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History of the English in Scotland, Part II: The Anglo-Normans

The refectory (monks' dining hall) at Dunfermline Abbey is an example of Norman architecture in Scotland, built by King David I in 1128

In my previous article, I told the story of how the first English people arrived in what is now Scotland from the 7th century AD onwards. At the time they were known as 'Angles' and their kingdom was 'Bernicia', which united with her southern neighbor (Deira) to form Northumbria. This united Anglian force pushed north and west against the indigenous Brythonic peoples, taking over most of what is now Southern Scotland bar parts of Strathclyde. However, the Viking conquest of Deira caused Northumbria to crumble, and so the Angles living west of the River Tweed and Cheviot Hills found themselves under Scottish rule by the middle of the 11th century.

The second part of this story is very different, as the first was a tale of tribal expansion and conquest, only for the conquering folk themselves have their kingdom carved up between the greater powers of Scotland and England. What happened next was a 'peaceful cultural takeover' where the Scottish monarchs themselves encouraged English immigration, which led to the replacement of local Gaelic culture in the Lowlands. This was part of Scottish royal efforts to better compete with England on an equal footing, but it involved giving up their native culture (eventually) in favor of not only English, but also French influences that arrived with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans

This chapter begins in England, where there was an uneasy peace between the new Norman king, William the Conqueror, and the House of Wessex, who ruled England back-and-forth with the Danes until the death of their last king, Edward the Confessor, in 1066. In fact, the head of this house, Edgar the Ætheling, was actually elected as King of England following Harold Godwinson's death at the Battle of Hastings. However, the English nobility who supported him were also intimidated by the Normans, so they decided to let William take the throne instead.

Edgar then became William's vassal, though it's unclear how loyal he really was. While the details around what happened in the late 1060s are unclear, what we do know is that Edgar set sail from England with his sister and mother, Margaret and Agatha, but they were blown off course. Tradition maintains they landed at St Margaret's Hope, between North Queensferry and Rosyth in Fife. They were brought to the court of King Malcolm III 'Canmore ('Big Head/Chief')', who fell in love with Margaret (a note for Shakespeare fans: this is the same Malcolm who finally defeated Macbeth). They were married in 1072, but this set in motion cultural changes which were to change the course of Scotland's history.

Margaret was a strong supporter of the order of Benedictine monks, which caused conflict with local monks known as 'Culdees'. The Culdees were less strict than the Benedictines, with Culdee monastic offices often being hereditary. This is likely because the Culdees didn't take vows of celibacy (though they likely practiced it for periods at a time, just not permanently) and even had families. They seem to have been more like 'part-time monks', practicing asceticism while at the same time living as any other members of Scottish society. Margaret seems to have disapproved, so she convinced her husband to endorse the Benedictines and the Culdee monks were displaced1, their humble wooden chapels replaced by stone churches, some of which still survive.

This chapel was once thought to have been used by Margaret, but was probably built by her son, David I, in the 12th century to honor her memory. It's the oldest building in Edinburgh Castle. Alamy Stock Photo

Margaret also had English and Norman retainers with her, and she has often been blamed for 'Anglicizing' the Scottish court.2 This would make sense in light of what happened after Malcolm's death attacking Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in 1093. Margaret is said to have died of a broken heart when she heard the news of her husband's death, but for her efforts in spreading mainstream Catholicism in Scotland, she was canonized as a saint. However, she had three sons by Malcolm and this is likely what made Malcolm's brother, Donald III 'Bán' ('the Fair(-haired?)') seize the throne. He and other Scottish nobles presumably felt threatened by the cultural and religious changes that Malcolm had introduced under his wife's influence, a legacy which in all likelihood would have been continued by their sons.

The Scottish historian John of Fordun (writing in the late 14th century) said that Donald besieged Edinburgh Castle where Margaret had died, so her body had to be taken out the castle to Dunfermline through a secret exit. After this, her brother Edgar arranged for her sons to be taken to England for safety3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us the clue of Donald's intentions when it says that he expelled “the English” from the Scottish court4. However, William the Conqueror's sons and successors, Rufus and Henry I, helped Malcolm's sons defeat their uncle and retake the Scottish throne.

