Gaels and Scots



It was the Romans, who occupied Britain for approximately four hundred years, that called people living in Ireland by the Latin term Scotti: the names ‘Scot’ and ‘Scotland’ are derived from this word. Although the origin of the word Scotti is unknown, it is known that the Scotti spoke a Q-Celtic language and that they called themselves Goídil (Gaels). Therefore, the words ‘Scot’ and ‘Gael’ mean the same. Some of these Gaels in Ireland lived in a kingdom in northern Ulster called Dál Riata. Shortly after, or possibly even before, the Romans left Britain (c.410 AD), Dál Riata expanded across the Irish sea to occupy territory in Argyllshire. However, by c.500 AD the focus of the kingdom seems to have shifted from Ulster to Argyll, possibly because more powerful tribes in Ireland were expanding northwards into Ulster. Whatever the case, the original Scots who first came to Scotland, and gave it its name, spoke Old Gaelic, and it is therefore true to say that Gaelic is the original Scottish language.


An important document originally written in the late seventh century, Senchas Fer nAlban (the History of the Men of Scotland), divides the kingdom of Dál Riata (in Scotland) into three main kin-groups: Cenél nGabráin (Kintyre, Gigha, Jura and Cowal), Cenél nOengusa (Islay) and Cenél Loairn (Lorn, Colonsay, Mull, Tiree, Coll and Ardnamurchan). According to surviving king-lists and genealogies, most of the kings of Dál Riata belonged to Cenél nGabráin, apart from a period c.700 AD when Cenél Loairn gained temporary supremacy. There are a number of important fortified sites associated with the kingdom of Dál Riata, including Dunadd, Dunollie and Dundurn. Some of these sites have been excavated and archaeologists have found evidence of relatively large quantities of Gaulish and Mediterranean trade goods like glass, dye and pottery. This would indicate that these fortified sites were important trading centres.


One reason which would partly account for this international trade could have been the presence of the early Celtic church foundation on í (Iona) which seems to have been set up by Colum Cille (Columba) under the protection of the kings of Dál Riata. Monks on í would have needed a wide range of dyes to illustrate manuscripts and gospel books like the Book ofKells. Successive abbots of the monastery on í also took a great interest in the political affairs of Dál Riata. Therefore, the deaths of important people and other events connected to the kingdom are frequently mentioned in the Gaelic annals of Ulster and Tigernach. Entries in these annals indicate that kings of Dál Riata attempted to extend their authority eastwards into Pictland from an early period. One king, Aedán mac Gabráin (c.574-608 AD) is recorded as having fought both Picts and Anglo-Saxons and one of his sons, Gartnait, is stated to have been a ‘king of Picts’ when he died c.602 AD. Although the kingdom of Dál Riata was conquered by a powerful Pictish king, Onuist, in 741 AD, by 789 AD it is possible that a Gaelic dynasty, headed by Causantín mac Fergusa, had established their overlordship in the kingdom of Fortriu in southern Perthshire. If this interpretation is correct, it is possible that Gaelic overlordship was established in parts of Pictland before the beginning of the reign of Cináed mac Alpín (Kenneth I) c.848 AD.