History of Scotland

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The History of Scotland stretches to prehistoric times, and includes major social, economic, cultural, religious and political themes. Since 1707 the diplomatic history and most of the political history has been part of British history.

Early civilisation

(CC) Photo: Bev Sykes
The interior of a Skara Brae house .

Before the Mesolithic period, Scotland was repeatedly glaciated. The ice covered the entire land mass of Scotland and so has destroyed any evidence of early human habitation. The earliest Scottish human settlement, dated to around 8500 BCE.[1] was found at Cramond, near Edinburgh.

A well preserved Neolithic farmstead can been seen at Knap of Howar on Orkney. The building, dated to around 3500 BC, is claimed to be the oldest standing house in the country.[2] An example of a complete Neolithic village can be seen nearby at the village of Skara Brae, on the Mainland of Orkney. There are many other Neolithic habitation, burial and ritual sites across Scotland such as: Callanish on Lewis, Maeshowe and The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, and on the mainland of Scotland — the remains of early crannogs and Neolithic round houses are a common.

After the 8th century BCE, Brythonic Celtic culture and language spread into Scotland. The Iron age brought numerous hill forts, brochs, crannogs and fortified settlements. These constructions had as much to do with a show of status and power as they did with warfare.

The only surviving pre-Roman account of Scotland originated with the Greek Pytheas of Massalia who circumnavigated the British islands (which he called Pretaniké) in 325 BCE, but the record of his visit dates from much later.

Roman Scotland

PD Image
The construction of Hadrian's Wall, between the Solway firth and Newcastle upon Tyne, marked the first drawing of a border between what would become Scotland and England.

The first detailed written histories of Scotland began with the arrival of the Roman Empire. In 43 CE, the Romans invaded Britain, and quickly advanced into what is now England and Wales. Gradually, Roman control moved north into the Southern areas of modern Scotland. Gnaeus Julius Agricola became Governor of Britain in 77 CE, and arrived in the summer of 78 CE. He was determined to conquer the whole of the island the Romans called Albion, and in 79 CE, he launched a military campaign into the Highlands of Scotland. Construction of a large fortress was started, but never completed, at Inchtuthil. In 84, Agricola fought the Caledonian tribes at the Battle of Mons Graupius. He won this battle, but he never fully subdued the north of Scotland. The fortifications of the Gask Ridge in Perthshire is an attempt consolidate the Roman presence. However, after Agricola had been recalled to Rome in 85, forts like these were soon all abandoned.

The construction of Hadrian's Wall, between the Solway firth and Newcastle upon Tyne, marked the first drawing of a border between what would become Scotland and England. Far from being a remote and war ravaged frontier, the lands immediately to the North of the wall were, for the most part, pro Roman and peaceful. Shortly after the wall's construction, the Emperor Antonine came to power. He advanced the frontier and built, in 142 CE, a second wall between the Firths of Clyde and Forth — known as Antonine's Wall. This wall was manned for only 24 years before the Romans reverted to Hadrian's Wall in 164 CE. Emperor Septimius Severus, in 204, briefly re-occupied the Antonine wall but the frontier retreated again after only a few years. In the late 4th century, there was a general decline of the Roman Empire and its influence on Britain, and by 410 CE, the Romans and their legions were gone.

Medieval period

Pictland became dominated by the Pictish sub-kingdom of Fortriu. The Gaels of Dál Riata settled the region of Argyll. According to legend, the Scottish Saltire flag was adopted by King Óengus II of Fortriu in 832 after a victory over the Northumbrians at Athelstaneford. In 843 Cináed mac Ailpín (King Kenneth Macalpine) from Dál Riata, united the Kingdom of Scotland when he became the King of the Picts and Scots.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Scotland had comparatively good relations with the Wessex rulers of England. The period was marked by intense internal dynastic disunity, despite this, Scotland had relatively successful expansionary policies. The Kingdom of Strathclyde was handed over to King Malcolm I by King Edmund of England after an Edmund invaded in 945.[3] Around the year 960 and during the reign of King Indulf, the Scots captured the town of Eden which is now Edinburgh.[4] The reign of Malcolm II saw fuller incorporation of these territories. In 1018, Malcolm II defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Carham.[5]

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 sent off ripples that were to have significant consequences for the Kingdom of Scotland. Malcolm III married Margaret who was the sister of Edgar Ætheling — one of the deposed Anglo-Saxon claimants to the English throne. Margaret played a major role in reducing the influence of Celtic Christianity and pulling the Scottish Church back towards the Papacy. Scotland went through something of its own "Norman Conquest" When David I became King. David I had become an important Anglo-Norman lord through marriage and was the Uncle of the Empress Matilda. He was instrumental in introducing feudalism into Scotland. He encouraging an influx of settlers from the Low Countries to the newly-founded burghs which enhanced trade links with Europe and Scandinavia. By the late 13th century, hundreds of Norman and Anglo-Norman families had been granted Scottish lands.

