A Brief History of Scotland

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Scotland

During the ice age, Scotland was uninhabited. However, when the ice melted forests spread across Scotland, and stone-age hunters moved there. By 6,000 BC small groups of people lived in Scotland by hunting animals like red deer and seals and by gathering plants for food.

Then about 4,500 BC farming was introduced into Scotland. The early farmers continued to use stone tools and weapons and this period is called the Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Neolithic people used stone axes or fire to clear forests for farming and they grew wheat, barley, and rye. They also bred cattle and sheep. They lived in simple stone huts with roofs of turf or thatch.

The finest example of a Neolithic village was found in Orkney after a storm in 1850. The inhabitants lived in stone huts with stone shelves and stone seats inside. They also had stone beds, which were probably covered with straw or heather. The people of Skara Brae used pottery vessels.

By 1,800 BC people in Scotland had learned to make bronze. The Bronze Age people continued to live in simple huts but they are famous for their stone monuments. They arranged huge stones in circles. The fact that they were able to do so indicates they lived in an organized society.

The Picts and Scots

The Picts lived in round huts of wood or stone with thatched roofs. Some Picts lived in crannogs, which were huts erected on artificial platforms in lochs or estuaries. Pictish chieftains built hill forts of stone, wood, or earth. Pictish farmers raised cattle, pigs, and sheep. They also fished, hunted deer and seals, and caught birds. They grew crops of wheat, barley, and rye. They also gathered wild fruits such as crab apples, sloes, raspberries, blackberries, and damsons.

Although the vast majority of Picts were farmers some worked as craftsmen such as blacksmiths, bronze smiths, goldsmiths, and potters. The Picts were very skilled at making jewelry. They also carved pictures on stones. Upper-class Picts spent their days hunting on horseback or hunting with falcons. In the evenings they drank and feasted.

Scotland’s written history begins with the Romans. The Romans invaded Scotland in 80 AD led by Agricola. They advanced into southern Scotland and then marched into the northeast. In 84 the Romans severely defeated the Picts at a place called Mons Graupius (its exact location is unknown). However, in the years after the battle, the Romans slowly withdrew and in 123 Emperor Hadrian began building a wall to keep out the Picts.

Later in the second century, the Romans advanced again and in 140 they built the Antonine Wall from the Clyde to the Forth. However, the Romans finally abandoned the Antonine Wall in 196 AD. Afterward, Hadrians Wall became the frontier. The Romans advanced into Scotland again in 209 AD but only temporarily. In 367-68, the Picts took part in a great raid upon Roman Britain.

In the 6th century a people from Ireland called the Scots invaded what is now Scotland. They settled in what is now Argyll and founded the kingdom of Dalriada.

Meanwhile, Christian missionaries had begun the work of converting the Picts. Some Picts in southeast Scotland accepted Christianity in the 5th century. Columba who went there in 563 converted southwest Scotland to Christianity. He founded a monastery at Iona, which became very important in the history of Christianity in Britain. During the 6th and 7th centuries, Christianity spread across Scotland, and by the end of the 7th century, all of Scotland was Christian.

Further south in the 6th century Angles invaded Northeast England and they created the kingdom of Northumbria. In the early 7th century the Northumbrians expanded into southeast Scotland and as far as Dunbar and Edinburgh. Then, in 843 Kenneth MacAlpin who was king of the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada also became king of the Picts of northern and central Scotland. So the Scots and Picts merged to form a single kingdom.

However, the new kingdom of Scotland only included land north of the Clyde and Forth. The English ruled the southeast of Scotland until 1018 when the Scots conquered it. Furthermore, southwest Scotland and Cumbria formed a separate kingdom called Strathclyde. However, in 1018 Strathclyde was peacefully absorbed into Scotland.

Meanwhile Scotland faced another threat – the Vikings! They raided the monastery at Iona in 795. Then in the early 9th century Vikings settled on the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Later in the 9th century, they settled in the Hebrides and in Caithness and Sutherland as well as on the western coast of Scotland.

