Scotland: A History from Earliest Times

Scotland: A History from Earliest Times

by Alistair Moffat

Paperback(Second Edition, Second edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780274386
Publisher: Birlinn, Limited
Publication date: 12/01/2017
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 437,927
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 2.50(d)

About the Author

Alistair Moffat was born and bred in the Scottish Borders. A former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television, he now runs the Borders Book Festival and the DNA testing company, BritainsDNA. He is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books and is currently Rector of St Andrews University.

Read an Excerpt


The Collisions

FIRE AND ICE MADE Scotland. For hundreds of millions of years, the molten core of the Earth has been pushing up through fissures in the outer crust, the land we live on and the ocean bed. This ancient, continuous process was only recently discovered by accident. When, in the middle of the 19th century, it became possible to send messages along a telegraph wire, scientists reasoned that it might also be feasible to shrink geography dramatically and lay an undersea cable to link Britain and North America. Communications that took weeks to deliver by ship might be relayed in moments.

In December 1872, HMS Challenger sailed from Portsmouth with a group of scientists on board. While exploring the bed of the Atlantic Ocean for the best route for the course of a new cable, the team, led by a marine zoologist from Edinburgh University, Charles Wyville Thomson, came across a very substantial undersea ridge approximately halfway between the Irish coast and Newfoundland. More like a range of mountains, it turned out to run the whole length of the Atlantic, occasionally breaking the surface in the shape of islands such as Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and the Azores. Iceland is the largest. Along the axis of the ridge is a very deep rift valley and this was found to be the place where magma or molten rock from the inner crust of the Earth, the asthenosphere, comes to the surface. In the chill depths of the ocean, it immediately cools and forms new crust or lithosphere. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is part of a 29,000-mile-long system of ridges found under all of the Earth's oceans.

Known as 'seafloor spreading', this phenomenon makes the land we live on dynamic, moving it and the bed of the ocean very slowly. Each year the Mid-Atlantic Ridge shifts the crust between half an inch and one and a half inches, about the same rate at which fingernails grow. This long network of oceanic ridges and also fault lines found on land – such as the San Andreas Fault in California – moves vast segments of the Earth's surface known as tectonic plates. Depending on definitions, there are seven or eight plates and, as magma rises from the fiery core of our planet into the Mid-Atlantic Rift Valley, it moves the continents on either side of the ocean. Through a process known as subduction, tectonic plates also move very slowly under each other, eventually slipping into the asthenosphere. The Farallon Plate pushed up the southern ranges of the Rocky Mountains many millions of years ago but it has now slid deep into the Earth's mantle. Subduction has the effect of equalising, of keeping the total of the surface of the Earth the same.

More than five hundred million years ago, different parts of Scotland's familiar and beloved geography lay far distant from each other – some were attached to huge continents, some were splintered fragments and still others lay submerged on the bed of an ancient ocean. Lying between three palaeocontinents, Laurentia, Baltica and Avalonia, was the great expanse of the Iapetus Ocean. Larger than the Atlantic, it was beginning to shrink as tectonic movement shaped and reshaped the crust of the Earth. By 410 million years ago, the Iapetus Ocean had closed completely and much of what became Scotland had risen out of the prehistoric sea and been welded together into one of the most geologically distinct places on our planet. Scotland is therefore the deposit of a series of slow-motion, ancient collisions. And, throughout our prehistory and in more modern times, these collisions and the angles at which they hit would remain central to an understanding of our nation and its people. Our history is written in our rocks just as surely as it is in monastic chronicles, census returns or the stones and bones of archaeological digs.

The most important collision, symbolically and historically, was with England. Much of what was to become Scotland lay on the leading edge of Laurentia while England was attached to the shores of Avalonia. As the great palaeocontinents welded both of these landmasses together, the harder rocks that made up Scotland ground against the softer strata of northern England, buckling and corrugating them. This process forced the coal and iron seams close to the surface and, in this way, our geology made West Cumbria and Tyneside a gift of their traditional industries.

As these enormously powerful forces moved the crust of the Earth, forming and reforming continents, smaller bits sometimes sheared off. Known as terranes, they drifted across the planet over millions of years. When Laurentia, Baltica and Avalonia moved closer, four very different terranes were ground together to make the distinctive shape of Scotland. Forged deep in the molten inner crust, Lewisian gneiss was pushed upwards to make the Western Isles, Coll, Tiree, Iona, the western peninsula of Islay known as the Rhinns and part of the Atlantic coastline. Gneiss is old – one of the most ancient rock formations found anywhere in the world.

To the east and south, thick strata of Old Red Sandstone were laid down and north of the Great Glen its most spectacular monuments are the Torridon Mountains and the singular peak of Suilven. Durness Limestones overlay much of the Old Red Sandstone and they are solid proof that these terranes were once attached to the coastline of ancient Laurentia. At that time the palaeocontinent lay south of the equator and the limestone and sandstone were beach deposits that contained fossils, evidence for some of the earliest life forms. The Old Red Sandstone also underlies some of Scotland's most fertile farmland – the Moray coastlands, Aberdeenshire, parts of the Central Belt and much of Berwickshire.

