History of Scotland, from its origins to the present day

History of Scotland, from its origins to the present day


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Thescotland history, it is above all that of a country marked by an almost continuous rivalry with England. It is that of a people who brandish as heroes William Wallace and Robert Bruce, the famous "Braveheart", who fought against English oppression in bloody battles. It is also that of Marie Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland with a tragic fate; that of the theorists of the Enlightenment and of the great inventors in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the wild lands of the Highlands to industrial Glasgow, from the distinguished city of Edinburgh to the wild islands of the north, Scotland offers us a fascinating plural history.

Scotland, from one settlement to another

The history of Scotland really begins in the 1st century BC. AD, when Celtic tribes from the Rhineland and Ireland settled in the territory. They will oppose a fierce resistance to the Romans. The latter, after having annexed Britannia (England), continued their conquest further north and arrived in Scottish lands in AD 78. The Roman legions remained there for a century, without reaching the Highland region or succeeding in subduing the inhabitants, whom they called Picts ("painted men"). They thus acquire the reputation of a warrior people. Moreover, in order to protect Britannia from Celtic incursions, 2 walls were erected:
- Hadrian's Wall, nearly 120 km long between the west and east coasts, which marks the border between Britannia and Caledonia;
- the Antonine Wall, further north than Hadrian's Wall, built between the River Forth in the east and the River Clyde in the west.

After the Romans left in the 4th century, the Picts united and dominated north-eastern Scotland. Other stands follow. The Scots, Celtic Christians from Ireland, arrived from the west with their culture and language, Gaelic, which gradually spread into the kingdom of Alba (Gaelic name for Scotland). The Brittons settled in the southwest and the Angles in the southeast. At the same time, Christian missionaries evangelized the populations and all of Scotland was Christianized by the end of the 7th century.

But a threat awaits: the Vikings multiplied the raids from 794, until they took control of the islands (Shetland, Orkney, Hebrides) and the north coast. To resist their advance, Picts and Scots unite. This is the start of a slow unification of the country. In the 11th century, the kingdom took the name of Scotland, the "land of the Scots". However, in the northern part of the territory, the Scandinavians did not withdraw until the 13th century. The occupation ended completely in 1469 with the integration into Scotland of the Shetlands and Orkneys.

Complex ties with England

Several kings succeed one another at the head of the new kingdom. Among them, the famous Macbeth, who kills Duncan I to access the throne in 1040 and is then assassinated, after 17 years of reign, by Duncan's son. The latter reigned as Malcolm III from 1058 to 1093. This period marked the beginning of a complex relationship with England. On the one hand, the king is stepping up his incursions into England in order to expand the territory of Scotland, an enterprise which will fail despite five attempts. On the other hand, he rules under the influence of his wife Margaret, an exiled Anglo-Saxon: the court adopts the English language and the Church is reformed to be fully integrated into the Catholic Church. The queen also welcomed a number of nobles fleeing England due to the Norman conquest.

Their son David, owner of large estates in England and well known at court, introduced the English feudal system to Scotland during his reign, from 1124 to 1153. English, but also French and Normans, were offered lands and powers. , in return for which they must swear their loyalty to the Scottish Crown. The conflict with England remains endemic, however. It will reach its climax in 1174, when King William I is captured and is forced to accept English control over his kingdom. This will last about fifteen years. The two countries then experience a period of peace, which will last almost a century. In 1237, the Treaty of York established the present Anglo-Scottish border, while in 1251 the two countries were linked by the marriage of the King of Scotland Alexander III to the sister of the King of England.

