The continuing education program of the Royal City of Eoforwic presents:

Scotland: an overview for the persona-challenged

by Hector of the Black Height

The aim of this (often tongue-in-cheek) article, which is a transcription of a presentation made to the Canton of Eoforwic in October 1997, is to help you avoid re-inventing the wheel with research. For those who haven't read ahead, most of the time the wheel comes out round.

So what is this Scotland place, anyway? Scotland is the large rocky lump connected to the north of England. It has a major mountain range in its northern half running north to south, nearer the west coast than the east. This mountain range complements (and at the south runs into) a series of islands off the west coast. Beyond that vague description, feel free to look at a map.

Let me put medieval Scots life in SCAdian terms. Despite poverty and isolation, Scotland was a "cross-roads culture". For SCAdians, cross-roads cultures often are very interesting. Profound influences on Scotland throughout our period of influence included the Norse in the north and west, the Normans in the east and the Irish in the west. In all three cases, influence was based on access. The Normans came by land from England. The Irish scooted across the Irish sea, and the Norse sailed from the north, generally along Scotland's west coast, where they raided and occasionally established long-term bases.

As a SCAdian with some exposure to SCAdian Scotsmen, you might consider sheep to be a period influence too, if not just a source of significant companionship. To be fair, your average Scotsman in period would be far less interested in a sheep than in a shaggy Scots cow. Sheep as a cash crop for the wealthy to exploit is a post-1600 phenomenon (as are the Highland clearances, which were a direct result of sheep farming). Throughout our period of interest cattle provided milk, meat, hides and, as they were constantly being stolen and retrieved, entertainment for the under-employed youth of the country. This rowdy pass-time led to secondary economic spin-offs for armourers, barber-surgeons and undertakers, and gives historians a lot of battle narratives to read.

Here's a brief time-line to interest us:

600 - Picts in the east (of whom we know virtually nothing) were being assimilated by the Scots from the west.

700-900 - decline of the Kingdom of Dalriada (Ulster and Argyll; look at a map).

793 - The raid on Lindisfarne; Viking shopping season begins.

1066 - Normans 1, Saxons 0; there goes the neighbourhood.

1100-1200 - Norman culture moves north and becomes entrenched on the east coast.

1165 - King William the Lion of Scotland treats with France; the origin of the "Auld Alliance".

1297 - Stirling Bridge. William Wallace (a knight of Norman extraction, not Mel Gibson, he of the large hair) beats the English by forming a schiltron (stationary spear hedgehog).

1315 - Bannockburn - Robert Bruce beats the English with the schiltron.

post 1315 - the English take Welsh-derived longbows to Scotland and perforate the schiltron from beyond spear-range. The Scots, knowing the schiltron worked for Wallace and the Bruce, stand in tight ranks for the next four hundred years and die like dogs with monotonous frequency.

1411- Scotland's first university founded.

1469 - Norway gives the Orkney and Shetland Islands to Scotland as part of a royal dowry, having maintained a Norse presence in Scots territory 303 years after Stamford Bridge. This helps explain why today Scotland is a principal centre for Norse scholarship.

1494 - The Lordship of the Isles assumed by the Scots Crown.

1498 - King James IV visits the Western Isles; James IV was the first Scots King to visit all parts of the country. Prior to the Crown assimilating the Lordship of Isles, Scotland as we think of it today really was two countries. The Western Isles really were separate from the eastern mainland until this time.

1520s - the first wave of Protestant reformation.

1545 - the final Western Isles rebellion against the Scots Crown.

1600 - the SCA period of interest ends.

1603 - James VI of Scotland conquers England and becomes James I of England (that's our story and we're sticking to it).

1715-46 - assorted Jacobite unpleasantness occurs.

1747 - The English garrison the Highlands; the first roads on the west coast are built (that's how isolated the north and west were during our period of interest!).

1930 - birth of Sean Connery.

1966 - birth of the SCA, Berkeley, California USA.

1986 - release of "Highlander" starring Sean Connery.

@1991 - release of "Highlander II"; the Dark Age begins.

And, from the beginning of our period of interest to the end -- and for years thereafter -- a clan war/civil war or invasion of/by England every six months.

So, what have we got to work with? A small country, surrounded by richer, stronger neighbours, with limited natural resources, few exports (i.e. bagpipes and haggis) and, for most people, limited personal wealth and mobility. At that time and in the rest of Europe, who cared about Scotland? Virtually no-one. And that's the problem we, as SCA re-creators, face. Scotland was a poor relation at best to the rest of Europe. The only reason England was interested in Scotland was it was part of the British land-mass and threatened their northern flank. Had Scotland been a separate island with no real naval power, I think the British would have been happy to ignore the Scots completely.

