By Periklis Deligiannis
Most of this article is actually a part of my published book The Celts, Athens 2008, unfortunately available only in Greek.
At about the same time when the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanics were landing in Britain and beginning the conquest of the territories which later became England (5th cent. AD.), one of the strongest Irish tribes, namely the Scots, were migrating to the opposite coast of Caledonia (northern Britain), founding the kingdom of Dal-Riada (or Dal-Riata). It has been hypothesized that in reality this colonization involved Scottish mercenaries (a Scot dynasty) who were to be used by the Britons as a buffer against the Pict raiders, like the earlier migration of the Votadini. The Picts (the “painted ones” in Latin because they retained the ancient Celtic custom of using body tattoo before the battle) were a pre-Celtic people of Caledonia, who at that time was almost Celticized and had incorporated most of the other tribes of the region. Τhey were calling themselves the Cruthni. The Britons generally used the Roman doctrine of dealing with barbarian peoples by turning one against another.
In Ireland, which has never been threatened by the Romans, the local Celtic tribes and dynasties fought each other for power. Some warlords managed to greatly expand their influence and it became a custom to be enthroned on the sacred hill of Tara.
Until the early 20th century, most researchers believed that the Anglo-Saxons were the principal ancestors of the modern English nation and the English are basically a Germanic people, on the hypothesis that their ancestors exterminated the native Celts or expelled them to the periphery of the island. Since then, the sciences of archaeology, genetics, anthropology and others demonstrated that this is not true. The English originate mainly from the indigenous population of the British Isles (as the neighbouring modern Celtic peoples) who first adopted the Celtic language due to cultural interaction with the Continent, and then adopted the Anglo-Saxon language because of the Germanic conquest. The same applies to the origins of the modern French people, the Spanish, the Walloons and others, who originate mainly from the pre-Celtic population of each country, who was Celticized mainly through cultural interaction and later Latinized because of the Roman conquest. The majority of the population of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 7th century onwards, consisted of Germanized Britons who spoke the language of the conquerors and now called themselves ‘Saxons’. Their leading class consisted mainly of genuine Anglo-Saxons and some Germanized ex-Celtic aristocrats. The original Saxons were the majority only in some small coastal enclaves where they originally landed.
On the other hand, part of the Brythonic Celts took refuge in the mountainous areas of the island that were not occupied by the invaders. There the traditional Celtic political fragmentation was maintained. Dozens of Briton principalities were formed in the west and the north of the Saxon territory which was also divided in a number of chiefdoms. Along with the constant war between the Britons and the Saxons, in Caledonia equally bloody conflicts were taking place between the Picts and the Scot newcomers who had continuously expanded in the Pictish territories. The Picts were found at a disadvantage because the invaders were constantly reinforced by their Irish kinsmen (not only Scottish but others as well). The Pict warlord Dunstan was a major hero who managed to intercept the Scots, before eventually killed in battle against them. It was a late Pictish “equivalent” of Arthur and later Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th century) has incorporated his figure in the Arthurian Epic Circle with the name Tristan. In the 8th century, McAlpin, King of the Scots, was able to subdue most of the Picts but a little later a Pict ruler, Angus McFergus, rebelled and massacred him in battle along with many of his warriors. It was the turn of the Picts to subdue the Scots.
However, this consolidation of Caledonia was also temporary. MacAlpin’s son and heir, Kenneth (Cináed), used treachery to subdue the unconquerable Picts. He invited their leaders to a symposium to discuss a compromise, guaranteeing their security. The Picts accepted the proposal but when drunk, the Scots pulled their hidden swords and massacred them (AD 843). However, this tradition does not seem to be true and it was probably invented to justify the final defeat of the Picts who were considered superior warriors than the Scots. Perharps an episode like this did happen, but it was of small scale and did not affect considerably the Picto-Scottish struggle. After all, treachery and murder were used among the rulers of these Northern societies e.g. like in neighboring Scandinavia.
