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The Early Middle Ages, a period which corresponds in part with Early Historic Scotland and the Later Iron Age, is that era of Scottish pre-history, proto-history and history which extends over the last three-quarters of the first millennium AD. Peripheral to the Roman world, much of Scotlandmarker's history in this period has more in common with that of Irelandmarker or Scandinavia than with Romanised regions such as southern Britainmarker or Gaul.

As the first half of the period is largely prehistoric, archaeology plays an important part in studies. Beginning in around 600, written sources are available, but in limited quantity. Other aids to understanding in this period include onomastics (the study of names) - divided into toponymy (place-names), showing the movement of languages, and the sequence in which different languages were spoken in an area, and anthroponymy (personal names), which can offer clues to relationships and origins. As well as studying fossilised remains, paleobotany addresses land use, forest cover, and environmental change in more recent times.

One key event during the period is the expansion of Christianity from the margins of Scotland to become the religion of many inhabitants. The appearance in Scotland of the Anglo-Saxons in the middle of the period, and the Viking Age towards the end, provoked considerable changes. In the east and north-east, the advance of Goidelic languages created new identities, beginning the process which created Scotland during the High Middle Ages.

Nature of science



The archaeological evidence argues for the division of Scotland into three zones during all phases of the Iron Age. These zones approximate to those identified by toponymic and historical studies. They are also distinguished by their different climates and agricultural potential.

The most distinct zone is the AtlanticmarkerArgyllmarker region. Almost the entire region is considered harsh land of low agricultural quality. The area is wet, with the southern parts enjoying a temperate climate. The form of habitations in this zone, exemplified by the Atlantic roundhouse and its variants, are rarely found elsewhere. The linguistic record of the region is unclear. It is suggested that much of the zone was originally an area where Goidelic languages predominated, but in the later part of this period the Old Norse language replaced these.

The remaining two zones are less sharply defined.

Scotland and the Roman Empire




The War-band

At the most basic level, a king's power rested on the existence of his bodyguard or war-band. In the British language, this was called the teulu, as in teulu Dewr (the "War-band of Deira"). In Latin the word is either comitatus or tutores, or even familia; tutores is the most common word in this period, and derives for the Latin verb tueor, meaning "defend, preserve from danger".

The war-band functioned as an extension of the ruler's legal person, and was the core of the larger armies that were mobilized from time to time for campaigns of significant size. In peace-time, the war-band's activity was centered around the "Great Hall". Here, in both Germanic and Celtic cultures, the feasting, drinking and other forms of male bonding that kept up the war-band's integrity would take place. In Beowulf, the war-band was said to sleep in the Great Hall after the lord had retired to his adjacent bedchamber.

It is not likely that any war-band in the period exceeded 120-150 men, as no hall structure having a capacity larger than this has been found by archaeologists in northern Britain. Although individual members of any war-band possessed little individual identity or freedom independent of their leader, it was not unknown for the war-band to kill their leader, as was the fate of king Æthelbald of Mercia; it must be emphasized however that this was very rare.



Early Christianisation

Leslie Alcock suggested that the most sensible place to trace the roots of Christianity in Scotland is among the soldiers and ordinary Roman citizens in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wallmarker, where Christianity probably had a long history, competing with other eastern cults such as Mithraism. Chi-Rho inscriptions and Christian grave-slabs have been found on the wall from the 4th century, and in the early 300s too, the Mithraic shrines (known as Mithraea) which existed along Hadrian's Wall were attacked and destroyed, presumably by Christians. In fact, the archaeology of the Roman period indicates that the northern parts of the Roman province of Britannia were among the most Christianized in the island.

One of the key indicators of Christianisation is long-cist cemeteries. These are associated with Scotland in the period between the end of the Roman era and the 12th century. They indicate Christianity because in general they lie on an East-West orientation, so that the bodies can rise facing Jerusalemmarker for the time of the Last Judgment. Many of them lie in the vicinity of a church or possess an early Christian inscription. These burials are concentrated strongly in eastern Scotland south of the Tay, in Angusmarker, the Mearnsmarker, Lothian and the Borders. However, an important warning is that these cemeteries can also pre-date the Christian period, with some dating to the 2nd century.

A second indicator of early Christianity in Scotland is the place-name element eccles-. It is generally accepted among scholars that this word is a British word derived for the Latin word ecclesia and represents evidence of the British church of the Roman and immediate post-Roman period. Since G. W. S. Barrow first investigated the Scottish examples of eccles- place-names in 1983, it has been established that, when compounded with a saint's name, many of the eccles- place-names can be later, the latest one so far containing the name of a saint who died in 679. The eccles- names uncompounded in this way are much more likely to be early, and these exist all over Britain.

A third standard non-textual indicator of Christianization is inscribed stones. The earliest of these is the so-called Latinus stone of Whithornmarker, dating to c. 450. It is so called because it was a funerary monument set up by a man named "Barrovadus" and dedicated to a man named Latinus and to his daughter. Approximately 50 years later, a similar inscription was set up at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns of Galloway, this time dedicated to two priests called "Viventius" and "Mavorius". Another five or so of these inscribed stones dating 450 × 550 exist, the furthest north at Catstane in East Lothianmarker, and the rest in the vicinity of Upper Tweeddalemarker.

First Viking Age

High Middle Ages


  1. For all this, see Alcock, Kings and Warriors, p. 56.
  2. Beowulf, ii. 1232, 1242; see also, Alcock, Kings and Warriors, pp. 248-9
  3. Alcock, Kings and Warriors, p. 157.
  4. Williams, Smyth, and Kirby (eds.), Biographical Dictionary, s.v. "Æthelbald of Mercia", pp. 17-8.
  5. Alcock, Kings & Warriors, p. 63.
  6. Ian Smith, "The Origins and Development of Christianity in North Britain and Southern Pictland", in John Blair and Carol Pyrah (eds.), Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future, (York, 1996), p. 20.
  7. Lucas Quensel von Kalben, "The British Church and the Emergence of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom", in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 10: Papers for the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, (Oxford, 1999), p. 93 passim
  8. Edwina Proudfoot, "The Hallow Hill and the Origins of Christianity in Eastern Scotland", in Barbara E. Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World: The Proceedings of a Day Conference held on 21st February 1998, St John's House Papers, (St Andrews, 1998), pp. 57, 67-71.
  9. Edwina Proudfoot, "Archaeology and Early Christianity in Scotland", in Erik H. Nicol (ed.), A Pictish Panorama, (Balgavies, Angus, 1995), pp. 27-8.
  10. Sally Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland, (London, 2004), p. 77.
  11. G.W.S. Barrow, "The childhood of Scottish Christianity: a note on some place-name evidence", in Scottish Studies, 27 (1983), pp. 1-15.
  12. Thomas Owen Clancy, "The real St Ninian", in The Innes Review, 52 (2001), p. 11.
  13. Thomas Owen Clancy, "The real St Ninian", in The Innes Review, 52 (2001), p. 11.
  14. Ian Smith, "The Origins and Development of Christianity in North Britain and Southern Pictland", in John Blair and Carol Pyrah (eds.), Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future, (York, 1996), p. 20.
  15. Daphne Brooke, Wild Men and Holy Places: St Ninian, Whithorn and the Medieval Realm of Galloway, (Edinburgh, 1994), pp. 8-9
  16. Ian Smith, "The Origins and Development of Christianity in North Britain and Southern Pictland", in John Blair and Carol Pyrah (eds.), Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future, (York, 1996), p. 20.
  17. Edwina Proudfoot, "The Hallow Hill", p. 68, Illus. 3.6.


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