Scotland Is Not Just Geography

It was Henry de Bohun who changed history catching, as he did, Robert de Brus out in front of his army at Bannockburn on a light palfrey. Despite de Brus’s glancing blow with his battle axe, de Bohun’s helmet held and the heavily armoured knight brought de Brus down, whethupon his schiltron retreated at the first English charge. Instead of their original plan to flank the Scots with cavalry alone, this allowed Gloucester & Hereford to follow up the centre with archers, which decimated Keith and Moray’s schiltrons in succession. Stirling Castle was relieved and, with that, went the last hope of independence.

Treated little different from the recently conquered Welsh, most of Lowland Scotland grew peaceable under great castles built across the Lowlands. Those at Perth, Dundee, Inverdee, The Broch and Inverness held sway over the fertile lands of Angus, Buchan and Moray, since, as at Harlech or Conwy they could be supplied and reinforced from the sea. But those at Dunstaffnage, Inverlochy and Dornie on the treacherous West coast proved not worth the effort for the barren hills of their hinterland.

And so the Albanach were hemmed back in their historic heartland—trackless wastes from Badenoch to the Hebrides while what came to be called the Scots were the english-speaking majority ruled from London, much as the Welsh.

In these new circumstances, Angus Óg MacDomhnaill, who had fought with de Brus, reneged on his father’s subserviance to Alexander III and declared Lords of the Isles to be kings in their own right and reasserted a title stretching back before Somerled to a time before Vikings came. This gaelic-speaking Alba remained a stump of a kingdom, confined the mountainous West. The North Isles and the fertile Caithness and Dornoch lowlands remained to the Earl of Orkney until traded into English control by Gustavus Adolphus.

The English, content with peace and the profitable parts of Scotland, could return their attention to their extensive Angevin empire across Western France, threatened from 1337 on by the Hundred Years War. Though thereby left in peace, the remainder of Alba (the English retained the name ‘Scotland’ for their conquests) remained culturally isolated, having neither ports nor larger ships nor many goods to trade with emerging riches in Europe in the shape of Hanseatic ports and the Low Countries.

With their backs secure and the riches parts of Britain providing the funds, the English were able not only to survive against the more numerous French but at the pivotal siege of Orleans in 1429, were able to break the French, despite all Joan of Arc had achieved and so remained a Continental power controlling effectively the western half of France. So while Constantinople and Granada both fell later that century, making both Spain and Turkey major European powers, the weak Henry VI was able to survive without civil war and prosper.

As a result, England was able to wrest the rich Catholic Netherlands from the Duke of Burgundy, whom the weakened French crown was unable to support. This, together with joint maritime interests shared with the Netherlands resulted in both a Protestant religion in both countries and the three-century-long tussle with the Spanish and Portuguese for overseas trade routes and the colonies to secure them. The Anglo-Dutch total defeat of the Armada off Beachy Head (there being no friendly port on either side of the Channel for their damaged ships to retreat to) secured North America for both powers, even as Spain and Portugal secured South America. But because of English preoccupation with Continental affairs from Gascony to Brabant, they never invested in global trading.

Meanwhile, the Lords of the Isles survived ruling over a backward rump Alba for centuries, meting out justice from their capital at Finlaggan, exercising power through a system of clan chiefs and a small standing navy of birlinns. Aside from fending off the occasional cattle raid, the English largely left them in peace, as they also left the handful of High Kings who ruled segments of Ireland at different times. Both Alba and Ireland lacked the riches of the valleys of the Loire, Meuse or Garonne to repay much attention. But, cut off by England, Alba had been active sending sons of leaders to France for cultivation and these wordly men saw opportunities and developed ocean-going ship types to trade with all the blossoming new colonies.

Having developed coastal ships beyond birlinns to ocean-going types, Alban caravels became the traveling traders of the world, first using ad hoc colonies on Central American islands as bases and then, when they developed into the piratical federation of Caribbea, preying on colonies all along the Atlantic coast, they developed longer-ranged routes with the East via South Africa. A long-term association with Portugal grew up with trade ports from both often established close by, such as Malacca/Penang, Zanzibar/Dar es Salaam Bombay/Goa and Macao/Hong Kong.

The trade profits and maritime skills revolutionised Alba. With plentiful harbours available at home as entrepôts, with a population used to hardship, the Albanach made indomitable sailors and shrewd traders. And whereas the Spanish and Portuguese saw natives as either slaves or competition, the Albanach made peace, learned local survival skills and intermarried so that the network of entrepots they established around the globe all had fruitful hinterlands and willing partners in the natives. So successful did they become that thousands of Irish were recruited to fill shortfalls and all over Islay—not just around Finlaggan became a melting pot of languages from all over the globe.

From a backward collection of islands and isolated glens, Alba passed England in riches per head by the mid-18th century to dominate world trade, becoming the first real internationalists and, effectively, the Phoenicians of the 21st century.


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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