Once upon a time, there was no Scotland. The people originally known as the Scots came from Ireland, or at least they spoke a form of Gaelic like the Irish, so we’ll call them Gaels to avoid confusion. At first they lived only on the Western fringe of what we now call Scotland. That part of the country is as much water as it is land, so the Gaels of Dalriada were fine sailors. Much of the rest of the country was peopled by the Picts, who spoke their own language, lost to us now. The name Picts was given to them by the Roman invaders who fought them on and off for centuries before withdrawing from the British isles. The Romans said they painted their bodies with blue paint. Maybe they did, but they did not call themselves Picts. When they felt the need to call themselves anything, they sometimes called themselves the People of the Designs, because of the designs they carved on stones and maybe painted on themselves. But the Gaels and the Picts were not the only people living in what the Romans had called Caledonia, and would one day become Scotland.

Long after the Romans left, the southeast corner of the country had been settled by the Angles, who came from the northern European mainland, and whose British lands, known as Northumbria, also stretched into what is now England. Indeed, they would give that country its name, but before there was a Scotland, there was no Angle-land either. The Northumbrians did, however, speak a very old form of English. Finally, in the southwest of what is now Scotland, lived Britons whose ancestors had lived on the island that now bears their name since long before the Romans or the Gaels or the Angles, but probably not the Picts. Their language was a bit like Welsh, since the Welsh are descended from the same people, though by this time the lands of the Britons were separated by Angles and Saxons who had settled throughout much of what is now England.

So before there was a Scotland, there were four different nations in the land, speaking four different languages. Sometimes they fought, sometimes they formed alliances. And even within each of the four nations, there were different groupings and little kingdoms and constant struggles over power and land. One thing they all had in common, just about, was religion, a new religion. So new, in fact, that it was not accepted by everyone, and when people spoke in their various languages of ‘the old gods’, it was not always clear whether they meant the false gods they had once wrongly believed in, or real gods that might still somehow matter. And when they spoke of the new religion, the most educated people in each nation spoke Latin, the language of the Romans, which was now the language of the Christian Church. A fifth language that did not belong to any of the four nations, but whose Church said it belonged to them all. Or that they all belonged to it. One of those.            

What follows is the story of some of the people who lived before there was a Scotland, and who sometimes fought and sometimes formed alliances, and who wondered about the gods and about God.


The Pictish Princess and other stories from before there was a Scotland will be published late in 2022. Enter your email address below to receive updates.