The Wars of Independence and the Auld Alliance

It was a dynastic crisis that would bring an end to the golden age of medieval Scotland. Upon Alexander’s death in 1286, the crown reverted to his granddaughter Margaret. She died prematurely four years later, leaving no heir. There is no shortage of contenders for the throne… The situation quickly becomes inextricable, so much so that the choice of the new Scottish ruler is left in the hands of the King of England, Edward I. He designates John Balliol and forces him to accept the suzerainty of England. Very quickly, Balliol rebels and seeks support from France, with whom he hopes to form a common front against England. This is the birth of the Auld Alliance ("Old Alliance"), which will rule Scotland's "foreign policy" for 250 years. The consequences were not long in coming: the King of England drove Balliol from the throne and, from 1296, the English became militarily and politically masters of Scotland.

Emerging from the west of the country, an obscure knight raised today to the rank of legend, William Wallace, takes the lead in the fight against the occupiers. He won the Battle of Stirling in 1297 then suffered a defeat which forced him to go into hiding for seven years. Betrayed, he is captured and then executed by the English in London. Then comes the no less famous Robert Bruce, "Braveheart", descendant of a wealthy Norman family. He proclaimed himself king and took advantage of the accidental death of Edward I to push the English out of the Scottish borders. Bannockburn's victory in 1314, the most famous in the history of the country, put an end - temporarily - to the great offensives against the English.

The conflict remained endemic, however, until 1357 and the signing of the Treaty of Berwick, which officially ended the wars of independence. At the same time, the Scottish nobles send the Pope the "Declaration of Arbroath", in which they ask him to recognize the independence of Scotland and its King Robert Bruce. The Sovereign Pontiff's response - favorable - reached them in 1328. April 6, the day the declaration was signed, became Tartan Day, celebrated every year throughout the world. It celebrates the spirit of independence of the Scots, wherever they are.

The Stuart dynasty: the impossible peace with England

In 1371, the crown passed from the Bruce family to the Stuart family. This is the start of a new dynasty, which will rule for 300 years. Edinburgh, a prosperous commercial city located on the east coast, became the administrative and political capital under James II. Members of the royal family also included James IV, ruler from 1488 to 1513. Prince of the Renaissance, he financed the arts, education and took a keen interest in scientific research. An iconic figure in Scottish culture, he is also known to be one of the first personalities to drink whiskey. Jacques IV introduced golf and promoted the practice of football.

Politically, Scotland and England find themselves again in an untenable situation. On the tails side: Jacques IV married Margaret Tudor, the sister of the future Henry VIII of England, in 1503. This marriage "of the rose and the thistle" brought the two kingdoms closer together while opening up rights to the English crown to the dynasty Stuart. Face to face: Scotland is still linked to France under the Old Alliance. Consequence: Jacques IV takes up arms against his brother-in-law in 1513. An initiative which ends in a bloodbath and a serious defeat on the Scottish side in Flodden: the sovereign as well as most of the Scottish nobles are killed.

Does the Battle of Flodden spell the end of the Auld Alliance? Absolutely not ! This one will even be reinforced: the Stuarts will unite with the most powerful family of France, the Guise, with the marriage of Jacques V and Marie de Guise in 1538. The latter will give birth to Marie, who will be very early promised to François, heir to the throne of France. This union must be the culmination of the Old Covenant, but history will decide otherwise ...

The tragic fate of Marie Stuart

Twice queens, Marie Stuart knows a fate where passion, betrayal and scandal mingle. Disillusionment and blood flow ... It’s no surprise that this extraordinary character from Scottish history is now the subject of blockbuster movies! Mary becomes Queen of Scots a week after her birth, when her father is killed in a (umpteenth) battle against the English. His mother, the Catholic Marie de Guise, ensures the regency. At the age of 6, Marie was sent to France, a country where she grew up and married, as planned, the future François II. Events will then precipitate. Two years after his coronation, François died. In 1561, Marie was 19 years old and was forced to return to Scotland, which in reality she did not know and where she was not welcome. Some of the nobles rose up against the French presence.

Raised in the Catholic religion, she discovers moreover a country which has switched to Protestantism in favor of the Reformation. The Catholic religion is even abolished. Scotland sees the establishment of a Reformed Church, known as Presbyterian, which Mary Stuart is obliged to recognize. She enjoys more than one awkward position in the eyes of Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. Elizabeth is the last representative of the Tudor line, which leaves the field open to the Stuarts to accede to the throne. In other words: Mary is the heir to the English crown.