In 1034 Duncan became King of Scotland. He proved to be incompetent and in 1040 Macbeth who then replaced him as king killed him. Unlike the character created by Shakespeare Macbeth was a good king and in 1050 he went on a pilgrimage to Rome. However, in 1057 Macbeth was killed at the battle of Lumphanan and Duncan’s son became Malcolm III.

Scotland in the Middle Ages

In 1066 the Normans conquered England. Norman influence was soon felt in Scotland. In 1069 Malcolm married an English woman named Margaret who promoted Norman ways at the Scottish court. Malcolm was killed in a battle against the English at Alnwick in 1093.

Nevertheless, during the reigns of his three sons Edgar (1097-1107), Alexander I (1107-1124), and David I (1124-1153) Norman influence in Scotland gradually increased. During the reign of David I many Normans came to live in Scotland. Dioceses were organized for bishops and new monasteries were founded. The government was reformed. Also in the 12th century, many towns or burghs were founded in Scotland and trade flourished. David I was the first Scottish king to found mints and issue his own coins.

However Scottish kings had little power. In the west and north chieftains frequently rebelled against the king during the 12th and 13th centuries. Nevertheless, in 1265 the Scottish king conquered the Western Islands, which until then were ruled by Norway. By the Treaty of Perth in 1266, the Norwegian king formally surrendered all his territory in Scotland except for the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

One night in 1286 Alexander III’s horse fell in the darkness and he was killed. His heir was a little girl called Margaret who lived in Norway. However, she died in 1290 on her way to Scotland. There were now many claimants to the throne. In fact, there were 13. The Bishop of St Andrews asked Edward I to arbitrate. Edward was happy to oblige and he chose John Balliol who was crowned in 1292. Edward claimed to be the overlord of Scotland and he soon made it clear he wanted Balliol to be a puppet.

Finally, in 1295 Edward tried to force the Scots to join him in a war against France. Balliol rebelled and allied with France. However, in 1296 Edward invaded Scotland. Balliol was captured and forced to surrender the throne. Edward tried to rule Scotland directly, without a puppet king. He forced many Scottish nobles and landowners to submit to him at Berwick. He then installed English officials to govern Scotland and withdrew.

However, the Scots were not subdued so easily. Many small landowners rose in a rebellion led by William Wallace. In 1297 Wallace severely defeated the English at Stirling Bridge. However English won a victory at Falkirk in July 1298. Yet the Scots continued to resist and the English only really controlled the southeast. Yet Wallace was captured in 1305 and executed.

From 1306 Robert the Bruce, who was crowned king of Scotland that year, led the resistance. Scottish resistance gradually increased and Edward I died in 1307. Then in 1314, the English were utterly defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. After the battle Scottish independence was assured. However, it was another 14 years until the English finally recognized Scottish independence by the Treaty of Northampton in 1328. Nevertheless, the treaty did not bring peace.

Robert the Bruce died in 1329 and his 5-year-old son became David II. However, in England, some Scottish nobles had been deprived of their lands in Scotland for supporting the English. They now attempted to make John Balliol’s son Edward king of Scotland. They invaded Scotland by sea and defeated an army sent to meet them. They marched to Scone where Edward Balliol was crowned king. He tried to get the support of the English king by promising him, Berwick. However, Balliol was soon driven out of Scotland.

Nevertheless, the English took Berwick anyway and invaded southern Scotland. King David was sent to France for safety. However, after 1338, the English were at war with France and they were gradually forced to withdraw from Scotland. Then in 1346, the French king appealed to the Scots for help. David invaded England but he was defeated and captured at Neville’s Cross. David was released in 1357 when the Scots paid a ransom. He died in 1371.

In the late Middle Ages, the Scottish kings still had little power and the barons sometimes acted virtually as independent rulers. Accordingly, Scotland suffered from lawlessness. On the other hand, the burghs thrived and Scotland’s first university St Andrews was founded in 1413.

Meanwhile, during the late 14th and 15th centuries, intermittent warfare between the Scots and the English continued.

