The Soul of Scotland

Deep in the mists of time fire formed Edinburgh. Out of the volcanic tumult arose seven hills that would peer down as silent sentinels over a famous future city. Ice and water carved out a landscape, cracking and biting the rocks, lifting them and surging on in pitiless indifference.

As grass carpeted the landscape, its wildlife thrived. The wolves’ eerie call echoed around Arthur’s Seat, the bears shuffled in the abundant forests. Above, the golden eagles soared and cried, and below the herds of deer roamed free. And then humans came. They left their first trace at Cramond on the outskirts of the city by the sea, just simple meals of nuts, carbon-dated at about 8500 BC. Their first temples emerged as stone circles of rugged rocks, projected skywards in pursuit of the spiritual. We have names for the eras in which they lived: Neolithic, Stone, Bronze and Iron, but they were as human as we are, facing fears and uncertainty, celebrating life and seeking for meaning.

Who were the first people of Edinburgh? No written records from them emerge from the shroud of darkness; no mystical code on rock or parchment. It was as if time covered them like a blanket of snow. And yet the stones remain. Perhaps a hundred scattered across the landscape testify to their existence. The prehistoric Caiy Stane stands in Fairmilehead on the outskirts of Edinburgh at over nine feet tall and five feet across; not far from it can be found the Cat Stanes, once a pair of cairns near an ancient burial place. If the Gaelic for battle is Cath, then the Cat Stones were probably erected as a memorial to a battle between the Romans and Picts. Skeletons with bronze and iron weapons have been found there. Scarcely half a mile away at Mortonhall another monolith stands proudly, with two others stranded on the ground, evidence perhaps of a cromlech or prehistoric tomb.

Between 1988 and 1991 there was much excitement at Edinburgh Castle. Archaeologists had dug four metres deep in the area around Mills Mount and had discovered evidence of people living on Castle Hill since about 900 BC, thus making this the oldest continually inhabited site in Scotland. We do not know who enjoyed roasting nuts at Cramond, but the later people at Castle Hill were called Votadini by the Romans, although they knew themselves by the old Welsh name of Gododdin. This tribe dominated Edinburgh, with other hill forts on Arthur’s Seat, Blackford Hill and Craiglockhart. Apparently they had abandoned their ancient seat at Traprain Law near Haddington for Edinburgh, leaving behind their main powerbase, which they had inhabited since about 1500 BC.

Just twelve miles south of the city lies Cairnpapple Hill. It is a bleak place, open to the elements, especially the Scottish wind that works its way through every layer of clothing with expert icy fingers, and yet the site has glorious views to both seas. Excavation work undertaken by Professor Stuart Piggott and his team from Edinburgh in 1947-8 revealed evidence of people using this sacred site back to about 3000 BC. Among the artefacts were an axe head from the Neolithic quarry at Penmaenmawr, near the Druid Circle, close to Anglesey, and another one from Great Langdale in Cumbria, based on the petrographic analysis of the materials. This demonstrates the trading networks between the Gododdin at Cairnpapple Hill and other British tribes at an early period.  

Workers unearthed a stone circle and votive offerings, showing that it was a religious meeting place of great importance. It is an eerie experience to descend into the womb of the earth and stand inside the dome-shaped room with more stone circles and graves from the Bronze Age. Such an experience causes the inquisitive visitor to ask questions. Why did the Gododdin build this? What sort of religious rituals happened here so long ago? What did they believe about spirituality and the afterlife?

Descending into the basement of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is very revealing. On display are the ritual offerings of bronze weapons dedicated to a god, found in Duddingston Loch, below Arthur’s Seat. These artefacts have been dated at between 950 and 750 BC, during the period of the Gododdin. It was a well-known custom of the Celtic peoples to sacrifice something of value to a god in the water, in exchange for something beneficial for humans. For example, a hoard of 150 objects from about 300 BC, such as weapons, shields, tools, cauldrons and chariot-fittings, were found in the lake called Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey in 1942.

But it was not just weapons that were found in Duddingston Loch. In 1778, workers looking for marl, or lime-rich mud, dredged the bottom of the loch, and to their surprise they hauled up elk horns and human bones alongside the hoard of 53 Bronze Age weapons. Had someone accidently drowned at this exact spot in the loch, or was this evidence of something more sinister? It was common practice for people to sacrifice animals to the gods in the ancient world, but what about humans?