What sources of information are available to us as re-creators? Artistic images are few and far-between apart from grave art, which tends to be weathered granite with little surviving detail. If you're looking for traders' descriptions, who traded with Scotland? What had the Scots to trade? Diplomats' letters home are also rare: who wanted to be posted to Scotland? Scotland had what was generally considered to be a backward culture. It offered few or no trade prospects. Add to this lack of positive features the fractious internal politics which rent Scotland for centuries and you can see why most of Europe ignored Scotland when possible. This is the cause of Scots isolation.

How do you research life in Scotland? That's a good question. We have limited archaeological resources to rely upon. In a poor economy, items were re-used until they wore out, so there weren't a lot of artefacts thrown into middens (garbage dumps) for future reference. Also, a harsh climate encourages rot and corrosion in those artefacts that were thrown away. Due to a low literacy rate and little outside interest in Scotland as a trading partner (let alone as a cultural centre), there are few documentary accounts of domestic life in Scotland prior to 1650. So how do we research? The only real method left to us is extrapolation.

Having described why there's little evidence to draw upon, from what do we extrapolate? For domestic issues, start with the extensive historical and archaeological resources on the neighbouring cultures. If you lived in the east after 1066, you'd be influenced by the Normans (if you weren't a transplanted Norman anyway). If you lived in the western isles, you'd probably live like a Viking.

We do have Scots histories to refer to. Many of these are folk histories. The oral history movement popular today started in the 18th century. Many "primary source" Scots histories are transcribed oral history collected by wealthy Englishmen 150-200 years after our period of interest had ended. Take these with a grain of salt, both in terms of content and editorial meddling. That's not the biggest obstacle the Scots researcher has to overcome, though.

The Scots researcher's biggest enemy isn't even native to the British Isles. It comes from Poland of all places. After the final defeat of the Jacobite pretenders to the throne of Scotland and England, the Stuarts returned to exile in Europe and were believed to have died out without legitimate issue; the tomb of "Bonnie Prince Charlie", his father and his brother the Cardinal is in Rome. A pair of brothers appeared to claim the Scots throne and Royal prerogatives in the mid-eighteenth century. These were the Sobieski Stuarts, distant relations of the Stuarts, and their self-serving historical revisionism re-shaped the popular view of Scots culture to suit themselves. They also played to the fashion of the times, for when the Sobieski Stuarts were publishing their twaddle the Queen of England wanted to believe every word of it.

Queen Victoria made Scotland and all things Scottish fashionable. Queen Victoria's hopelessly romantic view of Scotland, England's obsession with the romance of the noble, savage Highlander, and the Sobieski Stuarts' distressing tendency to write "primary source" materials that they made up as they went along contributed to a singular collection of bad scholarship. As a result, gentle reader, trust no source generated between 1850-1910. Let's leave the 1880s and return to the 1100s, though.

Scotland underwent a three-way cultural split, which can be described geographically as well as culturally. Through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Norman-influenced Scotland along the east coast developed a feudal society. A few southern urban centres (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen) developed both scholarship and a market economy. The north-west housed a tribal society and remained fundamentally tribal (with a few feudal overtones) into the second half of the 18th century. Tribal? Spell it C-L-A-N.

What we think of as the clan system is most strongly found in the Western Isles, though clans functioned as social groups throughout Scotland. Thus, the clan system is seen by many as a Highland phenomenon, as opposed to the more anglicized Lowlanders. Having raised those two red flags, how do you define Highlanders and Lowlanders? There was no "highland line" set forth in law or custom. Today there are many "rules" about Highlanders and Lowlanders involving the wearing of kilts and trews. These are post-Victorian affectations. "Lowlander" is taken by some as an insult. In the SCA, leave it alone. Highlanders are for the most part Western islanders and their immediate neighbours. The rest are, well, just plain Scots.

The Highland clans were geographically isolated in the north-west (remember, they didn't have roads connecting them with the south until after 1747). They were linguistically isolated, speaking their so-called "rude Irish tongue". In short, they were a radically different culture from the rest of Scotland (let alone the English or even the Irish). As one piece of evidence of Highland isolation, the urban, educated east of Scotland developed a Protestant church. In the west islands, Catholicism held political and social sway until well after Culloden and the fall of the Jacobites, in 1746.

Highland Scots were poor as church-mice. Through custom, cemented by years of inter-clan warfare, various family groups were tied to barren, rocky, poor land.

The clan system probably did more to retard the social and economic development of the western Scots than any other institution. However, thanks to its intense local focus, the clan system offers the re-creator an incredible body of local history and legend. These histories provide very specific references to people, places and events. They describe economic, proto-industrial and social factors influencing a closely defined group of people in our period of study.

