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Home » Cartography, Europe, GeoNotes, Historical Geography, Nationalism, Place Names

Scotland’s Past and Future Mapped

Submitted by on April 6, 2012 – 5:06 pm 23 Comments |  
British Isles 400 CE Map from Talessman's AtlasThe best on-line source of maps of pre-modern world history is Thomas Lessman’s Talessman’s Atlas of World History, hands-down. Lessman’s maps are well designed, aesthetically pleasing, and comprehensive. I have posted a magnified detail of his map of the world in the year 800 CE, depicting the British Isles. I do this in part to show the level of specificity found in his maps—although if one wants to see real complexity, Lessman’s depiction of the same area in the year 450 CE would have been a better choice, as it maps twenty-one separate polities. I also selected this area to illustrate a forthcoming GeoNote on place-names in Scotland, focused on what such names can tell us about the ethnic groups of the past and their languages.

The map here depicts the British Isles and environs shortly before the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland, or Alba, which is usually dated to 843 CE. Note that in the year 800 the area now known as Scotland was occupied by four distinct groups. In the west, the kingdom (or chiefdom) of Dal Riata was the territory of the Scots, relatively recent immigrants from northern Ireland who spoke a Goidelic Celtic language closely related to modern Irish (Gaeilge) and the ancestral tongue of Scottish Gaelic. Strathclyde in the southwest was occupied by “Britons” (the northern Welsh), who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language, closely related to Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. (For a fascinating account of this kingdom, see the chapter on Alt Clud in Norman Davies recent book, Vanished Kingdoms). The Picts of the north and east may also have spoken a Brythonic Celtic language, but the Pictish tongue remains controversial; some scholars are not sure that it was Celtic, and a few have even suggested that it was not Indo-European. In the southeast, the Kingdom of Northumbria, which was based in what is now northern England, was dominated by the Angles, a Germanic people speaking a variety of Old English. Not shown on the map were the Viking (Norse) incursions, which were beginning at roughly this time. The Vikings were to raid widely across the region and settle extensively in the north and west; the very formation of Scotland, which ultimately united Scots, Picts, Britons, and Angles, was to a significant extent a response to the Viking threat.

The historical divisions of the northern half of Britain are again in play as the people of Scotland contemplate independence. As has been noted in a GeoCurrents post, the desire for independence is geographically structured, and it has been suggested that certain parts of Scotland might try to opt out of the potential future country. This issue has produced some imaginative cartography. Reproduced here is Martin Belam’s fantasy depiction of a divided Scotland in the year 2058, twelve years after an imagined Scottish Civil War, which in turn followed the envisaged separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in the 2020s.

Belam’s article is actually something of a parable about names of countries, and as such pertains to the dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the name of the latter country (Greece rejects “Macedonia,” a term that it claims as its own, and instead insists that its northern neighbor be called the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or FYROM). The comments on Belam’s article are also revealing in regard to lingering tensions and historical arguments between the Scottish and the English peoples.

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  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    I hope Scotland can stay united – whether within or without the UK (They use the word ‘without’ in Scotland). My country, Ireland, has been riven and plagued by sectarian splits for a long time; especially since this was institutionalised into two different states by partition. The South is probably further down the road of secularisation than the North – I hope the North can heal somewhat with time. I am biased somewhat in that I’m a secular atheist! Irish Gaelic is also my second language; and the links with the highlands of Scotland and Scottish Gaelic (one common written standard for the period 1200-1600 a.d. i.e. Classical (or Early Modern) Irish) offer a dissonance (the right word?) to one of the basic tenets of Irish nationalism – the revitalisation of the ‘Irish’ language. Yet in the language itself (and in Scottish Gaelic afaik), there exists an echo of this former literary unity in the basic understanding that there is one Gaeilge/Gàidhlig with different standardised dialects. On an introspective note; having lost my faith (in my teens), my linguistic awakening (mainly at college) is definitely a quest for identity – 3 of my 4 grandparents were natively bilingual; part of the generational language shift wave that swept across the country throughout the 19th century (didn’t hit my western district till around 1900 or so)

    • Thank you, this is very interesting indeed. There is indeed much similarity between Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, but can you call them dialects of the same language? I don’t think so…

      • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

        They’re not on mutual intelligibility or de facto grounds (not much interaction either) – but there’s a romanticised/fossilised cultural understanding from when there was a literary unity which collapsed after 1600 or so – the two verbal systems have diverged and are the biggest obstacle to mutual intelligibility – I know a smattering of S.Gaelic and some Welsh, and the S.Gaelic system resembles it better in structure, especially in that only the substantive verb has a commonly used synthetic present tense (and use a preiphrastic construction for all others), whereas Irish has innovated a new suffix for all verbs. I think the Britons of southern Scotland may have had substratal influence there.

        • Thank you for this detailed information. It is interesting that two languages that have diverged c. 1600 are still perceived as so tightly connection. A similar story holds with Russian and Ukrainian, to some extent.

