By Lynn McAlister, CMA Clan Historian

In looking at the history of Scotland or Ireland, several things must be kept in mind. The first, that "Scottish history is full of old controversies that engender heat....Irish history has been so turbulent that the interpretation of few of its events is agreed upon"1, the second, that history as a scientific study of supportable facts is, with one or two exceptions, a fairly modern concept. "[N]ot all civilizations have been equally concerned to know and write history as it really was"2, and oral societies like those of the Celtic groups naturally emphasized the things that were of importance to them:

The Scots and other Irish used history as a record of war and genealogy, with an occasional miracle thrown in to show the saintliness of someone.3

          Oral records could "rewrite" defeats4, and because the concept of kinship was so vital to Celtic societies, genealogies could be altered to accomodate new political or social situations, apparently without losing credibility. This has important implications for family history especially, and it should be kept in mind that not all members of any clan or family in Ireland or Scotland have any real genetic relationship to each other or the chief.

          With that said, much can be deduced from archaeological and other, non-documentary evidence. Most modern historians agree that any understanding of the history of Scotland and its people must start with some knowledge of the land upon which it has been played out. Scotland is stunningly beautiful; it is also remarkably inhospitable. More than half of the land we now call Scotland is barren mountains, hills, and moors. The soil is poor and the climate harsh; agriculture has never been easy there, and in some places it is simply impossible. Until the 18th century, when drainage methods became known, even much of the best land was bog or marshland, and even today, after many improvements and changes over the centuries, some 80 per cent of Scotland's land surface is considered uncultivable.5

          Another geological factor important in Scotland's history is the natural fault line that cuts across the country from the southwest to the northeast. This fault is often called the Highland line, and the different geology of the lands north and south of the fault, as well as the difficulties of moving between them, have had a profound impact on how society developed.

          In addition to the landscape, Scotland's history has been shaped by its proximity to the north of Ireland. People have been crossing back and forth between Ireland and Scotland since the earliest times (it has been estimated that over half of the people living in Glasgow today are of recent Irish descent), and even Scotland's name was originally Irish:

Until the tenth century Scotia meant Ireland. In the tenth century Scotia was being used for the mainland of modern Scotland to the north of the Forth and Clyde....From about the middle of the eleventh century Scotia gradually came to mean the whole of modern Scotland.6

          Of particular relevance to us, there are only twelve miles between Antrim in Ireland and Kintyre, the Scottish peninsula that was home to the Clan Alasdair [the MacAlasdairs], and there has always been migration and intermarriage between the two places.7 Some of the earliest MacAlasdair emigrants we know about went to Ireland in the 14th century as gallóglaich (mercenary soldiers) in the service of the MacDonnells.8 Three centuries later, a group of MacAlasdairs escaped to Ireland after their defeat at Dunaverty (Kintyre) in 1647.9 Another group, calling themselves Alexanders, settled there in the 17th century and became the Earls of Caledon.10

          Of equal importance is Scotland's other near neighbour, England. It is essential to point out that the country we call Scotland is not, and never has been, a part of England; they are separate countries with very different histories and cultures. However, the development of both countries was influenced by their relations with each other.

          During the Ice Age, Scotland was uninhabitable. The first people who came to Scotland seem to have arrived in the millenium after the glaciers receded. These people left little in the way of archaeological remains, but the available evidence tells us that they probably lived on the coast, were not agricultural, and may have been of differing cultures. "All we can say is that for long these peoples must have been few in number, and their lives must have been hard, dangerous, and short.*q 11

          The first historical mention of people in Scotland was made by a Roman writer in 297 ad. The Romans had conquered southern Britain, and in the late first and early second centuries, they made several attempts to get hold of Scotland too. Some land gains were made but proved too difficult to hold, and the Romans finally gave up. Unlike most of Europe, the impact of Rome on Scottish culture was therefore slight12 (this was also true in Ireland).

          By the early 9th century, five groups can be identified in what is now Scotland. Each had its own language and "turf", although some cultural contact must have occurred. The most mysterious of these were the Picts.

