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Iron Age vs Medieval Scotland

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

For many reasons, including the comparative lack of historical documents and distance of time from us, the Iron Age is a somewhat obscure period. Even archaeologically, compared with the Bronze Age with its rich hoards demonstrating fabulous wealth and craftsmanship, the Iron Age is very poor. Part of this is simply because bronze does not rust as iron does, meaning that we are much less likely to have evidence of iron objects when compared to bronze, but one does also get the sense of a certain material poverty that characterized the Iron Age compared to the preceding Bronze Age and the Middle Ages that followed (in the British Isles in particular, most of the artefacts from the Iron Age are made of bronze).

However, because technology and society changed less between the period known in archaeology as 'La Tène' (beginning c.450 BC) and the Viking Age (c.800-1,000 AD) than in the periods before and after, they can be considered one epoch (even if the later part from c.400-1,000 AD is often considered 'Early Medieval' because of the introduction of Christianity and the spread of literacy in the British Isles, here we consider the Middle Ages to begin c.1,000 AD). For Bronze Age Scotland, we have no history, but for Iron Age Scotland we at least have some historical documentation in the form of Roman history. This is termed 'protohistorical' in the case of somewhere like Scotland, as the contemporary history was purely from the perspective of outsiders. While the Picts and other inhabitants of Iron Age Scotland certainly had their own oral traditions, the Picts in particular are very enigmatic and have left us no written record (though Pictish writing utensils have been found, it is unknown what became of their texts).

Collar in La Tène style, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

At the same time, we have more local sources from Ireland, England and Wales, as well as later Scottish sources. However, the historical texts that we have are often separated by centuries from the events they describe, so they are typically retrospective. Still, from the available sources, we can paint a picture of the Iron Age in comparison to the Middle Ages. These two periods have much in common, such as iron technology, which has basically remained the same until modern times. However, other aspects of society were markedly different, which I will explain below:

1. The Iron Age was tribal

Saint Columba converting King Brude of the Picts to Christianity, by William Hole, 1899

Source: Wikimedia

In contrast to the Middle Ages which was largely based on kingdoms of approximate size to modern nation states, Iron Age society seems to have been very decentralized in comparison. While the Gaels and Picts had high-kings ruling over all of the Gaelic or Pictish peoples, this was a different system from a medieval kingdom, in which there was typically only one king at a time. Gaelic and Pictish kingship worked more along the lines of multiple petty-kings swearing allegiance to one high-king, but the petty-kings were still considered kings in their own right. The medieval Irish law codes in particular point to a society still very tribal throughout the Middle Ages, and for them there was a hierarchy of kings, with the most minor being that of a túath, meaning 'tribe'.

Such a system would have meant that the high-king's influence could extend only to subordinate kings, but not to the members of the tribes of these lesser kings; in contrast to medieval kings for whom all folk living under their rule were considered their 'subjects'. Though the desires of the high-king would have undoubtedly affected ordinary folk in times of war, it was the local petty-kings who recruited their tribesmen to fight rather than the high-kings themselves. While this is comparable to medieval knights who owned land recruiting peasants for war, knights were always considered socially lesser to kings, while a Gaelic or Pictish high-king was simply the pre-eminent tribal leader within his ethnic group ('first among equals').

The King Stone on Dunadd Hillfort, Argyll, used for inauguration ceremonies according to legend.

This is part of the reason why hillforts were so numerous, because kingship was so ubiquitous; every local chieftain was considered a 'king' in his own right. Not only that, but the later clan system of medieval Scotland could be considered a very similar, if not the same, type of political system that the Picts employed. This means that kinship was very important to the Picts and Gaels; you were likely to have some sort of blood relation to your local king, which meant the obligations between king and tribesman were considered family affairs and in both theory and practice would have been less open to abuse.

Another major difference then between the Iron Age and the Middle Ages is that warfare was based around raiding and extracting tribute from enemy tribes rather than taking their territory. At the very least, the formation of centralized kingdoms generally reduced the continual ('endemic') violence that characterizes tribal societies. However, the fact remains that institutionalized abuse and rebellion are always more likely under a centralized government than a tribal one. Parallels between the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Iron Age can be seen when the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons tried to subdue the Picts, who rebelled and killed the Northumbrian king, Egfrith. Nevertheless, Egfrith's motivations were more to have the Picts pay him tribute, not to subdue the whole country and do away with its monarchy as Edward I of England tried to do with Scotland in the Middle Ages.

