top of page

Highlands vs Lowlands

Updated: Apr 8, 2023


When one thinks of Scotland, the mind usually turns to the magnificent Highlands, with its rugged scenery and tragic history; indeed, since the quelling of Highland culture in the 18th Century, the mountainous parts of Scotland have been the selling point for tourism, since it feels much more exotic to the inhabitants of most of Britain who live in the lowland areas, or even the majority of folk who live in cities across the world. The fact that the Highlands were deliberately depopulated during the Clearances means that they are a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and hikers seeking to get away from the more densely populated Lowlands for a while, to recharge in Nature.


Buchaille Etive Mor, near Glencoe, Scottish Highlands

Additionally, the Gaelic language that was spoken throughout the Highlands has been taken to represent Scotland as a whole, since it is a Celtic language distinct from the Germanic English and Scots languages. This is based on the fact that the Kingdom of Scotland was founded by Gaels, so their language could be found across practically the whole of what is now Scotland in the 11th Century. Yet, this is not the whole story, as the Lowlands have always had their own distinctive culture which was quite different from that of the Highlands from early times. Did you know that most Lowlanders today are descended from historic populations that were more akin to the English and Welsh than to the Gaels?


Across the Lowlands and even in the Eastern Highlands during the Iron Age, Scotland was inhabited by folk who shared a common culture and language with Wales, known as 'Brythonic'. Though there were differences between the Picts in the north and the Britons in the south (which I will not go into here), place-name and historic evidence suggests that they were united by a common tongue that was different from Gaelic. At the same time, it should also be acknowledged that these folk were very similar to the Gaels, both being descended from the Beaker Folk who arrived in Britain at the beginning of the Bronze Age beginning c.2500 BC.


However, another significant portion of Lowlanders (particularly in the south-east) are descended from Anglo-Saxons who pushed into what is now Scotland from North-East England from the 6th Century AD onwards; their ancestors can be traced back to the Bronze Age Corded Ware culture of Northern and Eastern Europe. These folk maintained connections with Northern England and eventually formed the Kingdom of Northumbria with their compatriots in Yorkshire, while continuing to make war upon their neighbors, pushing as far as what is now Ayrshire by the middle of the 8th Century.


Ruthwell Cross, Dumfriesshire, an Anglo-Saxon cross featuring Anglo-Saxon runes.

Source: Wikimedia

At the same time, the Scots, based in what is now Argyll (who claimed to be of Irish origin), also made war on their Brythonic neighbors. Several of their kings, including Aidan mcGabrain, attempted to expand eastwards, but ultimately proved unsuccessful, even being subjugated by the Picts in the 8th Century. However, in the 9th Century the tables were turned and the Scots took over Pictland under their king, Kenneth MacAlpin, following a succession crisis among the Picts when the Norsemen invaded and killed their king.


In the 10th Century, the Scots expanded into Lothian as Northumbria weakened due to Danish invasions. In the 11th Century, they took over what is now the Borders, establishing the modern Anglo-Scottish border at the River Tweed, and also conquered the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde. It is because of this expansion that this land is named after the Scots, even though they themselves were in the minority in the Lowlands. Nevertheless, the Gaelic language was firmly established in former Pictland in the north-east and place-names attest to the settlement of Gaels across Scotland at that time.



River Tweed, Peebles, Scottish Borders


Yet, the trend would change when the Scottish king, Malcolm III 'Canmore' ('Big-head'), married Margaret of Wessex (who fled England with her kin after the Norman invasion). This meant that Scotland became a haven for English fleeing the Normans (though ironically some Normans were brought along too), which affected the Scottish court and began the process of 'Anglicization'. When Malcolm died in battle attacking Alnwick Castle in 1093, his brother Donald Ban took the throne and expelled Malcolm's sons and the English courtiers. They sought help from the Normans and eventually overthrew Donald, with three of the brothers holding the kingship in succession. However, it is the youngest, David, who is most remembered for his reforms which brought Scotland in line with mainstream North-West European culture, which at the time was a mixture of Romance and Germanic (the aristocracy favored the French language, while the burgesses spoke a pidgin of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and French).


Part of his reforms in the 12th Century involved the establishment of burghs, enabling the growth of urban culture in Scotland where it hadn't existed before. Naturally, the burghs were established in the Lowlands where they could have access to the rivers and seas for trade, which meant that a cultural gulf began to emerge between the Lowlands and Highlands. David invited Normans, Bretons and Flemings to Scotland from England, but the majority of immigrants were most likely descended from a mixture of Anglo-Saxons and Danes. As most of these folk spoke languages similar to that already spoken in Scotland by the Northumbrians, this made it more socially advantageous to adopt Germanic culture in the Lowlands, which gradually expanded at the expense of Gaelic and Brythonic culture there.



