Scotland is a European country located in the northern part of the island of Great Britain, off the coast of northwestern Europe. Scottish territories have sea borders; the only land border is with England on the southern part of the island.

The geographical union of these two countries has historically brought many disputes between the cultural inhabitants of Great Britain regarding borders and political, economic, religious, and cultural affairs.

During the early times of the Roman Empire (c. 27 b.c.e.–395 c.e.), the south of Great Britain was invaded and conquered by Roman military forces. Despite Roman efforts to conquer the northern part of the island, named Caledonia by the Romans, the Picts, a fierce and warlike people settled in the north, successfully resisted for hundreds of years.

After some victories but many lost battles, the Romans decided to keep the southern part and established the Hadrian and Antonine Walls to set a physical border between their domains and the Picts’. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 409, the Picts systematically started to invade the territories of their southern neighbors.

During the fifth and sixth centuries several kingdoms struggled to gain power over a larger area of the island. In this period Scotland was divided into four kingdoms: Pictavia, Dalriada, Gododdin (later Northumbria), and Strathclyde.

Pictavia was the last stronghold of the Picts, the original inhabitants of the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall. Of the four kingdoms, Pictavia’s inhabitants were the most powerful and the ones that would leave the largest cultural impact.

In the Viking age (793–1066) Norse (Norwegian people) invaders conquered much of northern Pictland—Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, and Ross—leaving long-lasting footprints in their culture.

A legend states that they were “the painted people,” as the name Pict probably derives from the Latin word Picti meaning “painted folk” or possibly “tattooed people.” This refers to the dark blue color they painted on their bodies and faces to have a more terrifying look in battle in the face of their enemies.

Influences also came from the Christian missionaries who converted many Picts to Christianity. St. Columba, an Irish missionary who came to Dalriada from Northern Ireland in 563, disseminated the Christian faith among the Picts. The missions came to an end in the seventh century.

The Scots occupied the adjacent region to Pictavia in the north toward the beginning of the sixth century. They were a Celtic people from northern Ireland who established a kingdom called Dalriada. It was associated with Irishmen who would later call themselves Scots and rule all of Scotland.

Having a strong devotion for the sea, Scotland’s kings built and maintained a strong navy and waged aggressive war. They also managed a large fleet to capture fish and sea-based resources that were the basis of their economy and culture.

Strathclyde was the third kingdom, populated by native Welsh. Bordered on the south by the English, their culture was not as separate as the Picts and Scots— they were strongly influenced by the Viking invasion in the ninth century. This cultural mixture remained for centuries with influence seen in their language, shipping activities, religion, and warrior spirit.

The fourth was the kingdom of Northumbria. It was famous as a center of religious learning and arts. Initially monks from the Celtic Church Christianized Northumbria, and this led to a flowering of monastic life, with a unique style of religious art that combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences.

Between 655 and 664 Scottish missionaries were active in Northumbria. Apart from standard English, Northumbria had a series of closely related but distinctive dialects, descended from the early Germanic languages of the Angles and Vikings, and of the Celtic Romano-British tribes.

The Kingdom of Alba

The Kingdom of Alba
The Kingdom of Alba

In 843 the Picts and Scots united to form the kingdom of Alba, a term used by the Gaels, a linguistic group speaking Gaelic, to refer to the island. Tradition says Dalriadan Kenneth MacAlpin, who is today known as the first king of Scotland, unified the tribes.

In 1034 Strathclyde began its gradual incorporation into the kingdom of Alba, as did Northumbria around 1100 after William the Conqueror and his son, William Rufus, invaded.

From the middle of the 11th century Alba, which later became the kingdom of Scotland, received strong cultural influences from the Normans and Vikings, especially because of the establishment of a Norman reign in England with William the Conqueror in 1066.

In Scotland this period is sometimes referred to as the “Anglicization of Scotland,” meaning the expansion of the Angles’ culture in most of Scotland. During the 11th and 12th centuries the Anglo-Norman feudal system was established in Scotland. The reorganization was confined at first to ecclesiastical reforms but gradually affected all sectors of Scottish life.