After the death of Francis II, the Queen of Scots married two more times, each union turning into disaster. She is even said to be involved in the murder of her second husband, a murder instigated by her latest husband, adventurer Jacques Hepburn. She had to abdicate in 1567. At 25, Marie Stuart, former Queen of France and Scotland, found herself imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. She will manage to escape. Cornered, she flees her country and takes refuge with her cousin Elisabeth I. Marie lived in semi-captivity until her death in 1587. Elizabeth, accusing her rival of plotting against England, had her beheaded.

The Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England

With the death of Marie Stuart a new chapter begins, marked by the union of the crowns of Scotland and England. His son Jacques inherits both thrones and gives himself the title of James I of Great Britain and Ireland. The sovereign moved to London and, as was the case with his successor Charles I, showed little interest in Scotland. However, hostilities resumed in 1639, due to deep religious divisions. While the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Church of England are both Protestant, there are opposing rules that govern them. The first refuses the royal authority as well as that of the bishops.

The episcopate, on the contrary, structures the organization of the Anglican Church, of which the king has supreme authority. Confrontation is inevitable. In 1638, in the face of Charles I's desire to impose himself at the head of the Scottish Reformed Church and to reintroduce the bishops, the Presbyterians united. They draft in a church in Edinburgh a document reaffirming their principles: the National Covenant, which they will be 300,000 to sign. The Covenanters raise an army and enter England. Charles I retreats.

Oliver Cromwell's Ephemeral Republic

Great Britain falls into a civil war, where each side declares itself for or against the king. The Covenanters are joining forces with English parliamentarians. An alliance sealed by the "Solemn League and the Covenant," a document promising the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in England in return for Scottish military support to overthrow the king. The venture initially seemed to be successful: in 1646, the king was defeated and handed over to his opponents in England. Charles I was executed in 1649.

Under the aegis of Oliver Cromwell, the monarchy was abolished, giving way to a Commonwealth, a form of government close to the Republic. The Scots then realized that England would never embrace Presbyterianism and sided with Charles, the son of the executed king. They offer him the throne in exchange for which he must agree to support the Covenanters. Cromwell reacts by sending his troops to Scotland. They won a decisive victory at Dunbar in 1650. After 11 years of conflict, Scotland fully integrated the Commonwealth and no longer had a Parliament.

The restoration of the Stuarts and the Glorious Revolution

With the death of Cromwell in 1658, the events precipitate. It's already the end of the Commonwealth; Scotland and England again become separate kingdoms with a single king at their head. This king is Charles II, who will quickly renege on the promise made to the Covenanters. Not only the sovereign restores the episcopate but he will also organize the repression of the Presbyterians. The persecution will be even more brutal under James VII of Scotland (James II of England), his successor and last Catholic king Stuart. In 1688, William of Orange came to the rescue of the Protestant lords and led the Glorious Revolution. He deposed Charles II, his uncle, then ascended the throne after having signed a Bill of Rights, the founding document of the English constitutional monarchy.

The Glencoe Massacre

The Church of Scotland is then recognized as independent. The repression then changes sides: this time it is the Jacobites who are the victims (that is to say, the faithful of King James). In this context occurs a dramatic event that has left an indelible mark in the history of the Highlands: the Glencoe massacre. Highlands to the north and Lowlands to the south are completely opposite. Big cities, politics and commerce are concentrated in the lowlands, with Glasgow and above all Edinburgh as anchor points. In the rural highlands, where Gaelic is spoken predominantly, power is held by powerful families, organized into clans. In 1692, the rivalry between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, the two dominant clans, reached its climax against a background of division against the Jacobite movement. Campbell troops, acting on government orders, kill 38 members of the MacDonald family at their home after accepting their hospitality.