What really seems to have happened is that the Scots finally prevailed at the expense of the natives using intermarriage as well as victories in battles, thanks to their greater cohesion as a people. Kenneth MacAlpin declared that the two peoples would join on equal terms, however later revealed his true intentions of manipulating a Scottish “cultural colonization” in Pictavia (Pictland). The results were the same with those of the Saxon expansion on the Briton territories of the South. The Picts abandoned their language adopting the Gaelic (Irish) dialect of the Scots, and the Pictish legends, traditions, clothing etc disappeared being replaced with the corresponding Scottish ones. Even the body tattoo that characterized the Picts was banned by MacAlpin because he identified it with resistance and disobedience to him. However the tattoos survived till the modern era, but it is almost certain that the Proto-Scots were using them also. The medieval references inform us on the fierce resistance of the Picts against Kenneth’s rule. The Scottish king named his realm Kingdom of Alban maybe in order not to offend them, but soon the unofficial name Scotland prevailed. Pictland became just a memory that it was soon forgotten.
In Britain south of Scotland, the remaining Celtic tribes were mixed and subsequently evolved into three peoples. In the region today extending approximately between the cities of Glasgow and Liverpool, were established the kingdoms of the North Welsh (Strathclyde, Cumbria etc.). The peninsula of modern Wales was shared by the kingdoms of the South Welsh (Powys, Dyfed etc.) while the Dumnonii and some Cornii (perhaps kinsmen of the Cornovii) continued to live in Cornwall. In 814 the Saxons finally conquered the latter but the Cornish Celts survived until the 18th century. Until in the 11th century, the kingdoms of North Wales were divided between the Scots and the Anglo-Saxons and absorbed by them. South Wales survived till today, simply known as Wales. It should be noted that the ethnic name of the Welsh originates from the same ancient Celtic verbal root Cel-/Gal-/Wal- from which the names ‘Celts’ and ‘Gauls’ originate as well. But it is known that since the Anglo-Saxon expansion, they call themselves the Cymry meaning ‘fellow-countrymen’, i.e. fellow-countrymen to the Northern Britons and alien to the Saxons. The areas occupied by the Anglo-Saxons became modern England.
William, Prince of Normandy managed to defeat the Saxon and Anglo-Danish warriors of King Harold in the battle of Hastings (1066). The merciless Normans massacred half of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and its vassals on the battlefield. The next five years they continued the systematic slaughter of the Saxon and Dane nobles during the bloody conquest of England, intending to prevent future revolutions. In northern England, the Normans killed many women and children of the rebellious Danes (descendants of Danish Viking invaders). The indigenous-originated common people mostly ignored the plight of the Germanic aristocrats (Anglo-Saxons and Danes). In addition, thousands of survivors of the latter fled during the coming years with their families as refugees in mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Some of them took refuge in Constantinople where they became mercenaries of the Byzantine army, manning the renowned Varangian Guard.
The Normans are usually described as descendants of Dane Vikings, but in fact they had little to do with them. The people of Danish origin were few among them. The Normans were mostly descendants of the Romanised Gauls (especially Aulerci and Belgae) around the mouth of the Seine, who had adopted a Scandinavian national name (Northmen) mainly for propaganda purposes, as well as a few items of Scandinavian culture and warfare. The primary donations of the Danes to the Normans were their full independence from France and the making of the distinct Norman national identity.
Modern historians regard the Norman conquest of England as a very important fact for its historical evolution, on the ground that William removed the country permanently from the Germanic control and influence and linked her with the Neo-Latin (Romanised) World and the Mediterranean cultures.
During the next two centuries, the Normans conquered Wales and most of Ireland. In Wales they murdered Llewellyn, the last Prince of the country (1282). The Norman king usurped his title on behalf of his successor. Even today, centuries after the extinction of the Norman dynasty, the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom bears the title of the “Prince of Wales” although the Welsh nationalists consider Llewellyn as their last Prince. Several Norman nobles and their vassals settled also in the Scottish Lowlands but the region was not annexed by the Anglo-Norman kings. The Scots led by William Wallace defeated the Anglo-Norman armies of Edward I in the battles of Stirling Bridge (1297) and Falkirk (1298). Wallace was declared “protector of the kingdom of Scotland’ (a kind of vice-regent), but he was soon betrayed by the Lowlander aristocrats who feared his popularity and the possibility to be proclaimed king by the people. The Normans captured him, decapitated him and obtained the capitulation of the weakened kingdom by bribing many Scottish nobles. The Scots soon recovered and led by Robert of the Scottish-Norman noble family De Bruce, finally crushed the Anglo-Norman army at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). Robert Bruce was proclaimed king and Scottish independence was secured for three centuries. By the end of the 14th century, the Normans of England merged with the local population, of which union the Anglo-Saxon language evolved to modern English under the strong influence of French (spoken by the Normans). The same happened with the Normans of the Lowland (southern) Scotland in which the English language prevailed at the expense of Celtic. In contrast, the Highlanders of Northern Scotland remained Celtic-speaking.
