During the ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, Scotland was covered with glaciers and was uninhabitable. As the climate became warmer and the ice retreated northwards, this uninhabited land was first invaded by plants. Gradually vegetation, creeping up from England or coming as seeds carried on the wind, covered large areas of the land. Then, when this food was available to them, came animals, moving northwards or migrating across the plain which at this time still joined Britain to the continent. Lastly, and much later, came man, who was dependent on hunting and fishing for his food. During the following thousands of years various people came. We know little about them, though from their primitive tools, weapons, pottery and ornaments that have been found and from the evidence of the remains of their dwellings, forts and graves, it is possible to reconstruct something of their lives and history.

Probably the first people to come to Scotland after the retreat of the ice (about 6000 B.C.) were visitors from Ireland. They were fishers and beach­combers, whose flints, barbed weapons and fish spears, made from bone, have been found here and there on the west coast. They probably came regularly in small groups, judging by the enormous number of empty sea shells found on their sites. Their tools and weapons show that they were people of the Mesolithic Age the middle stone age.


Other early inhabitants of Scotland were hunters who ventured northwards from southern Britain. Although we think of them as primitive men, they were actually quite sophisticated and they knew how to get the most from the harsh land and conditions in which they lived.  Top

Dwellings were constructed from a framework of poles, readily available from the abundant local woodland. Waterproof coverings could be made from brushwood,. turf, bark or animal skins and on the floor a thick covering of pine branches or furs with a fire burning on a stone hearth would provide warmth. Clothes could be made from animal hides which were scraped and stretched to make them soft and supple, then cut with the sharp stone blades. Bone needles and sinews taken from animal carcasses would be used to stitch the hides together.

A variety of trees grew in the Scottish woodlands, providing wood for many different purposes, including bows and arrows, handles for small stone blades and scrapers, fishing rods (with fine roots used as fishing line) and hooks. But the most important use of wood was for fire.

It is likely that most communities kept a fire burning both day and night. It not only provided warmth and a cooking place, but also protection from the animals that might be attracted to the smells of food which must have drifted from any settlement.

Tools, knives and arrowheads were made from flakes of stone. Flint is perhaps the best known stone that can be flaked, but this is rare in Scotland. The early settlers, therefore, had to use the other suitable stones in which the countryside abounded. Tools were sometimes also made from bone and antler which could be splintered into strips and then ground down into needles or delicate points.

For food, a wide variety of resources was available. There were many edible plants providing roots, berries and nuts. On land, a range of animals, including bears, boar, deer, wild cattle, horses, and even beavers and hedgehogs were hunted. The long stretches of coasts and islands provided fish, shellfish, seabirds and edible seaweeds. Dugout canoes or skin covered coracles carried people over to the islands or out to sea.

Life, however, was not easy. After a wet summer, berries and nuts might not ripen, and a hard winter might kill off the game. For 2000 years, none the less, this lifestyle persisted until there was a radical change with the arrival of the first farmers. Top


Neolithic (or new stone implement using) people migrated to Scotland during the fourth millenium B.C. They came by sea from the south both up the Atlantic approaches (perhaps via Ireland) and by an east coast route. They brought with them cereals, as well as cattle and sheep which they had learned to raise for food. In other words, these people were farmers as well as hunters. The introduction of agriculture led to a more settled way of life on the first permanent farms, and a mode of existence  based on mixed farming with fishing and hunting where necessary  was developed and which was to change little in many parts of Scotland until comparatively recently. Grain could be stored against the dangers or winter famine; flocks and herds could provide food and milk. The hungry hand to mouth existence of the hunter and fisher gave way to a more secure and stable existence. Tillage meant settlement; the land was cleared for pasture and arable, and man began to make the first of many changes in the face of the earth. The land was probably first cleared and prepared by the ‘Slash and burn’ method. Brushwood was cut to make fires around trees and the ash enriched soil between the charred roots and stumps was turned over with primitive implements of wood, the hoe or ard (a scratch plough).

The dwellings and burial tombs of these Neolithic peoples who lived and died around 6000 years ago comprise the earliest standing buildings that still survive in Scotland. Erosion of the coast by sea and wind had undoubtedly destroyed many of the earliest settlements. While some remains have been found on the mainland, the best preserved Neolithic houses are to be found in Orkney. At Knap of Rowar, on the island of Papa Westray, there is a farm which was founded around 3600 B.C. and was the home for successive generations of a family for the next 500 years.

The buildings stand side by side. One was the farmhouse, its two rooms furnished with stone and timber benches and the great grinding stone (or quern) still in place in the kitchen. The other building was the barn and workshop, with sturdily built hearth and cupboards.

