When Did Scotland Become Scotland: The Making of a Nation, 1000-1300, Which Formed a Crucial Element in the Shaping of Medieval Britain

By Broun, Dauvit | History Today, October 1996 | Go to article overview

When Did Scotland Become Scotland: The Making of a Nation, 1000-1300, Which Formed a Crucial Element in the Shaping of Medieval Britain


Broun, Dauvit, History Today


In a recent article in History Today Patrick Wormald tackled the fascinating question `when did England become England?' His persuasive answer was: in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when kings of Wessex conquered all England and established a new political order with the king of the English, at its apex. He emphasised, however, that the idea of `the English people' was much older - as old as Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) - and played a vital role in lending legitimacy to the English state created in the tenth century.

So strong was the institutional framework and network of allegiance which embodied the newly-formed England that it not only survived the storms of defeat and conquest, but thrived to become the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king England's claim to be sovereign of Britain. The repeated failure of Edward I and Edward III to win their wars against the Scots, despite victories on the battlefield, ensured that Britain as a single political entity would remain no more than an ideal until 1707. Even then. the Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society - law, education and the church - and did not create a homogenous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.

In this immediate sense, therefore, Britain's foundations cannot be explained wholly in terms of England's expansion from its tenth-century origins. To understand Britain's present structure, it is also necessary to consider Scotland's history in its own right. The question `when did Scotland become Scotland?' can, therefore, be recognised as an intriguing part of the quest for Britain's medieval foundations just as much as `when did England become England?'

Although Scotland was never able to pack a punch comparable to England's might, the contours of each kingdom's development does bear at least superficial comparison. The title `king of the English, was first adopted by Athelstan (924-39); the Gaelic title of the kings of Scots, ri Alban, which eventually meant king of Scotland', is first found in 900. The kings of Wessex finally extinguished the independence of the Danish north in the mid-tenth century; in the early eleventh century the kingdom of Strathclyde (stretching from north-west of Glasgow down to Cumbria) was incorporated within the Scottish realm and the Scottish king's hold over Northumbria north of the Tweed was dramatically vindicated at the battle of Carham.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw not only the continuing growth of the king of England's power and influence, pushing west into Wales and Ireland, but also the expansion of the king of Scots' authority over northern Britain. Moray was conquered by David I (1124-53); subsequent revolts in Moray and Ross were finally quelled by Alexander II (1214-49); William I (1165-1214) and Alexander II led successful campaigns as far north as Caithness, and Alexander II and Alexander III (1249-86) brought the West Highlands and Islands, including Mann (the present-day Isle of Man), within their control.

As Keith Stringer has perceptively observed, `one of the most fundamental - if inconvenient - points about Britain's "medieval foundations" is that there were two powerful core areas seeking to absorb peripheral regions'. Patrick Wormald emphasised how England was not the logical outcome of a natural process of unification, but was created by conquest. The same is essentially true for Scotland as well, though beginning with a much smaller core area, extending almost from the Forth in the south to the Spey in the north and the Grampians in the west.

Scotland's early history was different from England's however, not simply because it was on a smaller scale, or because royal government was never so highly developed as it was in England. A striking contrast is that the idea of `the Scottish people' did not precede the expansion of royal control - as the idea of the English people' was able to underpin the creation of an English state.

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