For instance Celtic religious orders were suppressed, English ecclesiastics replaced Scottish monks, several monasteries were founded, and the Celtic church was remodeled in agreement with Catholic practice. Norman French supplanted Gaelic language in court circles, while English was spoken in the border areas and many parts of the Lowlands.

The traditional system of tribal land tenure was abolished. David I (king from 1124 to 1153) also instituted various judicial, legislative, and administrative reforms, all based on English models; encouraged the development of commerce with England; and granted extensive privileges to the Scottish towns or “burghs.”

The Normans militarized large sections of Scotland, building strong stone castles and establishing the feudal system upon the peasantry; they came into frequent conflict with the native nobility. The concentration of the population was in burghs, later colonized by Normans, Flemish merchants, and Englishmen.

The burghs were an autonomous unit of local government with rights to representation in the parliament of Scotland. They were in use from at least the ninth century until their abolition in 1975 when a new regional structure of local government was introduced across Scotland. The word burgh is related to the well-known English borough.

Wars of Scottish Independence and the Stuart Dynasty

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries there were a series of military campaigns fought between Scotland and England known as the Wars of Scottish Independence. The First War (1296–1328) began with the English invasion of Scotland in 1296, and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328.

The Scottish struggle against England was mainly encouraged by patriot Sir William Wallace recruiting from all sections of the nation. Although Wallace had a heroic sense of freedom and won many battles, in 1305 Wallace was betrayed to the English, convicted of treason, and executed.

After his death Robert de Bruce assumed the leadership of the resistance movement, which ended victoriously in 1328 when the regents of the young Edward III of England approved the Treaty of Northampton. By the terms of this document, Scotland obtained recognition as an independent kingdom.

second war of independence
second war of independence

The Second War of Independence (1332–57) began with the English supported invasion of Edward Balliol and the “Disinherited” in 1332, and ended around 1357 with the signing of the Treaty of Berwick, through which Scotland retained independence.

Under the first two kings of the Stuart dynasty, Robert II (r. 1371–90) and Robert III (r. 1390–1406), the country was further devastated by the war with England, and royal authority was weak. James I (r. 1406–37) attempted to restore order in the country.

To do so James imposed various curbs on the nobility and secured parliamentary approval of many legislative reforms. But without the cooperation of the feudal barons, however, these reforms were unenforceable. James I was murdered in 1437.

Society, Law, and Scottish Parliament

From the time of Kenneth I (Kenneth MacAlpin), the Scottish kingdom of Alba was ruled by chieftains and petty kings under the control (technically the suzerainty) of a high king, all offices being filled through selection by an assembly under a system known as tanistry, which combined a hereditary element with the consent of those ruled.

After 1057 the influence of Norman settlers in Scotland saw primogeniture adopted as the means of succession in Scotland as in much of western Europe. These early assemblies cannot be considered parliaments in the later sense of the word and were entirely separate from the later, Norman-influenced, institution.

The Scottish parliament evolved during the Middle Ages from the King’s Council of Bishops and Earls. It is perhaps first identifiable as a parliament in 1235, described as a colloquium and already with a political and judicial role.

By the early 14th century the attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and from 1326 burgh commissioners attended. Consisting of the Three Estates, of clerics, lay tenants in chief, and burgh commissioners sitting in a single chamber, the Scottish parliament acquired significant powers over particular issues.

Most obviously it was needed for consent for taxation but it also had a strong influence over justice, foreign policy, war, and all manner of other legislation, whether political, ecclesiastical, social, or economic.

The parliament had a judicial and political role that was well established by the end of the 13th century. By the late 11th century Celtic law was applied over most of Scotland, with Old Norse law covering the areas under Viking control.

In following centuries as Norman influence grew and more feudal relationships of government were introduced, Scot-Norman law developed, which was initially similar to Anglo-Norman law, but over time differences evolved.

Early in this process David I of Scotland (r. 1124–53) established the office of sheriff with civil and criminal jurisdictions as well as military and administrative functions.

At the same time burgh courts emerged dealing with civil and criminal matters, developing law on an English model, and the Dean of Guild courts were developed to deal with building and public safety.