The Act of Union or the end of Scottish independence

Queen Anne - who succeeds William of Orange - has no children. The English then take advantage of the weakness of Scotland, almost ruined after having tried in vain to found a colony in the Isthmus of Panama, and submit to them an offer: the English Parliament chooses the new king, in this case a new queen. (Sophie of Hanover), in exchange for which commercial advantages will be granted to the Scots. This agreement is subject to one condition: Scotland must relinquish its independence. Negotiations for the union of the English and Scottish Parliaments last 5 years. They end in 1707. On May 1, the Scots wake up as British citizens. By the Act of Union, all powers are transferred to the Parliament of London. The Scottish Parliamentarians therefore left Edinburgh to reach the English capital. Scotland, however, remains in control of its own destiny in areas such as religion, justice and education.

The political consequences do not take long to be felt. The Act of Union triggers the Jacobite uprisings: offensives are launched with the aim of a return of the Catholic Stuarts. Among the latter, the figure of Charles-Edouard Stuart dominates. Brave and reckless, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" ("Gentil Prince Charlie") manages to raise an army and achieve several victories. His ambitions, however, found a tragic end in 1746 in Culloden, near Inverness, where his men were killed under assaults by British troops, in which many Scots were fighting. In the Highlands, where many families supported the Jacobite cause, the economic and social structure collapsed. The government indeed takes a radical decision: it dismantles the clans. In addition, wearing a kilt is prohibited as is the use of Gaelic.

The soaring Lowlands economy and the Scottish Enlightenment

The dire fate of the Highlands echoes the booming economic boom of the Lowlands, particularly that of the Glasgow area. The Act of Union is a boon on the trade front: the central government opens the doors of the British Empire to Scottish traders. Ideally located on the west coast, Glasgow made a fortune in a few decades, trading in tobacco, cotton and sugar. More broadly, many Scots, attracted by these new horizons, set off to make their fortune or become explorers and missionaries. Among the latter is David Livingstone, who roamed southern Africa for more than 30 years.

The development of large-scale commerce is part of a period of intellectual upheaval. From the 1730s / 1740s and for a century, Scotland indeed made a brilliant contribution to the Enlightenment movement. Its anchor points? The four universities - St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen - which are among the oldest and most renowned in the Western world. A new approach to thinking, based on reason and critical thinking, renews theories in many fields while leading to many technical innovations.

Philosopher David Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature, rejects belief and advocates rigorous intellectual debate on all aspects of life. Scientifically, James Hutton is recognized as the father of geology and Joseph Black discovers carbon dioxide. The economist Adam Smith, marked by the economic expansion of Glasgow, theorizes liberalism in Research on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.

Modern times: Scotland, land of innovation

Scotland is a land of innovation, the result of excellent teaching and the creative spirit of its engineers and scientists. These will largely contribute to the birth and development of the Industrial Revolution. Here are some emblematic inventions and discoveries:
- James Watt developed the steam engine at the University of Glasgow in 1769;
- John McAdam invented the pavement coating that bears his name in the 1820s;
- James Nasmyth invented the power hammer, the first machine tool, in 1839;
- Graham Bell developed the telephone in 1876;
- John Boyd Dunlop invented the tire in 1888;
- John Logie Baird created the first Television in 1926.

One of the big names of the day was James Clerk Maxwell. The Edinburgh physicist has notably worked on electric and magnetic fields. Little known to the general public, Maxwell has nevertheless bequeathed to science a legacy deemed as decisive as that of Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. It was also he who, in 1861, was the author of the first true color photo. The subject ? A tartan ribbon!
Glasgow the industrial

As Edinburgh, the country's capital, emerges as a leading intellectual and cultural center, Glasgow is turning into an industrial city. The region becomes one of the engines of the Industrial Revolution thanks to the mechanization of the spinning mills, which the steam engine, developed at the University of Glasgow, will equip from the 1770s. We deepen the river, the Clyde , in order to be able to accommodate more boats. Economic growth is exploding, as is the number of inhabitants. Between 1800 and 1850, the population multiplied by three; in 1880, Glasgow was the 6th most populous city in the world, with 587,000 inhabitants. In the 19th century, it acquired the status of "the second city of the Empire".

