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Uncovering the Mystery of Pre-Gaelic Scotland

William Wallace, Scottish freedom fighter and one whose clan/surname reminds us that the Stratchlyders were once considered 'Welsh'

Once upon a time in the Iron Age, the cultural landscape of Scotland was very different to what it is now, and even to what it has been like for the past thousand years. While Gaelic is often assumed to be Scotland's native language, local place-names whisper to us that the earliest inhabitants of Scotland to whom we can connect a language were speakers of a 'Brythonic' language; that is, a language akin more to Welsh than Irish. Though we may never know when exactly this language arrived in Britain, we know from recent genetic studies that its speakers were, like the Picts and Gaels, mainly descendants of the Beaker folk, a race of people whom such studies have shown to have replaced most of the Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

These new folk were cattle-herders who originated on the Russian Steppe, but moved across Europe settling extensively. Their spread has been correlated with the distribution of 'Indo-European' languages, from which most modern European languages descend. They brought with them bronze technology and the wheel, which enabled them to excel in warfare and mobility, unlike the Neolithic farmers. Genetic studies show us that most Scotsmen descend from the Bronze Age pastoralists rather than their Stone Age predecessors, though it is less clear when it comes to Scottish maternal lineages. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that, as the spread of the particular paternal lineage brought by the pastoralists (R1b-P312) correlates well with the historical spread of Celtic languages, this is most likely where they come from.

Distribution of haplogroup R1b-P312

So then, what makes the Brythonic languages distinct from the Gaelic tongue more commonly associated with Scotland? Linguists have noticed one main difference between the two types of languages is that 'qu' (or 'c') sounds in Gaelic are rendered as 'p' in Brythonic, so they are therefore called the 'P' and 'Q-Celtic' language families. An example of this would be the word 'head', which in Gaelic is 'ceann' and in Brythonic is 'pen' (the original 'qu' sound in Gaelic usually just turned into 'c/k'). Another example would be the word 'inver' in Gaelic (Inverness, Inverary etc.) meaning a river confluence, which is 'aber' in Brythonic (Aberdeen, Aberfoyle, etc.). The Gaulish language (spoken in what is now France, Belgium and parts of Germany and Italy) was also P-Celtic, so perhaps the divergence of Gaulish and Brythonic from Q-Celtic means that Gaul and Britain had closer contact with each other during the Iron Age than with Q-Celtic speakers in Ireland and Spain.

So why is it that such a language is no longer spoken in Scotland today? The exact reasons are mysterious, since it was extinct in Scotland by the Late Middle Ages, meaning we often have to look to the oldest historical sources to get an idea of what happened. We can assume that at least up until the departure of the Romans, Brythonic was spoken all over Britain (except perhaps Argyll). However, by modern times this type of language was restricted to Wales and Cornwall (though Cornish died out in the 18th Century, it has since been revived).

Most of the stories about the struggles of the Brythonic peoples against their neighbors come from the Early Historic Period, more often known as the 'Dark Ages'. A number of 'Cumbric' kingdoms are attested from what is now Southern Scotland, such as Alt Clut (Dumbarton, generally taken to refer to Strathclyde as a whole) and Gododdin (mainly associated with Lothian). However, place-names suggest the Picts further north also spoke a Brythonic language, so we don't know why they seem to have been considered a separate ethnic group to the 'Britons' or 'Cymry' in the south. Later folklore gives us hints that there may have been a stronger continuation of Neolithic people or culture among the Picts than their neighbors.

Nevertheless, both the Picts and Britons experienced pressure from the Scots and Anglo-Saxons respectively; Irish annals record defeats of the Scots from Dál Riada (Argyll) by Bridei I of the Picts in the 550s AD, while a Welsh text records conflicts between the Britons of Southern Scotland and Northern England against their Anglo-Saxon neighbors in Bernicia (Northumberland) around the same time. Warriors from Lothian are said in the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin to have led a failed assault on an Anglo-Saxon stronghold (probably Catterick in Yorkshire) around 600 AD, before the Kingdom of Gododdin disappeared from history (it is assumed that it was annexed by Bernicia).

In Y Gododdin, Edinburgh Castle is mentioned as the stronghold of the Gododdin, which used to be a hillfort and was known as 'Din Eidyn'

It seems the Scots and Bernicians felt like they were more important players in Scotland than the Brythonic natives, as the Scottish king, Aidan, and the Bernician king, Æthelfrith, fought a battle at an unknown site called 'Degsastan' around 603, which Æthelfrith won. The Scots tended to be on the losing end of battles in these times; another of their kings, Freckled Donald, was defeated by the Britons of Dumbarton at Strathcarron (Falkirk) in 642. Bernicia had since unified with her southern neighbor, Deira (Yorkshire), into the Kingdom of Northumbria, and in 671 under Ecgfrith they gained the submission of the Picts. However, Ecgfrith was too cocky and was defeated and killed in battle by the Picts the following year at Dunachton, Moray, when they rebelled against him.

