British Middle Ages—Scotland

1403 to 1707
Macalpine Unifies Scots to Act of Union

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Scotland

Very little is known of Scottish history until the age of the Roman occupation of England. At that time, Scotland was inhabited by Celtic Britons who had fled from the Romans, and by Picts, who may or may not have been Celtic, but who were definitely fearsome and uncivilized. In spite of many campaigns, the Romans were never able to conquer the land north of Hadrian's Wall because the population was too spread out, there were no important towns to conquer, and the Scots engaged in guerilla-style warfare. The great pride of the Scottish nation is that it has lost many battles but never been conquered, and this is true. In spite of sharing a border with a much stronger nation for hundreds of years, Scotland largely retained its independence until its voluntary union with England in 1707.

Early Kings of Scotland

St. Columba
The Romans referred to Northern Britain as Caledonia, and when the region was first unified under a single king, the land was referred to as Alba. The name Scotland came from a tribe of Irish 'Scots' (the Roman name for Ireland was Scotia), that migrated to the region soon after the Romans left Briton. For several hundred years, the Scots, Picts, and Britons in the northern regions lived in independent tribes and clans. The Scots eventually became the dominate tribe and in 843 after a great battle, the King of the Picts submitted to Kenneth Macalpine, who became the first King of Scots to rule the unified region.

The Irish had been converted to Christianity in the fifth century by St. Patrick, and because of the close relationship between Ireland and Scotland, Celtic missionaries such as St. Mungo and Columba were important in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. As in Ireland, the monasteries founded by the Celtic Christians became great centers of learning and culture, while the surrounding regions remained relatively primitive. Some famous monasteries founded by Celtic missionaries include Iona and Lindisfarne. The Scots as well as the English suffered Viking attacks during the ninth and tenth centuries, but as the Scots were less civilized and more disperse, there was little outside of the monasteries to plunder. The Vikings, however, took over several northern islands, including Orkney and Shetland, and held them for many years.

Malcolm Canmore was one of the most important early Scottish kings, and his long reign spanned the period immediately before and after the Norman invasion of England. He was the son of Duncan, who was murdered by the Macbeth of Shakespeare fame. He married Margaret of Scotland, one of last heirs of the royal Wessex family, and she had a great civilizing effect on him. Their daughter, Maude the Good , married Henry I, so during this period Scotland was on reasonably good terms with England. After this marriage, many Norman nobles were granted lands in Scotland, including one of the ancestors of Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish patriot.

The Scottish Wars of Independence

The Scottish population consisted of many very poor, but proud and fiercely independent war-loving citizens. The fiercest, and most war-loving were the Celtic Highlanders, who continued to speak Gallic even after many Lowlanders had adopted English ways. The overlords and barons of Scotland were powerful and difficult for the king to control. The barons tended to prefer weak kings so that they could do whatever they wanted. The descendents of Malcolm Canmore continued to rule Scotland until Alexander III died without an heir. During the ensuing period of confusion, Edward I quickly installed , one of several royal cousins on the throne, on condition that Baliol agree to acknowledge him as an overlord. Edward I was a powerful monarch and at first everything went his way—most of the Scottish nobles agreed to pay homage to him. Not until William Wallace rallied the whole population against him did he begin to lose his hold on Scotland. Even Robert the Bruce fought on the side of Edward I in his youth, but once inspired with true patriotism, Bruce dedicated the rest of his life to freeing Scotland from the English yoke. The Battle of Bannockburn, which was fought against the weak son of Edward I, was the high point of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It abolished English power in Scotland for generations and firmly established Bruce as the rightful monarch in Scotland.

Bruce's son David died without heirs, so the crown passed to Robert II, a grandson of Robert the Bruce and first of the Stuart kings. The Stuart kings continued to rule Scotland until James II (a.k.a. James VII of Scotland), was deposed. Even afterwards the Scots remained loyal to the Stuart line, and a Jacobite party, dedicated to restoring the Stuart monarchy, remained active until the 19th century.

The Stuart kings were of mixed ability; Scotland's relationship with England was always tense and throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were continual border wars. In addition, many Scottish barons became so strong that the Stuarts had a great deal of difficulty controlling them. The Douglas clan in particular, descended from a favorite knight of Robert the Bruce, became so powerful that the Stuart kings resorted to murder and civil war to bring them down. The Stuart's reign was not particularly peaceful, but the Scots were a war-loving people and could not be kept at peace except by a very strong hand.

Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation
Mary Stuart and John Knox

The Scots and French had a long-standing strategic agreement that called upon each of them to come to the others aid when at war with England. This relationship continued strong until Scotland, under the influence of John Knox, started to turn Protestant. This complicated the relationship with Catholic France and lead to numerous civil wars within Scotland. The problems came to a head during the reign of Mary Stuart, who inherited the throne from her father James V when she was only a few weeks old. The royal family remained Catholic, and Mary was raised in France and briefly married to the king of France. It was not until the death of her husband that she returned to rule Scotland herself, only to find the country torn by religious wars. Her reign was active but brief. She married her cousin, Henry Stuart Darnley and produced a son, James I (aka James VI of Scotland), but quickly became embroiled in a scandal involving the murder of her husband and an affair with a renegade noble. After a decisive defeat, she was deposed by the Protestant faction, who reigned in the name of her infant son. She was then driven from the country, imprisoned, and finally executed by her arch-nemesis, Elizabeth I.

