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Explaining the paradox

Explaining the transformation of Scotland

As explained in the Historical Introduction Page, the building blocks of modern Scotland were established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the beginnings of central government, Scots law, sheriff courts, counties, burghs, a Scottish coinage, parishes, dioceses. These have typically been explained as the result of Anglo-Norman immigration and influence, associated particularly with David I (1124-1153), with the result that the old ways are seen as Gaelic or Celtic. Although this has been modified in important ways-for example, by investigating change through the perspective of powerful established families, such as the earls of Strathearn and Lennox-the underlying framework of ethnic polarity is still predominant, for example in the characterisation of non-Anglo-Norman features as Celtic survivals (or even fossils) and in the narrative of Gaelic society confronting foreign influence. This has led scholars to regard Scotland as something of a paradox. As Rees Davies neatly put it: 'paradoxically, the most extensively English settled and Anglicised part of the British Isles was the country which retained its independence'. Has the tendency to explain this period in terms of Anglo-Norman/English v. Gaelic/Celt made this seem more puzzling than it should be? How can this ethnically charged framework explain the growth of Scottish, not English identity as a result of the social and cultural transformation that undoubtedly occurred?

Matthew Hammond has shown that this interpretative framework has its origins in nineteenth-century assumptions about culture, society and race being intimately bound together. The racial dimension has gone, but the rest remains embedded in our thinking, even though it is generally understood that culture and society do not form discrete ethnic packages, and that ethnicity and identity are more complex. What might this period look like, however, if we abandon this framework?

Playing down ethnicity?

First of all, there is no suggestion that talk of 'Gaelic society' should be abolished, if by that we mean people who spoke Gaelic. What is debateable is whether it should mean anything else. Equally 'Anglo-Norman' remains a useful tag for those aspects of culture and society that were shared with Norman and Angevin England. The habit of identifying change as foreign has, above all, led to an underestimation of quite how Gaelic much of the east of the country was a century after David I came to the throne, by which time immigrant knights, burgesses and monks, sheriffs, charters and the rest had become thoroughly familiar. The database makes it possible to see that men and women with a range of Gaelic names can be found well into the thirteenth century in the east. In a few cases where a Latin form of the name was common, the individual has consistently preferred the Gaelic form. The database also makes it possible to see that, when men with Gaelic names are found walking the bounds of disputed land in Angus in the early thirteenth century, they were not all peasants who worked the land, but were men of standing in Angus who appear in other perambulations and dispute settlements.

Potentially the most powerful evidence for Gaelic change as well as continuity is in the distribution-map of the place-name element baile (typically in names beginning 'Bal'), here signifying the habitative core of a unit of landholding. Very few are likely to be earlier than the reign of David I. All the dots in the eastern lowlands would therefore seem to indicate not only Gaelic-speaking settlement continuing well beyond David's reign, but also reflecting some important dimension of social change, such as an intensification of agricultural exploitation and/or intensification of lordship over land.

Setting aside the bipolar framework of Gaelic/old and Anglo-Norman/new should not mean ignoring the view (held by some in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) of Gaels as savages. This prejudice was particularly apparent (and perhaps largely restricted to) those like church reformers who wished to establish a (to their mind) properly Christian society, and who created the image of the barbarian as a reflex of their own desire for a new order. The main source for this in a Scottish context is Ailred of Rievaulx, who was very close to David I. If we look closely at what he says, though, he did not regard Gaels as inveterate savages. They could, in his terms, be 'civilised'-the key here being obedience to a pious king, not the abandonment of Gaelic.

Natives v. newcomers?

When we think of newcomers who bring significant change in their wake we typically think of Anglo-Norman incomers. The opposite of 'newcomer' is 'native', so discussions of newcomers do not seem naturally to include Gaels, least of all from the West where, instead, native leaders are seen as 'traditional' or even as forming an 'anti-feudal faction'. If the term 'newcomer' is stripped of its ethnic camouflage, however, you could argue that some of the most impressive examples were Gaels of the Highlands and Islands, such as Somhairle (Somerled) (d. 1164) and his sons, and Fearchar mac an t-Sagairt (d. 1250), who redrew the map of political power in a way that only the Stewarts in the thirteenth century came close to matching (also in the West). By that point the Stewarts had become acclimatised to the culture of the region: they were no alien force.