The chambered cairns (tombs) of these first farmers are the oldest large stone structures in Britain, and over a thousand of these have been found in Scotland. Built to house and honour the dead, the cairns belong to several distinct types but in all of them the stone burial chamber is covered with mounds of stones and the approach to the chamber is through a long lintelled passage from the edge of the mound. These dark vaults received the dead of their communities over many centuries and it is clear that in some cases the bones of early internments were tidied to one side of the chamber in order to make way for new burials. We do not know whether all the members of a community were buried in this way, or only a favoured class or groups of families.

What we do know, however, is that life expectancy was very short. A careful examination of the bones from the “Tomb of the Eagles” at Isbister on South Ronaldsay shows that many deaths occurred in childhood and most people died between the ages of 15 and 30 with very few living on until 50. The bones tell of a life of considerable physical discomfort, for more than half the adults suffered from crippling osteoarthritis. The farmers were not, as is popularly believed, of very much small stature than we are today: on average men were 5 ft. 7 ins. (170 cms.), women about 5 ft. 3 ins. (160 cms.)

Remains of bones from dogs, fish, deer and even sea eagles have also been found in the burial chambers, with some tombs containing large concentrations of one particular type. These animal remains may be the emblems of individual tribes or families. Fragments of broken pottery from a vast array of vessels have also been found scattered in different parts of the tombs and suggest that pottery was deliberately smashed in some sort of ritual or ceremony. Top


“Beaker Folk” take their name from a new form of burial at the end of the second millenium B.C. The body was buried crouched in a stone cist too short to take the body stretched out. With it were placed a pot of a shape known as a “beaker” and occasionally other simple goods such as an arrow or stone battle axe and, very occasionally, copper or bronze objects.

Archeologists are sure that, because of change in the physical type of people buried like this, they represent another migration. They were taller and more heavily built than their Neolithic predecessors, with broader face and shorter skull. On the evidence of Beaker forms, migration was direct from Europe between the Elbe and the Rhine, but it is now doubtful whether they brought with them the knowledge of metalworking in bronze with which their arrival used to be associated. Rather, it would seem, smiths or other technicians brought their skills from central or northern European workshops and perhaps too from Spain.

In any case, some time before 2000 B.C., a knowledge of bronze and metalworking was introduced into Scotland. Initially, production of metal objects seems to have been heavily concentrated on axes. The collection of axes, halberds, knives, daggers, spearheads and ornaments of various forms are evidence that their use was rooted primarily in the search for prestige and status, not in the development of a more efficient tool kit. Shields of beaten bronze found in Aberdeenshire would have been more appropriate for ceremonial occasions than for the battle­field, since practical experiments have proved that leather shields are more effective than bronze shields in withstanding sword blows.

Although burials and cairns indicate the vicinity of settlements, very few houses dating to 2000 B.C. have so far been discovered. Circular house plans have been found on Artan and at Muirkirk in Ayrshire. Here circular houses were constructed with large upright timbers forming an inner circle, with the roof resting on the uprights and sloping down to the outer stone wall. Top


Once men had discovered how to temper iron and make it as hard as bronze, iron soon replaced bronze. In Europe copper and tin were rare (but in the British Isles we were fortunate to have good deposits of both), iron was abundant everywhere; and abundance meant cheapness. Only the rich and powerful could afford bronze; almost everyone could afford iron.

The dwellings and settlements built by Iron Age people have survived in large numbers and it is noticeable that from the start of the Iron Age they were always defensible against attack. In the greater part of Scotland the houses were always circular in plan, and made entirely of timber. They were enclosed at first within one or two palisades and later within a wall or a system of ramparts. Possibly the “lords” of the Iron Age, after invasion and conquest, compelled the local people to work for them, perhaps even to build their strongholds. For while the use of iron made agriculture and all the useful arts easier, a multiplication of iron weapons may also have made war easier than work. Possibly there was a temptation to try to take a neighbour’s lands or cattle by force rather than to open up new land or raise larger herds by work. Moreover, if the iron lords had subjugated the local people and made them slaves, there was always the risk that the local people might rise in revolt. Top 


A common form of dwelling used by people from the Stone Age until after the Roman conquest was the crannog or lake dwelling. Many crannogs have been excavated in Ayrshire, including one in Ashgrove Loch near Kilwinning. From the excavated evidence archeologists have been able to glean detailed information as to how these artificial islands were constructed. The primary objects of these islands apart from shelter, was defence and protection. A small mossy lake with its margin overgrown with reeds and grasses and situated in a secluded place deep in a forest, would be the most desirable location. The construction began with the formation of a circular raft of trunks of trees. This was floated on the lake and then additional layers of logs, together with stones and gravel, were heaped on top of it until it grounded. Upright piles of oak were inserted into prepared holes in the structure and probably some were inserted into the bed of the lake.