Speaking of social factors, why is Scottish history so violent? I am an economic determinist; across much of the country, many poor people spent centuries fighting for very limited resources. External influences such as Jacobite factions and Catholic France made Scotland an ally (or, in less generous terms, used Scotland as a diversion) in their struggles with the English Crown.

In addition, tribal honour (especially in the west) led to a "macho" warrior culture with a fierce sense of honour as a trigger. Isolation leads to navel-gazing; little quarrels got blown out of proportion, exaggerated and perpetuated, which led to clan wars, feuds and ongoing bloodshed. These centuries-old quarrels were compounded by convoluted clan alliances to gain whatever wealth was available. In too many cases, the rationale behind Scots internal politics was "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". That may work in a bar-fight; it isn't the philosophy to base a nation-state's existence upon.

If you choose to use a clan history to build your SCA persona, there are definite pros and cons you should consider. On the positive side, clan histories offer a local knowledge base, which is often built upon a collection of oral history. This provides you with incredible detail on personalities and events. Clan history is often a microcosmic political and social history of Scotland.

On the negative side, clan history is often -- if not always -- politically shaped and charged. Clan history really is local news and local news carries a local bias. These histories were often collected and "edited" during the Victorian period, often by amateurs, so they may be unreliable. They may be wonderful collections of myth and legend, but they're seldom works of serious scholarship, especially those little booklets penned for the "Scottish shops" market. The 32 page booklets are great if you want to know which tartan tie to buy, but you need to go into more depth to build an SCA persona.

Despite my reservations, clan history can provide your persona with a well-documented name. You can collect a set of significant local events (since they were poor, most Scots were NOT well-traveled people) which is a great boon to persona development. You'll be able to identify your persona's political preferences, his or her allies and enemies. You may also be able to deduce your persona's likely trade or some other economic base for survival.

Having said all that, let me answer the Big Question: did all big hairy Scotsmen dress in kilts, play the bagpipes and eat haggis?

Bagpipes are documented in Scotland before 1600 and in Greece in classical times. They're a safe bet. They may not look or sound just like the modern bagpipe, but they would be pretty close to what you hear at Scottish festivals today. There's an excellent article on the historic bagpipe in a recent Tournaments Illuminated (which of course I can't lay my hands on when I want it!)

Haggis (for the uninitiated) is a peasant sausage. It consists of minced tripe, salt, spices and oatmeal for bulk. I'd guess that Scots nobles probably ate little or no haggis; is your persona noble? As an aside, many cookbooks provide recipes for haggis. Personally, I don't trust anybody's first attempt to make a dish based on sheep innards that nobody else wants. If you want to try haggis, most cities have one or more Scots butchers who'll sell you a nice, reliable haggis. Incidentally, for those who take a haggis to a camping event, transport it frozen. Let it thaw -- it'll take a day if it's frozen solid -- and then boil it for dinner. The leftovers are great for breakfast, re-fried (but I like kippers for breakfast, so what do I know?).

And now let's talk about what you really are interested in: did period Scotsmen wear kilts? No one knows. Tomb art is vague; no accurate pre-1600 accounts of local dress exist. There is little doubt the "fille beag" or little kilt (the tailored, buckled garment hanging from waist to knees, as worn today) is an 18th century invention, its design attributed to an Englishman living in Scotland.

So what was worn in period? Scots dressed like Irishmen in the south-west, Normans in the east, Vikings in the north-west and Englishmen in the south. The richer you were, the more local fashion you'd wear. The Scots look wasn't really "in" until about 1860, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided it looked cool. Those who rode horses wore trews -- tartan trousers -- of some type (except Mel Gibson; ouch-ouch-ouch!)

Should you wear a kilt? Maybe you shouldn't. There's no proof they were worn in period, especially in the south and east. As worn now, kilts really are a Victorian fad, perpetuated by Clan Societies and Hollywood. There are serious scholars who will argue that kilts were NOT worn, based on ambiguous evidence. On the other hand, maybe you should wear a kilt. They're comfortable, practical, versatile garments. If you belt a plaid around you, you'll always have a blanket to sleep in, which is a big plus at camping events. And... "chicks dig guys in kilts" (SCA-dweeb truism, circa A.S. II).

In other words, wear what you want. Nobody can prove you right or wrong. Personally I wear belted plaids (a.k.a. kilts) because I cannot believe that, as time passed and -- presumably -- Scots got smarter and technologically more able, they abandoned tailored trews for a blanket wrapped around their middles. Also, I like having a garment I can roll out and sleep in. It's also nice to have spare blankets around the house, and guests are period.

Are there any other sacred cows of fashion to investigate? Scots (like most Gaels) liked bright patterned clothes; this means tartans! The concept of "my Clan tartan" is a Victorianism created by Scots tailors in the 1820s and perpetuated by the Sobieskis (for documentation of this phenomenon, and the pre-Victorian resurgence of Scots costume, refer to John Prebble's The King's Jaunt).. It's not a pre-1600 practice. Do NOT spend $30 a yard or more for several yards of pure wool in "my clan tartan".

