In his book, Scottish History For Dummies, Knox explores the story of Scotland and its place within the historical narratives of Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. Here, writing for HistoryExtra, he reveals 10 surprising facts about Scottish history...


There is no genetically pure or original Scot

There is no common ancestral or genetic heritage that links the peoples of Scotland. The country was a patchwork quilt of various peoples grouped together in tribes who certainly never thought of themselves as Scottish. They owed allegiance only to their kith and kin, but in the campaigns against Roman imperialism they built federations that laid the basis of kingdoms.

Ancient Scotland was made up of four separate groups: Angles, Britons, Picts and Gaels (or Scoti), who each spoke a different language. Latin became the common language of the whole country only after the Christianisation of Scotland in the 6th century AD.

More like this

Kenneth McAlpin (810–858) was not, as is popularly claimed, the first king of Scotland

What McAlpin did was in 842 take advantage of the Picts who had been severely weakened militarily by punitive Viking raids, and unite the kingdom of the Gaels with that of Pictavia. But while he ruled over the whole of Scotland north of the river Forth, large parts of the country were still in the hands of the Vikings in the north and Islands, and in the south the Anglo-Saxons ruled.

But McAlpin was referred to as king of the Picts – a title conferred on him at his coronation on Moot Hill at Scone, Perthshire, in 843 AD. It was not until the reign of Donald II (889–900) that the monarch became known as the ri Alban (king of Alba).

McAlpin’s achievement was to create a long-lasting dynasty that gradually extended the territorial borders of Scotland both north and south, but it was not until 1469 that what we know as Scotland today was established.

William the Lion (1165–1214) was not, as his name suggests, a strong and fearless king

Although he was on the throne longer than any other Scottish monarch, with the exception of James VI and I, never was a king so humiliated as William. Captured by the English, he gained his release only by signing the treaty of Falaise in December 1174. By the terms of the treaty he only ruled Scotland with the permission of the English crown. The treaty lasted 15 years and was repealed when the Scots agreed to pay a hefty sum of money.

But the humiliation didn’t end there, as in 1209 he was again forced to pay homage to John I. Therefore, his contribution was to heraldry rather than statecraft; he put the lion rampant on the Scottish flag.

William Wallace was not the only patriotic leader of the resistance to the English occupation of Scotland

Equally important was Andrew de Moray. In the winter of 1297 he escaped from an English prison and immediately began to organise the resistance in the north of Scotland against English rule. By the end of the year his forces were in control of Morayshire and had taken possession of the principal castles of the region, including Elgin and Inverness.

De Moray’s success in the north was matched by Wallace’s in the south. After the defeat of the English at Stirling Bridge in September 1297 de Moray was mentioned along with Wallace in letters as ‘the leaders of the army and of the realm of Scotland’. However, victory came at a price: de Moray was wounded at Stirling and died two months later.

Some historians have argued that too much of the credit for this has gone to Wallace, and that the successful campaign of 1297 owed more to de Moray than it did to his more celebrated contemporary.

The Scots never won a battle when they were favourites

At Flodden Field in 1513 the largest Scottish army ever assembled to invade England was annihilated by a much smaller English army that inflicted 10,000 causalities on the Scots in just two hours. Again at Solway Moss in 1542 a Scottish force of 15,000 men was defeated by 3,000 English soldiers – and 1,200 Scots were taken prisoner. The defeat was so demoralising that James V took to his bed and died of shame.

When the Scots were the underdogs they did best. At the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 a vastly outnumbered Scottish army inflicted a devastating defeat on the English. Just 17 years later at Bannockburn an English army three times that of the Scots was decimated by the forces of Robert the Bruce. In 1745 the rag tag army of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, walked through Scotland and in to England as far as Derby where it inexplicably turned face and marched home with London within its grasp.

The proud boast that Scotland has never been conquered is nonsense

This view is part of the folklore of the Scottish people handed down from one generation to the next. There are of course a few grains of truth contained in the assertion: the Romans were frustrated in their attempts to conquer Caledonia and so resorted to building walls to keep the warring tribes from attacking them.

Likewise Edward I, the hammer of the Scots, occupied large swathes of Scottish territory, but that only sparked a resistance that ended with the defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314.