When a sufficient height above the waterline was attained, a prepared pavement of oakbeams was constructed and laid over the tops of the encircling piles. When the skeleton of the land was thus finished, turf would be laid over its margin, a thatch roofed circular hut put up in the centre, and a fence erected close to the edge of the water. Frequently a wooded gangway, sometimes submerged, stretched to the shore, by means of which access could be obtained without the use of a canoe. The technical and mechanical skill required to construct a solid compact island, with a circular area of 100 feet or more, and capable of enduring for centuries, is truly remarkable. Top


Judging from the sites that have been excavated, the Iron Age economy relied on a mixture of crop and animal farming. The kind of society people lived in may be understood from archaeological evidence alone since there were no written records until the arrival of the Romans in 80 A.D. Our understanding of Iron Age social organisation can only be inferred from analogy with later times and other countries. There were no towns in the modern sense. Almost the entire population lived in dispersed rural settlements of thatched round hits, rather like the African tribes encountered by nineteenth century explorers. From Roman writers we know that in the late first century A.D. these people were grouped into a number of tribes, probably similar to the clan system which survived in the highlands until the eighteenth century. Each tribe probably had several thousand members and would have had a chief and a number of subordinates to help him rule.

Judging from what is known of France and England at this time there was a class of priests or wise men called Druids, who were outside the tribes. They had a vast store of religious, medical and scientific knowledge, all passed on by word of mouth without the aid of writing.

It is not clear what languages were spoken or what the ethnic origins of the people were. But by the time of the Roman conquest there was a substantial Celtic element in Scotland speaking dialects that were early versions of Celtic languages like Welsh, Irish and Breton. Top


By the time of Christ two distinct peoples were found in Scotland: the Picts and the Celts. The Picts were the inhabitants of all the land north of Stirling and Aberfoyle when they first appeared in written history in the late third century A.D. However, archaeologists have found earlier evidence for Pictish settlements, and they are still pushing back the date of Pictish arrival in Scotland. In fact, Picts were possibly following in the wake of the retreating glaciers around 6000 B.C. which would make them the first aboriginal inhabitants. Eventually these first settlers formed tribes around the first millennium B.C. when iron working techniques gave strong leaders the chance to assert their authority over a large area. What did the Picts call themselves? The name we know them by is Latin, meaning “painted men”. The Irish referred to them as Cruithini, a name they also applied to the inhabitants of southern Britain. In any case, it is undeniable that the Picts wore war paint or were tattooed.

The Celts were originally from Europe and migrated in bands to Ireland and Britain during the first millennium B.C. The numbers of migrants were sufficient to establish Celtic tribes and languages generally south of the Forth. The Mediterranean Classical civilisations were aware of these tribes of northern Britain. The names of some were recorded by the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy The Caledonii and Verturiones in northern Scotland the Dammonii in modern north Ayrshire and Renfrew the Novantae in Galloway  the Votadini in Lothian and the southeast; the Selgovae in the Southern Uplands and Borders. The Roman legions, when they came to Britain, lumped all their northern enemies under the name of the most powerful tribe of the first century A.D., the Caledonii. Top  More Info


After the successful invasion of England by the Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D., the first real attempt at Roman conquest in Scotland took place in 80 A.D. The Governor of the Province of Brittania, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, after defeating the Brigantes (the tribe between Humber and Tyne) pushed on into Scotland and by 81 had advanced as far as the Forth Clyde isthsmus. There they built a chain of small stockaded posts with strategic roads and forts to the south of this new line.

In 82 Agricola turned west and carried out a series of campaigns in modern Dumfriesshire, Galloway and Ayrshire. Agricolan forts have been excavated at Dalswinton, Glenlochar, Gatehouse of Fleet and Loudoun Hill, and it is generally agreed that the system of roads and forts must have extended to the Ayrshire coast. Roman fortlets have been found above Largs and near Girvan and it has been conjectured that the Romans had a port somewhere near modern Irvine, but no real evidence has yet been uncovered to support this claim. It is possible that a military road from the fort at Loudoun Hill extended down the Irvine Valley to the sea. What the Romans called “Vindagora Sinus” may have been the great bay between Saltcoats and Ayr.

In 83 the Roman armies moved northwards again and defeated a strong native force at the battle of Mons Graupius the site has not yet been identified. In 85 Agricola was recalled from Britain by the Emperor Domitian and in the following year the Second Legion Adiutrix was withdrawn. There followed a slow but definite Roman retreat. For a time Newstead and Dalswinton appear to have become the main northern Roman bases. Then in 105 a disaster occurred in which these forts and others down to Corbridge on the Tyne were burned to the ground. The most likely explanation for this is that there was a native uprising. For the first time the Romans withdrew from Scotland to a frontier along the line of the Tyne and Solway.

