Celtic Contrasts: Ireland & Scotland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), Volume 7

This illustration from Bower's Scotichronicon shows a senchaid (Gaelic scholar) reciting the Gaelic ancestry of King Alexander III at his inauguration in 1241. (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

This illustration from Bower’s Scotichronicon shows a senchaid (Gaelic scholar) reciting the Gaelic ancestry of King Alexander III at his inauguration in 1241. (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

Golf, because of its Scottish origins, is not among the “foreign games” which members of the GAA are forbidden to play. On the other hand, in the large newsagents of Dublin one can find daily newspapers from every western European country, except Scotland.  The Scotsman and The Herald are unobtainable in Dublin. This is perhaps a more typical illustration of the general Irish attitude  of indifference to Scotland, an attitude shared by Irish historians.

Irish nationalist, ‘revisionist’ and Ulster Protestant interpretations

Exceptions are historians of the earlier period, when not only the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada in the Western Highlands, but also the Pictish kingdom in eastern Scotland, were closely involved in a common Irish cultural world, and those concerned with the shattering episode of the Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315-18. But in the aftermath of the Bruce invasion, the historians’ neglect was at least partially justified by the negative impact of Scotland on Irish affairs, until the Scots reappear in seventeenth-century Ulster. And Irish historiography has been too introspective to feel it necessary to draw comparisons between Ireland and elsewhere—except that general standard and measure of normality in Irish eyes, that most exceptional of European countries—England. And here I must stress a fact that the introspectiveness of Irish historiography has largely ignored: the extent to which modern Irish nationalism—unique, I think, in Europe in having been built on a synthesis of Jacobinism and Ultramontanism—has found its sense of identity in a reaction to Britishness. Ireland, unlike Wales and Scotland, was unable to achieve a second identity as part of a British whole. This has made it necessary for Irish nationalists to unconsciously look on Britain as a unitary state, without descending to distinguish its constituent parts, a view which can be justified in nationalist terms by the role which the Scots—like the Welsh from a rather earlier date—played in the seventeenth-century conquest and settlement of Ireland, and it explains the total lack of Irish interest in Pan-Celticism. In traditional Irish nationalist historiography, while the Highlands (and I will return to the definition of this term) can be detached and accepted as part of a victimised Gaelic world, the remainder of Scotland—and the medieval and early modern Scottish kingdom—can be dismissed as ‘the Lowlands’, a mere northern extension of England with whom its lifestyle and social customs corresponded. The ignorance derived from this view is exemplified in the belief of a distinguished living Irish historian—one genuinely interested in modern Scotland and its history—that seventeenth-century Scottish settlers in Ulster differed from the Irish in diet and that their staple food was, like the English, bread rather than, like the Irish, oatmeal. (He must not have read Dr Johnson’s famous dismissal of oats as ‘the food of horses in England, and men in Scotland’.)

David I (1124-53) and his grandson Malcolm IV (1153-65), from the illuminated Charter of Kelso Abbey (1159). During the latter's reign the first references were made in written charters to the ‘Kingdom of Scotland'. (National Library of Scotland)

David I (1124-53) and his grandson Malcolm IV (1153-65), from the illuminated Charter of Kelso Abbey (1159). During the latter’s reign the first references were made in written charters to the ‘Kingdom of Scotland’. (National Library of Scotland)

The other tradition of Irish historiography, the liberal whig unionist—today, by definition post-unionist, since whig historiography is always a justification of the present situation—one which is now quaintly dubbed ‘revisionist’, has no interest in the idea of Scotland as a separate entity; to it also, but for different reasons, the natural unity of England and Scotland has been equally a given premiss. In this, as indeed in so much else, the two allegedly opposed traditions concur. The other kind of unionism, Ulster unionism, perhaps more correctly interpreted as Ulster Protestant nationalism, had until recently no tradition of academic historical writing. Scotland in popular Ulster unionist writing has tended to figure as a crude pastiche. That mythical figure unknown to contemporaries, the industrious, hardworking Scot—so different from the feckless and quarrelsome native—settled in seventeenth-century Ulster not as a frontiersman but bringing with him an ordered civilised society, and—Scottish agricultural historians will be surprised to know—the most modern agricultural techniques. Nowadays, thank Heavens, he has disappeared and the fact that the lifestyle of the Scottish settlers was nearer that of the Irish than of the English, and that Ulster was agriculturally backward until a late date—the last part of Ireland to have enclosed fields for example—are known and accepted. From the beginning the Ulster Protestant community was a frontier society, and frontier attitudes have persisted down to the present. The essence of the frontier mind-set is that it views those outside the frontier in terms of confrontation rather than of a desire for cultural and political assimilation or absorption. This attitude can be seen in the traditional Ulster Protestant attitude to Catholics and Nationalists, provoking, an inevitable confrontational response. In this attitude the frontiers man while consciously proclaiming the preservation and extension of the values and standards of the motherland—in the Ulster case, of ‘the mainland’—are in fact committed to a quite different set of values which in many ways contradict them. Nationalists have traditionally attempted to ignore these frontiersmen, addressing themselves instead to the British government in London.