2. Iron technology and trade was limited

Iron age sword and parts of swords, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

In contrast to the Middle Ages when there was a technological revolution and iron weapons and armor could be manufactured en masse, in the Iron Age iron-working was initially very limited (particularly during the Early Iron Age known as the 'Hallstatt period' c.800-450 BC). While iron-working became more widespread during the subsequent 'La Tène period', places like Scotland are very scarce in iron ore and so we should not be surprised that stone tools were still used and jewellery and sword scabbards tended to be made of bronze. In fact, iron is so scarce in Scotland that the Roman historian, Herodian, claimed that the Caledonians valued iron as much as other 'barbarians' valued gold (though archaeologists have found examples of golden torques from Scotland, so we know they did also value gold).

Because of this difference, the image we have of heavily armored knights of the Middle Ages did not apply in Iron Age Scotland; indeed, the account of the Roman historian, Dio, says that armor was spurned by people like the Picts because it was a hindrance to their light and manoeuvrable style of warfare. Essentially, the Picts were adept in raiding and ambushing, but not so capable on the open battlefield. While this was also generally the case among the medieval Scots too, trade with iron-rich lands such as Scandinavia allowed for the Highlanders (many of whom descended from the Picts) to wield the type of longsword known as 'claymore' (a Gaelic word literally meaning 'big sword'). Roman accounts and also medieval Irish descriptions of warfare emphasize the use of chariots, which were only introduced to the British Isles during the La Tène period (and for which we actually have an example from Scotland at Newbridge, Midlothian).

In many ways, the lifestyle of the Picts and other peoples in Iron Age Scotland continued much the same as during the Bronze Age. In fact, one gets the sense from the historical sources that the Picts were considered especially 'backwards' and 'primitive' compared to their neighbors such as the Anglo-Saxons in what is now South-East Scotland. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship employed in the making of bronze jewellery in particular shows that these people were hardly primitive, at least in this way. Once again, it is likely that there is a bias in the archaeological record towards bronze because it survives better than iron, but also possibly because, before there was strict regulations on finding treasure, gold and silver artefacts were sadly melted down (as happened to the Pictish silver hoard from Norrie's Law, Fife, in the 19th Century).

3. The Iron Age Scots were illiterate, traditions were orally based (except following the arrival of Christianity among monks)

Unlike in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church acted as the central religious authority across Western Europe, we have much less evidence for such a system in place during the Iron Age. However, the Roman accounts (particularly that of Caesar), suggests that the druids were based in Britain and operated across Britain, Gaul (now France, Belgium and the western edges of Germany) and presumably also Ireland. Therefore, it is possible that a religious system similar to the Catholic Church existed in Western Europe prior to Christianity, but as they left us no written record, it is impossible to say.

This is not to say that we have no inscriptions from this period, as the Irish druids in particular wrote inscriptions in an alphabet called ogham (pronounced 'oh-wum'), which was also used in Scotland and Wales to a lesser extent. Most of the inscriptions simply commemorate the names of individuals for reasons which are unclear and are thought to date to the Late Roman period. In fact, it has been suggested that the letters in ogham do not represent the sounds in Gaelic language very well, but are better suited to expressing sounds found in Latin, so it is possible that ogham was invented by Gaels proficient in Latin. Whatever the case, the fact is that religion as a whole in the Iron Age was based on oral traditions, which were preserved by the bards and druids.

Left: Stone with Ogham script, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Right: Pictish Symbol Stone with a Celtic cross in Fowlis Wester Parish Church

Their roles were similar to the priests and monks of Christianity, in the sense that the former performed religious rites for the public and the latter preserved knowledge. However, monks and bards performed their functions very differently, as monks were literati who were theoretically cut off from ordinary people (though in practice they were very active in their communities, they are especially known for brewing ale). In contrast, the bards often sought patronage from chieftains by singing their praises, extolling their generosity to their followers and their glory and valor in battle. However, the bards became secular figures once Christianity was introduced; whereas in the earlier Iron Age they were the bearers of ancestral myth and memory, the spread of literacy put more emphasis on books like the Bible to explain the world rather than local myths, so the bards were largely relegated to simply reciting genealogies and historical events.

This process was facilitated by 'Celtic Christianity', which is a term for the form of Christianity prevalent in the British Isles in the post-Roman period that represented an earlier form of Christianity, perhaps more syncretized with Druidic traditions, before the imposition of the Gregorian Reforms and the subordination of local monastic orders like the Culdees in the 12th Century. It is the continuation of pre-Christian lore, such as Irish myths, mixed together with Christianity that means the early texts we have from the British Isles reflect the earlier Iron Age traditions perhaps more than in other parts of Europe (though still with a retrospective rather than contemporary perspective). The Druidic traditions undoubtedly stem from earlier Bronze Age cults and perhaps even extend back to the Neolithic, though we may never know for sure. Either way, religion in the Iron Age (even 'Celtic Christianity') was still more decentralized than it would be during the Middle Ages.