Hadrian’s Wall, begun along that line about 122 and completed about 128, was a definite attempt to protect Roman Britain from invasion and attack by the unconquered peoples of the north. However, less than twenty years later, Lollius Urbicus (governor of Britain under the Emperor Antoninus Pius) pushed the Roman armies once more up to the narrow line of the Forth Clyde isthsrnus and by 144 a new wall had been completed. The Antonine Wall ran, roughly from Bo’ness to Old Kilpatrick. In contrast to Hadrian’s Wall, it was made of turf erected on a stone pitching. Along its course were nineteen forts or garrison strong points. The Antonine Wall was intended to be a new permanent line and frontier. But the demands of the two walls, together with the demands of the forts between them, were stretching to its utmost the Roman strength in Britain. In about 154 a revolt of the Britons around Hadrian’s Wall led to a hasty retreat from Antonine’s Wall. It was reoccupied around 158 before finally being abandoned.

In the year 207 Scottish tribes overran both walls, joined with the Brigantes, they pushed south and took part in the sack of York. The rising was eventually crushed, the barbarians driven back and the Hadrianic line restored in 208. During the next two years the Emperor Severus campaigned in Scotland, subduing the Caledonii. With his death at York in 211 Hadrian’s Wall was apparently accepted by Rome as the frontier line and the garrisons were withdrawn from Scotland. For almost 100 years the frontier stayed secure. In 296, however, the wall was again overrun and this time we are told by a Roman writer of attacks by “Picts and Scots (Irish)”. The wall was repaired and rebuilt (about 305) and Gontantius conducted a punitive expedition into the north much as Severus had done.

In 367 we are told of Picts sweeping over the Wall, of Scots (from Ireland) attacking the west coast, and of Saxons landing in the southeast. Rome’s conflict with the barbarians was becoming more difficult. In 383 the wall was once more overrun and this time the frontier was never restored. Thus, the Roman occupation of Britain hardly touched the land of modern Scotland. There were brief campaigns, such as those of Agricola and Serverus; the land to the south of the Forth and Clyde was held for about fifteen years; but when the Antonine Wall ceased to be the Roman frontier, Scotland fell completely outside the Roman province. Top 


The Venerable Bede, who dies in 735, closed his Historia Ecciesiastica with the year 731 and with this summary: “The Picts are at this time at peace with the Angles; the Scots who inhabit Britain, satisfied with their own territories, meditate no hostilities against the Angles; the Britons, although in part they are their own masters, are elsewhere under subjection of the Angles”.

Here Bede refers to four different peoples Picts, Scots, Britons and Angles; and, although there were no definite boundaries, we know that at this time these people occupied four separate regions  the Picts in the land from the Forth to the Pentland Firth (and probably also in Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides); the Scots in Dairiada (modern Argyll); the Britons’ in Strathclyde, Cumbria and Wales; and the Angles in Bernicia, the northern part of an Anglian kingdom stretching from the Humber to the Firth of Forth.

The Britons, Scots and Picts spoke Celtic languages, whereas the Angles, a Germanic people, spoke a Teutonic language. The Britons’ language became modern Welsh; the Scots’ language became modern Irish and Gaelic; and these two dialects (called P Celtic and Q Celtic respectively) may represent two separate Celtic migrations from Europe in prehistoric times.

These four regions and their peoples were gradually united to form the kingdom of Scotland though the regions of the Britons and Angles stretched far down into modern England and several centuries were to pass before a final boundary was fixed and accepted to define the realm of Scotland from the realm of England. Top


After the departure of the Romans, the name “Picts” passed into current use for the peoples of a Pictish Kingdom which stretched northwards from the Forth. In Bede we read of “northern Picts” and “southern Picts” who received Christianity at different times and who were “separated by a range of steep and desolate mountains”, evidently the Mounth. If we take Bede literally, their various provinces were, by about 700, ruled by or under one king.

But the Irish annals speak of kings of Picts and kings of Fortriu which is the name of the most prominent province among the southern Picts and most probably synonymous with a southern Pictish kingdom. There is mention also of a king of Atholl. One Pictish kingdom, or two, or many? Probably from the seventh century two, each with many provinces, divided by the Mounth, often warring and one occasionally reduced to clientage by the other. But we cannot be certain of much in Pictland after Bede wrote.

We rely for much of our knowledge on lists of Pictish kings which do not always agree with each other. Moreover, they are scarcely likely to disentangle matters because they often give a king’s name as “A son of B” and one thing we do know about the Picts is that right to kingship did not pass from father to son. The Pictish law of succession was unique in Europe. The system was matrilinear (i.e. descent was reckoned through the mother). The general principle appears to have been that a man became king worthy because his mother was the daughter of an earlier king, and that he was succeeded not by his son but by his mother’s son (his brother) or by his sister’s son (his nephew). The succession was also subject to choice, probably the choice of the most powerful and generous brother, cousin or nephew of the deceased king. Pictish kingship was probably as combative as ~ny other in Europe and we do indeed read in the brief annals kept at lona of the slaying of kings and seizing and burning of hill forts.