Highlands without frontiers

Even when one looks at perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, in which an Irish Gaelic culture existed and survived that of Ireland itself by a century and a half, there have been some curious limitations. The Highlands tend to be restricted to a comparatively small segment of the western Highlands, an attitude encapsulated in the quite common belief that the Highlands remained ‘largely Catholic’. But  the Highlands also included a vast intermediate zone, Lennox, Atholl and Breadalbane, Strathspey, the Aird and Sutherland,  Bute and Arran, in which a Gaelic lifestyle was integrated—I use the term deliberately—with feudal institutions. If the western Highlands and islands in the late medieval period can be seen as identical with the purely Gaelic regions of north-western Ireland, the intermediate regions, such as I have named, correspond very closely to the vast regions of Ireland which had experienced Anglo-Norman rule before their Gaelicisation in the fourteenth century. Conditions in the vast area under Campbell control, for example, parallel in remarkable degree, in their social institutions and relations, those in Gaelicised (so-called) Anglo-Norman Ireland. But the existence of this vast intermediate zone in Scotland tends, I fear, to be ignored: the assumption is that there was a defined ‘Highland line’, a true frontier between the Gaelic and Scots-speaking regions before the eighteenth century. In fact the Highlands do not seem to have a frontier. Instead they had that very different thing, a transitional zone. If the dwellers in Fife, let alone in Edinburgh, looked upon the inhabitants of the Highlands as barbarous and alien, was this attitude shared by dwellers in Strathearn or Mentieth? In Ireland, too, only in its northern end did the Pale, the land of English law and custom, have a sharply defined frontier. Elsewhere it shaded through a transitional zone into the Gaelic world.
Scotland and Ireland in the medieval and early modern periods present both close similarities and significant differences. Both were poor countries with, by western European standards, a low quality of material life. Both in these periods were exporters of raw materials (notably cowhides) and importers of manufactured goods, even very basic necessities. Both, importantly, shared in the common Celtic phenomenon—unknown in western Europe outside Ireland, Scotland and Wales—of lineage expansion, where the fecundity of the ruling classes, helped by a lax attitude to sexuality and lack of prejudice against illegitimacy, resulted in the multiplication of the dominant lineages, whose members furthest from the power centre were pushed down the social and economic ladder.

(Matthew Stout)

(Matthew Stout)

Elsewhere in Europe the dominant noble lineages tend to die out: in Scotland and Ireland, Burkes, O’Briens, Hamiltons or Campbells increase to significant fractions of the population. (The process in Wales is obscured by the late adoption of surnames. Members of the Herbert clan, descendants of a twelfth century  Cornish immigrant to Gwent, can be for instance Progers, Jones, Hughes, Vaughan, Raglan as well as Herbert!). Such are the most obvious similarities.

