Divergence: North v South

Broch - Wikipedia
Dun Carloway Broch, ((Dùn Chàrlabhaigh) Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

I was intrigued to unearth some fascinating research looking for something entirely different on the Romans in Scotland, and I did it without the use of a metal detector. Anything that is liable to reinforce intuition, sensitivity based on empirical evidence, catches my attention. In this instance I was told my nation was not ever happy to be palsy with England to the extend we got drunk together scoffing mead, wenching together, and awoke arm-in-arm in chowky.

Not so long ago, I asked a close architect friend whose advice I value, what he thought best identified the Scottish vernacular that made it different from English rustic, the classic Tudor wattling and daub. If our cattle are different from those tended by the Anglo-Saxons, our breeds of dogs, our language and our terrain, surely our houses are different too.

What marks out Scottish domestic architecture as unmistakeably Scottish?

He took a good five minutes to think about it. I used the silence between us to think of the answer he might give: castles, or something along the lines created by the master builder Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or a fusion of house styles from Nordic nations, perhaps, with the Spanish roof tiles thrown in for good measure.

His reply was obvious but not what I expected. “Harling” he said emphatically. Yes, plain white hard dash harling, lime render or cement. Our harsh winters demand more than moisture absorbing brick, so common for house building in England, that and modern engineering brick, a brick with a harder surface. The observation holds true wherever you look in towns and villages, but it is a surface examination.

His remark was a disappointment and agitated me since. There had to be more to it than plain old rendering. How about a window shape, a turret, use of stone of which there are a myriad of ways to construct it in which Scottish stonemasons are supreme, surely one of the great crafts of Scotland? He agreed the design of turrets in our castle architecture is indigenous, but for the wealthy only. That thought aside, is there more to Scots and English domestic architecture than meets the eye? Seeing the result of new research was the key I needed. To get a more exact identification we have to go back further in time, to the Romans and before.

New archaeological research has revealed that the peoples of Scotland and England were already culturally divergent long before the Romans arrived in Britain, long before they pitched a thousand troops in Cramond, outside Edinburgh, and began marching north to see what pickings lay there. The research finding I am about to relate is based on centuries of our domestic architecture.

In a new study of Iron Age settlements such as Brochs, duns, crannogs and souterrains, researchers identified that they are found widely scattered across Scotland, but are not evident in northern England or further south. What significance has this revelation? In lowland Scotland we were speaking in the Brythonic tongue, that is, relating to the southern group of Celtic languages, consisting of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. They were spoken in Britain before and during the Roman occupation, surviving as Welsh and Cornish after the Anglo-Saxon invasions, taken to Brittany by emigrants.

These distinctive differences in our archaeological record are significant because the construction of crannogs and souterrains during the 4th-2nd centuries BC demonstrate this divergence occurred long before the Roman frontier zone may have severed societies, that is, built Hadrian’s Wall, running across Northumberland, or Antonine’s Wall, running between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. Antonine’s Wall was known to the Romans as Vallum Antonini, a turf fortification on stone foundations, built at the order of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.

This may have played a crucial part in explaining why the Romans failed to absorb Scotland into their empire, despite three major military campaigns that appear, at least in Roman accounts, to have been overwhelmingly successful, that got as far north as Aberdeenshire, before rain, cold, midges, hit-and-run raids by Scot and Pictish tribes, and illness got the better of warm blooded Mediterranean soldiers.

This failure is often attributed to the changing political and military priorities of Rome. New thinking suggests it may owe more to the nature of Iron Age society in Scotland, which archaeologists are beginning to recognise was anarchic in nature – not chaotic, but composed of autonomous households and communities lacking institutionalised leadership.

Like the driver who is lost yet refuses to use his sat-nav because he knows the way, our ancient tribes were quick to stick to what they knew and absorb ideas when needed, but not accept new ways unsolicited. Nae furringer wae new fangled ideas wud dare tell us things wha cud be dun better. Unlike southern kingdoms, the Romans encountered to the south, Scots were near impossible to absorb into the Roman Empire’s way of doing things. Our basic anarchic sense and dislike of imposed authority was well and truly ingrained.