The reign of Alexander III of Scotland was a peaceful and prosperous time for Scotland. However, Alexander died suddenly in an accident at the age of 45. The Scottish throne was left with no direct heir. Disputes arose over the succession. Edward I, King of England, was asked to adjudicate between rival claimants. He initially found in favour of child, Margaret, Maid of Norway. However, she died in 1290 during her voyage from Norway to Scotland. Edward I used the political divisions and disputes in Scotland to his own benefit, declaring his own right as Overlord of Scotland and demanding homage from whomever he selected to be the Scottish King. John Balliol was crowned King and duly paid homage to Edward who gradually increased his control over Scotland. The Scots resisted the English under the leadership of Sir William Wallace and Andrew de Moray in the first phase of what is known as Scotland's Wars of Independence. This campaign only achieved short term success with Edward again taking control of Scotland and the execution of Wallace in 1305. On March 25, 1306, Robert the Bruce was crowned King Robert I. After a protracted struggle lasting many years, he eventually won a decisive victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. However, on Robert I's death, warfare began again resulting in a continuation of the fight for Scottish independence, the second phase of which lasted from 1332 until 1357. The situation in Scotland began to stabilise with the emergence of the Stewart dynasty.

In 1542 James V died leaving only the infant child Mary I of Scotland as heir to the throne. Mary was only six days old when her father died. She was crowned when only 9 months old. The country was ruled by a Regent while Mary grew up. This began a period known as The Rough Wooing. This was also the time of John Knox and the Scottish Reformation. Intermittent wars with England, political unrest and religious change dominated the late 16th Century. On July 24, 1567, Mary was also forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son James VI.


In 1603, Elizabeth I of England died, so James VI King of Scotland also became King James I of England. With the exception of a short period under The Protectorate, Scotland remained a separate state. There was considerable conflict between the crown and the Covenanters over the form of church government. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the overthrow of the Roman Catholic James II by William and Mary, Scotland briefly threatened to select a different Protestant monarch from that of England. The Alien Act of 1705 was a law passed by the Parliament of England, in 1705, as a response to the Parliament of Scotland's Act of Security of 1704, which in turn was a response to the English Act of Settlement 1701.

The Alien Act provided that estates held by Scottish nationals in England were to be treated as alien property, making inheritance much less certain. It also had an embargo on the import of Scottish products into England and English colonies - about half of Scotland's trade, covering sectors such as linen, cattle and coal.

The Act contained a provision that it would be suspended if the Scots entered into negotiations on the dispute between the two parliaments. Combined with English financial offers to refund Scottish losses on the Darien scheme, it achieved its aim, leading to the Act of Union 1707 uniting the two countries as the Kingdom of Great Britain. For the next 150 years Scotland had little voice in British government; it produced one minor Prime Minister, Lord Bute (1762-63).


The deposed Jacobite Stuart claimants had remained popular in the Highlands and north-east, particularly amongst non-Presbyterians. Two major Jacobite risings launched from the Highlands of Scotland in 1715 and 1745. The latter uprising was lead by Bonnie Prince Charlie, aka "The Young Pretender". It climaxed with the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden on 16 April, 1746.

Precursor to The Industrial Revolution

When Scotland ratified the 1707 Act of Union, it was an economic backwater. Union gave Scotland access to England's global marketplace, triggering an economic and cultural boom transforming a land of only 1.3 million people into a modern society, and opening up a cultural and social revolution. German Sociologist Max Weber credited the Calvinist "Protestant Ethic," involving hard work and a sense of divine predestination, for the entrepreneurial spirit of the Scots. Others credit the educational system, especially its leading universities and medical faculties at Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, embodied by such brilliant thinkers as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, paved the way for the modernization of Scotland and the entire Atlantic world. Hutcheson, the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, championed political liberty and the right of popular rebellion against tyranny. Smith, in his monumental Wealth of Nations (1776), advocated liberty in the sphere of commerce and the global economy. Hume developed philosophical concepts that directly influenced James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and thus the U.S. Constitution. In 19th-century Britain, the Scottish Enlightenment, as popularized by Dugald Stewart, became the basis of classical liberalism. At the University of Glasgow, James Watt perfected the crucial technology of the Industrial Revolution: the steam engine. The "democratic" camp meeting found a home in the Second Great Awakening in the USA.