Brittany—the fourth Celtic country

To explain the differences between Scotland and Ireland in this period, I must start outside these islands. For there were and are four Celtic countries, not three. Because Brittany did not come within the ambit of English or British monarchies, we tend to ignore it. Like Scotland, Brittany feudalised and Frenchified, as Wales and Ireland did not. There is a quite common misconception regarding the position of eastern Brittany, in which it is seen as an area which was so thoroughly Frenchified that the Breton language disappeared. In fact, as its medieval name, Bretagne Galesque (Gaulish Brittany) shows, it was an area of Romano-Gaulish speech conquered by a Breton ruling class in the ninth century—it is in fact, the Lothian of Brittany. Brittany in its pre-feudal period, into the early eleventh century seems to have presented the same socio-political strictures as were typical of the other Celtic countries, that is to say, a very great emphasis on lineage. Although Brittany early adopted French and feudal lifestyles, this underlying demographic strength of its elites may have contributed to the disproportionate role played by Bretons among the so-called ‘Norman’ settlers in Britain and Ireland—most famously, of course, the royal Stewarts and, perhaps, the Butlers. Brittany and Scotland present a large number of features in common, as opposed to Wales and Ireland on the other hand. Both feudalised and Frenchified, not so much I think by choice and example than as a strategy to avoid conquest. Feudalisation and the adoption of French culture—one might say, contemporary western European culture—in all of its aspects: the armoured knight, the chivalric culture, the chartered town, was for Scots as for Bretons a method of meeting the enemy, and being accepted by him, on equal terms. In Wales this happened only to a minimal degree; in Ireland not at all. As John Gillingham has pointed out, Irish and Welsh, as non-members of the European cultural community, had no rights against members of the latter—just as the rights of non-Europeans could similarly be disregarded in the days of late nineteenth and twentieth century European colonisation. The Irish experienced this fate—the Gaelic Scots did not. The descendants of Somerled of Argyle, Macdonalds and Mac Dougals were accepted as Scottish barons along with the Bruces and the Stewarts: their Irish equivalents were excluded.
But Scotland possessed that essential medieval requirement for recognition as a state, a national monarchy. It is not merely that a native Scottish monarchy could feudalise and Frenchify, in fact modernise in contemporary terms, without this becoming a conquest: it was that a monarchy secured international recognition. None of the many Irish dynasties, not even the Uí Conchobhair, ever achieved this position. There were so many kings in Ireland as to totally devalue the term, and contemporaries—like Abbot Stephen of Lexington—were well aware of this fact.

Golf, because of its Scottish origins, was not treated by the GAA as a ‘foreign game'.

Golf, because of its Scottish origins, was not treated by the GAA as a ‘foreign game’.

Perhaps the very ethnic heterogeneity of the Scottish kingdom, its construction from a group of peoples, Scots, Picts, Welsh of Strathclyde, Angles of Lothian, Gaels of Galloway, itself imposed the need for a national monarchy. Without a Scottish monarchy, in particular without Malcolm Canmone and his successors, Scotland would not have existed. Without a national monarchy medieval Ireland, however strong as a cultural and ethnic unity, a unity which was to absorb most of its Norman invaders, did not and could not exist as one of the political nations of Europe.