The first attempt in 1094 was unsuccessful, as Duncan (Malcolm's son by his previous wife) was able to regain the throne as Duncan II, but the locals resented his English retainers and they convinced him to send them back to England. This made him vulnerable and he was ambushed and killed by his uncle within the year5. They finally succeeded in 1097, when Donald was deposed, possibly blinded and probably died in prison. The next king and eldest of Malcolm and Margaret's sons was Edgar (named after his maternal uncle), who was succeeded in 1107 by his younger brother, Alexander I. But it was the third and youngest brother, David, who would be the most important.

David I reigned from 1124-1153 and during this time he initiated perhaps the most significant changes in Scotland's history, which has come to be known as the 'Davidian Revolution'. His ascension was hard-won though, as it was disputed by Prince Malcolm, Alexander's son. A civil war was fought over the throne, but David won because he had the financial and military backing of Henry I of England (who was married to David's sister, Matilda). David had to struggle for supremacy over the rest of Scotland, as to begin with he had little authority outside of Lanarkshire, Dumfriesshie and the Borders6.

Prince Malcolm was still at large though and joined forces with King Angus of Moray, an area which was ambiguously independent from the rest of Scotland (and at the time included the lands to the west and north-west of modern-day Moray too). Moray was the base of Macbeth's power and indeed Macbeth was Angus' grandfather on his mother's side, so the 'Moravians' likely resented David's growing power as a threat to their independence. This threat was real, as Malcolm and Angus were defeated by one of David's English retainers, Edward, at Stracathro in Angus, in which Angus was killed7. Moray was conquered by Edward and Malcolm was finally captured and imprisoned at Roxburgh Castle in 1134 8.

The extensive support which David drew from Henry I could support an interpretation that this was a quasi-conquest of Scotland by the English, or at the very least the stamping out of the old tribal political structures by an Anglicized feudal monarchy. Nevertheless, the clan system still meant that Scotland never became quite as feudal as England or France, especially in the Highlands. In the Lowlands, however, the winds of change were to sweep across the fertile plains not only in the form of bringing Scotland even more in line with mainstream Catholicism (a process that began with St Margaret), but with the creation of the burghs.

Some of the burghs were created around existing hillforts, which were turned into castles in this time, such as at Edinburgh and Stirling. Most though were built as brand new cities, such as Perth and Lanark, whose names (meaning 'copse' and 'glade' in Brythonic respectively) indicate 'greenfield' construction on previously undeveloped land. The burghs were to be the centers of trade and administration and it is these that the majority of English immigrants were invited to populate.

The Anglo-Norman influx into Scotland was a combination of aristocratic land grants from David, (such as the one given to the Flemish nobleman Freskin, the progenitor of the Murray and Sutherland clans, who was given Moray as his fief) and tradesmen seeking opportunities in the burghs. The nobles tended to be descended from the men who accompanied William the Conqueror to England, mainly Normans and Flemings, while their vassals and retainers were drawn from among the English commoners.

Duffus Castle near Covesea, Moray, was originally built as a wooden motte-and-bailey by Freskin in the 12th century. What is left are the remains of 14th century renovations in stone.

Linguistic analysis of the Scots language (sister-tongue of English that developed in Scotland) shows that it probably doesn't come from the Angles who were already living in Scotland as commonly assumed, but from this influx of Anglo-Normans from the 12th century onwards. The reason being that the Danes didn't settle in Bernicia in what is now Northumberland and South-East Scotland, so the dialects of North-East England (including Geordie) don't have much Norse influence at all, but Scots does. Study of the origins of the English commoners immigrating to Scotland shows that the largest chunk came from Yorkshire, which was heavily settled by the Danes9.

Examples of Norse influence on Scots include using 'kirk' instead of 'church', 'baith' instead of 'both', 'gang' instead of 'go', 'keek' instead of 'peek' and loanwords not present in English such as 'bing' ('slagheap'), 'tack' ('lease') and 'lassie' ('girl'). Over the course of the 12th century, a three-tier system of class and language emerged in Scotland, with the nobles speaking French, the middle class of burgesses and yeomen speaking English and peasants and Highlanders speaking Gaelic. However, this was more of a general tendency rather than a strict delineation like in England. For example, my own clan is of Norman or Flemish origin, but Comyns who were given land in the Highlands spoke Gaelic and at least partially 'went native' culturally.