          As for your suggestion that “Britons of southern Scotland may have had substratal influence” on Scottish Gaelic, this looks very likely. I am also wondering if Angles might have had such influence as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any work on this matter, though the topic of Celtic influence on Anglo-Saxon/English is a very “hot” topic today.

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    Apologies for the confession! – there’s something about comment boxes; I seem to want to attract attention using them. Could be called readme trolling I guess…

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    Just read the post concerning parallels between Scotland an Basque Country – in it you alluded to the shock of Scottish loss of independence leading to a cultural outburst/blooming… Something similar happened in Gaelic Ireland about the end of the Classical Gaelic period (after the Battle of Kinsale in 1604 when the last Irish princes were defeated) – the staid classical norm broke down without patronage (especially from wealthy gaelicised Norman families) and the last of the bards (free to do as they pleased) became troubadour and started switching to vernacular speech. Unfortunately this didn’t last long beyond the seventeenth century as they lacked the means to pass on the bardic genius for longer than the next generation. Centuries of persecution followed – by the time the Gaelic League started in 1892 or so less than 100 people could read Gaelic. This persecution took unusual routes e.g. the Catholic church had no printing press in Ireland, and when evangelical Protestants starting printing prayer books in Irish in 18th century and later, Catholic preachers warned the faithful in County Louth to give up their native language for fear of the evil Protestantism!

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    or is it ‘outwith’ they use in Scotland? Another interesting topic is the Scots language – or is it a dialect? and had history let Scotland maintain its independence; would the relationship of Scots to English be more akin to Dutch and Standard German than say Standard German to Low German as it could be said to be to-day?

    • Yes, it is “outwith”:

      Linguists consider Scots to be a separate language, as it’s hardly comprehensible to English speakers, at least not easily. But not everybody agrees… Still, when I play my students a recording of a passage in Scots, they admit not understanding most of it.

      • I read my daughter Winnie the Pooh in Scots and we both generally understood with only very rare consultation of a Scots dictionary.  In reading Matthew Fitt’s science fiction novel _But’n Ben A-Go-Go_, however, I needed to have a dictionary constantly at my side.

        • Thanks for sharing this, James! Your story confirms what I always point out to my students: that mutual intellegibility very much depends on the specific text selected. Also reading might be easier than understanding a spoken text. Here’s a website with some nice recordings in Scotts:

          • Having thought of this, I was wondering whether Fitt hadn’t been a bit of a language purifier, making choices as far as possible from English, but having looked at the books again, it was probably just the familiarity of the material (Fitt’s geography alone was somewhat distracting).  In any case, my daughter will always think of Pooh’s little friend as Wee Grumphie, rather than Milne’s Piglet, and she even occasionally talks about someone falling down heelster gowdie or asks me for a snochterdichter.

          • Raising a bilingual child, are you? 🙂

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    Btw – Irish census came out last week – Irish now third for self-reported daily speakers. 1 English (forget the figure, near universal), 2 Polish (nearly 120,000), 3 Irish (82,000 daily speakers outside eduaction system)(25,000 in Gaeltacht districts) 4 French (56,000). UK census figures out soon too – S.Gaelic had 58,000 in 2001

    • This is fascinating, thank you for sharing this! I had no idea there are so many Polish speakers in Ireland. Do you have any idea why? Recent immigrants?

      • Has there already been a post on countries where the speakers of the (or an) official language are outnumbered by speakers of another language?  This at least used to be the situation in Latvia, right?  What is the situation in Greenland?

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    10 central european states joined th EU in 2004, and only Ireland, the UK and Sweden granted all the proper freedom to work rights to their citizens – UK and Ireland received heavy immigration as a result. There was at one stage many more than 120,000 Poles in Ireland, but many were young and moved on after IReland’s bust. Much greater share of women and children in 2011 census as opposed to 2006 census; indicating the same transitory nature of most migrants Irish sojourn. It’s all to be found at – the state statistical agency. Even more astonishing is that there are 31,000 Lithuanian speakers, a much greater share of total Lithuanian speaking population!

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    There’s some confusion – as this is self-reporting people have assigned languages to children under three years old; so I think there’s 77,000 daily Irish speakers over 3 yrs old – this would account for 10,000 Polish ‘speakers’ or so!!

    • Curious: in many countries it’s only children aged 5 and older that are counted for purposes of language. I’ve thought it was rather standard, but I guess not. Thank you for sharing this information!

      • It is very interesting, and actually reassuring, that it is usually only older children counted as speakers of a language.  I have always thought that, in areas where the numbers of speakers of local languages are declining, even the official numbers might be wishful thinking if they included children who would go on to speak the growing language.  This would especially be true in areas whose populations skew young.  It is nice to know that I may have been overly skeptical about those numbers.

        • From my limited experience in the first language acquisition field, the age of 5 seems reasonable since before that age children can hardly be called speakers of the language…

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