There's no question that certain areas of Scotland would produce certain colours of tartan cloth; vegetable dyes were based on plants that grew locally. However, the fixation on "authentic" Clan tartans is not a period concept. If it was attractive cloth, they wore it. As an authentic personal style, garish is good. Tartans should mix and match until passers-by wince. Wear a tartan blanket around your middle, with different tartans for your tunic or doublet, hose and any other garments you choose to wear.

I've talked a lot about poverty and limited research sources. What's so good about being a SCAdian Scot? Scotland was a nation in constant contact with the cultures that surrounded it. In the west it was a tribal society. This offers a different, non-feudal, culture to re-create. Scotland (both in the west islands and along the border with England) was in many respects the most constantly martial culture in Europe, and some re-creators like that.

To be fair, there was some trade and travel. Most Scots had little economic incentive to stay in one place. Like refugees from any shattered economy, some hardy souls managed to escape, often as soldiers.

So, a SCAdian Scot can be...

an urban academic

a poor farmer or fisherman

a feudal noble (maybe rich, maybe not)

a border reiver (15th/16th century guerrilla fighter/bandito with a horse)

a crusader in the Holy Land or Spain

an underprivileged Viking

As well as professions, trades and vocations, there are many Scots hobbies...

Golf (in period, sort of a long-range croquet): imagine our medieval Scotsman in tartan trews, a garish tam o'shanter and half in the bag. Gee, golf hasn't changed much, has it?

Archery (at stationary targets or at targets who shot back): the Scots bow was a hunting weapon. Scots sometimes hunted their neighbours.

Soccer (also known as "fu'ball"): please note that rules are a post-period affectation of girly-mons with an aversion to pain. Soccer was banned by law on numerous occasions, but the prohibitions never seemed to stick.

Hurley (still played today in Ireland): imagine a blend of lacrosse, field hockey, no-rules football and assault and battery... Exactly. Did I mention the Irish played naked?

As you can see, the medieval Scotsman may have been poor but occasionally he had a good time. There are lots of SCAdian archers, and there are occasional games of football and hurley at large SCA camping events. I've never seen a period game of golf, but it might be fun to try. If nothing else it would amuse spectators.

So how do you research this Scots stuff? Lead us not into temptation: avoid Victorian scholarship (isn't that an oxymoron?). As you read into the material, be aware of the profound influence of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Ossian, the Sobieski Stuarts and Queen Victoria. Not all clan histories are 32 pages long, sold at the local Scottish shop.

In particular, beware of St. Fiona! St. Fiona's law, as observed in the SCA, is:

"If it's Scottish, it's period!"

What isn't period, but is otherwise beloved of St. Fiona?

Little (a.k.a. modern) kilts, Glengarry bonnets, etc.

Clan tartans and specific setts.

Most basket-hilted broad-swords (the most common design seen today is dated -- by sealed pattern in the British War Office -- 1856).

Dirks with large jewels and little knives attached.

Much bagpipe music ("Scotland the Brave" and "Amazing Grace" especially).

Jacobites, Robbie Burns.

Silly Wizard, "Glenwhorple" (mea culpa).

Having been consistently negative, let me change pace. Here are some generally good sources:

Any history by John Prebble (secondary sources, but beautifully written)

Most histories written after 1950

John Donald Press, house press of the University of Edinburgh

Any recent academic source citing Scottish archaeology as evidence

Scottish folk history (be careful) and living history (but avoid Jacobism, which appears to have undergone a resurgence)

Occasionally good sources include other SCAdians, but don't accept every comment on faith alone. If the individual looks like she -- or especially he -- walked out of a Burns Night supper, sources may well be suspect. With little primary source material, much SCA Scottishness is extrapolation to begin with.

You can also contact local Scottish societies. If you contact these people (who most likely have bought into the romantic Scots myth, being expatriates) stick to legends and folklore they may lead you to or, if you're really lucky, to archaeology from which you can extrapolate.

In summary, Scotland was a heckuva nice place in period, if it wasn't for the poverty and violence. It's an interesting place for re-creators to look at, and it provides us with a distinctive culture to play within. Have fun, and remember that "going Regimental" isn't period, as the kilted (western) Scots really didn't have regiments per se. You can go clannish, though, but talking about it is over-sharing.

And remember, this presentation does not bear the corporate sanction of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc., the Middle Kingdom, the Principality of Ealdormere nor any of their vassals or allies. It has not been approved by the Clans and Scottish Societies of Canada, the Scottish Tourist Board nor by Fabricland, home of cheap tartan cloth since AS XVIII.


Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.