Relations between the locals and incomers weren't always friendly though, as an example from 1174 demonstrates. William of Newburgh, an English historian writing at the time, said that after the Scottish king, William the Lion, was captured at the Battle of Alnwick, the Gaelic Scots turned on their Anglo-Norman brothers-in-arms:

“The king of Scots being thus delivered into the hands of his enemies, the manifest vengeance of God did not permit his most hateful army to go unpunished. When the capture of their king was known, the barbarians were at first thunderstruck, and desisted from plunder; but soon after, as if impelled by the furies, they turned against each other the sword -- now drunk with innocent blood -- which they had taken up against their foes; for there was in that army a great number of English, since the towns and boroughs of the kingdom of Scotland are inhabited by English. On this occasion the Scots, evincing their innate hatred against them, though concealed through fear of the king, cut off as many as they met, while those able to escape took refuge in the royal fortresses.”10

It's not completely clear why the Gaels had an 'innate hatred' for the newcomers, though immigrant populations are often targets of local resentment, especially if they are treated favorably by the ruling class. This does seem to have been the case with the Anglo-Normans, as many were given land which had to be taken from somebody, and those somebodies by the 12th century were local Gaels. Also, while Gaelic culture was not being rejected by the Scottish establishment per se, more social clout was given to English or French, the cultures and languages of the incoming English over local Gaeldom (except in the south-east, where as I've said there were already English, but whose dialect was undoubtedly absorbed by the incomers who ultimately spoke the same language).

From the perspective of the Scottish monk Adam of Dryburgh writing in 1180, he considered his home to be: “in the land of the English in the Kingdom of the Scots”11. This meant that even since the Scottish conquest of Lothian and the Borders on either side of the year 1000, the area was ambiguously considered to be either Scotland or England: politically Scottish, culturally English. What then would the 'Inglis' have considered themselves to be? On the one hand they spoke 'Inglis', but on the other they were ruled by the Scottish kings. It must have been somewhat confusing, especially when wars were waged between England and Scotland.

The Wars of Independence

Presumably though, despite the wars that were occasionally fought between the two kingdoms in the 12th and early 13th centuries, there was healthy interaction between the 'Inglis' in the Scottish burghs and their countrymen in England, particularly when it came to movement of people either though trade or immigration. This would change though as the 13th century neared its close, because England came to have a king who was particularly ambitious, and who would soon turn his predatory gaze toward his northern neighbors.

Edward I 'Langshanks' ('long-legged', referring to his tallness) had already conquered Wales in 1283 by the time Alexander III of Scotland unexpectedly died in 1286. Alexander's nearest kin was the 3 year old Princess Margaret of Norway, who was proclaimed Queen of Scotland upon his death. However, she died during her voyage to Scotland in 1290, so Scotland was left without a monarch. There were many claimants to the throne, but the two with the strongest claims were John Balliol, Lord of Galloway, and Robert 'the Competitor' Bruce (grandfather of the future King Robert the Bruce), Lord of Annandale in Dumfriesshire. The Scots were stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the hard place being civil war and the rock being Langshanks.

The Guardians of Scotland, the men governing Scotland on behalf of the Maid of Norway, made the difficult decision to ask the English king to decide which of the claimants should be King of Scotland. Edward agreed on the condition that he be recognized as Lord Paramount of Scotland, but the Scots had already noted Langshanks' determination to dominate them, so they insisted on making their concessions to him temporary until a new king was chosen.

Yours truly reading the plaque at Berwick Railway Station. This picture was taken almost exactly a decade ago!

Edward chose John Balliol, who was crowned in 1292, but Edward forced Balliol and the other Scottish nobles to submit to his authority and did his best to treat the new king as a vassal (leading to his derogatory nickname of 'Toom Tabard', or 'empty coat' to indicate his lack of agency). When Edward called Balliol to join him in his war with the French in 1294, the Scottish nobles decided to create a new set of Guardians the following year; further undermining Balliol's authority. They arranged an alliance with the French and (unsuccessfully) attacked Carlisle Castle in 1296, which spurred Edward to invade Scotland. By that time Balliol had abdicated, having lost whatever authority he still had.