No Pictish literature has survived but the Pictish sculptured stones usually dressed slabs bearing designs in relief or rough pillars with designs incised are remarkable works of art. Some of the designs are stereotyped (the “Vrod and crescent”, the “pair of spectacles”, the “mirror and comb”). We do not know the meaning of these symbols: if we did, we should know a great deal more about Pictish society. Other designs showing in relief warriors, huntsmen and churchmen are bold in execution and give us some idea of Pictish costume and armour. Top


The Scots came from Ireland (“Scotia” was originally Ireland and its inhabitants were “Scotti”). Possibly some of them, after helping the Picts against the Romans, decided to settle in the west, in Argyll, possibly at the invitation of the Britons of Strathclyde at first. The Scots of Dairiada in northern Ireland seem to have made a settlement in Argyll early in the fifth century. About 500, Domingart, son of Fergus son of Erc, was apparently king of the Scots of Dalriada in Ireland and Argyll.

The Scottish kingdom in Argyll came to be known as Dalriada. In strife with the Picts, it was firmly established by Columba, and by Aiden, who was made king of Dalriada by Columba about 574. the Scots had already made some penetrations eastwards into the fertile Midland Valley, though these cannot have been permanent. Pushing southwards, however, they came into conflict with the Angles who, in turn, had been steadily pushing westwards into the land of the Britons. Top


After the departure of the Romans, the Britons apparently divided into various kingdoms, were gradually pushed westwards by invading Angles and Saxons until they held only the western part of Britain from the Clyde to Cornwall. Between 613 and 616, Ethelfrith, Anglian king of Northumbria, drove the first wedge between the Britons of the north and the Britons of Wales, by a victory at the battle of Chester. A further advance of the Angles up the valley of the Tyne and down to the valley of the Irthing not only ended the British kingdom around Carlisle, but made Galloway an Anglian province.

The main strongpoint of the Britons of the north limited now to Strathclyde was Dumbarton, which in its British form was Alclut (the rock of the Clyde). Their kingdom of Strathclyde was strong enough to retain its separate identity, and even for a period in the tenth century to extend its bounds again, until the beginning of the eleventh century Top


Using the Humber as a riverbase, the Angles moved northwards by sea, establishing themselves in such places as Bamburgh, St. Abb’s Head and Dunbar. Then, driving inland, they built up a kingdom of North Humber (Northumbria) from the Humber to the Forth. Spreading westwards, they were able to push into the land of the Britons (although not, apparently, into the land Qf the Scots). They also expanded northwards over the Forth. Eventually, however, they were heavily defeated in 685 by Brude, king of the Picts, at Nechtansmere (modern Dunnichen) near Forfar, when not only was their northward penetration halted but also, owing to the heavy Anglian losses, their pressure upon the Scots and Britons was reduced, and although still powerful, their kingdom, in the words of Bede, thereafter had narrower bounds. Top


The religious beliefs and practices of pre Christian Scotland can only be inferred from what we know of other countries and by assuming that the situation in Scotland was similar to that of other Celtic countries. In Ireland a later generation wrote down on parchment the “laws” and cycles of tales of the heroic age of Irish society (corresponding in part to the Roman occupation of Britain). There are almost no remains of the same period from Scotland, either Pictish or British. The stone heads which represent the headhunting of Gaul and Ireland (where the head was believed to be the seat of the soul), the sacred groves and the priestly caste of Druids, these can be shown to have existed in southern Britain, but there is scant trace of them in Scotland. It is almost certain that the gods of Celtic and Pictish tribes dwelt in lochs and springs, as did the gods of Ireland and Gaul. Indeed, motive offerings have been recovered from some of these.

However, there are no certain temples of Celtic deities in Scotland. Something much simpler has been identified at Glenlyon, a small stone shrine no more than three feet high with a range of cult objects in front; until the present century this shrine was regularly thatched and unthatched, a ritual which can be paralleled in literature in ancient Gaul and Ireland. A small wooden female figure recovered from the peat at Ballachulish in Argyll was accompanied by wickerwork which may have been the shrine of this goddess carved in a sacred wood.

A cult object common to the Celtic world was the severed head represented in different ways; the most sophisticated in as three faces carved on a stone ball, of whichone example may possibly come from Sutherland, but archaeology has produced few examples of the human head in Scotland. On the other hand, folk—tales show its persistence among Gaelic—speaking peasantry until this present century.