A thistle

16th Century Scotland

James IV (1488-1513) restored order. Furthermore, his reign was a great age for literature in Scotland. Also, the first printing press was set up in Edinburgh in 1507. Meanwhile, Aberdeen University was founded in 1495, and in 1496 a law was passed requiring all well-off landowners to send their eldest sons to school.

Then in 1503, James married Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England. In 1511 James built a huge warship called the Great Michael. However, in 1513 he invaded England. The Scots were badly defeated at the battle of Flodden and James himself was killed. His heir James V was only a child and he did not begin to rule Scotland till 1528. The Scots invaded England in 1542 but were defeated at the battle of Solway Moss in November. The king died in December 1542 while still a young man.

The throne passed to Mary Queen of Scots, who was only a baby. Henry VIII of England wanted his son to marry Mary. The Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Arran signed the Treaty of Greenwich in 1543, agreeing to the marriage. However, in December 1543 the Scottish parliament repudiated the treaty. So in 1544 and 1545 the English invaded southern Scotland and devastated it. The English invaded Scotland again in 1547 and defeated the Scots at Pinkie. The English invaded again in 1548 so Mary was sent to France. Later she married a French prince.

In the 16th century Scotland, like the rest of Europe, was rocked by the Reformation. Early in the century Protestant ideas spread through Scotland and gradually took hold. Finally, in 1557 a group of Scottish nobles met and signed a covenant to uphold Protestant teachings.

However, the leading figure in the Scottish Reformation was John Knox (1505-1572). In 1559 he returned from Geneva where he had learned the teachings of John Calvin. Knox’s preaching won many converts and finally, in 1560 the Scottish parliament met and severed all links with the Pope. Parliament also banned the Catholic mass or any doctrine or practice contrary to a confession of faith drawn up by Knox. The Scottish Reformation had succeeded and Scotland was now a Protestant country.

In 1561 Queen Mary returned from France after the death of her husband. Mary was a Catholic. She was forced to accept the Scottish Reformation but she kept her old religion. In 1565 Mary married her Catholic cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. However, Darnley became jealous of Mary’s Italian secretary David Riccio. In March 1566 Darnley and his friends murdered Riccio. Mary never forgave Darnley and she came under the spell of the Earl of Bothwell.

In 1567 a house where Darnley was staying was blown up. When Darnley’s body was found it was discovered that he had been strangled. Shortly afterward Mary married Bothwell. Enraged, the Protestant nobles rose and captured Mary. They forced her to abdicate in favor of her baby son, who became James VI. Mary escaped and raised an army but she was defeated at the Battle of Langside and fled to England.

Scotland was ruled by regents until James was old enough to rule himself. (In 1587 his mother Mary was beheaded in England). In 1589 James married Anne of Denmark. Then in 1603, on the death of Elizabeth I, he became King James I of England as well as King James VI of Scotland.

17th Century Scotland

However, the Scottish Church was different in some of its doctrines and practices from the English Church. James’s son Charles I (1625-1649) foolishly tried to bring the Scottish religion in line with the English religion. In 1637 he tried to impose a prayer book on the Scots. However, the Scots rejected it utterly. On 28 February 1638 and the following two days nobles and gentlemen in Edinburgh signed a document promising to uphold the ‘true religion’. The document became known as the National Covenant and messengers took copies all over Scotland for people to sign.

Charles tried to force the Scots to submit and in 1639 he raised an army in England. However, he was desperately short of money and he made a peace treaty to buy time. In 1640 Charles raised another army but the Scots invaded England and they occupied Newcastle and Durham. They withdrew in 1641.

Meanwhile, Charles managed to alienate his English subjects, and in 1642 civil war began in England. At first, the Scots remained neutral. However, in 1643, the English parliament persuaded the Scots to join their side by promising to make England Presbyterian. In 1644 the Scots sent an army to England.