          We know very little about the Picts. We don't know what they called themselves: Pictii means "painted" or "tattooed" and was probably simply a Roman description. They appear to have descended from earlier settlers.13 There is some evidence that they were not a homogenous people but a federation of several different groups, some of which appear to have spoken a non-Indo-European14 language. They are known for the standing stones that they left around Scotland; these are marked by symbols, the meaning and purpose of which is unknown but which indicate a hierarchical, warring, and at least partly pastoral society. They were not populous. By 500 ad, the Picts were confined north of the Forth-Clyde line; by 7th century, east of the long mountain range that forms Scotland's spine.15 And then, "[q]uite suddenly, around the middle of the 9th century, the Picts...disappear[ed] into history as mysteriously as they had appeared."16

          What became of the Picts is one of the enduring mysteries of Scottish history, but there are several possible factors. An eighth century Pictish king seems to have occupied the Scottish throne briefly, but "[a]lmost immediately afterwards we find a Scot, Kenneth MacAlpin, ruling the Picts".17 MacAlpin's mother was probably a Pict, so this takeover may have been at least partly the natural result of intermarriage, but there is also some evidence that treachery was involved, possibly a slaughter of Pictish rulers. Whatever happened, the Picts simply ceased to exist as an identifiable people.

          Another important group in early Scottish history came from northern Ireland and called themselves Scotti. Gaels had been arriving from Ireland from about the 4th century, and they eventually formed two separate kingdoms. One group settled in Galloway, where for centuries they maintained a separate identity from that of Scotland. The other group settled in what is now Argyll. This group was an extension of the Dalriada kingdom in Antrim, and initially they were ruled from Ireland. By the late 6th century, however, the Dalriadic kings were located in Scotland. By the 9th C, the Scots had expanded to central Scotland and their Gaelic speech had spread almost as far as Edinburgh.

          The culture from which the Dalriadic Scots came was tribal in nature18 and far from harmonious—rival tribes were frequently at war with each other (possibly related to royal succes-sion) and Dalriadic kings apparently fought other groups as well.19

          South of Dalriada were British tribes, the northern half of the southern Celtic peoples. Originally located in southwestern Scotland and adjacent western regions of England, the Britons were divided by invading Angles and Saxons after the Romans left; those in the south were pushed into Wales and Cornwall; those in the north limited to Strathclyde. The British tribes spoke a language from which developed modern Welsh and the now-extinct Cornish. Of all the groups in ninth century, the Strathclyde British were faring worst;20 they had no organized kingdom, their princes fighting each other, and they failed to develop economically.

          East of the British tribes were the Angles. Unlike the other early peoples in Scotland, the Angles were not Celts; like the Saxons further south, they were Teutonic and spoke a Germanic language, which eventually became Old English. Most of them were in England, to which they gave name ("Angle-land"), but some had swept up from northern England to occupy the south-eastern part of what is now Scotland. Once established there, they began pushing into British lands, but they were unable to overcome the Scots, their eastward expansion was halted by the Picts. Losses from the Picish defeat were so heavy that it effectively ended their western expansion as well;21 by the 7th century, the Angles were largely confined to the Lothians.22

          The fifth historical group in Scotland were the Norsemen, or Vikings. The Vikings were without question the most formative influence in 9th and 10th century Scotland. They came to Scotland slightly later than the other groups; their arrival was violent and their impact is still felt.

          Scotland's Vikings came first as raiders in the late 8th century. In the 9th century, they took Orkney and Shetland (the Northern Isles) as bases for further raiding to Ireland and Iceland23 and the Isle of Man was also a "favourite base for plundering expeditions".24 Late in the 9th century, however, Vikings began to settle in parts of Scotland, often on the sites of dispossessed Scottish or Pictish settlements.25 Eventually they held all of the northern and western islands and adjacent sections of the mainland; they also established themselves in Ireland and northern England.