4. Celtic rather than Germanic culture was dominant in Western Europe (in the earlier Iron Age)

In contrast to the Middle Ages which are characterized by the likes of crusades (which are more or less a continuation of vikinging, but in a Catholic rather than pagan context), at the beginning of the Iron Age the Germanic peoples were not yet the predominant cultural force in Western Europe that they would become following the fall of the Roman Empire. While the aristocracies of England, France and Italy descended from the Germanic peoples who carved up the dying Roman Empire, many of the earlier Roman inhabitants in the western half of the empire were descended from local Celts, who as far as we can tell had been the predominant people of Western Europe since the beginning of the Iron Age (or even as far back as the Bronze Age).

While some have cast a dim view on applying the term 'Celt' to people living in the British Isles, I feel that it is appropriate at least to the degree that most men in Western Europe share a common paternal genetic marker: haplogroup R1b-P312. The distribution of this haplogroup matches the former spread of Celtic languages, so on this basis it is possible to infer that the Celtic languages were brought to Western Europe by the Bronze Age cattle-herders. However, it must also be admitted that the Greeks called the people who raided their lands Keltoi and the inhabitants of the British Isles Prettanoi, which does point to some sort of distinction that was made between them, even if purely geographical. In addition, the majority of men in the places where Celtic languages survive today (Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany) carry a specific branch of R1b-P312 called 'L21' not shared by most other men in all the places where 'Celts' were designated as having lived (such as through pre-Latin inscriptions in Celtic languages).

Distribution of Y-Haplogroup R1b in Europe, the vast majority of R1b in non-Germanic Western Europe is P312

Source: Wikimedia

So there are similarities and differences between the 'Celts' and 'Britons', but one thing that can be said for certain is that the relegation of the Celtic language-speakers to the fringes of the British Isles and Brittany is a process which happened gradually throughout the course of the Iron Age, specifically due to the movements of the Romans and their takeover of Celtic territory. It is often thought that the main problem faced by Celts (whether in the British Isles or elsewhere) has always been their inability to cooperate in the face of external pressure, preferring instead to continue quarrelling amongst themselves than to unite against a common foe. Though this may be borne out by the course of history, it cannot be denied that across all lands where Celtic languages were spoken, the local people were capable of showing astounding bravery in battle and dedication to their local traditions.

That said, the warrior spirit was never quite as strong among them as among the Germanic peoples, or at least it did not express itself in the same way. They were rather given to a more pastoral lifestyle, one that did its best to retain the customs established on the Russian Steppe when domesticated cattle were bred in numbers much larger than among the Neolithic farmers of Europe. The domestication of the horse also took place among the Western Steppe Herders specifically, so both these animals were considered sacred to the Celts (but cattle probably more so). While this was a dwindling tradition throughout the Middle Ages, it was still widespread during the Iron Age, though this is undoubtedly also the period when its decline began. Only parts of the east coast of Scotland would have been suitable for agriculture in the Iron Age (when the climate was wetter) and so this was the predominant culture in this land at that time.

5. The Brythonic, not Gaelic, language was dominant in Scotland

While nowadays we often think of Gaelic as Scotland's indigenous language, the historical reality was that the Gaelic tongue was initially restricted to the west coast of Scotland, and we are not even sure when it arrived. Though the Gaelic and Brythonic languages are both Celtic, it is clear from place-names that across all of mainland Scotland except Argyll, the Picts and Britons spoke a language more closely related to Welsh than to Gaelic. While it is unclear how and when Gaelic took over and whether it co-existed with Brythonic, this is generally thought to have occurred over the course of the 9th-11th centuries; starting with the ascendancy of a Scottish king to the Pictish throne, Kenneth mcAlpin, in 843, to the incorporation of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde into the Kingdom of Scotland some time during the 11th Century.

Dumbarton Rock, West-Dumbartonshire: Dumbarton Castle was built on the site of an old Brythonic hillfort that was the center of the Strathclyde Britons, which can be seen in the background of the photo.