The cult of the horned god (Cernunnos) representations of which show a human but antlered head, was fairly widespread in Britain. As a god of aggresiveness and fertility he has turned up in tow representations at Crammond in Midlothian and as a stone head with the horns missing, found near Perth. As late as the eighth century a Pictish stone at Meigle in Angus seems to carry a representation of this god even in a Christian context. The goddesses of the Celts who in various guises  Medb, Macha, Brigit pervade Irish heroic literature, must also have been known in Scotland. A single representation of a conventional trio of goddesses has been found at Crammond. The crude wooden goddessfigure from Ballachulish is the ancestress of the old hag of may Gaelic folk tales, Queen Mab, surviving into the 19th and 20th centuries. No doubt Celtic religion was a matter of propitiating gods and goddesses whose control of natural forces ensured or withheld fertility and good times. The names of these deities probably varied from one tribe to another. And while we may not import to Scotland all the ideas found in the literature of the Irish heroic age, we may surely accept that there were tribal gods and that their relationship to the people and the times was the responsibility pf the tribal king, descended from the tribal god and bringing fertility and well being if correctly chosen. Top


To understand how and why Christianity came to Scotland we need to look at what inspired the Pagans to accept Christian baptism. The main influence was probably the weight of authority. When a ruler like the Roman Emperor decided to become a Christian, many of his subjects would have found it wise, and would eventually have been compelled to follow suit. Their conversion was a token, but it gave to all the bishops and priests of the formerly persecuted and minority sect a new status and authority. They became agents of the Emperor, prayed for him and against his enemies and, as a result, gained new churches and increased wealth.

Within one year of the complete toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the bishops of three or four provincial capitals in Britain attended a church council at Arles (314 A.D.). Thus, fourth century Britain had territorial bishops, overseers of the clergy, and in the new northern province of valentia, at the end of the century, a bishop had his seat in Carlisle. How and when Christianity was brought over the Wall into Scotland is another matter. Writing in the early eighth century at Jarrow,the Anglian Bede knew one part of the story: “The southern Picts who live on this side of the mountains had, it is said, long ago given up the error of idolatry and received the true faith, through the preaching of the word by that reverend and stately man Bishop Nynia, a Briton by birth, who received orthodox instruction at Rome in the faith and mystery of the truth”. Top

Bede:    Historia Ecclesiastica

Nynia, or Ninian, still remains a shadowy figure. Bede ‘s account of him may have been influenced by the acceptance of Nechtan, king of Picts, of the Roman calculation for Easter. His work among the Picts may have spread far or been limited to the shores of Forth and Tay. More certainly, he returned to Galloway, built a stone church (Candida Casa — “The White House”) in a formerly pagan cemetery of Whithorn, and here in due course the conquering Northumbrian Angles maintained an episcopal seat.

The Clyde estuary and valley probably remained pagan well into the sixth century, although by the 590’s there must have been Christians there, for a bishop established himself at a “green hollow” (Glasgow) by the Clyde. His name, Kentigern, meaning “hound lord” (he was also known by the diminutive Mungo, “hound”), suggests that he came of an aristocratic family. The work of conversion had probably been largely achieved by the time he arrived.

The conversion of most of Scotland, however, came from the church in Ireland. Perhaps the Scots settled in Dalriada (Argyll) had always been Christian, for it was to them that another noble, an Irish churchman, Calumcille, came on pilgimage. Calumcille, which means “dove of the church” is better known by the Latin form of his name, Columba. He had been expelled from his native land for his part in stirring up civil strife as a result of intertribal rivalry.

But Columba was of too important a family to disappear into obscurity. The king of Dalriada gave the island of lona to him in 563 and there he with his twelve followers established a monastery that grew rapidly to become the most famous in the world of Irish Christianity. From it he journeyed both back to Ireland where he founded Durrow monastery, and into the land of the Picts. Somewhere the king became a Christian is a moot point, but the Picts certainly were proud to claim that Golumba had converted them, and if he did achieve something in that direction, it is likely that his monks continued his work.Unfortunately, not one monk who left Iona for work among the pagans is known by name, and it is possible that tona may have exxagerated its own share in the conversion of the Picts. Top


Hunterston Brooch

The monastery of Iona, enriched by Scottish, Pictish, northern British and Anglo Saxon kings was one of the first victims of the Viking war bands that swarmed round the coasts of Scotland in the late eighth century. After several attacks the monastery was moved to Kells in Ireland but a determined band of zealots stayed on. They were led by an Irish priest named Blathmac. When he refused to reveal to Viking raiders where St. Columba’s shrine was hidden, he was torn limb from limb. This same fate was even meted out to renegade Vikings. It was the beautiful objects of gold and silver housed in the monasteries of the Celtic church that attracted the Vikings: shrines, chalices, crosiers, crucifixes, book mountings and cases for the Holy Bibles. These rich and costly adornments had been given by the Christian faithful over the centuries. Such treasures have since been found in Viking graves, both in Scotland and in the home countries of Norway and Denmark, often cut down and readapted to other uses. The Vikings sought other riches too slaves. They could be used in their own society or sold at slave markets in the Muslin world. Behind all this raiding and enslaving and the fierce, terrifying image of the Viking warrior lay a basic economic need about which the historical sources tell us nothing. An emigration movement from Scandinavia in the 9th century took place because of overcrowding on the available land. Countless families moved across the seas from Norway to Scotland, from Denmark to England, from Sweden to Russia. Their technological superiority in shipbuilding enabled them to do this, and to terrify the communities they raided at the same time. Their ships were strong and powerful enough to cross dangerous waters under sail, but shallow enough to be rowed up rivers and dragged across headlands.

