by Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

This is the title of an article published in Antiquity magazine in 2000 by Ewan Campbell of Glasgow University.  Most histories of Scotland happily accept the idea that the Scots, the Gaelic-speaking tribes that comprised the kingdom of  Dalriada, in Argyll, came over from Ulster around the year 500CE.  It is simply one of the ‘facts’ of history that everyone knows – and there’s the problem – everybody knows it but what if they’re all wrong?

Campbell makes the point that the first reference to the Scots having originated in Ireland isn’t mentioned anywhere till two centuries later.  It is perhaps helpful to remember that before the arrival of Christianity there is no evidence of literature in Scotland.  Effectively this means the arrival of Columba, who it is believed set up his monastery on Iona around 563.  

Campbell considers other evidence apart from written sources.  He finds there is no archaeological evidence, either in buildings or artefacts, to support the idea that an invasion of Scots from Ulster ever took place.  He also tells us there is no evidence to suggest any pre-Gaelic, or Pictish place names around the Scottish capital of Dunadd  in Kilmartin Glen, which is what we would expect if an earlier group of inhabitants were replaced.  He believes there is no such evidence to be found.

So we find ourselves in a situation where there is no contemporary historical evidence, even Adomnan writing his Life of Columba thirty years before Bede gives us the story of the Scots’ Irish origins, mentions no such invasion.  It seems there is no real evidence for such an invasion, one of the cornerstones of what most of us think of as Scottish history. How has this happened?  Well if we accept Campbell’s suggestions –the article is online at – what was going on?

Recent revisiting of the past makes it clear that old idea that the seas were a barrier to human movement are simply wrong, the seas were in fact more like a highway.  And it is of some relevance that the coast of Ireland is visible form Arran, Kintyre, Galloway and other parts of Scotland.  It would therefore be silly to think there was no contact across the North Channel of the Irish Sea.  Such contact had been going on for millennia before Columba’s time and we should perhaps be thinking of the likelihood of a society that was based around communication by water that included both sides of the Sheuch.

Campbell goes so far as to suggest that the most significant influence may have in fact have been from Scotland to Ireland.  But why would anyone want to make us think that one of Scotland’s indigenous peoples – which seems an unavoidable conclusion if Campbell is right – came from another land?  Bearing in mind that history is always susceptible to the needs of propaganda, what we should ask ourselves is ‘cui bono’, who benefits.

Bede was first and foremost Christian cleric, and given that Columba is accepted as the founder of Christianity in Scotland, emphasising the Irish connection could be seen as strengthening the Christian position.  Remembering that there are reports of pagan practices in Scotland up to at least the seventeenth century it is likely there was much more back in the eighth century.  There wee also plenty foreign pagans around too – called Vikings!

However there is another significant, and generally ignored aspect to this.. Dunadd, the capital of Dalriada, sits right in the middle of Kilmartin Gen, one of the most important early sacred landscapes in Europe, a place that had been the site of pre-Christian ritual for millennia before Columba was exiled from Ireland for causing trouble among his own people.  Back in the day, It was always Christian policy, to take over the “pagan precincts’ and raise their churches on their sites, but this would be impossible with the whole of Kilmartin Glen.  If the Scots were truly native there, they would have been the people who were the tradition bearers and custodians of the cairns, circles, standing stones and rock art of the area.  And the stones there had been first raised in the 4th millennium BCE.

By telling a story that the people there had only arrived a couple of generations before Columba, that link with the past would be broken.  And that new story, even if it took time to take hold, was in the form of writing.  After all this time it is unclear how exactly all this may have come about, but it does perhaps make sense and underlines that old cliché – history is written by winners.  Realising that the Scots may well have been as much indigenous as the Picts may also help explain their combined assault on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond in 360 CE, known to the Romans as the Barbarian Conspiracy.

Bede also informs us that the Picts originally settled in Scotland following the advice of the Irish, and that they were given wives by them too.  This can be seen as part of the same process of ‘spin’, talking up Ireland and diminishing the role of the indigenous peoples of Scotland.  After all Bede’s Northumbria had been originally Christianised by monks from Iona.  And from Bede’s point of view the interests of the Christian church were paramount – it hardly makes him a bad man but did lead to bad history.


# hiorta 2011-09-18 09:39
The common language would suggest a strong, enduring link.
This despite repeated foreign attempts to foment distrust, emnity and discord between separate strands of the nomadic Celtic Nation.

Edited to add that as far as literature goes, absence of evidence need not mean evidence of absence
# clootie 2011-09-18 10:01
The theory does have merit and the concept of spin is certainly not new.

A great article in line with many which appear on newsnet highlighting how much you accept as “fact” when growing up.

“If you tell a lie big enough…..”
# Hugo 2011-09-18 11:26
It is worth reading ‘The Origins of the British’ by Stephen Openheimer.

It is described as ‘The new prehistory of Britain and Ireland from ice-age hunter gatherers to the Vikings as revealed by DNA analysis.’

A surprisingly readable book.
# Lianachan 2011-09-18 23:39
On the other hand,…/
# bagonails 2011-09-18 15:08
As advertised on this very site this is a wonderfull book

A New History of the Picts
Auth Stuart McHardy
ISBN 1-906817-70-7
Luath Press
# Dougthedug 2011-09-18 15:13
The idea of Scots Gaelic as an Irish immigrant language was a very useful concept in divorcing it from mainstream Scottish culture in order to marginalise and suppress it.