A grisly tale of Scotland is told in the museum basement. In the Sculptor’s Cave, at Covesea, near Lossiemouth the bone parts of about 28 humans have been found, along with jewellery and other items, dating from about 1100 to 900 BC. Among them are the skulls of some children and also the severed skulls of six adult victims. This cave is only accessible at low tide and it seems to have been used as a sacred burial site. Archaeologists, trying to reconstruct the story of this chilling place, reckon that long ago the people used to leave their dead to decompose there. The children’s skulls would have been reverentially put on poles at the cave entrance, marking the boundary of the water and earth, where the spirit world meets the human world. But what of the six decapitated victims? It was most likely that this was a ritualistic human sacrifice. Sculptor’s Cave has been named after the artwork near the entrance showing a leaping salmon, a Z-rod and a crescent – all evidence of the later Picts from about the sixth to eighth centuries AD, but nobody understands what these enigmatic symbols mean.

Other examples of human sacrifice and an earlier obsession with skulls exist around Scotland. A human skull, alongside those of animals, was found in a sacred British well near Trimontium, the Roman fort, not far from Melrose. The Selgovae tribe’s hill fort, built in about 1000 BC, was on Eildon Hill North, overlooking Trimontium near their neighbours, the Gododdin. At Forse near Caithness, archaeologists have found the top part of a human skull with three bore-holes in it, which had been used for hanging inside the house there. Other human bones were discovered at the site, including a leg bone that had been deliberately chiselled away to make it into a tool. This was from a later period, from about 200 BC. At about the same time at Hornish Point, West Scotland, the locals had decided to quarter the body of a boy aged about twelve, evidenced by cut marks on his bones, and place the parts in four pits, along with butchered animal pieces. Apparently this had been to bless the house that stood there. The sign at the museum reads: “The human head had ritual importance. These heads were placed on open display in a prominent place – the boundary ditch, enclosing a fortified settlement.”

The Romans had already told us about the Gaulish practice of slinging human skulls on their horses’ necks and nailing them to their houses. Strabo tells us that Poseidonius “saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although he first loathed it, afterwards through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly”. It seems that the British tribes and Picts had the same fascination for skulls.

The Romans also tell us about the druids, those mysterious men of the sacred groves who were the spiritual leaders of the Gauls, Britons, Picts and Scots. Unfortunately the druids deliberately passed on their beliefs and practices by word of mouth, without committing anything to writing, so we have to glean what we know of them from the records of the Roman historians. In about 55 BC, Julius Caesar wrote his Gallic Wars about his experiences among the Gauls of France. He noticed that the druids were highly organised amongst the tribe of the Carnutes, who thrived near modern day Chârtres and Orléans. They were led by an archdruid, and they held national festivals. This religion, he said, “is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul”. Those wishing to study the art of druidry in depth travelled to Britain, and probably to the seat of the druids on the island of Ynys Môn – modern-day Anglesey, in Gwynedd, North Wales. This island is strewn with more prehistoric sites per square mile than virtually anywhere else in Britain.

At first the Romans were fascinated by the druids, the wise men of the sacred groves, for they were listed among the Magi, Chaldeans and other philosophers by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in the third century AD. It was believed by the Roman pagans and later Christians that the mysterious druids, with their dark sayings and riddles, had supernatural powers over nature, and that they had ancient remedies for healing. The druids especially held mistletoe in awe, which grew on the oak tree, where they harvested it for magical purposes with golden sickles. They worshipped many gods, were accompanied by their musical bards, and believed in a form of reincarnation and an eternal universe, according to Strabo in his Geography, written in about AD 197. However, the exotic nature of the druids became tarnished by a darker side to their religious practice – that of human sacrifice.

Julius Caesar wrote that the Druids “have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers [wicker baskets] they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.”

Diodorus Siculus tells us of their victims who were pierced through near the diaphragm “and when the stricken victim has fallen they read the future from the manner of his fall and from the twitching of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood.”

Fascination for the druids was turning to horror for the Romans, who despite their gory gladiatorial shows and crucifixions, were outraged at this kind of human sacrifice. In the time of the Emperor Augustus, who died in AD 14, Roman citizens were forbidden to observe the religion of the druids, according to Suetonius in his The Twelve Caesars, but between AD 41 and 54 Emperor Claudius began to actively suppress it. It is difficult to know exactly what the Roman invaders came to hate most about the druids: their human sacrifices, or the fact that they had great influence with the British kings. Dion Chrysostom tells us in his Orations “… without their advice even kings dared not resolve upon nor execute any plan, so that in truth it was they who ruled, while the kings, who sat on golden thrones… became mere ministers of the Druids’ will.”