          Norse colonization threatened the earlier groups. Pictish society in the Northern Isles was "totally submerged",26 and the Scots takeover of mainland Picts may have been facilitated by a Viking defeat. Ultimately more significant, Norse control of the Northern and Western Isles, Ireland, and northern England effectively cut Scotland off from the rest of the world. Dalriada's Antrim tie was severed, and the Scottish church, which early in 8th century had nominally accepted Roman usages in the place of Celtic, developed characteristics of ritual and discipline quite out of line with those practised elsewhere—not because they wished to flaut Roman canon law but because they simply didn't know what was expected.27

          The Norse presence also influenced Scotland's linguistic development. Although the Gaelic language in Scotland must have undergone minor changes over the preceding five centuries, there is "no clear proof of separate Scots Gaelic development in language before the 10th century AD".28 The native language(s) of the Northern Isles were completely replaced by the Norse tongue—in the Shetlands, a form of Norse was spoken until very recently, and the English spoken in the Northern Isles today is markedly different from that of the rest of Scotland in cadence and (especially in Shetland) vocabulary. Although Gaelic ultimately triumphed in the Western Isles, the Norse impact can still be seen in place names, notably on the Isle of Lewis, where 4/5 of the place names are Norse.29

          Finally, the Viking era played a part in bringing Scotland's different people groups together. Norse raiders provided a common enemy, and the encirclement that cut the different peoples off from related groups elsewhere forced them to look inward.

          Eventually, Scotland's newest settlers were absorbed into the cultures they had once threatened. Two of the main reasons for this were the Norse adoption of Christianity and intermarriage with local people (some of the Gaelic families of today descend from assimilated Norsemen, including the MacAulays and the MacAskills).

          Sometimes military conquest by native leaders turned the tide in favour of Gaelic culture. A good example of this, and one that is particularly relevant to MacAlasdairs, was Somerled. Somerled was originally the ruler of Argyll, under the nominal control of the Norse King, whose sister he married. Despite these Norse ties, he was indisputably a Gael, claiming descent on his father's side from the kings of Dalriada, and by the time of his death in 1164, he had restored many of the inner Hebrides (Western Isles) to Gaelic control, defeating their Norse ruler, Godred, and adding them to his mainland kingdom. From him descended the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who "continued to enjoy semi-autonomous rule" long after the Hebrides were ceded to Scottish crown in 1266, and the beginning of the Lordship of the Isles contributed to the return of "the ancient Gaelic language and culture" in the Hebrides.30

          Somerled is important to MacAlasdairs because our family descends from his grandson, Alasdair Mòr (d. 1299), and originated in Kintyre - part of Somerled's original lands of Argyll.

          Even after the Norse had been conquered or assimilated, their influence lingered in Scotland for centuries. The Western Isles and Kintyre belonged to the Norse king until the 13th century, although they were too far from Norway to be controlled by him in practice. The Orkneys and Shetlands remained in Norse hands for much longer, and Scottish control over the Northern Isles did not begin until the reign of James IV (1488–1513). Many 20th century Shetlanders still do not consider themselves to be Scots. The northern parts of mainland Scotland, Ross and Caithness (then including Sutherland), were not formally Norse after the 11th century, but they were much more accessible from the Norse Orkneys than from Edinburgh, and for all practical purposes they also remained under Norse control.

          The formation of modern Scotland can be said to have started about ad 843, when Kenneth MacAlpin, king of the Scots, became also king of the Picts, uniting the two peoples into the kingdom of Alba. By 1034, the Picts, Scots, Lothian Angles, and Strathclyde Britons all owed common allegience to an Alban king,31 and by time of Malcolm Canmore (1058–93), all but the Norse peoples were giving allegience to the same royal house.

          Despite their common allegiance to one king, however, these peoples could not be called a state as we know it; nobody inside or outside of Alba considered its various peoples to be unified or homogenous; there was no uniform legal code—the Celtic regions had one set of laws, Galloway another, and the Angles their own, although disputes were probably decided by force of arms more often than not—32 and the various groups occasionally warred with each other as well as with outsiders.