Erse or Irish was the common word used to describe it from about the 16th century onwards.
# pictishbeastie 2011-09-18 17:55
Spot on as always Stuart! Slainte! Iain
# Lianachan 2011-09-18 23:40
Much better article than parts 1 & 2.
# Achnababan 2011-09-19 14:19
A very good article! We should question our historians much more – in reality we virtually know nothing about what happened and why it happened in those far off times.

I personally feel the story we have grown accustomed to about the Scots as immigrant forces from Ireland who overthrew the Picts is woefully inadequate as a plot line for our history.

The article and comments has also conjured up the spectre of that poisonous mix of racism and politics : ‘Gaelic speakers are really Irish and therefore not really one of us’ – a view held by the British for long enough until the Highlander was given a makeover by Walter Scott. Racism is bad nowadays but it was many times worse in former times – the British project (aka Empire) relied upon it!
# cokynutjoe 2011-09-19 14:42
Don’t think Columba was the founder of Christianity in Scotland if he was pre-dated by Ninian.
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 15:00
Among others, aye. Columba was a politician first and foremost, who had a better hagiographer than most other early saints.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 15:12
I wish we had an historian of the calibre of Michael Wood to explain our early history.
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 15:18
Sadly, if the vast majority of written historical records hadn’t been destroyed by our southern neighbours, we’d be sure about a lot more that that period. Still, the Irish records survive and are illuminating – as is the archaeology.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 15:23
Where does the south start?
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 15:43
Depends where you are, it’s a relative term. The southern neighbours I refer to were, in this case, English.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 16:18
So the destruction visited upon ecclesiastical Scotland(the repository of much of our historical records) by the likes of The Wolf of Badenoch was at the behest of our English neighbours.?
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 16:21
Well, relatively speaking, the Wolf would be a southern neighbour of mine as it happens. But I had Edward I more in mind. It is a shame so many records were lost, by whatever hand.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 16:32
Well what about all the recorded history destroyed during the reformation by the “rascal mob”?
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 16:33
One more time for the cheap seats:

It is a shame so many records were lost, by whatever hand.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 16:42
Quoting Lianachan:
One more time for the cheap seats:

It is a shame so many records were lost, by whatever hand.

Agreed and maybe if that had been the thrust of your post at 15:18 I would not have had to sit in the cheap seats and criticise your cheap shot.
# Lianachan 2011-09-19 16:45
I did say that the majority of them were destroyed by our friends in the south, I didn’t say they were the only responsible party. Perhaps if you’d paid attention to what was said instead of looking for offense, you would have saved us both some time.
# ituna semea 2011-09-19 16:55
You used the words “vast majority”. If you post lazily constructed comments on historical subjects do not be surprised or indeed surprised if you are taken to task.
# Robert Louis 2011-09-25 10:32
If you post rather conceited and arrogant comments like those above ituna, don’t be surprised if you are also taken to task.

Or are you now the font of all knowledge?
# cokynutjoe 2011-09-20 13:46
The destruction of abbey libraries by men from the north (Vikings) was a great loss.
# Talorgan 2011-10-03 22:34
Didn’t Longshanks deliberately take them all south, so that they were destroyed when the original Palace of Westminster burned down? (I’m not suggesting that he arranged a fire three centuries after his own death.)
# schawaldowris 2011-10-07 16:11
Once again we witness the erroneous belief that Columba was the founder of Christianity in Scotland. Cocynujoe is correct in his assertion that Ninian predated Columba but not by just a few years. In fact Ninian established his church at Whithorn over a hundred years before Columba was born. The Anglic monk Bede recognised this and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles suported the view. It is also worth mentioning that the Chronicles mention that Ninian was a Bishop whilst Columba was merely an Abbot.

It might also be mentioned that St
Mungo had established his church in Glasgow before Columba arrived at a remote island in the west coast. One would almost whimsically suggest that if Glasgow had already been christianised then so would all of Scotland.

The monk Gildas writing in the early 6th century suggests the the Picts had already been christianised (pobably by followers of Ninian) but were guilty of backsliding.

It is perhaps disappointing to note that historians from Glasgow University are guilty of such basic errors in the foundation of th early Celtic christian church in Scotland.

Further to suggest there was no written language in Scotland before Columba is breathtaking in it’s ignorance

In conclusion Longshanks destroyed the Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in a deliberate attempt to obliterate the memory of the nation. It is entirely possible that the early writings of the Picts were the target of his ire.
# lochside 2011-10-11 14:10
I’m no linguist, but I believe that there is little doubt that the Gaelic speakers of today and the recent past are the direct descendants of the ‘Scotti’; and that Scottish Gaelic is directly linked to Irish Gaelic. Therefore, it seems quite clear that the original historical belief of ‘scottish’ settlement from Ireland probably occurred, particularly when most Brythonic old welsh place names predominate in the East of Scotland. Personally, as a ‘Pictish’ born Scot with an ‘Irish’ surname I don’t mind whether one version is true or false. One constant in both countries’ histories is the regular transmigration of both populations at different times. The only question is why did we allow sectarianism to separate and divide us? Oh, I forgot.. the little matter of British Imperialism and it’s unending ambition.
# cokynutjoe 2011-10-11 14:53
Sadly many of the records of the Glasgow Archdiocese were lost in the French Revolution.

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