The abbey of Dunfermline was founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland on the site of an 11th Century priory. King David I is believed to be buried underneath the abbey.

Though this Germanic language was initially known as Inglis and Gaelic was called Scottis, by the 16th Century the Germanic language was referred to as 'Scots' and Gaelic as 'Erse' (meaning 'arse', as a pun on 'Irish'). There are perhaps several reasons for this, one of them being that the Germanic folk living in Scotland preferred to identify as Scottish rather than English because the English invaded Scotland (leading to the Wars of Independence in the late 13th and 14th Centuries). Another could be that, because Edward I of England had abolished the tribal laws of the Brythonic and Gaelic folk in the Lowlands (a text compiled by David known as the Laws of the Brets and Scots), this meant that they came under more legal, cultural and linguistic influence from the Germanic Scots, who nonetheless now saw themselves more as Scottish than English.


This complex political and cultural process meant that Gaelic language and culture came to be seen as that of uncivilized barbarians living in the Highlands, whereas the Scots-speaking Lowlanders saw themselves as civilized (as many of them lived in cities). By this point, the Brythonic language had gone extinct in Strathclyde and Dumfriesshire and had been replaced by the Scots language. Later religious divisions between Catholic and Protestant also played a part, though this was not as relevant as language and culture (as there is evidence that most Highlanders were Protestant by the time of the Jacobite Wars in the 18th Century). The political unification of England and Scotland beginning in the 17th Century under James VI further emphasized the differences between the Gaelic Highlanders and Germanic Lowlanders, as the Lowlanders and English shared a common Germanic culture (though even the Scots language came to be seen as backwards compared to Standard English following the Union of Crowns).


The subsequent suppression of Gaelic culture in Scotland and Ireland and the Highland Clearances following the Jacobite Wars should perhaps be interpreted more as British state policy, which in theory favored the Germanic Lowlanders, but in practice was more interested in enforcing a centralized government upon local cultures (including that of the Lowlands). Events known as the 'Lowland Clearances' are less known than those in the Highlands because they weren't as dramatic, but they took place mostly in the 18th Century and were akin to the Acts of Enclosure in England, which involved pushing rural folk into bigger population clusters, where they had previously been more dispersed.




A 'clachan' in Allean Forest, an example of how people lived in the 16th/17th Century before the clearances.

Thankfully, we have begun to see a resurgence in folk consciousness throughout Scotland, though particularly with regards to the Gaelic language. The events of the 18th and 19th centuries show us that it's wrong to enforce civilization on folk who don't want it, particularly if that civilization allows no room for their language or culture and seeks to replace it with another. The result has been very tragic, and while we cannot reverse the events of the past (including the extinction of the Brythonic language in Scotland), we can at least make ourselves aware of our past in order to connect with it on a deeper level that goes beyond simply the language we speak on a day-to-day basis (though this is relevant too to an extent).


However, while I think it is a good thing that many Scots have chosen to embrace their Gaelic heritage, I myself don't resonate much with it, which is why I choose to emphasize the lesser-known historical cultures of the Lowlands, specifically Brythonic and Germanic. This is simply because of the acknowledgement that Scotland is (and always had been) a patchwork of several distinct groups, each of which have contributed to who the Scots are today. Attempts to define Scottish culture as deriving purely from one or another historic culture will always be met with the reality that there has always been cultural and linguistic diversity in this land. While at various points one or another culture had predominated (Brythonic in the Iron Age, Gaelic in the Middle Ages and Germanic more recently), at least one other has always been present to offset any sense of monoculture here.


Additionally, it is simply a demographic fact that most Scots live in the Lowlands, if not for the fact that this is where the cities are and where the most fertile land is, which was one of the most determining factors in the past when it came to where folk lived (and what they fought over). Therefore, the history of the Lowlands has a more direct relevance to the majority of Scots who live there today (though of course, there are a number of Scots living in the Lowlands whose origins lie in the Highlands and vice versa). Rather than showing folk what treasures can be found among the mountains (which is always a treat), my attempt is to show them what is on their doorstep, which may not be so romantic or tranquil as the Highlands, but is more accessible, though ironically often lesser-known; as one tends to overlook one's doorstep when gazing out at the mountains beyond.


Conor Cummings

Comentarios


bottom of page