation would have been zilch!
The Vikings are often misunderstood.
Many casual observers of our history may imagine that the Vikings used their violence in order to expand their influence, but this was not their primary objective. The Vikings thoroughly enjoyed rape, pillage and murder and they did it exceedingly well. It would be wrong to attach too much sophistication to their actions and motives.
Their violence and sexual gratification was an end in itself, not a means to something grander imagined by those of us from slightly less violent times! This is borne out by the fact that the Nordic countries never established the global empires achieved even by far smaller countries like Belgium and Holland to mention just a couple.
A change was coming, however.
The Scots and Picts used an interesting method of choosing their kings. It was called tanistry and it was, in effect, a rudimentary form of democracy, but with only the nobles forming the electoral college. Using this system, in 843AD the Scots elected a man called Kenneth MacAlpin. Kenneth was of Pictish origins (the name Alpin was certainly Pictish) and this adds credence to the possibility that the Picts and Scots were not antagonistic towards each other all of the time.
Little is known about this Kenneth, but he had all the makings of greatness for, just a few months later he was also elected king of the Picts. This brought unification of the two peoples, but by now with the Vikings resident in the far north the violence was going to cease. In fact it probably continued in a more organised manner.
It is hard for us today to understand the election of a king for life. Just imagine the implications if we were to do this.
Who is the oldest surviving political leader in your country? How would you feel about him/her still being the leader today?
Age may not have been such a concern in the early medieval period. The major problem would how to dispose of an unpopular king.
Would it be the concealed trip wire at the top of the spiral staircase, the digitalis in the challis at dinner, or the stealthy assassins’ daggers in the dead of night?
To be sure, the average reign in this newly united kingdom was fewer than ten years. Even less if one or two lengthy exceptions are removed.
This may make us ponder why anyone would even want to be the king. Until, that is, we realise that all these kings were just early politicians.
Have you ever heard of a politician who didn’t think they could do better than the one who went before him? They all believed they would be popular and successful until they encountered the realities of their violent cultures.
As we move into the eleventh century the Scottish nation has been born and one of the oldest kingdoms in the world begins its long march towards the twenty-first century, which was to include some of the most violent and bloodthirsty events in the world’s history.
Enjoy the journey.