Primogeniture and feudalism

But besides international recognition as a European state, this modernisation of Scotland (in contemporary terms) brought other changes which gave it a stability which Gaelic Ireland was to lack. One was a defined system of succession, whether to kingship or to property. Primogeniture, the automatic succession of the eldest by descent, has its defects, but it obviated the recurrent succession disputes, and the endless revolts of his kinsmen against the current ruler, which were the greatest weakness of the Gaelic polity. Another was feudalism, with its recognition of a set of mutual responsibilities between lord and vassal. For feudalism was a two-way contract: the vassal, in return for his landholding, gave service and loyalty to his lord, but he expected in return ‘good lordship’, that is, protection and assistance in his affairs. And the positions of lord and vassal are in normal circumstances hereditary and stable, not liable to be changed or destroyed by the accidents of current affairs. Feudalism, like primogeniture, thus created in Scotland a stability in political structures and property rights which had been previously lacking. And this change had been imposed as the result of internal developments, not of foreign conquest.
By the fifteenth century the land-based feudal system was losing its importance in Scotland, but the mutual ties of lord and vassal which had characterised it did not evaporate—they were transferred to the re-emergent lineage system (and to temporary arrangements known as bands of maurent). The concepts of loyalty and good lordship were transferred from landholding to the lineage, and lineage thus became in Scotland a factor for social cohesion, while in Ireland it was rather one for division. As Jenny Wormald has written, by the sixteenth century, kinship, expressed in the agnatic lineage or surname, survived as the basic form of obligation in local society. An injury to a member would provoke the intervention of the lineage chief. Thus two individual murders of Drummonds brought immediate angry intervention by their chief, Lord Drummond. And the chief could count on the support of the lineage: the Earl of Huntly, for example, could call a following of Gordons into the field, while Lord Ogilvy was ‘a man of no great living [income], but a good number of landed men of his surname, which makes his power the greater’. When the Countess of Mariscal, an Ogilvy by birth (and so always one: a woman did not change her lineage by marriage) discovered a beggar boy was an Ogilvy, she immediately took him into her service. The extreme example of assumed lineage solidarity was the proscription of the entire surname of MacGregor for the misdeeds of some clansmen. One well-to-do MacGregor, totally unconnected with the offending group, found things made so unpleasant for him (in spite of his having changed his surname to Stewart) that he exchanged his hereditary lands with a dissatisfied Ulster planter for the latter’s allotment in Donegal, and founded the family who were to become Marquesses of Londonderry.
If the religious enthusiasms of the seventeenth century (which gave a new sense of social identity based on godliness) and the trauma of the Cromwellian conquest—we Irish tend to forget that Scotland also experienced a Cromwellian conquest, and Dundee a fate not unlike that of Drogheda and Wexford—destroyed the lineage system in the Lowlands, it survived and developed in the Highlands. In the sixteenth century Highland clans had often fought among themselves like Irish ones—the bloodthirsty succession disputes of the MacLeods of Assynt, comparable to those of the O’Carrolls of Ely in Ireland, were a truism of Scottish historians—but by the eighteenth century they had accepted the feudal concepts of loyalty and good lordship. The eighteenth-century Highlands preserved a system which had vanished from the Lowlands, just as they preserved the universal willingness to bear and use arms which had been characteristic of all Scotland a century earlier, and they did not change until the aftermath of the 1745 rising, and the abolition of hereditary judicial powers in 1748. It is tempting to speculate that, if Irish society had not been totally transformed by English conquest and wholesale expropriation, it might have seen a similar development.

English particularism

And this brings me to my final point, of Scotland as a corrective to the common assumption of Irish historians that the English model of centralised authority was the only alternative to Gaelic particularism and anarchy. The English model is a very rare one in Europe, where the localisation of power was the norm. And centralisation has nothing whatever to do with the effectiveness of royal power, as James VI discovered when he left decentralised Scotland to reign as James I in centralised England.

James VI-he left decentralised Scotland to reign as James I in centralised England. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

James VI-he left decentralised Scotland to reign as James I in centralised England. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

But, allowing for the other differences, and especially the religious one, the centralised nature of English governmental structures ensured that the Tudor reconquest of Ireland should be a bloody and violent one. Indirect rule through local lords could only be a temporary expedient, to be dispensed with as soon as it became possible to do so: my colleague, Dr David Edwards, has pointed out to me that one of the reasons for the rapid success of the O’Neill-O’Donnell rebellion in the 1590s was that the loyal lords had been effectively disarmed and deprived of power, so that they could offer no effective resistance. In the Highlands, on the other hand, while the imposition of royal control would mean the replacement of MacDonalds by Campbells, of MacLeods by MacKenzies, it did not mean the removal of local lordly power. Clans like those I have named (the Mackays are another example) were used as instruments of royal control and retained the positions into which they were thus intended, as effective replacements of their predecessors. While in Ireland we find a similar situation, the use of Butlers, or FitzGeralds to replace troublesome Gaelic clans, was no more, as I have said, than a temporary expedient: they were merely instruments to be discarded once centralised administration from Dublin became feasible. The Scottish situation might show that this was not the only possible scenario—except, and this was the vital point in terms of the imperatives of the English political ethos, an ethos which had already found its expression as early as the time of King John, if indeed it was not already implicit in the Saxon monarchy conquered by William the Bastard in 1066.

Kenneth Nicholls lectures in history at University College Cork.

Further reading:

J. Wormald, ‘Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625’ in ??? (ed.), The New History of Scotland, 4 (London 1981).

K. Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625 (Edinburgh 1986).

J. Wormald, ‘Bloodfeud, kindred and government in early modern Scotland’, Past and Present, 87 (1980).
This article also draws on a talk given to the Scottish Conference of Medievalists at Pitlochry on 7 January 1995.


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