In AD 60 the Romans decided to put a stop to the influence of the druids and struck their power base on Anglesey. Tacitus tells us that for a while the Roman soldiers were petrified by the sight they saw there, for “between the ranks dashed women in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth such dreadful imprecations…” But despite their great magic the druids perished. The backbone of druidism was broken. Pliny could write fifty years later that although “Britannia is still fascinated by magic… we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.”

So what happened to the druids after this crushing blow? It seems that they just melted away from their place of prominence, as the Romans conquered the British tribes. Doubtless they still operated under the cloak of secrecy in their sacred groves, but it was a religion stripped of its power and largely driven underground. Now that the dreaded spiritual power of the druids had been smashed, the Romans were happy to practice their Pax Romana (Roman Peace) with the local religions. Although the Romans brought their gods with them – Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, Minerva and Mars, they just became other names for the local deities such as Lleu, Belenos, Britannia and Belatucadnos.

The Gododdin in and around Edinburgh saw that the Romans were good for business and they were happy to act as a buffer state in return for Roman military backing against the rampages of the Pictish tribes who lived on the other side of the estuary in Fife opposite Edinburgh. And so the Roman Second Legion, after finishing Emperor Hadrian’s wall in AD 128, marched north along Dere Street, through the Lothians, to build a second wall – this time on the orders of Emperor Antoninus Pius – the Antonine Wall of AD 142, which ran from Bo’ness near Edinburgh, to Old Kilpatrick about 40 miles west. Two Roman barracks were set up on the outskirts of our modern city: one at Cramond, where Latin inscriptions to mother goddesses and Mercury and Jupiter have been found; and the other at Inveresk, where archaeologists recently unearthed an extraordinary altar to the god Mithras, a favourite with Roman soldiers.

On the other side of the Antonine Wall were ferocious tribes whom the Romans lumped together as Caledonians or Picti (Picts) because of their habit of daubing themselves with blue paint and tattooing their bodies. They too had their stone circles, hill forts, and cromlechs (tombs), but as the Romans never fully conquered them, we have no records of what they believed. Only later Christian historians, such as Adomnan in his Life of St Columba throw any light on the subject. The Picts, like the Gododdin, had many gods and their druids had great influence with the Pictish kings. Presumably if the Romans had conquered the Picts, they would have crushed the power of their druids, as they had done with the British at Anglesey. Later Pictish artwork on stones is beautiful, with its famous spirals, animals and mythical beasts, such as the dragon and centaur. However, the Celtic crosses on most of these standing stones show that the artwork is from the Christian era. Sometimes we see the crescents and z-rods, which some scholars say were pagan symbols, but as nobody knows what they mean, it is difficult to assess whether this shows a syncretistic mix of Christianity and paganism, or not.

Earlier geometric or ‘cup’ symbols exist alone on some rock slabs in the Lothians at both Wester Yardhouses and Lamancha and have been dated at an early period of 2300-1800 BC, as well as a cauldron bearing the same symbols, which had been offered to a water god at Kincardine Moss sometime between 600 and 400 BC. The same symbol appears sometimes on standing stones that bear the Celtic cross. It is possible that the symbol represents fertility or even a goddess, but all suggestions are speculative.

The Second Legion, along with the Sixth and Twentieth, had completed the Antonine Wall by about AD 154. At Bridgeness there is a stone memorial put there by the Second Legion, which gives honour to Emperor Antoninus Pius. On the left side of the text the stonemason shows a triumphant Roman cavalry man defeating some cowering locals who are naked, with one having his head decapitated; on the right there is an altar with some sheep being led for sacrifice, whilst some Romans look on. Between the images and the text we can see the Pictish crescent on either side, with what appears to be an eagle eating each end part of the crescents. As the intention of the stonemason was to show off the victorious Roman Empire, it is likely that the eagles represent the Roman armies, symbolised by their standards, for they had defeated the Picts in some battles, symbolised by the Pictish crescent. Having said this, the Romans never did conquer the Pictish tribes, as they did with the Britons.