Yet not all Scots agreed with this decision. Some supported the king and in 1644 the Marquis of Montrose raised an army in the Highlands to fight for him. At first, Montrose had some success but in 1645 he was defeated at Philiphaugh. Meanwhile, the king was defeated in England, and in 1646 he surrendered to the Scottish army at Newark. Montrose fled to Norway. However, the English now dragged their feet about introducing Presbyterianism. When it became clear they were not going to the Scots made a deal with the king. He promised to introduce Presbyterianism in England for a 3-year trial period. So a Scottish army invaded England in 1648 but it was defeated at Preston.

Then in January 1649, the English beheaded Charles I. The Scots immediately proclaimed his son Charles II king. Charles II like his father Charles I and his grandfather James VI was an Episcopalian. He believed bishops should govern the Church. Nevertheless, to gain the support of the Scots he agreed to accept Presbyterianism in Scotland. In June 1650 he went to Scotland and he was crowned king at Scone in January 1651.

Meanwhile, in July 1650 another English army invaded Scotland and occupied Edinburgh. In the summer of 1651, they defeated a Scottish army at Inverkeithing. A Scottish army then invaded England. They hoped English royalists would join them but they did not. The Scots were routed at Worcester in September 1651. Charles II fled abroad.

The English army then occupied the whole of Scotland. However, the English occupation ended in 1660 when Charles II became king of England and Scotland. Charles II restored bishops to the Church of Scotland. However, about a third of ministers resigned. Many Scots, especially in the southwest, held secret religious meetings called conventicles. Gradually the government treated them more harshly.

Finally, in 1679 the Archbishop of St Andrews was murdered and unrest spread through the west. However, the government sent troops to quell it and the Covenanters were defeated at the battle of Bothwell Brig. Nevertheless, the Covenanters continued to resist and the government continued to persecute them. The 1680s became known as the killing time.

Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James became King James II. However, James II was a Roman Catholic and both English and Scots feared he would restore Roman Catholicism. James II was deposed in 1688 and William and Mary became king and queen of Scotland. The Scottish parliament restored Presbyterianism.

However, not all Scots welcomed the new monarchs. The Highlanders rose under Viscount Dundee. They won a victory at Killiecrankie in 1689 but their leader was killed and the Highlanders dispersed.

The government was determined to bring the Highlands to heel and they ordered the chiefs of all the clans to take an oath of loyalty to King William by the last day of 1691.

However, the chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe arrived late and only took the oath on 6 January 1692. Even though he was only a few days late the government decided to make an example of him. So troops led by Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon were sent to Glencoe and billeted in cottages there.

The MacDonalds treated them hospitably. However early in the morning of 13 February Campbell and his men fell on the sleeping guests. They went from house to house killing the inhabitants and then burning the houses. Altogether 38 people were murdered including the clan chief. This appalling massacre became known as the massacre of Glencoe.

18th Century Scotland

King William realised the deposed king, James II might go to Scotland and claim the Scottish throne. To try and prevent that he urged a union of England and Scotland. The next monarch, Queen Anne did the same. Scottish merchants saw economic advantages from a union and in 1706 the Scots agreed to open negotiations. The Scots wanted a federal union but the English refused. However, in 1706 a treaty was drawn up. The two nations would share a flag and a parliament. Scotland would keep its church and its legal system. The Scottish parliament accepted the treaty of Union in 1707. The United Kingdom came into existence on 1 May 1707.

However, the Act of Union was unpopular with many Scots and it soon became more so. Meanwhile, James II, the king who was deposed in 1688 died in 1701 but his son James Edward was keen to regain the throne. His followers were called Jacobites from the Latin for James, Jacobus. James had many supporters in the Highlands and in 1715 the Earl of Mar proclaimed him king. Lord Mar also denounced the Act of Union.

Highlanders flocked to join Lord Mar and in September 1715 his forces captured Perth. However, towns south of the Tay stayed loyal to the government. On 13 November the Jacobites fought government troops at Sheriffmuir near Dunblane. The battle ended indecisively.

However afterward the government army was reinforced. On 22 December 1715, James Edward landed at Peterhead but the government army advanced and the Jacobites withdrew from Perth. James Edward grew discouraged and on 4 February 1716, he and Lord Mar left Scotland. Afterward, the rebellion petered out.