The north-east to south-west orientation of the Great Glen marks the angle at which one terrane collided with another. Below it, the Central Highlands were built from different rocks, thick strata of shales, limestones and sandstones. Known as the Dalriadan and Moine formations, they made the Cairngorms as the Earth convulsed with volcanic eruptions.

South of the Highland massif, Scotland's geography becomes even more abrupt. Along a line from Stonehaven down to the southern shores of Loch Lomond, the mountains suddenly give way to green valleys and ranges of low hills. This is the Highland Boundary Fault, where another collision took place. The Dalriadan and Moine mountains were pushed against what became the Midland Valley, a rift valley of a very different character, now the Central Belt. Again, the angle of the collision runs north-east to south-west. Formed originally in tropical latitudes, the valley was once home to vast, dense forests and swampland. Many millions of years ago this terrane began to move northwards and, as the trees and other tropical plants died and fell, they laid down strata of organic carbon. Much later these would become Scotland's coalfields.

Running from Ballantrae in South Ayrshire to Dunbar in East Lothian, the Southern Upland Fault once again follows the characteristic orientation of Scotland's geography. Below it lie the rolling hills of Galloway and the Borders and, in the lower-lying river basins, some of the most fertile farmland was laid down.

Some way to the south of the Southern Upland Fault lies a fascinating geological relic. On the west coast of the Isle of Man, near the hamlet of Niarbyl, the cliffs of a small cove have running diagonally across them a thin, greyish-white seam of rock. It is visible for only a hundred metres or so before it disappears into the waters of the Irish Sea but it is a memorial to the making of Scotland. Known as the Iapetus Suture, it marks the precise place where the vast continents of Laurentia and Avalonia collided, having welded the four terranes together. And it too runs north-east to south-east, just as the modern border between England and Scotland does.

Sixty-five million years ago, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was a tectonic seam in the middle of a single, huge palaeocontinent known as Pangaea. Scientists hypothesised that North and South America once fitted neatly into Africa and Europe like a geological jigsaw before the ridge very slowly began to prise them apart and allow the Atlantic Ocean to form. What eventually became Scotland, and Britain and Ireland, was pushed towards the east. As the Atlantic filled and the crust of the Earth was stretched and thinned, magma broke through to form a line of huge volcanoes whose remains can be seen in the dramatic shapes of St Kilda and Ailsa Craig. Over five million years, the skies darkened and thunder boomed as unquantifiable amounts of ejecta flew into the atmosphere and thick ash clouds drifted across the land and the ocean. Ben More on Mull once roared and erupted but perhaps the most spectacular volcanic landscape in Scotland is on Skye.

The gentle slopes and scarps of the Trotternish Peninsula and of north-west Skye were once the lava fields of a huge volcano that spewed magma up from the inner crust of the Earth. The magma chamber, the boiling caldera of the volcano, was towering, rising to more than six thousand feet. Erosion has sheared and planed it but its ruins are still tremendously impressive. They are the jagged mountains of the Black Cuillin and the rock known as Skye gabbro is the legacy of the millions of years when the Earth shuddered and boiled.

Fire forged much of Scotland's landscape but, in much more recent times, ice scarted, ground and bulldozed the rocks and soil into their familiar shapes. We live in an inter-glacial period, a brief interval between Ice Ages. For the last 2.4 million years, in the era known as the Quaternary Period, much of the surface of the planet has periodically been buried beneath ice sheets and glaciers.

Relatively recently, around 24,000 BC, the weather began to worsen once more. Storms blew and snow fell and lay on the hilltops all year. Over a short time, perhaps only one or two generations, the temperatures fell steeply and Scotland quickly became uninhabitable. The last Ice Age was beginning. Vegetation shrivelled and died as more snow fell and the animals that depended on it fled south. Our species, Homo sapiens, had certainly reached Europe before the ice came and perhaps some explorers had crossed the land bridge across the Channel and the North Sea to walk to the farthest northwest, to stand on the edge of the ocean, the edge of beyond, and gaze at the endless horizon. But, as the cold gripped the land and the ice sheets formed, all trace of those who may have been the first to see Scotland was erased.

Nothing and no one could survive in the savage sub-Arctic climate. The ice formed into domes, huge hemispherical mountains around which constant storms blew. On the summits of the ice domes there appears to have been permanent high pressure and clear skies. For thousands of sterile years, Scotland lay sleeping under a blanket of ice as the sun shone on a dazzling white landscape of devastating beauty. So much water was locked up in this frozen world that the levels of the world's oceans were lowered and so heavy were the domes that they pressed down hard, crushing the crust of the Earth under them.