Crowns of Scotland and England United

On the death of Queen Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland became heir to the throne of England, so from that time the Stuart kings resided in England rather than Scotland and the management of the country was left in the hands of Scottish Parliament. Although James VI was raised as Presbyterian, he and his descendants subscribed to the Anglican faith and did not tolerate non-conformists. This caused considerable conflict between the Stuart kings and their Scottish subjects, which flared up during the reign of Charles I, triggering the English Civil Wars. Although many Scots fought against the king during the English Civil War, they fought only for the principles of religious freedom and self-government, and strongly resisted Cromwell's effort to eliminate crown altogether.

The Stuarts presided over the independent countries of England and Scotland for over 100 years before the Parliaments were combined into the United Kingdom of Great Britain by the Act of Union in 1707. Even then there was great popular resistance to the Union among native Scots, and it is thought the Union was brought about by strategic bribery. Anti-English feeling was still strong enough to fuel the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 and 1745, but by the mid 18th century the industrial revolution, spurred on the by Scottish inventor James Watt and Scottish economist Adam Smith, was well underway. Rail transportation and commercial trade helped close the distance between the two countries, and pride in the growing empire unified patriot feeling between the two countries. The Scots reputation as fearless fighters and dauntless explorers was greatly enhanced by their important contributions to colonial development, and from the 18th century on, the history of Scotland is the history of the British Empire.


Character/Date Short Biography

Early Kings and Heroes

Kenneth Macalpine
United the Scots and the Picts into a single kingdom, reigned as first King of 'Alban' or Scotland.
Murdered Duncan, the rightful king of Scotland. Ruled until he was murdered by MacDuff.
Malcolm Canmore
Long reigning King of Scotland, married St. Margaret, befriended Saxon exiles from Normans.
Alexander III
Last direct descendant of Malcolm Canmore. His death ushered in years of turmoil in Scotland.
William Wallace
Commoner who led resistance to Edward I's conquest of Scotland.
Robert the Bruce
Scottish nobleman who claimed the crown and led resistance to England at Bannockburn.
James Douglas
Associate of Robert the Bruce. Fought in wars of Scottish Independence.
John Balliol
Appointed King of Scotland by Edward I on the condition that he surrender Scotland's independence.
Black Agnes
Favorite Scottish heroine who opposed the English, with great flair, during the Scottish war of Independence.

Stuart Kings

James I
King of Scotland, who as also a poet. Imprisoned for many years by the King of England.
James II
King of Scots who brought rebel Barons under control. Destroyed power of Black Douglases. Died at Roxburgh.
James III
Weak ruler of Scotland who tried to make alliances with England, but was unpopular with nobles.
James IV
Strong and effective ruler of Scotland. Brought the Barons under control. Died at Flodden Field.
James V
Father of Mary Stuart. He was defeated in battle and died shortly after Mary was born.
Mary Stuart
Queen of Scotland. Deposed and exiled. Held captive and executed by Queen Elizabeth.


St. Mungo
~ 540
Early Christian missionary to Scotland.
Missionary who helped to christianize Scotland. Founded a monastery on Iona in Scotland.
Margaret of Scotland
Wife of Malcolm III of Scotland. Pius and noble Queen. Mother of Maude the Good.

Art, Science, Religion

John Knox
Religious leader in Scotland who embraced Calvinism, founder of Presbyterian Church.
Adam Smith
Leading theorist of modern capitalism. Wrote The Wealth of Nations.
Robert Burns
Romantic Poet, who wrote in a Scottish dialect. National Poet of Scotland.
James Watt
Inventor of the Steam Engine, and founder of the Industrial Revolution.
Sir Walter Scott
Author best known for novels set in Scotland.
Jenny Geddes
~ 1637
Commoner who led a rebellion against Church of England in Scotland.

Jacobite Rebellions

Duke of Argyll
Led royalist forces loyal to George I against the Jacobites in 1715.
Young Pretender
Grandson of James II, led Jacobites in bid to restore Stuarts to the throne of England.
Flora MacDonald
Heroine who help Bonnie Prince Charles escape from Scotland.


AD YearEvent
540 St. Mungo arrives in Glasgow from Ireland as a missionary to Scotland.
563 Columba founds the Monastery of Iona.
843 Picts and Scots unite under Kenneth Macalpine.
1040 Duncan, the King of Scots, is killed by the usurper, Macbeth.
1058-96 Reign of Malcolm Canmore; and his wife Margaret of Scotland.
1286 Death of Alexander III leaves the Scottish throne vacant, chaos ensues.
1297 William Wallace leads the Scots in Revolt against Edward I.
1306 Robert the Bruce is crowned king of Scotland in defiance of Edward I.
1314 Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn assures Scotland's Independence from England.
1371 Robert II ascends the throne as the first Stuart King of Scotland.
1424 James I is released by Henry VI after many years in prison.
1460 Fall of the Black Douglases.
1513 James IV dies at the Battle of Flodden Field, a disastrous loss for Scotland.
1560 The Scottish Parliament, lead by John Knox, establishes National Church.
1567 Mary Stuart is exiled from Scotland and imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth.
1603 James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) assumes the throne of England.
1641 Scotland declares against Charles I in the English Civil Wars.
1649 After the execution of Charles I, Scotland for Charles II in the English Civil Wars.
1692 Massacre of Glencoe results from Scots resistance to William III.
1707 Act of Union unites England and Scotland into Great Britain.
1715 First Jacobite Uprising in Scotland in support of the Old Pretender.
1745 Second Jacobite Uprising in Scotland in support of Bonnie Prince Charles.

Recommended Reading—Scotland

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Mitton - Scotland: Peeps at History    entire book
Marshall - Scotland's Story    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Lang - The Story of Robert Bruce    entire book
Perkins - The Scotch Twins    entire book
Macgregor - Stories From the Ballads Told to the Children    entire book
Abbott - Mary Queen of Scots    entire book
Lang - Stories of the Border Marches    entire book