Medieval Scotland

Figure 1.--

Historical Background

The Medieval era can be said to have begun with the recall of the Roman Legions from Britain (409). With the withdrawl of the legions, the Picts intensified y their raids south. It is at this time that waves of migrating German tribes, the Saxons, sweep over Britain. Many Celtic Britons retreating from the Saxon invasions settle in Caledonia between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth which eventually collaseses in to the Kingdom of Strathclyde. To the north at the beginning of the 6th century, Celtic invaders from Ireland establish the Kingdom of Dalriada. The pagan Angles, another invading Germanic tribe settled in what is now northern England founding the kingdom of Northumbria. The Angles in the mid-6th century moved north seizing much of the land south of the Firth of Fourth and east of Strathclyde. Strathclyde and some Picts were converted to Christianity and Columba came to Dalriada froim Ireland (563). He largely converted the remaing Picts. Conflicts develop between the Celts and Picts who fuse into the Scotts on one suide and the Angles in Northumbria. Keneth MacAlpine in the mid-9th century rules over all of Scotland, but faces incessent warfare with the Norse. The conflict between the Scotts and English continues when the the Normon William the Conqueror defeats the Saxons at hastings (1066). Malcomb's son, Edgar, with Norman assistance is crowned (1097). The Anglization of Scotland accelerated during Edgar's reign (1097-1107) and that of his two brothers, Alexander I (1107-24) and David I (1124-53). Edward I also succeeds in annexing Scotland to England, but is thwarted first by William Wallace anf finally by Robert the Bruce. The feuding Scottish nobility, however, prevents the establishment of a strong royal Government. After Robert there is a decline of royal authority and further English encroachments. The Stuart dynasty was founded by Robert II. The Stuarts were unable to overcome the Scottish nobility and impose strng royal authority in Scotland. As a result, Scotland under the Stuarts were unable to resist English encroachments. While the Reformnation was initaited by the English monarchy, in Scotland in occurred in spite of the opposition of the monarchy, although supported by the English. Ironically, although Queen Elizabeth executed her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scotts, her Protestant son James V of Scotland succeeded her as King James I of England, launching the English Stuart dynasty.

The Clans


David I (1124-53), influenced by his exile in England and his English mother, introduced Norman-style Feudalism to Scotland. Davis abolished the traditional Scottish system of land tenure which was essential tribal. Rather David claiming the Crown owned all land, a basic principle of European Feudalism, granted large tracts in central and southern Scotland tohis key supporters, both Anglo Normon and Scottish nobels. David proceeded with a range of judicial, legislative, and administrative reforms essentially based on Normon models. He promoted trade with England and granted privildes to many Scottish burghs (towns).


Scottish burghs (towns) were established by royal charter in the mid-medieval period. The burghs were a legal entity designed to oversee trade in the interest of the Crown. Some burghs were newly founded towns situated at sites offering geographic advantages. Others were based on pre-existing settlements. Perth was an especially important burgh because it was situated on the River Tay allowing goods produced in the interior to be floated down the river. In addition the tidal flow of the river made it an ideal port providing connectiins with other Northsea ports in Scotland and abroad, especially the Low Countries where there was a strong demand for Scottish wool. Perth was one of the first Royal Burghs in Scotland. King David I in the mid 12th century issued the city's first royal charter. [Smith]

The Economy

Scotland had a largely pastoral economy. Important products produced in Scotland included wool, woolfells (sheepskins bearing wool), skins and hides from both domestic (cattle) and wild animals (deerskins and fur pelts), and barrels of salmon. [Smith]