During 600–1450 the kingdom of Scotland followed the typical pattern of European education with the Roman Catholic Church organizing schooling. Church choir schools and grammar schools were founded in all the main burghs and some small towns; early examples include the high school of Glasgow in 1124.

high school of Glasgow
high school of Glasgow, nowdays

The Education Act of 1496 introduced compulsory education for the eldest sons of nobles—a first in Scotland since it forced all nobles and freeholders to educate their eldest sons in Latin, followed by the arts and Scots law.

The children were sent to a grammar school to be taught Latin when they reached the age of eight or nine. Once they had learned Latin, they had to attend a school of art or of law for a minimum of three years. After that basic education, the children of the nobles could attend university.

The first universities in Scotland, all ecclesiastical foundations, were built during the 15th century imitating the cultural development of England, which already had the universities of Cambridge and Oxford since the 11th century.

Saint Andrew’s University was founded in 1410 when a charter of incorporation was bestowed upon the Augustinian priory of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral. At this time much of the teaching was of a religious nature and was conducted by clerics associated with the cathedral.

Cultural Developments

During 600–1450 the Scottish people introduced several music instruments, the most important the harp and the bagpipe. The harp, also called clarsach, is an instrument with a long history in Scotland, rivaling even bagpipes for the position of national instrument.

Triangular harps were known as far back as the 10th century, when they appeared on Pictish carvings, and harp compositions may have even formed the basis for the pibroch, an unusual type of music used to inspire Scottish soldiers before a battle.

Besides harps, bagpipes (wind instruments consisting of one or more musical pipes, which are fed continuously by a reservoir of air in a bag) became a usual and typical instrument in Scotland. However bagpipes are not unique or indigenous to Scotland. It is unknown when this instrument was first imported to Scotland, but assumptions date it back to the 10th century.

It is known that there was an explosion of its popularity around 1000. Bagpipes were also used to encourage the spirit of fighters during military campaign marches. Besides musical instruments, this period (600–1450) was already rich in developments in the Scottish literature.

Since Scotland received influence from different tribes and peoples (Irish, Gaelic, Norman, Picts, Scots, and Roman) its literature has accordingly been written in many languages, such as English, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Brythonic, French, and Latin.

Most literary works in this period consisted of Gaelic literature, in the ethnic language of the Scots. Between c. 1200 and c. 1700 the learned Gaelic elite of both Scotland and Ireland shared a literary form of Gaelic.

Gaelic literature written in Scotland before the 14th century includes the Lebor Bretnach, the product of a flourishing Gaelic literary establishment at the monastery of Abernethy. This book is the Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum, meaning the History of the British, as it was perceived in the ninth century.

The earliest literature known to have been composed in Scotland includes the following:
  • In Brythonic language (Old Welsh): the Gododdin, attributed to Aneirin, and the Battle of Gwen Ystrad, attributed to Taliesin, both dating back to the sixth century.\
  • In Gaelic language: Elegy for Saint Columba, by Dallan Forgaill, c. 597, and In Praise of Saint Columba by Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum, both about the Irish missionary monk who reintroduced Christianity to Scotland north of England during medieval times.
  • In Latin: Prayer for Protection, attributed to Saint Mugint, c. 650, and Altus Prosator, The High Creator, attributed to Saint Columba, c. 597.
  • In Old English and c. 700: the Dream of the Rood, one of the earliest Christian poems, where the poet describes his dream of a conversation with the wood of the Christian Cross.

During the 13th century French flourished as a literary language and produced the famous Roman de Fergus, the earliest piece of non-Celtic literature to come from Scotland. In addition to French, Latin was also a literary language.

Famous examples would be the Inchcolm Antiphoner and the Carmen de morte Sumerledi, a poem that exults triumphantly the victory of the citizens of Glasgow over Somailre mac Gilla Brigte. The most important medieval work written in Scotland, the Vita Columbae, was also written in Latin.

The earliest Middle English or Scots literature includes John Barbour’s Brus (14th century), Whyntoun’s Kronykil, and Blind Harry’s Wallace in the 15th century telling the story of the rebel patriot during the First War of Scottish Independence. Other important authors were William Dunbar and Robert Henryson.