Heavy industry took over from textiles: until the 1920s, shipbuilding was one of the main pillars of the Glasgow economy. The world's most famous liners, such as the Cutty Sark, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Elizabeth II, emerge from its yards. While the economy is booming, many neighborhoods are sinking into social misery. The city cannot contain the influx of labor. Newcomers crowd into slums and experience appalling living conditions. In 1911, the number of inhabitants exceeded one million. Among them, the Irish fleeing famine and the peasants of the Highlands driven from their lands.

Highland Clearances

From the end of the 18th century until the middle of the following century, the Highland Clearances were rife. The populations, impoverished and no longer benefiting from the protection of the clans, are condemned to leave their territory when traditional agriculture disappears in favor of the extensive breeding of wool sheep. Little by little, the highlands are emptying. At the same time, the region is adorned with a romantic aura: people come to fish and hunt in the heart of its landscapes, as splendid as they are desolate. Celtic culture is reborn from its ashes. Writer Walter Scott plays a notable role in this. At the reception of King George IV in Edinburgh in 1822, he forced him to put on a kilt. In 1852, Prince Albert acquired Balmoral Castle near Aberdeen, which would become the royal couple's summer residence.

In the 19th century, Scotland therefore underwent a profound transformation with the doubling of its population, the industrialization and urbanization of the Lowlands and the near-desertification of the Highlands.

The resurgence of the desire for independence

World War I marks a new break in the country's history. 220,000 Scots are killed or injured there - no other conflict has and will kill so many people. Economically, the war effort allows industry to further increase its production. A golden age that will end with the cessation of hostilities, giving way to the slow death of a sector on which the economic health of the Lowlands, in particular Glasgow, remains particularly dependent. The looming difficulties lead to the emergence of social movements and a more politicized working class. In 1919, the government sent the army to George Square in central Glasgow to break up a communist demonstration. The “Red Clyde” will remain at the forefront of political protest until the 1970s. It is then the SNP (Scottish National Party) which will gain ground, thanks to the serious economic and social crisis caused by deindustrialisation .

The crisis spared a region however… In 1969, oil and gas were discovered in the North Sea. The production of black gold, from 1975, benefited in particular the city of Aberdeen and its region, which enjoyed renewed prosperity. In ten years, Great Britain has found itself propelled to 5th place in the world among oil-producing countries. The latter still occupies a significant place in the British economy today. This discovery will also help resurface the idea of ​​an independent Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament was re-established in 1999 and moved to Edinburgh. The SNP continues to progress until it obtains an absolute majority in the 2011 parliamentary elections. 3 years later, a referendum on independence is organized. 85% of voters go to the polls. The "no" camp wins with 55% of the vote. The question of independence remains more relevant than ever, however. In question ? Brexit, a major point of contention with the British. In the 2016 referendum, 62% of Scottish voters voted to stay in the European Union. On January 29, 2020, the day before their departure from the European Parliament, British MPs sing the Auld Lang Syne, a Scottish song, in the hemicycle, whose title means "it's just goodbye" ...

In this troubled time, Scotland seems at a crossroads: is it heading towards independence or will it remain permanently attached to England within Great Britain? This question arises in 2020 as it has arisen many times over the previous centuries, becoming one of the essential markers in the country's history.

Selected bibliography

- History of Scotland: From the origins to the present day, by Michel Duchein. Text, 2020.

- The Scotland of Lights: Hume, Smith, Ferguson, by Norbert Waszek. PUF, 2003.

- The Picts: Originally from Scotland, by Frédéric Kurzawa. Enbanner, 2018.

- Scottish History, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017

- Scotland, Travel Encyclopedias, Gallimard, 2016


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