“In course of time Britain received a third race …” or The Peoples of the North


Loch Crinan, gateway to Dunadd, the caput regionis of the Scots of Dál Riata

There were four different peoples in Scotland in the early Middle Ages, speaking their own languages, with their distinctive material cultures, myths of origins, religions and ideologies.  All have left significant legacies in the history and landscape of Scotland.

The Gaels who settled Argyll and the Isles, the “Scots” as they were known to others, spoke a form of Q-Celtic, Gaelic, at first identical with that spoken in Ireland, but in time becoming its own language, Scots Gaelic.  They were evangelized by the efforts of holy men like the Christian saint Columba from his monastic base on the island of Iona.

Above and to the east of them lived a people known as the Picts, a nickname meaning “The Painted Ones” given to them by the Romans.  They were the only peoples of Britannia to have escaped incorporation into the Roman Empire.  They spoke a language which linguists have yet to decipher as very few traces of it have survived.

Below were the Britons of the kingdoms of Strathclyde (in the west, around Dumbarton Rock), Gododdin (in the east, around Edinburgh) and Rheged (around Carlisle).  After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia in the early fifth century, these petty kingdoms took over rule.  Their people spoke a form of P-Celtic, akin to Welsh.

And settling along the northeastern seaboard of Northern England and Lowland Scotland were the Saxons, or Angles as they are known, a pagan Germanic people.  Our period saw the rise of the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, which eventually united to form the kingdom of Northumbria, the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms up to the eighth century.  They gave Britain the English language.

Scotland in the Dark Ages was a melting pot, then; an amalgam of language, culture, and mythos.

As the eighth-century monk Bede put it: At the present time there are five languages in Britain … [that of the] English, British, Scots and Picts, as well as the Latin language; through the study of the scriptures, Latin is in general use among them all.  [Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, i.I (c. 731)]

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