For the time being, the Picts and Britons had secured their independence, as Scottish and English attempts to push them around had been checked. In fact, King Angus I of the Picts (whose name was probably 'Onuist' in Pictish) even forced the Scots to submit to him in the 730s. Northumbria made a resurgence under Eadberht and he pushed as far west as Ayrshire in 750, allying with Angus and attacking Dumbarton alongside him in 756. Eadberht then lost his whole army on its way home, but frustratingly, the sources don't say who was involved, so we have no idea whether Angus turned on his ally, whether the Britons managed to ambush the Northumbrians, or whether is was a separate battle with the Mercians of the English Midlands; such is the nature of Dark Age history.

Once again, the Picts and Strathclyde Britons held firm in their territories, even though they seem to have disliked each other as much as their other neighbors. This was to change with the arrival of the Vikings, who terrorized monks all over the British Isles and eventually led a campaign into Northern Scotland from Orkney. There, in 838, King Eogan of the Picts (whose Pictish name 'Uuen' is pronounced somewhere between 'Ewan' and 'Owen') was killed in battle alongside his brother, Bran, and the Angus dynasty ended. The ensuing chaos and civil war led to the accession of Kenneth MacAlpin of Dál Riada as King of the Picts in 843, bringing the Picts under Scottish control; turning the tables from the order of the previous century. Thus began the definitive replacement of the Pictish Brythonic language and culture by Gaelic (as there is linguistic evidence of Gaelic influence on the Pictish language long before this).

Dumbarton was sacked by Vikings from Dublin in 870, forcing the Strathclyde Britons to retreat to Govan, which was much harder to access by sea. In this sense, it could be argued that the Vikings were the prime power responsible for the downfall of Brythonic culture in Scotland. At the same time, Strathclyde remained and even became stronger in the aftermath, expanding into Dumfriesshire and Cumberland as Northumbria weakened (again, because of Scandinavians, who had taken over Yorkshire). Nevertheless, despite likely gaining territory in the Borders by allying with Malcolm II of Scotland at the Battle of Carham in 1018, the Strathclyde Britons were inundated by 'Gall-Gaedheal' (Norse-Gaels from Ireland and/or the Hebrides) who settled along the Irish Sea coast of Britain all the way from Lancashire to the Clyde Estuary.

The interior of Dumbarton Castle, the original hillfort was atop the knoll in the background

The Northumbrians also led raids against Strathclyde, which further contributed to its weakening and eventual downfall. The 12th Century English historian, William of Newburgh, wrote that Strathclyde was forcibly taken by Malcolm III 'Canmore' of Scotland, which would have occurred some time in the mid-late 11th Century.* Thereafter, the Brythonic language in Strathclyde was replaced by Middle English and Gaelic, though its memory may persist in Clan Wallace (and its most famous member, William Wallace), as the name 'Wallace' is of the same etymology as 'Wales', meaning 'foreigners' in Old English, and could refer to the descendants of the Strathclyde Britons.

Any time a language or culture goes extinct, this means there is a break in the link between modern-day folk and their past. Though the Brythonic language still survives in Wales and Brittany (and has been revived in Cornwall), its extinction in Scotland is rather more complete due to how early it perished. This has had the effect of separating the native inhabitants of most of Scotland from their pre-medieval past, much in the way that the decline of Gaelic has separated them from their medieval past (or even the more recent past in the case of the Highlands). Thus, the descendants of the Beaker folk in Scotland are left with just a dim memory of their past culture, whose history has mainly survived in Wales.

As hillforts (which date between the Late Bronze Age and the Viking Age) are specifically a feature of Scotland's Brythonic past, this is the cultural context within which my tours are meant to inform. Though no longer a native culture in Scotland, Lowlanders may still benefit from remembering their ancient kinship with the Welsh and other indigenous Britons (whose descendants are now counted among the English). This is not to downplay or dismiss the importance of Gaelic language and culture in Scotland's history, but to point out that its relevance for the Lowlands fits more in a medieval rather than ancient historical context.

However, it must be acknowledged that the Brythonic culture must surely be the oldest in Scotland that has not completely gone extinct elsewhere (with the possible exception of the Basques), as it still survives in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Unfortunately, the lack of historical sources means that we must rely primarily on archaeology to tell us how these folk lived. Nevertheless, the Welsh sources can inform us of what their culture and mythology may have been like, so that we may at least get a faint glimpse into the deeper, pre-Gaelic past of much of Scotland. Though distant from us in time, it was the predominant culture here for centuries if not millennia, and so that in my mind merits remembering.

Conor Cummings

*The specific details concerning Strathclyde's history during the 11th Century are from Tim Clarkson's 2016 book, Stathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

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