The Clearances

The Church

The Reformation in Scotland

While the Reformation in England was initaited by the monarchy, in Scotland in occurred in spite of the opposition of the monarchy, although supported by the English.The Reformation was preceeded by a rising sence of popular disatisfaction with the Catholic clergy. Both Lollardy and Wycliffe in England had influenced some. Merchants and the minor nobility were the first to embrace the Reformation, not only for religius reasons, but as a vehicle for independe from both England and France. Protestant teaching reached Scotland only a few years after Martin Lurther launched tghe Reformation. As early as 1522 the Royal Government was attempting to stop the circulation of Luthern books. Early Reformation leaders like Patrick Hamilton were adherents of Luther, but John Knox led the Scottish Reformation to a Calvinist confession. John Knox lived for a time in Geneva and was influenced by John Calvin. He became the driving force of the Reformation in Scotland. Know was the first spokesman for Presbyterianism. Knox persuaded the Scottish Parliament to adopt a confession and book of discipline modeled on those develooped by Calvin in Geneva (1560). Parliament created the Scottish Presbyterian Church governed by local kirks. Mary Queen of Scotts attempted to attempted to reinstate the Catholic Church, but was friven to exile in England. Her infant son James, the future James I of England, was kept in Scotland and eventually tutored by Presbyterian scholars. The Catholic Church was reduced to minor importance, except for a few districts in the north.


A great deal has been written about historical Scottish clothing and much of it concerns men. A great deal of this literature adrresses the development of the kilt and the associated clan tartans. Much of this, however, occurred in the late Medieval eras or after the Medieval era. We have realtively limited information on Scottish clothing in the early Medieval era, although more information becomes available for the late Medieval era. The Medieval era lasted for 1,000 years thus the information on late Medieval costume is not representaive of eralier eras.

Ancient Celts

One interesting historically anomally is that today Scotland and Celtic Europe is strongly associated with the kilt which is seen as a kind of Scottish national costume. Yet the ancient Celts themselves wore breaches, a kind of trouser and the Roman soldiers who wore kilt-like skirts looked on the Celtic breaches as barbaric. Thus the story of how the Scottish (largely a fusion of Irish Celts, Britsih Celts pushed north by Romans and Saxons, and Celt-influenced Picts) came to wear kilts rather than trousers needs to be expalined. We do not yet fully understand this transition.

Early Medieval era

Celtic (Gaelic) dress was dominant in the eraly middle ages. We have less information about the Picts, but as they were stringly influened by Celtic culture it is likely that this included clothing. The differences between the Highlands and Lowlands was not yet apparent in the early Medidval era. Scotland was invaded by the Irish Celts in the 6th century and the resulting Kingdom of Dalrida played a major role in the unification of Scotland. Thus Irish and Scottish clothing would have been quite similar. Some historians believe that the Scotts dressed similarly to the Irish in the early Medieval era. [Krossa] Eventually differences developed, but these developments are not well reported and understood.

Late Medieval era

Much of the information available on Scottish Medieval attire relates to the later Medieval era. English influence began to increase in the 11th century and was especially apparent under David II in the 12th century. Anglization was most pronounced in the Lowlands (southern Scotland). Towns (burghs) began to expand in the Lowlands at this time. Men in these towns were often more assocaited with the expanding Anglization of the Lowlands andcthese less likely to be part of the still dominant Gaelic (Celtic) culture in the Highlands. Often thdey looked oin highlanders and uncultured and barbaric. As a result, men in the burghs were likely to dress kike their conterparts in England. Here there are many complicating factors. English influenced declined the English-Scottish wars of the 14th and 15th centuries. Scotland was a poor, underdeveloped area of Europe which affected their dress. Also Scotland was located on the fringe of Europe and thus fashions reached there sometime after they appeared in the fashion centers. [Krossa] Scottish nobles in the later middle ages, even Gaelic nobels would have dressed similarly to other European nobels. Here there was probably even greater similarity with their counteroarts than among the burgh men because the nobels had more money . They could travel more and could afford the latest fashions. [Krossa] Gaelic Highlanders by the late 16th century were wearing 'belted plaids' or 'folded plaids'. This is commonly referred to today as the 'great kilt'. It was basically just a long blanket pleated and worn belted around the waist. Some nobel men even in the Highlands during the 16th century appear to have begun dressing like Lowlanders. [Krossa]


Krossa, Sharon L. " Scottish Men's Clothing.

Smith, Catherine. "Flesche and Fische aneuch’: the Role of Animals in the Scottish Medieval Economy".


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Created: September 10, 2003
Last updated: September 10, 2003