The major linguistic difference then between Iron Age and medieval Scotland would be that Brythonic was the dominant language during the Iron Age, but had largely been replaced by either Gaelic or Germanic languages by the Middle Ages (Middle English was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and French, so the Germanic and Romance languages spoken in Britain should be lumped together in a medieval context). Both the Anglo-Saxons and Scottish Gaels pushed against the Britons and Picts, which meant by the Middle Ages only the Gaelic and Inglis (the variety of Middle English spoken in Scotland) remained. However, there is a curious twist here when one considers that William Wallace (meaning 'Welsh' from Anglo-Saxon 'Wealas') had a surname which likely denoted Brythonic-speakers within the old Kingdom of Strathclyde. Did this simply reflect his Brythonic ancestry, or were there still Brythonic-speakers in medieval Scotland that the historical record refuses to admit to us?

William Wallace Monument, Stirling

6. Cities could only be found in what is now England and South Wales

The first burghs were established in Scotland during the 12th Century by King David I; prior to the Middle Ages, Scotland did not have cities, nor did Ireland, most of Wales (outside the south), or the rest of Northern and Eastern Europe. While there were attempts to build cities in France and Germany during the Hallstatt period at the beginning of the Iron Age, these attempts were abandoned for some reason and Western Europe remained rural; that is, until the Romans spread across the lands to the west of the Rhine and into Britain. The Greeks and Carthaginians (Phoenicians) had been building cities on the Mediterranean coasts of Italy, France and Spain from the beginning of the Iron Age, but it was not until the Romans conquered Gaul under Julius Caesar that cities began to be built in much cooler climes.

Civilization (which I am defining as a society which is based on the presence of cities) is something which was only brought to Scotland through David I's reforms in the 12th century, in the form of a centralized state based on Roman law (part of which informs modern Scots law) and firm adherence to the Catholic creed. Prior to these reforms, Scotland had been more like Ireland, where local petty kings swore allegiance to a high king and Catholicism was not endorsed by a centralized hereditary monarchy. In this way, Ireland was more typical of the earlier Gaelic traditions, despite the settlement of Norsemen (who often simply mixed in with the Irish and adopted their customs). At the same time, Scotland's medieval state was not as centralized as that of England, as the clans of the Borders and Highlands in particular still held local authority to a degree not seen in medieval England.

Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll, was the stronghold of the powerful Galgael (Gaelic speakers of Viking descent) Clan MacDougall, who sided with the English against Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Independence (because Robert murdered their ally John 'the Red' Comyn) and so they subsequently lost their castle.

Nevertheless, this was still a drastic departure from the state of affairs during the Iron Age, when the Picts and Britons successfully resisted Roman attempts to establish a permanent presence in Scotland, which would have led to the establishment of cities as it had done in England and South Wales. This meant that Scotland had no cosmopolitan element before the 12th century, outside of the trade networks that had been established during the Bronze Age. This was to change with David's reforms, as the growth of both the size and power of the burghs in Scotland was to have a dramatic impact on the Scotland we see today, particularly with regards to the Church of Scotland which adheres to the Calvinist creed, which has always been especially favored by the merchant classes in society.

Without the development of the burghs, we would likely not have seen the many modern marvels created by Scottish inventors (I should not have to list them), as this happened within the context of Scotland's cities rather than her countryside. At the same time, this change came at a devastating cost, as the culture and lifestyle of the Gaels was brutally suppressed by the British government in the aftermath of the Jacobite Uprisings, breaking the link between modern Scots and their prehistoric past. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this was seen as a necessary part of achieving social progress. The problem though is that it has left many Scots with something of an identity crisis, as they no longer speak the languages of their ancestors and do not necessarily feel affinity for the Germanic culture which has become dominant here (though some of us certainly do, myself included).

Edinburgh, originally established as a royal burgh under David I, quickly rose in importance.

In this way, the Iron Age and the Middle Ages are two chapters in Scotland's history, where the Iron Age represents the success of the Picts and Britons in maintaining their culture against Roman and Anglo-Saxon incursions, only to be taken over by the Scottish Gaels over the course of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. The Middle Ages then saw the gradual replacement of pastoral Gaelic culture in favor of the agricultural/urban culture of the Inglis and later 'Lowlanders', who spoke a language derived from Middle English known as 'Scots' and came to see the Highlanders as 'Erse'; a pun on 'Irish' and 'arse'. The overall picture seems to be one of displacement of one group by another: the Brythonic culture by Gaelic in the Iron Age, and Gaelic culture by 'Romano-Germanic' Lowland Scottish in the Middle Ages, and of Scottish culture in general by 'British' culture in modern times.

Conor Cummings


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