Shortly after this Roman memorial had been put up, the legions were summoned south because the tribe of the Brigantes was on the rampage. With the Romans diverted down south the Picts attacked the Gododdin and damaged some of the forts on the Antonine Wall, but with a successful victory behind them the Romans reoccupied the Antonine Wall in AD 158. Four years later, they left again, to be redeployed at Hadrian’s Wall. On the insistence of the Gododdin for Roman aid against the Picts, Emperor Septimius Severus sent troops up yet again in AD 208 to rebuild part of the wall and stabilise the area. But within a short time the Roman troops were finally called off, the senate in Rome realising that this enterprise was costing too much. And so, once again the Gododdin had to act as a buffer state against the Picts.

An unexpected disaster became the main news in AD 410. The impossible had happened: the Goths and Huns had sacked Rome. This news sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman legions were hurriedly recalled home and forsook Britain altogether, leaving the Gododdin, who were allies with Rome, at the mercy of the defiant tribes of the Picts. Other different peoples swooped in like vultures to feed on Roman Britain in the power vacuum left by the legions, and these newcomers would also have their part in shaping Scotland. From north eastern Ireland came the Scots to settle on the west coast, founding Dalriada, an area now known as Argyll, with their seat at the hill fort of Dunadd, near Lochgilphead. Although many had been Christianised by Patrick’s preaching in Ulster in the fifth century, doubtless some of them would have come over with Irish pagan beliefs. Patrick’s supernatural encounters with the druids of Ireland were similar to those of Columba amongst the Picts of north Scotland later.

We have already noted the axe head from Penmaenmawr near Anglesey found at Cairnpapple, just south of Edinburgh, linking the two as trade partners. A few thousand years later, in about AD 450, Cunedda led an army from Manaw Gododdin near Din Eidyn, the old Welsh name for Edinburgh, to Gwynedd and Anglesey. After the Romans had left Britain in AD 410, the Scots from Ireland, as well as the Picts from northern Scotland, decided it was time to invade the weakened Britons down south. Vortigern, a recognised leader of the Britons, tried to galvanise the British tribes against their enemies.

According to Bede in A History of the English Church and People, the problem was so bad in AD 449 that Vortigern decided to seek mercenary help from the Angles or Saxons. They were successful in driving back the Picts, but later showed that their real intention of helping the Britons was a ruse for spying out the land to prepare for an invasion. In time many more of these Germanic warriors came and forged an alliance with the Picts in order to conquer the British tribes. Vortigern found himself assailed on all sides, and for a time retired to Gwynedd. It seems most likely that he called for Cunedda of the Gododdin to help him defeat the Irish Scots who had settled there. In time Cunedda and his descendants defeated the Irish Scots who had taken the land from his relatives. From this lineage came the kings of Gwynedd and Wales.

Down south the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from North Germany and Denmark came in their droves in the fifth century to dominate what became known eventually as England. But their passion for expansion drove them to Bryneich in south east Scotland, where we find Berwickshire today. This area belonged to the Gododdin who were based at Edinburgh, but they were being hemmed in from the north and west by the Picts and Scots, and now also to the south east by the Angles, who eventually conquered Bryneich in AD 547, and renamed it Bernicia.

The Angles spiced up the local religious scene with their Germanic gods: Thor, Odin, Tyr and Freyja. Even today our week is named after some of the Germanic deities, along with the Roman ones, showing the fusion of paganism:

Monday: Monandaeg, the day of the moon (Germanic goddess).

Tuesday: Tiwsdaeg, the day of Tiw (Germanic god).

Wednesday: Wodnesdaeg, the day of Woden/Odin (Germanic god).

Thursday: Thursdaeg, the day of Thor (Germanic god).

Friday: Frigedaeg, the day of Freyja/Frigg (Germanic goddess).

Saturday: Saeterdaeg, the day of Saturn (Roman god).

Sunday: Sunnendaeg, the day of the Sun (Germanic for sun and the Roman god Sol).

The common factors that bound all the pagan religions together were their pantheism, animism, and polytheism, which is why the Romans, or any other dominating pagan culture, tended to merge the deities in a harmonious way. Only when religious leaders promoted unsavoury practices such as human sacrifice, or challenged the power of Rome, was there any religious intolerance. Another faith would come to Edinburgh and Scotland however, that would not only challenge the Roman Empire, but all the ancient religions. It would be this faith that would eventually fuse together the Britons, Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons, and form the collective soul of Scotland for centuries to come.

Reproduced from A Spiritual History of Scotland, by Paul James-Griffiths © 2018. All rights reserved.