In time, the union resulted in obvious economic benefits. Scottish ports, especially those on the Clyde, began to import tobacco from America, and, in order to meet the demand of the colonists for manufactured goods, Scottish industries, especially linen-manufacturing, were developed. The British monopoly of the tobacco trade came to an end with the American Revolution, but Scottish industrial growth continued. Scotland strongly supported the Empire in the American Revolutionary wars, and in the wars against Napoleon, laying to rest the fears of dissension.

Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution, Scotland became one of the commercial, intellectual and industrial powerhouses of the British Empire. Beginning about 1790 the most important industry in the west of Scotland became textiles, especially the spinning and weaving of cotton, which flourished until the American Civil War in 1861 cut off the supplies of raw cotton; the industry never recovered. However, by that time Scotland had developed heavy industries based on its coal and iron resources. The invention of the hot blast for smelting iron (1828) had revolutionized the iron industry, and Scotland became a center for engineering, shipbuilding, and locomotive construction. Toward the end of the 19th century steel production largely replaced iron production. Emigrant Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built the American steel industry, and spent much of his time and philanthropy in Scotland.

Urban vs rural

For all the romanticisation of Scotland and its misty historic mountain roots by romantic novelists led by Walter Scott, Scotland was already one of the most urbanised societies in Europe by 1800. The industrial belt ran across the country from southwest to northeast; by 1900 the four industrialised counties of Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Dunbartonshire, and Ayrshire contained 44% of the population. The technological climate of the times, embodied in the innovative dynamism of steam power, had special resonance for Scotland, given the dramatic success of heavy engineering by the 1890s. Liberalism emerged from this background, the free-trade sentiments and forthright individualism of entrepreneurs coalescing with the radical emphasis on education and self-reliance as a means of community betterment. Despite political challenges, especially by the 1900s, these distinctive liberal values remained strong.[6]

Agriculture, too, had been much improved after the union, and standards remained high, though after the middle of the 19th century, when Britain adopted a free trade policy, food imports had very adverse effects on local agriculture. The industrial developments, while they brought work and wealth, were so rapid that housing, town-planning, and provision for public health did not keep pace with them, and for a time living conditions in some of the towns were notoriously bad. The traditional landed interests was not overwhelmed politically by the fast-growing industrial middle classes for the electoral changes engendered by reform were less far-reaching in Scotland than in England. The landed interests managed to ensure that the political weight of numbers was skewed disproportionately in their favour. The unequal concentration of land ownership remained an emotional subject, of enormous importance to the vexed question of the Highland economy, and eventually became a cornerstone of liberal radicalism.

20th century

The disadvantage of concentration on heavy industry became apparent after World War I, for other countries were themselves being industrialized and were no longer markets for Scottish products. Within Britain itself there was also more centralization, and industry tended to drift to the south, leaving Scotland on a neglected fringe. The entire period between the world wars was one of economic depression, of which the world-wide Great Depression of 1929-1939 was the most acute phase. The economy revived with munitions production during World War II. After 1945, however, the older heavy industries continued to decline and the government has given financial encouragement to many new industries, ranging from atomic power and petrochemical production to light engineering. The economy has thus become more diversified and therefore stabler.


  1. Edinburgh. By Neil Wilson, Tom Smallman: Page 76 Scotland. By Neil Wilson, Alan Murphy: Page 72 Scotlandspast.org - "Radiocarbon dating of carbonised hazelnut fragments found at the site confirmed that Cramond is the earliest Mesolithic site in Scotland, dating back to between 8500 and 8250 BC (calibrated)."
  2. Christopher T. Harvie, Scotland: A Short History P. 13
  3. The Anglo-saxon Chronicle. By Darryl Hester, James Ingram (Translator), James Ingram: Page 86.
  4. The Spottiswoode Miscellany: a collection of original papers and tracts, illustrative chiefly of the Civic and Ecclesiastical history of Scotland. By James Maidment - 1844: pp 444-5.
  5. The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History. By J. P. (John Philipps) Kenyon, Norman Stone: Page 228.
  6. McCaffrey, Scotland in the Nineteenth Century (1998)