Looking at those connected with the Stewarts and with their foundation at Paisley Abbey in the database brings us into contact with other Gaelic newcomers in the West, such as Clann Shuibhne (MacSweens), Clann Lachlainn (MacLachlanns), and Clann Laghmuinn (Lamonts). These were descendants of Aed Álainn an Buirrche, whose origin lay in Ireland, and who left their mark in crude stone castles and proprietary toponymy (e.g., Castle Sween and Loch Sween; Castle Lachlan, and Strathlachlan, and Ardlamont, seat of the Lamonts). This suggests that the power of these incomers, particularly Clann Shuibhne who came to prominence a couple of generations before the others, probably in the early thirteenth century, was built on alien military force rather than local levies, and obliterated existing political structures. Clann Lachlainn and Clann Laghmuinn seem to have come to the fore a little later, at the time of Stewart expansion into Cowal in the mid-thirteenth century, presumably becoming their clients. Perhaps a similar pattern can be guessed behind the advent of descendants of Cormac mac Airbheartaigh further north, where the descendants of Somhairle (Somerled) held sway. Be this as it may, if we look for castles, and not only mottes; for mercenaries, and not only knights; and military clients, and not only knight-service, then fundamental change initiated by newcomers should not be seen as something peculiarly Anglo-Norman.

Changing the geography of power in East and West

This could also help to clarify an important difference between East and West. It isn't that one remained Gaelic and the other didn't. It is that, in the East, the top flight in particular-the earls and the king of Scots himself-stabilised their positions and intensified their power. In the West, the kingdom of Mann and the Isles was broken when Somhairle (Somerled) and his sons intruded themselves. This East-West divide also runs deeper, because it also reflects different theatres of political and economic interaction: the Irish Sea and North Channel zone in the West, and the North Sea and south-facing English zone in the East. It is no coincidence that the area in the West where newcomers and stone castles are most apparent lies closest to the epicentre of this zone in northern Ireland. In the East, the settled power of the king of Scots plus the family ties of incoming knights and affiliations of new monasteries provided the necessary conditions for complex interactions and relationships with people in England to develop. The law that developed under the auspices of royal authority was so close to England that, as Maitland famously observed, 'we may doubt whether a man who crossed the river [Tweed] felt that he had passed from the land of one law to the land of another'. But there was no automatic adoption of English practice. For example, it took until 1230, more than 40 years after Glanvill, for possessory actions (novel dissasine, mortancestry), which were so important in England, to be adopted in Scotland. Was the infrastructure of royal authority not sufficient to sustain this? In Scotland there was no central court run by professional judges who determined each case, as in England. These pleas were adjudged by the suitors of sheriff courts preside over by the sheriff or justiciar. There is room for debate, therefore, about the impact of these possessory remedies in Scotland.

The geography of power in the East has traditionally been seen as being redefined by the introduction of land held for knight service. It is generally recognised, however, that knight-service was not predominant, and that units of lordship conformed to existing configurations of local or regional power, rather than overriding them. For example, an incoming lord is frequently said to hold his land as it was held be a previous tenant. The main change in the geography of power in the East was in the sphere of guaranteeing property and possessions-securing your land and/or goods for the next generation of your family, and keeping it from being grabbed by someone else. For much of the twelfth century this occurred on the site of the land in question, or (in the case of moveable property) at assembly sites, with a particular place designated within each earldom/province (e.g., Dalginch for Fife, Kintillo for Strathearn). By the mid-thirteenth century all these procedures had come under the control of the sheriff and justiciar. Instead of someone from each local community in an earldom/province attending an assembly at a particular spot in the countryside, they now came from each barony within a sheriffdom to the royal burgh or castle where the sheriff was based. In most cases the sheriffdom represented a new geography of power: Perthshire, for example, encompassed the province/earldoms of Atholl, Strathearn, Gowrie and Menteith; Aberdeenshire included Mar and Buchan. Fife, Angus and the Mearns were unusual because they became sheriffdoms. But even here there was change. Instead of congregating at Dalginch, for example, the men of standing in Fife would go to the royal burgh of Cupar. The key to this change is the transformation of the sheriff north of the Forth from the king's official in a particular royal centre, barely distinguishable from a rechtaire in Gaelic (responsible for maintaining a major residence, collecting revenue and enforcing his lord's will), to the presiding official at the local assembly. This, in turn, must reflect the growing efficacy of royal authority as the guarantor of peace, property and possessions. Among the vital ingredients here was not only the adoption of English legal practice and customs of landholding and government, but also the development of burghs throughout this period as new foci of royal authority. This, arguably, is where incomers (mainly English, but also Flemish) made their greatest impact in eastern Scotland. The database shows the importance of merchant families with English associations in establishing and running burghs, the role of burghs as places where royal monasteries and major royal officials had a presence and did business, and the development of commercial activity in land. The trade on which burghs depended was also vital in that the money generated by tolls or burgh ferms provided kings with the wealth that made the latent pre-eminence of their position into a predominance of power within their realm.

