2.1 Beginnings

Ethnogenesis is, of course, pivotal to any understanding of how Scotland came into existence and has continued to develop. Not only do researchers and archaeologists have to get to grips with the diverse cultural groupings of Picts, Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Gaels and Scandinavians but also how these groupings were to be variously fused into the several kingdoms and lordships – Alba, the Isles, Galloway and Orkney amongst them – and ultimately into the kingdom of Scotland (surviving as an independent monarchy until 1603 when it was joined with the English crown). This process is not a simple linear trajectory of increasing unification and eventual loss of power but one that recognises continuing and changing cultural groupings, notably the later medieval emergence of the Highland/Lowland divide and the clan system. Jope’s (1963) still valuable exploration of medieval regional cultures in Britain usefully serves as a reminder that there also needs to be a focus on how medieval people conceptualised their identity and their ethnicity. Scotland’s universities (St Andrews and Glasgow for example) had in common with other European universities a system of nations – ethno-regional groupings into which students were placed, primarily so that they remained subject to the legal codes of their own provinces. The differing nations deployed by the two Scottish universities included Lothian, Britain (which equated to Galloway), Clydesdale, Teviotdale, Albany and Rothesay (Jope 1963, 346-7). So, in fact, the framework needs to encompass more than ethnogenesis – the origins of peoples –  and might do better to concentrate on a broader concept which does not  deny the importance of origins but keeps it in balance with the perpetual hybridising reality of ethnic identity (even when it claims an unchanging core of tradition). Ethno-evolution seems an appropriately scientific term to use but its implication of gradual change from simple to complex cannot account for the varied trajectories of the cultural expressions of ethnic identity. Flux is an acceptable term meaning continuous change but in some Medieval contexts carries the medical meaning of an abnormal discharge of blood or excrement from the body, and so is perhaps best avoided. A more appropriate term for change, accommodating hybridity and more than a one-speed gradual change, along with the nuance of classical learning changed in the medieval period, might be ethno-metamorphosis.

The ethnogenesis debate has a further, cognitive dimension in that the very idea of Scotland began in the mind before it began to be played out in material culture and in historical action. The origins of the Scots and Scottish identity can be tracked through the archaeological record of the disparate peoples of early medieval northern Britain, and it may be possible to study this phenomenon in more detail as study moves closer to the creation of Alba and the complex networks of international contacts that were steadily increasing at this time. The world beyond Scotland’s borders comes into particular focus here, as national identity is partly a reflection of distinctions made with other ideological or ethnic groupings.

There was nothing predetermined or predestined or even certain about this process of state formation and kingdom enlargement and the process was still playing out at the end of our period: the 1603 Union of the Crowns was an act of aggrandisement perhaps no monarch could have resisted but it seduced Scotland’s king south to London and from that flowed considerable political, economic and social changes.

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