The first target of Langshanks' attack was Berwick-upon-Tweed, the very town where Edward had presided over the choosing of Scotland's king. This is relevant for the wider story because Berwick was really an English burgh culturally, but part of the Scottish realm. Ethnic distinctions meant little to the rulers of Scotland and England, so the sacking that followed its capture was one of the most horrific in Britain's history. The Scottish historian, Walter Bower, wrote in 1447 that:

“When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred.... So that mills could be turned by the flow of their blood.”12

Berwick was Scotland's most important trading port, second only to London within Britain in terms of importance13, so Edward's sack of the city was a very callous massacre of most of the citizens of a potentially lucrative source of revenue for him. The point of this sacking was to assert his absolute dominance over Scotland and he cared not whether its denizens were English or Gaelic.

Berwick-upon-Tweed knew little peace beginning with Langshanks' invasion in 1296, as it changed hands between Scotland and England over the following two centuries. It was finally taken permanently for England in 1482 by Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III.

Edward went on to defeat the Scots at Dunbar and forced them to acknowledge him as their king, though members of the petty nobility such as William Wallace and Andrew Murray refused to accept this and led the defeat of the invading English at Stirling Bridge the following year. The Wars of Independence raged from this point on well into the 14th century, though Scottish independence was more or less achieved following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 after Edward's death.

The development of the Scots language

These wars were in all likelihood crucial in welding together the Gaels and Anglo-Normans of Scotland into a cohesive people, whose loyalty to their realm trumped ethnicity. In part, this was because the 'English in the Kingdom of the Scots' were just as much downtrodden by the invading English army as the Gaels were, so the occupying force were seen as the common foe regardless of whether they shared a common heritage or not. Wars are bad for trade, so this likely contributed to the divergence of the variety of English spoken in Scotland from that of England. By the 16th century, speakers of the language once known as 'Inglis' started to call it 'Scots' instead, because they considered themselves to be Scots; therefore their language was that of the Scots.

To illustrate how far Scots and English had diverged, in 1560 the Scottish regent, Mary of Guise, tried speaking to an English herald in the “Scottish tongue”, but he couldn't understand her so they conversed in French instead14. By this point, French had ceased to be the language of the nobility in Scotland and England, so the nobles of each country needed to speak a different language (or use translators) with each other, but not with their fellow countrymen; the opposite to what had been the case until around the 15th century. So where then did this leave Gaelic? As the language of commerce, administration and the Kirk (on a parochial level), Scots had the advantage over Gaelic and it gradually replaced Gaelic in the Lowlands from the 12th century onwards.

This was all part of the centralization of the Scottish state, as the need to communicate with agents of the state (such as taxmen and sheriffs) meant that not speaking Scots left Scots relying on more traditional clan ties to maintain social order. The Highlands were at the time too remote and difficult for state agents to act there, but it was easier in the Lowlands mainly because the burghs were distributed across it. This meant that even rural Lowlanders became more integrated into the state structure, so it made sense to at least know how to speak Scots in order to interact with the authorities, and eventually it simply became more convenient to be their first language.

The adoption of the Scots tongue by Lowland Gaels helped to blur the old distinctions between the Anglo-Norman immigrants and the locals, so that eventually made the Highland/Lowland distinction more important as the descendants of the Anglo-Normans came to see themselves as local. Another important factor here that mustn't be ignored is that, because the English were mainly moving into the burghs, English culture was always seen as more 'civilized' than that of the Gaels.

This distinction probably sharpened during the Reformation from the late 16th century onwards, as Protestantism spread throughout the Lowlands mainly through the burghs, while it moved much more slowly (but still surely) into the Highlands. And so, while considering the more 'civilized' culture to be English became politically unpalatable following the Wars of Independence (because the English were the invaders, right?), this meant that the Lowlanders simply made a distinction between themselves as 'civilized Scots' and the Highlanders as 'Irish barbarians'.

The term 'Erse' was used to describe the Gaels and their language, which is a pun on the word 'Irish' and 'arse'. The Gaels themselves had always emphasized their connections with Ireland, including in the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), which retells the Gaels' (who were called 'Scoti' in Latin) fictional journey from Iberia to Ireland as an assertion of who the Scots were. However, the dominance of 'Inglis' in the Lowlands made this connection problematic too, and one wonders whether early modern Lowlanders tended to emphasize being both 'more native' and 'more civilized' than the Gaels, but ignored the Scots' own traditional origin story.

