A Brief History
On January 28, 2022, we know of a Scotland firmly entrenched in the broader United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and previously a major member of the British Empire, but of course before 1707 when Scotland became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, Scotland had been an independent kingdom since the 9th Century. With recent rumblings in Scotland of a return to independent status, increased interest in the origins of this great country and its people become relevant as modern scholars must know where you have been to determine where you are going. One bizarre theory of Scottish origins holds that Ancient Egyptians or other North Africans were the original founders of Scotland, and this account dates back to at least 1320!
Mainstream academic history finds the first known written record of Scotland made by a Greek sailor, Pytheas, in 320 BC. By this time, Scotland, called “Orcas” by Pytheas, had already transformed from a land of tiny bands of hunter/gatherers to a relatively stable civilization of farmers and the establishment of permanent settlements that developed into towns. But what of the more ancient history that preceded the Greek knowledge of Scotland?
Scientists tell us ancient Scots first appeared around the end of the last Ice Age, as much as 14,000 years ago, as evidenced by tools made of flint. No Neanderthal or earlier proto-human presence in Scotland has been discovered, so the first Scots are believed to be our “modern” human ancestors. These stone age Homo sapiens are believed to have traveled to the island of Great Britain via a “land bridge” that connected Great Britain to the European continent during the last part of or just after the last Ice Age. Obviously, this sort of academic allegation greatly precedes the advent of the Egyptian civilization, which is currently believed to have first developed around 3100 BC.
Contrary to modern academic theories of the origins of humans in Scotland, Irish and Scottish mythology both claim that Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, had traveled to Ireland to establish a settlement on the Emerald Isle from which those people, called “Scotti” in these myths, in turn traveled to Scotland to establish the basis of the Scots people.
Of course, people in the Medieval period and prior did not have established archaeological methods and technical tools such as Carbon dating, strata analysis, and an understanding of other methods of dating seemingly ancient fossils and artifacts. The human tendency to just make up an explanation for things unknown obviously included the topic of “where did the Scots people come from?” An early record of the Scota myth is found in the Book of Leinster, believed to have been completed around 1201 AD. An even earlier mention of the Scota story can be found in Historia Brittonum, written in the 9th Century AD and amended through the 12th Century AD.
Yet another document claiming such amazing origins of the Scottish people is the The Declaration of Arbroath, a letter sent by Scottish noblemen to Pope John XXII in an effort to elicit the support of the Pope for the cause of the independence of Scotland. By claiming an ethnic heritage different from that of the other British people, the Scots hoped to undermine the efforts of England to dominate Scotland. In the Declaration, the Scots noblemen cite the “fact” that Scots were descended from Israelites that had traveled from Egypt to Scotland in ancient times, even before the Exodus.
While mythological accounts may be entertaining and fun, and at times used to instill a level of pride or claim to an ancient heritage, modern science often undermines the premise of these myths with hard archaeological and scientific evidence.
Another modern analytical tool that debunks the “Scots came from Egyptians” myth is using DNA from modern Scottish people to determine their origins. The latest studies of Scottish DNA show a likelihood that Scots are descended from Irish Gaelic people that emigrated to Scotland, though the national DNA of Scotland is a rich mixture of many different sources. Interestingly, a 2012 study of the DNA of Scots people indicated that about 1% of the Scottish population can trace lineage back to North African sources, namely Berber and Tuareg tribesmen dating back over 5 millennia. Trace amounts of Scottish DNA also stem from far flung origins, including Middle Eastern Saracen sources, though only in tiny portions. Exactly when DNA influences were inserted into the Scottish genetic pool are difficult to determine, as interaction with other populations such as the Anglo-Saxons from Southern Britain and the Norse/Viking invaders have not only left their mark, but also reflect the diverse genetic sources of those people. In any case, modern DNA analysis does not support the “Israelites from Egypt” claim.
One of the “Scots came from Egypt” myths stemmed from the account by Walter Bower (1385-1449) who claimed to be citing the work of priest, Chronica Gentis Scotorum. Bower’s work, given the catchy title of Scotichronicon, again details the settling of Ireland and then Scotland by the legendary Scota, with her equally legendary cohort, Goídel Glas, the purported founder of the Goidelic language that became what we know as Gaelic. While Bower’s work is not taken seriously as history by scholars, it is given credit for helping to establish a Scottish national identity and is notable for its mention of the Robin Hood character, referring to Robin Hood as a “murderer.”
So, if the Scots are basically descended from Gaels, where did the Gaels come from? Certainly not ancient Egypt! The Gaels were themselves descended from Celtic people of Northwestern Europe, from Bohemia to Belgium and France. After settling in Ireland, other Gaels traveled to Scotland around 2000 years ago, providing a large part of modern Scottish DNA. The Irish and Scottish Gaels apparently share a common ancestor dating back to about 600 BC.
Using modern investigative techniques such as archaeology and DNA analysis, today’s scientists find no substance to the claims of Egyptian origin of the Scots people. While decisively proving that an assertion is not so may be tricky, demanding some sort of proof of that allegation is a far easier method of undermining the core argument, in this case that Scots are descended from Egyptians or Egyptian Israelites. There just is no credible reason to believe such an assertion has any scientific merit, though it does make an interesting tale!
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For more information, please see…
Brown, Eric. Scottish History: A Concise Overview of the History of Scotland From Start to End. Independently published, 2019.
Moffat, Alistair. Scotland: A History from Earliest Times. Birlinn, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a map by Charles Colbeck of Medieval Europe in the 13th Century, is in the public domain in the United States. This status applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1927, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.
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