There’s clear evidence that the adoption of Roman culture does not occur in Scotland until the 5th century AD, after the Romans had abandoned Britain. This is when secular as well as ecclesiastical Latin inscribed stones, bearing Latinised names of indigenous inhabitants, and Christian terminology and symbols, were erected across southern Scotland.

Dr Ronan Toolis is the archaeologist behind the analysis. “This only occurred when Iron Age society in Scotland had become hierarchical,” writes Dr Toolis. “The evidence implies that far from being passive participants in acculturation, it was only with their active participation and likely at their own instigation and on their own terms, that communities in Scotland truly adopted aspects of Roman culture.”

Moreover – and this is the part that helps explain why there has always been an enmity north with south – expressions of power and prestige distinctive to early medieval Scotland suggest profound cultural divergence continued in the centuries that followed the demise of Roman Society.

Pictish symbols, whether carved on stone or inscribed upon artefacts, like massive silver chains and silver ornaments, are only found in Scotland. While these are overwhelmingly concentrated north of the Forth, they are also encountered within non-Pictish contexts to the south and west in the Lothians, Lanarkshire, Galloway and Argyll. They are wholly Scottish in origin.

The direction of influence was not one-way. Putting two-and-two together, in ancient artefacts, massive silver chains, which are also unique to Scotland, are concentrated in the south-east of the country, reflecting their cultural origin here, the result of the appropriation of Roman silver as a way of expressing status and power. When it came to the trappings of authority we knew what to copy and what to discard. That silver chains are also found north of the Forth but not south of the Tweed and Solway demonstrates again mutual cultural values in the expression of power and prestige among the Britons of southern Scotland and the Picts of northern Scotland, but not apparent among the Britons, Angles and Saxons of England and Wales.

Nucleated forts – a type of early medieval hillfort unique to Scotland – are also absent south of the border. These often occur in discrete clusters of elite settlements – in Galloway, Argyll, the Scottish Borders, Fife, Tayside and Aberdeenshire. Excavations reveal several of these forts to be royal strongholds showing evidence of international trade, the manufacturing of gold and silver jewellery and royal inauguration rites. Similar sized clusters of prominent households occupying brochs across lowland Scotland during the first two centuries AD may represent an Iron Age precursor to the pre-eminent households that emerged in the 5th–7th centuries AD.

“It may be clusters of early medieval elite settlements reflect how society in Scotland was replicating a process of households accruing power and status that had been arrested in development, either because of Roman aggression or internal social upheaval, in the early centuries AD,” says Dr Toolis.

“While there existed cultural affinity in some aspects north and south of the border and regional variation is apparent within Scotland itself, these do not negate the cultural divergence apparent north and south of the border and the aspects of cultural affinity that the regions of Scotland uniquely share. Just as it is possible for local patterns to be distinguished from regional trends in Iron Age culture in Scotland, so too is it possible to recognise national trends. However, culture should not be conflated with identity. The peoples of early medieval Scotland may have separately identified as Picts and Scots but they nevertheless shared cultural traits unique to Scotland.”

The main discovery of this research is not easy to see immediately: archaeological evidence suggests that Hadrian’s Wall was not a cause but instead an effect of existing cultural differences between the peoples of what later became Scotland and England, and this cultural divergence continued beyond into the medieval period. Separate cultural trajectories led to the separate formations of the two kingdoms, entirely independent of Hadrian’s Wall.

To put it crudely, Hadrian’s Wall was likely built because a centurion on horseback surveying the land said, “We’ve tamed that lot in the south. This lot to the north are bastardi. Build the wall here!”

So there you have it. We liked our way of doing things, it suited our needs, and it gave us a cultural identity. We’ve been fighting to keep it for hundreds of years and are still in the struggle.

Vive la difference!

NOTE: With thanks to Dr Ronan Toolis and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.


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13 Responses to Divergence: North v South

  1. duncanio says:

    There’s no doubt that Scotland has its own identity distinct from that of England.

    However, within its borders there remains cultural difference which should also be respected and celebrated. We comprise different peoples who have forged a common set of values and principles. As Craig and Charlie have already proclaimed:

    The Gael, The Pict. The Angle and Dane
    We’re all Scotland’s Story and we’re all worth the same.