However, the Highlanders were by no means defeated and they remained a threat to the government. Still, the government took some measures to control the Highlands. Fort Augustus was built in 1716 and in 1725-36 General Wade built a network of roads in the Highlands to make it easier for government troops to march from place to place.

Then in August 1745 Charles Stuart, grandson of the king who was deposed in 1688 landed in Scotland hoping to reclaim the throne. ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ persuaded some of the Highlanders to support him and in September 1745 they captured Edinburgh. They then routed a government army at Prestonpans. The Jacobites then marched south and in December they reached Derby.

However, the English failed to rise to support Charles and some of his Highland troops deserted. So on 6 December 1745, the Jacobites began a retreat. They retreated to Inverness but the government was busy raising reinforcements. On 16th April 1746, the Jacobites were defeated by a government army at Culloden. Charles Stuart managed to escape to France.

The commander of the government army was William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, known as ‘Butcher Cumberland’ because of his cruelty. After Culloden Cumberland ordered that the Jacobites should be given no quarter. Many wounded Jacobites were killed. Furthermore, 120 prisoners were executed and more than 1,000 were transported to colonies.

Following the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion, the government passed laws to destroy the Highlanders’ way of life forever. In 1746 a law banned the kilt and the bagpipes. Lands owned by Jacobites were confiscated and the ‘heritable jurisdictions’ (the right of clan chiefs to hold courts and try certain cases) were abolished.

Despite the Jacobite rebellions, Scotland’s economy grew rapidly during the 18th century. Landowners were keen to improve their estates and new methods of farming were introduced. Turnips and potatoes were introduced into Scotland. Unfortunately, the Highland Clearances caused much suffering. From the 1760s landowners evicted tenant farmers and turn their land over to sheep farming. Many of the dispossessed migrated to North America. Others moved to the rapidly growing industrial cities.

In the late 18th century the industrial revolution began to transform Scotland. The linen industry and the cotton industry boomed. The iron industry also grew rapidly. Meanwhile, transport improved. Turnpike roads were built. (Those roads were privately owned and maintained and you had to pay to use them). In the late 18th century canals were built in Scotland.

Many Scottish towns grew very rapidly, especially Glasgow and Paisley. Meanwhile, art, learning, and architecture flourished in Scotland, and Edinburgh was called the Athens of the north.

19th Century Scotland

In the 19th century, the history of Scotland merged into the history of Britain.

In the early 19th century the Highland clearances continued. Many Highlanders were forced to emigrate. Meanwhile, further south Scotland’s industries boomed. The coal and iron industries flourished. So did shipbuilding.

Scottish cities continued to grow rapidly. However, housing conditions in the new industrial towns were often appalling. Disease and overcrowding were common. Still in the late 19th century conditions improved and living standards rose. Furthermore, at the end of the 19th century, Scottish workers began to form powerful trade unions.

Meanwhile in the mid-19th century railways were built across Scotland. In 1842 a railway was built from Glasgow to Edinburgh. n

20th Century Scotland

Scotland suffered very high unemployment during the 1920s and 1930s. Traditional industries such as shipbuilding, mining, iron, and steel were badly affected by the depression. The Second World War brought a return to full employment and the 1950s and 1960s were years of prosperity. However, the recession returned in the early 1980s and early 1990s.

Nevertheless, new hi-tech and service industries grew in Scotland in the late 20th century to replace the old manufacturing ones and in 1990 Glasgow was made the Cultural Capital of Europe.

During the 20th century there was a growing nationalist movement in Scotland. The National Party of Scotland was formed in 1928. In 1934 it changed its name to the Scottish National Party. The first SNP MP was elected in 1945. In 1974 11 SNP MPs were elected. Finally, in 1999 Scotland gained its own parliament.

21st Century Scotland

Then in 2011, the Scottish Nationalist Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. However, in a referendum in 2014, a majority of Scots voted against independence. In 2020 the population of Scotland was 5.5 million.

Last Revised 2024