The islands north and west of Scotland were overrun during the 9th century and formed ideal pirate lairs for roads on the mainland. During the next century Viking Traders overran the whole Irish Sea zone, combining trading ventures with colonial settlements. This culminated in the joint kingdom of York and Dublin, a maritime empire run by a Norse dynasty. Southern Scotland was undoubtedly part of this trading world and it is possible that the main route between the cities of York and Dublin was via the estuaries of the Clyde and the Forth. This would have provided an almost continuous waterway for the Trading ships, easier to use than the direct landcrossing over the Pennines.

The many records of battles with the Vikings in this early period are sure enough evidence that there was a struggle for power. But the Scottish kings of the 9th and 10th centuries were successful in preventing a Viking takeover. However, the northern and western parts of Scotland became very much part of the Viking world. Permanent independent Norse colonies were established in Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Elsewhere Viking colonies eventually merged with the established populations.

The Western Isles (including Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes) were to remain under Scandinavian domination until the 13th century. In 1263 the Norwegian king Haakon organised a great expedition to sail from Bergen under his command to prove that he was master of the Isles. The expedition turned out to be a disaster for him. His forces joined battle with the Scots under Alexander III at Largs, but this celebrated engagement was more of a skirmish than a fullscale battle. Defeated by bad weather, illness and old age, as much as by the Scots, Haakon limped back to the Orkneys, where he died. His successor, Magnus, ended the Norwegian control of the Hebrides by agreeing the Treaty of Perth with Alexander III in 1266. In return for annual payments, Man and the Isles were ceded to Scotland. Top 


Kenneth MacAlpin was the king who united Dalriada and Pictland to form the Kingdom of Alba. Kenneth was a Gael (Celt) on his father’s side, a descendant of Fergus, son of Erc, the traditional founder of the Dalriadic dynasty in Scotland. A colourful folk tale achieved wide popularity, telling how Kenneth had invited the Pictish nobility to feast with him at Scone. As the Picts sat at the table glutted with food and drink bolts were released under their benches, tipping them into a pit where they were all slaughtered. In reality Kenneth’s accession and reign (843-58) was probably a key point in a process of gradual unification. The union was facilitated by the attacks of the Vikings. The Picts may have been weakened through a heavy defeat which they suffered at the hands of the Danes in 839, the Scots may have received assistance from Ireland.

However he gained the throne when Kenneth died in 858, the Irish annals describe him as “rex Pictorum” (king of Picts), as they do his three immediate successors. In 900 his grandson Donald was described on his death as “king of Alba”. The name now given to the United Kingdom of Picts and Scots. “Alba” remains the Gaelic name for Scotland although at this point it only included the land north of the Forth Clyde line, as the Britons and Angles held Strathclyde and Lothian.

Little is known of the history of the old kingdom of the Britons of Strathclyde (also known then as “Cumbria” and including the land which makes up Cumbria today). According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, in 945 Edmund of England “allowed” all Cumbria to Malcolm (great grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin) on condition that Malcolm would be “his helper on sea and land” against the Danes. Of course Cumbria (Strathclyde) was not his to give and to let its king become a client of Malcolm I of Alba was a small price to pay for making Alba an ally of England and not of the Danes.

This new policy may also have been continued in a similar arrangement for Lothian. We may trust an account contained in the De Regibus Saxonicis (written in the early 12th century) that Edgar of England gave Lothian to Kenneth II king of Scots (971 975). The battle of Carham in 1018 when Malcolm II defeated a Northumbrian army, confirmed the Scottish hold on the land between the Forth and the Tweed.

About the same time as the battle of Carham, Owen, king of Strathclyde, died and Malcolm II’s grandson Duncan succeeded to Strathclyde (possibly through a dynastic connection) and became “king of the Cumbrians”. We can be fairly sure that by this time the Solway was the southernmost limit of his kingdom and that Cumberland was no longer Cumbrian but English and loosely controlled by the Earl of Northumbria. When Duncan succeeded Malcolm II in 1034 and reigned as Duncan I, his kingdom included Pictland, Dalriada, Lothian and Strathclyde  roughly the land of modern Scotland, though large tracts in the north, as well as Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, were still held by the Scandinavians, and the boundary between Scotland and England already drawn, had still to be confirmed by long usage and political stability. Top


The Christianising of the Garnock Valley is assumed to have been begun by St. Winning, from whom the present town takes its name. (Kilwinning means “church of Winning”). However, little tangible evidence remains to provide details of his identity, deeds and dates. There remains a piece of a Celtic Cross said to have been erected by Winning in honour of St. Brigit outside the church which he built on the present site of Kilwinning Abbey. The fragment of the cross is preserved in the North Ayrshire Museum, Saltcoats, but unfortunately, no trace of the original church or settlement survives. Most evidence about Winning comes from written sources but these raise questions: how much is actual history and how much is romanticised legend? The reader must decide for himself.