Scotland, in fact, was much less an identifiable state than a confederacy of peoples with distinct characteristics and traditions, each prone to rebellion and to internecine war, held together only by allegiance to the person of the king.33

          Although the basic ingredients were in place, the fusion of Scotland's disparate peoples would take centuries. The Vikings had provided a common enemy, but dynastic power-plays, the organisation and work of the church, and feudal administration in 12th and 13th centuries all played significant parts in the process of forging one people from several, a process solidified in later times by continuing conflict with England.

          In 1066, William of Normandy usurped the English throne. The Anglo-Saxon court, including its royal family, fled to Scotland. Scotland's king Malcolm III married one of these refugees, Margaret, whose brother Atheling had claim to English throne. Margaret and her son David introduced changes that would radically alter Scotland and effect the lives of its people. The greatest impact of Margaret, who had grown up in Europe and was deeply pious, was on the Scottish church. After centuries of isolation from the rest of Christendom, the church in Scotland completely lacked central organisation and an effective hierarchy; they observed Easter at a different time, and their clergy were not all celibate. Furthermore, important positions in the church were in some places held by laymen, resulting in corruption of various kinds.34 Margaret introduced reforms, carried on by her son after her death, that brought the Scottish church fairly rapidly back in line with the church elsewhere. The reorganized church brought uniformity to worship around the country and proved to be a factor in the establishment of central control.

          King James IV of ScotlandUnder Malcolm III we also see the beginnings of the Scottish/English conflict. The border between the two countries had always been changeable, and a struggle began between William and Malcolm for control of Northumbria. The following centuries would involve the frequent making of contracts, usually with Scotland owing some sort of homage to English king, and the immediate breaking thereof, by both sides, and the conflict was not finally settled until Scotland's King James VI became king of England as well in 1603.

          Some of Scotland's less emotionally involved modern historians have pointed out that Scotland's ambitions were largely to blame for conflicts btw 1136-2217. The English king's claim to homage from Scotland had some historical legitimacy, but in general it lay dormant when there was peace; when trouble arose, however, it was re-exerted and enforced. Medieval Scottish kings allied themselves with the French, England's traditional enemy, and conflict inevitably ensued that might otherwise have been avoided.35

          Malcolm and Margaret's son, David I, became king in 1124. He had spent most of his life at the English court and married an English heiress. Anglo-Norman ways of governing were familiar to him, and he naturally transplanted them to Scotland. To begin with, he gave large tracts of land to his Anglo-Norman followers and installed Anglo-Normans in most of the important church and state offices. Eventually, the Celtic earls who formed backbone of the native Alban aristocracy were also brought into the new system. This kept the Celtic system alive in the areas they controlled, and, through intermarriage with Anglo-Norman families, helped to infused the feudal society with some of the older traditions.36

Dryburgh Abbey

          David I and his followers were largely responsible for the set-up in Scotland of the feudal system then current in England and Europe. In a feudal society, land is granted by the king or a landowner to a vassal, in a legal arrangement that includes privileges and responsibilities for both side. Vassals were obligated to provide their overlords with military assistance and counsel when needed, to pay tributes of money or agricultural goods, and to enforce the king's laws on the people under their jurisdiction. In return, the vassals expected the protection of the king or overlord and the security of knowing that, except in cases of treason, his land would not be taken from him. Vassals with large holdings often sub-letted, their tenants becoming vassals to them with the same responsibilities and privileges, resulting in a clear hierarchy whereby the tenant at any level was responsible to his lord. The vassal did not own his land; he was, in a sense, a caretaker of land which ultimately belonged to the king.37

          The spread of feudalism radically changed the structure of Scottish society. One result was that royal control over outlying areas increased. Because of the vassal's responsibility enforce the king's wishes on his land and to punish those inclined to rebel, grants of land in difficult areas to loyal followers of the king helped him to bring these places into line. Local laws began to be replaced by more uniform laws, contributing to a sense of uniformity across the land.38

          Some areas, of course, remained outside of the king's control. Much of the far north continued to be ruled from Orkney; Galloway rebelled repeatedly against the newcomers and new system (the Galwegian legal code was in force until the 14th century)39; Moray had always had strong, and often rebellious, leaders of its own. The Western Isles were still technically Norse, but in practice they were ruled by virtually independent leaders of their own (notably the Lords of the Isles), beyond the reach of either Norse or Scottish control.

