From British Identity to Scottish Nation
Susan Reynolds has discussed the convergence of kingdoms and peoples in the mental landscape of Europeans in the period 900–1300 with regard to law and custom, government and consent, and ideas of common descent and language.1 At the core of ideas of kingdoms and peoples in Britain and Ireland, however, was the incontestable fact that each was an island. It was this reality which shaped the way the highest secular authority relating to each people was defined, and which gave the very idea of being English, Irish and Welsh its enduring power over other identities. When, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it came to conjuring up visions of long successions of kings and accounts of their deeds stretching back into the primordial past, it was natural that these should be conceived in terms of kingships of Britain or Ireland, even though each narrative was written specifically with the English, Irish or Welsh in mind. Once these histories took root in the historical consciousness — made easier by their telling in the vernacular — they became a key part of the infrastructure of English, Irish and Welsh identity for centuries to come, and helped to sustain the intimate bond between people and island, even though, in the case of Britain, two peoples claimed it as their own. It was inevitable, moreover, that the English, as the dominant force, would find it especially difficult, not to say impossible, to make a clear distinction between their country, England, and the island, Britain.
How did the Scots fit into this pattern? There is no suggestion that they made a claim to Britain as their own in the same way as did the English or Welsh. Nonetheless, the underlying significance of Britain is forever enshrined in the Gaelic name for their country, Alba, originally denoting the island. This, it is suggested, can best be explained ultimately as the Pictish name for themselves. The implication is that the Picts (like the