Links between newcomers and natives, East and West

As long as the transformation of Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was explained in terms of Anglo-Norman/English incomers and influence replacing old Celtic or Gaelic ways it was natural to see the twelfth century, and particularly the reign of David I, as the pivotal moment, with the process expanding into the historic core of the kingdom north of the Forth in the second half of the twelfth century. It is clear from the database, however, that those of immigrant and native stock acted together in the social interactions relating to property and possessions. As Matthew Hammond has argued, there is no indication that ethnicity had any relevance in this context. This is not to deny that there were 'newcomers', nor that there was influence from England. It is apparent, however, that 'newcomers' could be Gaels as well as Anglo-Normans, not only in the West, but also in the East (where, significantly, the most successful were close relatives of the existing regional elite, the earls). Some of the greatest lords in the early thirteenth century-Walter (II) Stewart, Duncan earl of Carrick, Alan lord of Galloway and his brother Thomas earl of Atholl-straddled both zones, their high profile in the East and South-East revealed in the database.

Fundamental change in the thirteenth century

If the essentially ethnic framework that has been deployed to explain this period of Scottish History is abandoned, how are we to explain the far-reaching changes that occurred? Most of the fundamental aspects of modern Scotland that owe their origins to this period only became established or became widespread within the kingdom's historic core in the thirteenth century. This is particularly true of those which underpinned the predominance of royal authority. Burghs, common law and sheriffdoms have been noted already. There was also the emergence of central government, notably in the beginnings of official records in relation to landholding (such as perambulations) as well as in the administration of revenue, detectable from the 1190s. Mints, previously confined largely to a few burghs in the south, were established by Alexander III (1249-1286) in burghs across the East of the kingdom, a sign not only of growing royal authority but also of the astonishing increase in money in circulation, which rose threefold during his reign.

Transforming the historic core

The idea that the realm ruled by the king was a single country, 'Scotland', and later that its inhabitants were a single people, 'Scots', can therefore be seen as emerging in line with the dawning pre-eminence of royal authority in relation to property and possessions, wealth and social standing. The crucial theatre of change was, arguably, not in the South-East or Clydesdale, where royal authority was imposed in David I's reign, with sheriffs based in burghs exercising judicial powers, or in the expansion of the king's authority and its consolidation in areas beyond the historic core, both North, West and in Galloway. It was in the kingdom's historic core in the east midlands. As long as the economy, culture and geography of power there-the region in the East between the Forth in the south and the Spey in the north that was known as 'Scotland'-continued much as it had before this period, distinct from other parts of the realm, with only limited adaptation by the king, it is questionable whether 'Scotland' and 'Scots' could have been adopted so readily by the rest of the realm as a common identity. Once new structures emerged that enabled royal authority to achieve its pre-eminence in society in the historic core as well as immediately to the north, in Moray, and in Lothian and Clydesdale, those with property and possessions and all those with standing in the localities could share the same sense of being a single country and people under the king. None of this was evident in the twelfth century between the Forth and the Spey (with the probable exception of the area north of the Mounth, where Aberdeen was developed early on as a new royal centre). In the east midlands local and regional forms of power and authority were more important, and the Church remained the principal agency for reorganising society. The introduction of knights, monasteries and merchants may have provided the roots for the transformation of Scotland, but in so many ways the kingdom, and especially its historic core, also retained many of its existing structures and remained predominantly Gaelic in speech.

Explaining the paradox

One way to answer the paradox of how the most Anglicised part of Britain outside England also retained its independence would be to draw a clear distinction between the initial influx of Anglo-Normans with their mottes, monasteries and towns in the twelfth century and the fundamental change of the thirteenth, when royal authority, through sheriff courts, burghs and an expanding money economy, became for the first time a force embracing the wellbeing of all free society in the historic core ofv the kingdom as much as elsewhere. None of the other Celtic parts of Britain and Ireland achieved this. In Wales and Ireland burghs and common law were not only English in a general sense, but were linked explicitly with an alien power: the English Crown. Another important factor is that the king of Scots, through his domination of southern Scotland (unchallenged following the destruction of Northumbria in the winter of 1069-70), and the conquest of Moray by David I, had space to develop new structures of royal authority, through burgh, castle and sheriff, without confronting the established patterns of power in the historic core of his kingdom, which began to conform with other parts of the realm only later and gradually. This was an opportunity that no Welsh ruler or Irish king was given in this period. The retreat of Gaelic in the East, when it became decisive, was due more to the growth of a money economy focused on English-speaking burghs than to a deliberate rejection of Scottish distinctiveness or the overpowering impact of immigration. In Scotland those aspects of law and governance that were adopted in the thirteenth century from England were embraced by a society that, beyond the historic core, had established a pattern of obedience to the king of Scots and had already begun to align itself self-consciously as parts of a single country, 'Scotland'. Legal innovations, such as the possessory actions that are in evidence from 1230, may have originated in England; the law may not have been recognisably different north and south of the Tweed; but it was in the name of the king of Scots, not the king of England, and served only to reinforce his authority and move society a step further towards identifying itself as one people: the Scots.