  2. Stuart MacKay says:

    Just maybe we should embrace our inner anarchist and stop worrying about infighting within the Yes Movement and instead change it to be a coalition of self-interested parties rather than the over arching vision of a single leader. You still need a leader or leadership but their job is to coordinate and organise. The current approach of my way or the highway clearly isn’t working – we’ll be stuck at 50% for eternity. Talk of 60% is just a sneaky way to do nothing, knowing it’s unachievable.

    The New Deal for Independence would offer all areas of the country a large amount of control over their own affairs. Get rid of the regions and return to the days of the county and local councils. Use technology to wring efficiencies out of the system rather than rebuild endless resource consuming bureaucracies. Release local talent to solve local problems and get rid of diktats from “down south”.

    If we defeated or at least frustrated the Romans enough to cause them to give up and go home then it’s sure to work on more feckless opponents.

  3. Robert Hughes says:

    Excellent article Gareth , I had just read Lynda Baird’s piece of YFS a wee while previously and remarked there that it provided a much better alternative to reading the Sunday papers . Likewise yours .
    ” Just maybe we should embrace our inner anarchist and stop worrying about infighting within the Yes Movement and instead change it to be a coalition of self-interested parties rather than the over arching vision of a single leader. ”
    Totally agree Stuart . I think we share with Catalans – among others- an inherent/instinctive anarchist streak which if focused in a particular direction ( focus and anarchy , as you know , not being mutually exclusive ) eg Independence could prove more fruitful than the tried , tested , failed top down personality-based model . No greater example of that failure than the current occupant of Bute House

  4. Robert Hughes says:

    ” …on YFS ….

  5. Derek Grainge says:

    Brochs and crannogs may not survive in modern Scottish architecture, and a lot of turrets owe their popularity to victorian whimsy, but you’ll see circular ‘towers’ and turrets on many tenements in cities, and crow stepped gables both on tenements and vernacular archtecture in towns and villages, escpecially fishing villages. Such architecre more resembles Nordic countries rather than ‘down south’. Aye, and harling too, especially old buildings then painted with an iron-rich top coat. Modern housing estates make no reference to these. They are cheap brick, usually designed by architects with no Scottish awareness.

  6. lorncal says:

    Don’t want to rain on the old parade, GB, but: “… it was to be told my nation was not ever happy to be palsy with England to the extend we got drunk together scoffing mead, wenched together, and woke up arm-in-arm in a chowky… ”

    Your nation, GB, comprises 52% female population. Straight, heterosexual females would not wench, albeit lesbian females might. Please, chaps, try to remember that we exist – especially when the GRA reform comes before Holyrood. Our nation means as much to us as it does to you, even though, at times (actually most of the time) we might as well be invisible. We will need your support when the GRA reform bill comes before Holyrood, as you will need ours when it comes to a vote on independence – unless, of course, the subset of men has actually deprived us of our vote, too, as they would deprive us of everything else.

    Stuart: as GB says, we were (mainly) a confederation of tribes of Celtic origin (Pictish, mainly, Pictland spreading almost all over the country), probably under a Pictish High King when the Romans invaded, and we did harry them every step of the way. We do appear, however, to have been a fairly homogenous lot with different culture and customs from our fellow British tribes in England, and that pertained right across Scotland, from North to South and East to West. From what can be gleaned from the Romans, we were ostensibly one people, albeit fragmented into tribes. Let’s hope we can all come together to take back our independence. If we don’t, I doubt that it will ever be possible to do so, living as we do in an age of unprecedented divisions.

  7. Michael W says:

    A friend of mine once said that the red pantiles on the roofs of the cottages in Fife ( East Neuk particularly) were so, because they used the ballast from the Dutch ships that entered her ports: Not sure if that is true, but it seems specific to the area.

    More generally, I live in an old sandstone stone cottage that was traditional harled but before we bought it was stripped back to the original stone and it has Carmyllie slates on the roof.