In 1650 the powerful army of Oliver Cromwell, governor of England, conquered Scotland, the last free Celtic country. In 1707 the Kingdom of Scotland was formally united with that of England to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1800 Ireland, occupied by the English centuries already, officially joined the other two members. The flags of the three countries (Crosses of St. Andrew, St. George and St. Patrick) were merged to form the modern Union Jack. The Principality of Wales was from centuries already part of the English Kingdom. In fact these state arrangements had no value, because the English were the sole overlords of the British Isles. The 1707 union of Scotland with England was arranged mainly by the old Norman-Scottish aristocracy of the Lowlands who either wanted to participate in the enormous economic benefits of the English colonial empire that was forming around the globe, or was bribed by the English government. Because of this union, the colonial empire that was extended continuously was eventually called the British Empire. The vast majority of the common Scottish people were indifferent or opposed to the union. After all, Scotland was de facto a part of the English realm since 1650.
The reaction of the Scots who opposed the union became dynamic through the revolutions of the Jacobite Scottish Highlanders (1715 and 1745). In 1746 5,500 Highlander warriors met the English army at Culloden. In that modern age, the Scottish warriors did not differ from their ancient Celtic relatives. They invoked their ancestors in their Gaelic language, screaming war cries, calling the English to duel, while many were painted like their Pict ancestors. But they were doomed from the start having to deal with a modern professional army, well equipped and organized. Despite their onslaught, the Highlanders were exterminated by the fire of the British.
The retaliations of the Crown on the Scottish Highlands were the hardest. The British soldiers surrounded the settlements of the Highlanders without warning, burning them along with the crops, killing those who resisted and driving out the rest. The Scottish families were decimated while the government banned even the traditional Scottish clothing (kilts), the bagpipe and in general every Celtic cultural element. The Celtic culture of Scotland came close to extinction. The English rewarded their Lowland Scottish noble colleagues, handing the Highlands over to them for exploitation. After Culloden, the British government extended the killings, persecutions and bans to the Irish who continued to resist for five centuries the occupation of their island. This was the beginning of the global Irish diaspora. Today, 92.5% of the Irish Catholics live away from their island, dispersed throughout the world. At the same time (18th-early 19th centuries) it was forbidden for the Welsh people to speak their Celtic language under the threat of criminal prosecution. The London government managed to eradicate the Celtic language of Cornwall but failed in the other Celtic regions. By the mid-19th century and under the condemnation of several English intellectuals and common citizens, the government abandoned the policy of the violent assimilation of the Celts. However during this hard Industrial era, the treatment of the English lower social classes by the ruling class was no better.
The persecutions on the Celtic peoples had also another purpose. This period is characterized by the great Industrial Revolution which began in England. Numerous industries needed a lot of cheap labor and the lower English classes were not enough to provide. The solution was found in the destruction of the Highland and other Celtic households that would force many families to seek work in the industrial plants of Britain. Thousands of Highlander, Irish and Welsh people immigrated to the growing cities of England and Lowland Scotland where they dwelled permanently. This is the reason of the numerous Celtic surnames among the modern English people.