          One of the major results of feudalism was the widening of the gap between Highland society and that of the Lowlands. In the Lowlands, feudalism and more central control were fairly easily accepted. The Lowland peoples were a mix of various earlier cultures and other, more recently arrived groups. With the spread of the Norman language and the influence of the reorganized church, older groupings were losing their distinctiveness and a sense of unity and similarity had begun to grow. Furthermore, the reality of English attacks tended to make Lowlanders, especially in the Borders, more willing to pay tribute to overlords who promised to defend their homes and land.40

          The Highlands were a different matter altogether. The difficult terrain and complete lack of infrastructure (roads, etc.) in this part of Scotland had resulted in a very different situation from that found in Lowlands society. Highland geography had always kept invaders out, and it did much to prevent the reach of royal control. But more than that, the people were different. Things that had helped to unite the Lowlanders—reorganization of the church, more uniform laws, increasing local and even international trade—had not penetrated the Highlands. With little to attract incomers, the Gaelic tribes in the Highlands had remained completely homogenous, maintaining their pastoral economy and a social structure based on the old groupings of family and kin. Communities were more cut off from each other; they "were small because the supply of food was small; they were isolated because of the great difficulties of communication."41

The geography of the Highlands makes a small chieftainship over a population held together by kin a natural political unit.... The creation of larger political units would be easier in the Lowlands.42

          "Not until the seventeenth century did the Scottish kings begin to have some control in these difficult parts, and not until the measures taken after the Risings in 1715 and 1745 did the government secure effective control."43 Increasingly, Lowlanders viewed Highlanders as a different people altogether.

          Feudalism was a very effective way to run a country—as long as the person at the top of the pyramid, the king, is strong. Until the end of the 13th century, Scotland was ruled by a succession of "unusually able kings".44 In the spring of 1286, however, King Alexander III was killed in what might be considered a medieval traffic accident—he was thrown from his horse—and Scotland was plunged into chaos. Alexander had no surviving children, and his only direct descendant, his three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter, did not survive the journey to Scotland. The issue of descent was decided with the assistance of the English king, on the condition that he be acknowledged as Scotland's overlord, but the king he chose was overthrown and, after a seven-year struggle, Robert the Bruce became King Robert I of Scotland a free from vassalage to England or anyone else. This conflict is called the Wars of Independence.

          The Bruce apparently ruled well, and most of Scotland supported him, but his death in 1329 was followed by a period in which the deepest impression made on visitors to Scotland was one of lawlessness and violence.45 No king for two centuries following Robert was able to keep the English out, rule over the whole country, or provide law and order. Nobles constantly feuded with each other, and smaller lairds followed their example (although much of the turmoil in the Highlands may well have been more the result of inner-clan competition than feuding between rival clans, as is generally believed now46); cattle and sheep rustling were so common that James G. Leyburn calls these activities "almost one of the recognised sports of the time"; those who lost stock in this way appealed to their lairds, who would often help them to regain more than they had actually lost.47

          Earlier kings had created feudal baronies in attempt to control the Northwest, but now these lords were among the most turbulent,48 and for a long time, "the Highland cheiftains ruled their own lands as a land apart".49 Sometimes they went too far, however, and when the Lords of the Isles came into conflict with the Mackenzies, James IV took action against them—although the MacDonald attempts to gain control of the earldom of Ross (which they had been after for some times) probably had something to do with it. The Lordship of the Isles was forfeited and its confederacy broken up in 1493.50 In this the MacAlasdairs played a role—the Castle of Tarbert, of which a branch of the MacAlasdairs had been made caretakers, was used by the king as a naval base for his campaigns against the Lords of the Isles.51

