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Early Historic Scotland to 761
By Alex Woolf
Published Online (2015)
Introduction: The full story of human occupation in Scotland stretches back something in the region of 10,000 years to the period when the first foragers, hunters and fisher-folk settled along the shoreline. Most of this period, however, belongs to prehistory and can only be reconstructed, and then but partially, through the work of archaeologists and palaeo-environmentalists. The nature of the evidence that they have to work with allows them to reconstruct only micro-events on a local scale ― the chopping down of an individual thicket or the making of a flint axe-head ― or to posit sweeping long-term trends. The study of what might be called medium term events and processes ― political, military and social decisions and transformations ― only becomes possible when written ‘historical’ sources are available, although even then archaeological and palaeo-environmental research continues to provide valuable complimentary evidence. In Scotland this historical narrative begins with the advent of the Romans in the first century of the Christian era.
The Scotland encountered by the Romans was inhabited, like the rest of Britain by a myriad of Celtic-speaking tribes. Each of these tribes occupied a territory roughly the size of a modern county. Some of the tribes, however, may have been split into one or more settlement areas that were not necessarily contiguous with one another. Thus Redesdale, just across the border south of Jedburgh, seems to have been occupied by the Uotadini who also occupied much of Lothian whilst the Selgovae occupied Teviotdale and much of Tweed dale in between these two areas. This pattern was not uncommon elsewhere in barbarian Europe and may point to historical links between the regions, perhaps one of the Uotadinian areas had been colonised from the other or perhaps the Selgovae had arrived (or emerged) later and driven a wedge between them. Tribal identities seem to have been relatively fluid with some tribes appearing in Roman sources on one occasion and not on another. Unfortunately the Romans had not developed modern cartographic skills and our attempts to reconstruct an accurate map of tribal Scotland on the basis of the information they have left us is fraught with difficulties.
In what is now the southeast of England a handful of the Celtic tribes encountered by the Romans had developed into kingdoms with a centralised tributary structure, including the production of coinage, and a kingly dynasty that controlled certain aspects of political and religious life. This was a new development here and largely the product of contact with Mediterranean institutions and commodities that were appearing in the adjacent continental Celtic countries. Elsewhere in Britain, including Scotland, the tribes seem to have lacked centralised authorities of this sort. Tribal centres seem to have existed at so-called ‘hill-forts’, like Traprain Law in East Lothian, but the internal features of these sites do not include evidence of elite residence. There are no feasting halls or particularly rich accommodation of the sort one would expect to find in the stronghold of a Dark Age warlord or in a medieval castle. Instead, what we find are large numbers of ordinary houses little different in size or construction from those of the scattered hamlets that occupied most of the countryside. Any central features that have been identified on these ‘hill-forts’ have tended to be interpreted as pagan religious sites. The dominant model for understanding these ‘hill-forts’ current today is that they represent sites of temporary occupation, perhaps for assemblies that might last a week or two once or twice a year. The largest of the hill-forts may represent major tribal assembly sites whilst the smaller ones may reflect those of more local groupings. Such assemblies would have provided venues for the settlement of disputes, the arrangement of marriages and the exchange of surpluses. They were as much the precursors of medieval fairs as of state institutions.