This map shows the gradual growth of the Scots language, beginning with the 9th century Angles in red, the spread of Early Scots by the 15th century in orange and its modern spread in yellow (traditionally Gaelic-speaking areas are blue). Orkney and Shetland became Scots-speaking after 1468 when they were given to Scotland by Norway, while Scots were planted in Ireland in the 17th century after James VI became the King of England too.

An example of the curious situation of the Scots language comes from around the year 1500 with The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, a 'war of words' between the Scots poet, William Dunbar, and a Galwegian Gaelic poet, Walter Kennedy. In this Dunbar accuses Kennedy of being “of the Irishry”, poor, perverted, ugly and shrivelled, while Kennedy tells Dunbar to go to England if he wants to speak English and calls him an incontinent dwarf descended from Beelzebub15.

Their respective comments about each other's language show how one could consider the other either 'Irish' or 'English' and not 'truly Scottish'. It can be hard to tell how seriously this was taken (especially the flyting), though it does seem clear that the Lowlanders could well look down on the rugged Gaels and the Gaels would respond in kind by pointing out the foreign origins of the Lowlanders' language and culture (the fact that Galloway had Gaelic-speakers until 1760 means that they always stand out as the exception when it comes to 'Lowlanders' until that date).

Ironically, since Gaelic and English replaced Brythonic in Scotland, one could argue that neither are truly indigenous, though at the very least Gaelic was probably spoken in Scotland before English was. It matters little, because James VI's ascension to the English throne in 1603 meant that Scots would also be put on the back foot, because the need to govern both Scotland and England meant that the English language was prioritized over both Scots and Gaelic.

Nevertheless, there was still a general acknowledgement that the Lowlanders shared a common culture with the English in contrast to the Gaels, who were also present in Ireland (which had recently been conquered by England). At times, the British establishment would emphasize the shared 'civility' of the English with the Lowlanders, especially when it came to suppressing the mainly Highland Jacobites in the early 18th century (who were also not as uniformly Presbyterian as the Lowlanders). At the same time, Scottish politicians (the majority of whom were Lowlanders) were sometimes treated with xenophobic contempt by their English colleagues, showing that in practice the differences could outweigh the commonalities.

From this point on, the 'English in the Kingdom of the Scots' would consist of those English who took advantage of the Union of Crowns to move freely to Scotland into the present day. In contrast, while the English language has replaced both Scots and Gaelic (the latter somewhat forcibly), Lowlanders and Scots in general don't consider themselves 'English' (except for me, lol). Essentially, this is a story about one of the peoples who helped to create Scotland, but whose common origins with the people of her larger, southern neighbor has made their contribution at times confusing and difficult to fit into a simple picture of what Scotland is.

This example shows us that national origin myths tend to obscure the historical reality for political reasons (no more is this true than for the Gaels themselves, since there's no evidence that they descend from Iberians by and large). Often, stark differences are drawn in times of war and distress, as in the case of the Scottish Gaels and 'Inglis' who both had to endure Langshanks' invasions. The need to find a common enemy can drive different groups closer together as much as cleave similar ones apart.

Conor Cummings

1Lamont-Brown, 2002, Fife in History and Legend, pp.178–180, cited on Wikipedia

2Magnusson, 2000: Scotland: The Story of a Nation, p.65

3Fordun, Chronicles of the Scottish People, 5:21

4ASC: 1093

5Potter, 2009, Gothic Kings of Britain: The Lives of 31 Medieval Rulers, 1016-1399, cited on Wikipedia

6Oram, 2004: David: The King Who Made Scotland, p.87, cited on Wikipedia

7Annals of Ulster: 1130

8Anderson, 1922: Early Sources of Scottish History, p.183, cited on Wikipedia


10William of Newburgh: History of English Affairs, 2:34

11Adam of Dryburgh: Of the Tripartite Tabernacle, 2:210

12Walter Bower, Scotichronicon, cited on Wikipedia

13Nicholson, 1983: Kingship and Unity, pp.145-146, cited on Wikipedia

14Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 1 (1898), p.322, cited on Wikipedia


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