          The Highland and Island clans and their connection to their Irish brethren caused other problems in this period, for English rulers as well as Scottish. In the 14th, 15th, and especially the 16th centuries, "the Irish helped the Islesmen and Highlanders against the Scottish government; the Islesmen and Highlanders helped the Irish against the English government",52 which was at this time attempting to pacify and anglicize them. Furthermore, emigration from western Scotland to northern Ireland had continued, and the influx of Gaels from Scotland was working against England's goal of "civilizing" Ireland.53

          Meanwhile, the Border clans in Scotland were as uncontrollable as the Highland ones. In their lands, as in the Highlands, royal control was limited by the nature of the land and difficult communications, and the constant conflict with England made these clans even more likely to take military action rather than wait for the courts and governments to resolve conflicts.54 "Since the crown was not strong enough to put down the rivals, it stood aside and let them fight it out."55

          Everything began to change in 1603, when King James IV of Scotland inherited the English throne as well.

          [It should be noted here, since my account of Scotland's history and the MacAlister ties to Ireland will have to be continued at a later date, that emigrants from the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland to northern Ireland are not a part of the group we sometimes call the Scotch-Irish. The Scotch-Irish people were Lowlanders, came from the Border areas (both Scottish and English), and considered themselves to be distinct from the Irish they settled among.56 They did not speak Gaelic or wear kilts. Many of the Scotch-Irish were part of the Ulster plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries, from which Highland and Island Scots were specifically excluded.57 Descendants of the Scottish (and Irish) MacAlasdairs are not, therefore, "Scotch-Irish".]



  1. Leyburn, p. xvii
  2. G.R.Elton: The Practice of History (London: Fontana Press, 1967), p
  3. Mitchison, p.11
  4. Keay, p.963
  5. Smout, p.17
  6. Dickinson/Duncan: footnote, p. 8
  7. Leyburn, p.328
  8. MacLysaght, More Irish Families, p.23
  9. Michael F. McAllister: "The Battle of Dunaverty", in Macalister, compiled by members of the Clan McAlister
  10. Grant, p.148
  11. Dickinson/Duncan, pp.10-11
  12. Ibid., pp.19-20
  13. Keay, p.775
  14. With a few exceptions, all of the world's languages are believed to have developed from five "proto-languages" or language families. Most of the European languages, including English, Russian, French, and Gaelic, belong to the Indo-European family of languages. How a non–Indo-European language would have ended up in prehistorical Scotland is an interesting question.
  15. Mitchison, p.4
  16. Keay, p.776
  17. Ibid., pp.5-6
  18. Ibid., p.37
  19. Keay, pp.215-6
  20. Mitchison, p.3
  21. Dickinson/Duncan, p.27
  22. Smout, p.19
  23. Ibid., p.4
  24. Keay, pp.961-3
  25. Ibid.
  26. Keay, pp.961-3
  1. Smout, pp.20-21
  2. Keay, p. 403
  3. Ibid., p.963
  4. Keay, pp.961-3
  5. Smout, pp.19-20
  6. Dickinson/Duncan, p.55
  7. Smout, p.20
  8. Ibid., p.19
  9. Dickinson/Duncan, pp. 75-6
  10. Smout, p.23
  11. Dickinson/Duncan, pp.78-9
  12. Ibid., p.101
  13. Smout, p.20-24
  14. Dickinson/Duncan, pp.5
  15. Ibid., p.4
  16. Mitchison, p.?
  17. Dickinson/Duncan, p.7
  18. Smout, p.21
  19. Leyburn, p.4
  20. Dickinson/Duncan, p.52
  21. Leyburn, pp. 6-7
  22. Ibid., p.40
  23. Dickinson/Duncan, p.7
  24. Mitchison, p.82
  25. Collins, p.204
  26. Dickinson/Duncan, p.4
  27. Collins, p.204
  28. Dickinson/Duncan, p.8
  29. Leyburn, P.328
  30. Dickinson/Duncan, p.8
  31. Leyburn, p.9
  32. Dollarhide
  33. Leyburn, p.xvii