The Scotch-Irish are a tough people who were always holding a very significant role in the history of the USA and the United Kingdom. They possibly constitute the most dynamic Celtic people of the recent centuries. The Scotch-Irish originate mainly from Lowlanders Scots whom the English government settled in the 17th-18th centuries in the area of Ulster (Northern Ireland) as a counterweight to their Catholic Irish enemies. This migration was somehow a kind of returning of the Scots to their ancient Irish cradle after a thousand years. The Scotch-Irish are Protestants and thereby they became the mainstay of Britain in Ireland. However, when the British forbade them to spread throughout the island, the embittered Scottish-Irish began to migrate en masse to the English colonies of North America (since the early 18th century). There, using Pennsylvania and South Carolina as their main bases, they expanded in the borderlands of the Thirteen Colonies, in the frontier region with the free native tribes. The Scotch-Irish suffered many casualties fighting the Indians and the French of Canada and Louisiana, who were trying to stop the British expansion. When the American Revolution broke out (1776), the Scotch-Irish made up about 12% of the U.S. population and fought resolutely the British. Their influence in the American society is evidenced by the fact that about one third of the U.S. Presidents were Scotch-Irish, the first being Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and the most recent ones, George Bush elder and younger, Bill Clinton and R. Reagan. There were also several presidents of mainland Scottish origin.
Areas with greatest proportion of reported Scotch-Irish ancestry, 2000 census.
The Scotch-Irish were followed in America by many other Celtic settlers. In the 18th century immigrated thousands of Scots and Welsh, and in the 19th century it was recorded a real exodus of Irish Catholics from their island to the independent U.S. Many Celts immigrated also to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, where today they make a very large proportion of the population (as in USA).
The English persecutions in Ireland caused the dynamic reaction of the people. The numerous Celtic soldiers of the British, American, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African armies fought bravely in the fields of WW I and WW II on land and sea, suffering heavy casualties. During the interwar period, the liberation struggle of the Irish finally vindicated. In 1922, the United Kingdom, beleaguered by their guerrilla warfare and under the exhortations of the US, in fact of the powerful Irish-American lobby, granted independence in Eire, the Irish Republic. Eire became the first independent Celtic state since 1650 while the United Kingdom lost more territory than the defeated Germany four years ago (1918). However, Britain retained control in Northern Ireland (Ulster), because the region’s population consists of both Scotch-Irish and Irish Catholics. The latter, reinforced by their kinsmen of the US, Canada and Eire, launched a new guerrilla war against the British army and the Scotch-Irish who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The central military organization of the Catholics, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) agitated British security, conducting bombings often in England as well. The Protestants of Ulster were using the same violent actions against IRA and the Catholics in order to prevent the secession of Northern Ireland from the UK, leading to a break of a seventy years merciless terrorist-type war between the two peoples with countless casualties, which is now already past.
Many analysts believe that the independence of Eire in 1922 is the first stage of the dissolution of the United Kingdom, which is to become a Divided Kingdom. I believe that this view is rather excessive. The Irish were incorporated in the UK entirely by force, while a significant proportion of the Scots (namely most Lowland Scottish nobles, many rich traders and their dependants) wanted the union with England. But I must note that the advocates of the union were largely of Norman origin. In the 20th century, the Scots developed a similar separatist movement to the Irish one, but with limited violent actions that soon stopped. They were focused mainly on political actions, as the Irish Catholics do now following their example. The request of the British Celts for independence continued to swell bringing embarrassment to London. In 1980 a spectacular coronation of Prince Charles was organized in Caernervon, the medieval capital of Wales, which was considered a unitary effort of the British royal family. However, the Welsh nationalists considered the coronation as an inelegant show and an insult to the memory of the last Welsh prince Llewellyn according to their opinion.
In 1989-91, the collapse of the communist bloc and the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia intensified the problem. After the independence of several small nations of Eastern Europe, the Celtic peoples of the UK had now openly the same request. This Celtic ethnic revival swept as well the Breton Celts of France who also revived their separatist movement, always with political actions only. The Scots were the first to seriously consider secession from the UK and around the mid-1990s the tension between Scottish nationalists and the British government peaked. A compromise solution was reached when London accepted the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 (291 years after its dissolution) and the establishment of a Welsh National Assembly in 1999. In fact the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish do not seem to be ready for the ‘divorce’ with England, because their economy still depends heavily on London and the English regions in general. Additionally, many of the Lowland Scots and the Eastern Welsh remain firmly pro-British. On the other hand, the London government is not willing to let the oil fields of the North Sea which are located mainly at the Scottish maritime area.