The Aberdeen Breviary tells that Winning who was “of a pious turn of mind”. With some other young men of similar dispostion he built a small vessel, set to sea and let Providence guide him. He landed at the mouth of the Garnock, and on a site chosen by God, set up a religious settlement. As to the dates of his life, Adam King’s Kallendar published in Paris in 1588 states that St. Winning died in the year 715, probably on 21st January since that date became his feast day.

But another theory associates Winning with St. Finden of Moville who carried out missionary work in Ireland and Western Scotland in the sixth century. He is also supposed to have been the teacher of St. Columba. St. Finden died in the year 579 and it is said that he was buried in Kilwinning.


 St.Winning was born in a province of Ireland of the illustrious stock of Princes of that Kingdom, and was well and carefully educated. Being naturally of a pious turn of mind, and addicted to solitude, he found the circumstances of his position interfering greatly with the peculiar bend of his mind and his favourite pursuits. Accordingly, in consort with some other young men of congenial disposition, he conceived the project of building a small vessel and proceeding to the sea, leaving it to Providence to guide his boat.

When all things were ready, St. Winning and his companions set sail and were ultimately wafted by a prosperous and pleasant wind to the southern shores of Scotland to a place at the mouth of the river Garnock in the Bay of Cunninghame. By this time, however, the slender sea stores were exhausted, and the pious men were in a state of starvation, nor did the shore on which they landed provide them with anything with which to satisfy their cravings.

But St. Winning was a man of resources and so he determined to try if the waters of the Garnock would not yield him some support and ordered a certain lad to cast his hook into the river; he himself sitting on the bank watching proceedings, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

The saint imagined that his condition arose from the malign influences of some evil spirit who was angry with him for disturbing regions hitherto all his own. Accordingly, this pious man emphatically cursed the Garnock and forbade its ever again yielding fish. The Garnock averted its terrible doom by changing course. But St. Winning was not to be turned from his heaven directed haven by any evil spirit. He and his companions ascended the river and chose a place of residence on the spot ever since called Holy.

Nor was he left in doubt whether he had acted wisely for the very night on which he had fixed the place of abode, an angel appeared to him and communicated the welcome tidings that the Most High Himself had previously prepared the place for him. And then St. Winning settled down to his work of building a monastery and preaching the Gospel; and he was a successful preacher he persuaded many to believe in Christ.

At length at a good old age this pious saint, having been honoured with a bishopric and strengthened in his labours by miraculous powers, fell asleep in the Lord and was honourably buried in Kilwinning. Some time after his well known form had ceased to be seen on earth, there was a young man of the place who laboured under a malady so grievous that his life was entirely despaired of. In these circumstances his parents took him to the church of St. Winning, hoping that in some way he might receive help there; and they prayed humble prayers to God and St. Winning that they would heal their son, their earnestness being proved by the tears that they shed.

Now, in front of the church there was a stone cross which the Holy St. Winning had by his own hands erected in honour of the Blessed Virgin and St. Brigit. At the foot of this cross they held the afflicted youth and as they did so they frequently invoked the aid of the Holy St. Winning. Being advised by the monks they then entered the sacred building, leaving the sick man lying near the cross and when they returned they found him restored to his old condition of perfect health. Such is the interesting story of St. Winning whose day is the 21st January and who came to Kilwinning in 715 A.D. Top


The period between the death of St. Winning and the foundation by the de Morvilles of the Abbey is known as the Dark Ages for the simple reason that very little is known about it. The religious settlement founded by St. Winning is though to have continued and to have become a Culdee settlement. Guldees took their name from the Irish works “celi de” meaning “vassals of God”. They were the descendants of an eighth century movement in the Celtic church, which was a movement towards reform including a stricter observance by clergy of celibacy, of a sabbatarian Sunday and of canonical hours. This led to a drawing up of “rules” defining the true monastic way of life.

So the Guldees exercised a disciplined life, some of them withdrawing into solitary places and living as hermits. Others lived insmall groups and their monasteries became more properly communities or colleges of secular priests, similar to the ministers in England and southern Ireland. As well as Kilwinning, Guldee communities are known to have existed at Brechin, Abernethy, Loch Leven and St. Andrews.