    I did a quick search on google for a Scottish stone cottage and an English stone cottage. The doible storey English cottage is completely different to the single storey Scottish cottage. My cottage in rural Perthshire is the same as a rural cottage in Ayrshire, Shetland, the Highlands, St Kilda, Duns etc. Interestingly enough, the Scottish cottage is very similar to the traditional Welsh and Irish (both North and South) cottage. I don’t why this would be but I’m sure an Anthropologist could explain things much better than my speculation.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    Lorncal: To point out: you’re rebuking me for mocking English conventions and Ye Olde speech. Moreover, those who want to see Scotland a nation state again WILL vote for it given the chance, though they might think the process to do it flawed, such is their understanding of what it means, reinforced by their patriotism, and how it rids us of the colonial rule. Hence I am puzzled, perhaps annoyed is truer, by those who point up divisions as if historically accurate down the ages because that’s what we are told to think by our opponents – a divided nation unfit to govern itself..

  9. Grouse Beater says:

    My research for a film on Glencoe unearthed the fact MacIain’s house was two stories, to signify where the clan chief resided and where lay the ultimate authority. Am unsure how prevalent it was as a status symbol, but yes, most of us lived in single storey cottages.

  10. jgedd says:

    I like the idea of the Romans in the end being defeated by an enemy that could not be pinned down and destroyed because there was no focus, no central control to concentrate your force on which once crushed, causes collapse in enemy resistance for want of leadership . An anarchic, or flexible, organization that can reform and retreat without central command is the very definition of successful guerrilla warfare and from what I remember of Tacitus ( long time since I read it ) he complains that his father-in-law’s invasion was often thwarted by an enemy that would strike and melt away, refusing open combat and with perfect understanding of their environment. These tactics were employed by Bruce centuries later in the struggle against England.

    The adjective ‘thrawn’ is often used as being descriptive of the Scottish character and perhaps this trait is one of longstanding. Certainly, if you gather a roomful of Scots, you can often find as many opinions as there are people in the room – a frustrating experience if you want quick decisions made but there again, some people might also describe it as stimulating and creative. Thrawn is one of those adjectives that can be either pejorative or respectful, depending on your point of view!

    So, I also like Stuart Mackay’s idea of not always looking for a leader to take charge. ( Personally, I always have misgivings about investing your ambitions as a movement in one supposedly charismatic leader or vesting so much authority and hope in one person.) A coalition might be the way to channel the energies and ideas of many people towards an outcome that would satisfy all. It might also be more democratic and more workable for a people who are naturally questioning and thrawn. I’d rather that than the unthinking cult the SNP has become. Vive la difference indeed.

  11. jwmack says:

    I suspect that our geology is the underlying material reason for many differences between the two countries.

    Scotland was a country of mountain, forest and moss, therefore traditional houses were built of stone, wood or peat. How could we ever have developed brick architecture without much clay?

    The second material effect of our geology is that there was, until recently, very little land suitable for arable which is the foundation of the accumulation of wealth and its centralisation within a ruling elite. This also meant Scotland had low population density and low population growth.

    In a crude sense, Scotland could only grow wealthier and increase its population by trading resources, people or goods for food. Obviously there are cultural reasons too, but we can only work with the materials to hand.

    The Romans were only interest in colonising countries where they could inpose their economy of extractive plantations by seizing control of a functioning state – this was not the case in Scotland or northern England 2000 yrs ago for the material reasons listed above. Such lands were peppered with military bases to control the population.

    Swathes of northern England are half-way between us and England in terms of stone & mosses and this might underlie the Romans’ failure to establish ‘civilsation’, ie market-centred production around towns, north of York. In the funniest of ironies (viz RoryStewart), there really is a middle zone in Britain.

  12. lorncal says:

    GB: I was not rebuking you for anything; I was being ironic. We do, indeed, live in an age of unprecedented divisions. Yes, we want independence – I know that have for a very long time – but we should not lose sight of the fact that there is more to the world than Scotland and England and their enduring antagonism. We could lose independence forever by not paying attention to the bigger picture and where we fit into it. The Scottish government has taken us half-way to the abyss. Don’t let us run any further towards the edge. We can all pull together, but not at the expense of the female part of the population who are essential for independence to be realized. We need to fight each battle as it comes and not miss the wood because the trees get in the way.

  13. Howard Cairns says:

    Another interesting article and brisk discussion.

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