Around 14,000 years ago, the ice cap that covered Scotland slowly began to crack and splinter. The weather was warming once more and, over a short time, glaciers rumbled over the landscape and began to change it. As it moved, the ice smoothed rock, bulldozed debris and soils, scraped out corries and watercourses and deepened valleys to form the freshwater and sea lochs of the Highlands. In the Midland Valley, glaciers moving from west to east struck the hard volcanic rocks that Stirling and Edinburgh castles sit on. This forced the glaciers to divide and leave behind the classic crag and tail formation that allowed towns to be built in the eastern lee of the rocks. When the ice began to melt, it created torrents of such tremendous force that they could make melt-water flow uphill, especially under or in the ice, from one valley into another. Glaciers deposited debris such as erratic rocks or ridges of gravel and soil known as eskers. As the sun shone and the air warmed, Scotland was stirring, beginning to awake.

But it turned out to be a false dawn. Only a few hundred years after the thaw, an ecological disaster was waiting to burst on the world. In northern Canada, a vast freshwater lake, far larger than all of the Great Lakes combined, had been held back by ice dams. As these slowly melted, water from what came to be called Lake Agassiz spilled southwards to help carve out the Missouri and Mississippi river systems. But some time around 10,500 BC a mighty roar was heard as the ice dams to the north of the huge lake crashed down to release a mega-flood. Its path has been traced as a giant tsunami raced through the Mackenzie River basin out into the Beaufort Sea, through the Davis Strait and into the North Atlantic. Within 36 hours of the dams falling, a vast cubic tonnage of freshwater had stopped the warming currents of the Gulf Stream in their tracks, turning it back south before it could reach the shores of Britain and Ireland. Temperatures plummeted, snowstorms blew once more, a vast ice dome formed over Ben Lomond and animals and people fled south.

What geologists call the Loch Lomond Stadial and historians the Cold Snap lasted for about a thousand years. The North Atlantic eventually regained its salinity and the conveyor effect once more brought the warm waters of the Gulf Stream northwards. In a process known as climate flickering, the melt may have been rapid, perhaps in the span of only a handful of generations. When the land warmed, the first colonists were plants – hardy willow scrub, crowberry and birch came. They were followed by ash and hazel, then oak, elm and pine. With the weight of the ice lifted, the land began to rebound and rise, keeping pace with the level of the seas as they filled with melt-water.

As the trees grew and seeded more growth, Scotland's Wildwood spread and offered cover for all manner of animals migrating north. The aurochs, the giant wild cattle with a seven-foot horn spread, browsed the shoots and grasses, red and roe deer came, wild boar snuffled through the undergrowth and elk flitted amongst the greenwood shadows. It may be that smaller animals were the earliest arrivals – martens, polecats, squirrels and stoats skittered through the canopy. In the streams, rivers, lochs and seas, fish teemed, the mighty salmon amongst the first, waterfowl built their nests and otters and beavers fished and swam. Predators also entered the Wildwood and brown bears, wolves and lynx prowled through the trees. And they were followed by the most deadly predator of all, our ancestors, the first settlers, the pioneers who walked into an unknown land after the ice.


The Pioneers

THROUGHOUT THE millennia of ice, many of those who would become our ancestors sheltered from the biting winds and the bitter cold in steep-sided valleys on either side of the Pyrenees. These were the Ice-Age refuges and their people have left a remarkable record of their lives as they shivered through the harsh winters and cool summers. More than 350 caves have been discovered in south-western France and northern Spain where immensely talented and mysterious prehistoric artists have left paintings on the walls. Almost all are of animals – the Ice Age fauna such as reindeer, wild horses, the aurochs, cave lions and red deer. While storms blew outside and the world of ice froze the landscape still, painters worked in the black darkness. Lit only by the flicker of torches, they mixed red, yellow and black ochres to create frescoes of charging bulls, galloping horses and fleeing deer. And, even though it is ancient – amongst the oldest works of art ever found – their work is not primitive. When Pablo Picasso saw the paintings in the cave at Lascaux in south-western France after the Second World War, he declared that in the last 20,000 years artists had learned nothing.

The caves appear to have been temples, places where mysteries were enacted, where the animals that were central to the lives of the peoples of the refuges were brilliantly memorialised. Only visible in firelight in their great subterranean chambers or by torchlight in narrow passages, the paintings almost certainly played a part in unknowable rituals as the moving shadows of worshipper-hunters were projected on to the walls amongst the herds of bison or deer. Perhaps the paintings were a means of recognising an absolute dependence on the animals, central to ceremonies involving dance, song and music designed to ensure that the annual migrations did not cease and that the herds would once more thunder through the steep-sided valleys on their way north to summer pasture. Those migrations brought the herds to ambushes, to narrow places or river crossings where hunters could get close and wound or kill many animals. In the late 19th century, the dances and rituals of the Plains Indians of North America were recorded. They wore headdresses and imitated the behaviour and movement of the bison they depended on and enacted rituals to bring them back after the hungry months of the winter.


Excerpted from "Scotland"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Alistair Moffat.
Excerpted by permission of Birlinn Limited.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1 The Collisions,
2 The Pioneers,
3 Caledonia,
4 Alba,
5 Old Gods and the Edge of Heaven,
6 The Nation of the Scots,
7 The War for Scotland,
8 Scotland Remade,
9 An Imperfect Union,
10 Rebellious Scots,
11 North Britain,
12 Imperial Scotland,
13 Scotlands,

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