The patriotic Scottish boast regarding national prowess begins to look more than a little threadbare when we take account of the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland in the 1650s: Cromwell’s New Model Army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Scots at Dunbar in 1650, and followed it up with another at Worcester a year later – 2,000 Scots were killed and more than 10,000 were taken prisoner, including almost all the Scottish leaders. Scotland was incorporated into 'the free state and Commonwealth of England', with 29 out of 31 shires and 44 of the 58 royal burghs assenting to what was known as the ‘Tender of Union’.

Under the terms of the Cromwellian union, the Scots were given 30 seats (half of them held by English officers) in the Westminster parliament. With General George Monck in charge, the conquest of Scotland was complete, and it was only Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the political chaos that followed it that allowed Scotland to regain its sovereignty.

Flora MacDonald (who became famous for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France after he was beaten at the battle of Culloden, the final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising) died a Unionist and Hanoverian

Flora MacDonald was and is a Scottish icon ever associated with the romantic but essentially doomed attempt by the Stuart dynasty to reclaim the throne of Great Britain in 1745. After the adventure collapsed following defeat at Culloden in 1746, Charles Stuart took refuge on the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. Dressed as Flora’s Irish maid, Betty Burke, Charles made his escape.

MacDonald was arrested for her part in the escape and spent some time in the Tower of London, but it was only temporary. Under the amnesty of 1747 she was released from captivity as a prisoner on parole, and lived with Lady Primrose in London. She became a celebrity, and among the many fashionable people who visited her was Frederick Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II.

At the age of 28 Flora married Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh and moved to the Isle of Skye. Difficult economic times saw the couple emigrate to North Carolina in 1774. When the American Wars of Independence broke out in 1776, her husband and five sons fought not on the side of the rebels but for George III’s royal British army! This gives some credence to MacDonald’s claim that she had helped Charles Stuart out of compassion rather than politics.

Her husband was taken prisoner and she left for Scotland. He joined her two years later, and the family took up residence on Skye once more where she died in 1790 a British patriot.

The Labour Party was not a wholly working-class party in Scotland

Although working people constitute the largest section of society north of the border, they were not always supporters of Labour. Most workers in Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries voted Liberal and it was only after the First World War that the vote went to Labour.

However, it was never hegemonic, as the religious divisions in Scotland ensured there was always a sizeable Protestant working-class Unionist (a party that merged with the Conservatives in 1965) vote. The party itself in Scotland was an alliance of skilled male workers and the middle classes –as such it preached against class-based politics, such as those advocated by the far left.

A study of the social backgrounds of inter-war Labour MPs found that around 45 per cent of them were from non-manual backgrounds; a social trend that was to intensify after 1945.

Sectarianism was not just a west coast phenomenon

Most people would identify Catholic and Protestant rivalry with Glasgow and its satellite towns. But the bitterest conflicts in the 20th century took place not in Glasgow, but in middle-class Edinburgh in the 1930s.

Led by rabble-rouser John Cormack, leader of the Protestant Action Society, Catholics faced harassment and violence. Employers were pressurised into sacking Catholic employees, priests were spat on in the streets, and Sunday congregations were subject to verbal and physical assault.

On top of this, huge demonstrations were held to disrupt important events in the Catholic Church’s calendar. The high water mark was the riot of 1935, when Cormack led a mob of 20,000 Protestants baying for blood against the Eucharist Congress that was taking place at the Catholic priory in Morningside.

The activism was rewarded with seats on the Edinburgh Town Council; indeed, Protestant Action in the municipal elections of 1936 won 31.97 per cent of the Edinburgh vote, pushed Labour into third place and returned nine councillors.

But the popularity of Cormack and Protestant Action was short-lived, as the outbreak of war in 1939 pushed sectarianism on to the sidelines of politics in Edinburgh. In spite of this, Cormack held his seat on the Town Council until his death in the 1960s.

Outside of Canada, the central belt of Scotland was the highest recipient of American inward investment anywhere in the world between 1945 and 1970

This little strip of land in the middle of Scotland saw the influx of giant American corporations such as IBM, Timex, National Cash Registers, Caterpillar and many more besides.

Why did they come? For three good reasons: firstly, it opened up British and European markets; secondly, there existed a highly skilled and educated pool of workers earning historically relatively low wages; and, thirdly, there were no linguistic barriers, as English was the common tongue.

William Knox is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Scottish Historical Research, University of St Andrews. He is the author of seven books and more than 30 articles covering the past 300 years of Scottish history, including Scottish History For Dummies (published by Wiley, July 2014)

To read more about Scottish history, click here.


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2014