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Scots, Irish and English
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

What is the Difference between the Scots and the English?  I've noticed Scottish English even has a different accent ... was Scottish some other language before?  And the Irish?  Do the Scottish, Irish and English have common ancestors?

The Scots have maintained a distinct identity from the English, politically and ethically.  However, both share some cultural heritage, from four streams: Goidelic Celt, Brythonic Celt, Anglo-Saxon and Norman (French).  The Scots and Irish share a Celtic background, but the Irish have been less dominated by the English in culture and genetics.

The Scots additionally include another genetic and cultural stream from the Picts, who were settled in what is now Scotland from the earliest time on which we have historical or genetic information.  Traditionally authorities differ on whether the Picts were an early Celtic people or a different ethnic and genetic stock.  More recently extensive genetic mapping has determined that the Pictish areas differ little from the Gaelic and Irish areas.

A fascinating write-up and summary of conclusions on this matter is presented by Brian Sykes, director of a systematic DNA survey of the British Isles, conducted under the auspices of Oxford University.  Sykes finds that the substrata of mitochondrial (maternal) DNA is almost uniform over the whole of the British Isles, even among the English, who do not as commonly acknowledge their British/Celtic heritage.

This extensive and prodigious project is competently and entertainingly presented by Sykes, correlating the DNA findings with known history and legend.  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, esp Ch 11, "The Picts."

Cultural and related political or tribal factors are where most of the conflicts and complications have come in.  The history and culture of the British Isles is very complicated.  I'll give a brief summary that I think will line out the distinctive factors.

Highland Scots, with their distinctive Scottish culture, are Celtic.  The Scots were Irish who settled islands between Ireland and Great Britain and the northwestern coast of the main island of Great Britain, finally conquering the whole northern part of Britain.  The Scots began raids on what is now western Scotland in the late 400s of the Christian Era (CE).

The Scots finally conquered the early inhabitants known as the Picts.  Another name for the Picts is Caledonians, from the Romans name of their country.  In 843, the Picts and Scots agreed to unite as one people under the Scots king Kenneth MacAlpin, from whom the Gregor/MacGregor line of today are descended.  Genetic analysis indicates the Picts were an earlier settlement group of the same broader set of clans, likley to about 10,000 years ago. The understructure across the isles, according to Sykes, was set by about 6000 years ago.

Recent genetic studies have now confirmed that the Picts were an earlier Celtic people.  There is little actual detail about the Picts.  We know they were identifiable and active as a separate people well into the Roman era, and were only gradually absorbed or merged with the Scots after the 800s of the Christian Era.

In 122 CE, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a defensive wall, called Hadrian's Wall, in what is now northern England, as a barrier to help keep out the marauding Picts, who opposed Roman settlement and government.  In the 600s, the Picts defeated the Northumbrians, a northern tribe of the Angles.   Some of these people and their territory were included in what became the united Kingdom of the Scots and the Picts, under Kenneth MacAlpin.

Celtic Lines
These Irish Celts called Scots were in the line called Goidelic.  Meanwhile southern areas of what is now known as Scotland were settled by Brythonic Celts from further south (from whom the names Britain and Briton come).  These settlers were part of the same people whose descendants still live in Wales as the Welsh.  Most of the southern half of the island was settled by various tribes of these Brythonic Celts.

Some Continental Celts, mainly in the tribe of Belgae, also settled south central areas.  The Belgae were in the area of Londinium in the 400s, as well as in the neighbouring area of the continent.  The name Belgium comes from this tribe.  They were subsumed by Germanic Franks and later Normans in the continent, and by the Angles and Normans in Britain.

Thus the Celtic base underlies the whole cultural spectrum of all of Great Britain.  Two further distinctive waves of ethnic and linguistic heritage, however, account for the distinct difference today.

First, the Germanic tribes from the continent, mainly the Angles, Juts (Yutes, or Jutes) and Saxons, invaded after the Roman withdrawal, during the 400s.  The area of the Juts is still called by that name, the peninsula of Denmark that juts up on the North Sea coast of Germany (bordering Schleswig-Holstein).  Called Yutland (Juteland) in English, the Danes today spell it Jyland.

These closely-related Germanic tribes settled coastal areas from what is now Lowland Scotland into the southern part of Great Britain.  The English language developed from the various dialects of these Germanic peoples, with influences from other Northern Germanics, or Vikings, the Norwegians and Danes.  

A later Germanic stream in the Norwegian Vikings also settled in the western islands of Scotland, and the Scots there took on much of that culture through intermarriage and the seafaring lifestyle.  The fierce independence of the Vikings probably contributed to the strong independent character the Scots are known for.  The Vikings had a great influence on northern and western Ireland as well.

While Ireland retained a more unified Celtic character, the Scots, moved away from the Irish in culture and language.  In their new British home their encountered multiple influences from the Picts and Northumbrians whom they conquered, and the Vikings who partly conquered them, but were absorbed into the Scots.

The Viking presence, even after they became "Scots" by being absorbed into the MacDonalds of the Isles, kept the Hebrides separate from Highland Scotland until the unifying efforts of Robert of Bruce in the early 1300s.  Bruce, as the new King of the Scots, again claimed the title of Lord of the Isles from the MacDonalds and got their support for his rebellion against the English Normans.  But I fly ahead of the story.

Anglian (Anglish)
The Lowland Scots language is the direct descendant of the Anglian (or Anglish) language spoken there, with a distinct history and identity to the modern times, accounting for the difference between the Scots language and the English language.  In addition there developed a version of English in early modern times, which was English spoken as a second language by the Celtic highlanders.  This is sometimes called Scottish English, in contrast to the Scots language.

Today Scots has been moving closer to English, through borrowing and cultural adaptation to the dominant Anglo culture of the island, and is considered by some to now be a dialect of English, though it retains much of the early Anglo-Saxon pronunciations and some words that have dropped out of the other dialects that coalesced into modern English.

Highland and Lowland
The Highland Celts (from the older Pictish and Irish-Scots lines) and the Lowland descendants of the Angles were not a unified group, but the border between England and Scotland ran through the Scots/Angles lowland areas.  Thus disunity was a problem for the people living in Scot-land, besides which the highland tribes (clans) were always fighting each other, too.

Lowland Scots came to speak one of the Germanic tongues of the Angles, which came to be called Scots.  Scots is a separate language that has influenced Scottish English and American English, as well as standard British English (words like burn, bairn, etc.).  Today it is also called Lallans, from the English word "Lowlands."

This language is also spoken in Northern Ireland, due to the heavy Scots and Scots-Norman presence in Ireland from the 1300s.  It is fascinating to read the New Testament in Braid Scots (one of the Scottish translations, or Lallans, another modern Scottish translation.

Related to the Scots language is the form of speech called Jordy (Geordie), in Northumbria.  Associated with the northeastern English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Jordy is a well-known and loved form of regional speech.  While sharing many characteristics with Lallans, which developed from the same Northumbrian Angle speech, it is now generally considered a dialect of English.

American English is especially influenced by Scots-Irish speech patterns, due to the heavy immigration from Scotland to America under the settlement policies of King James I of England and VI of Scotland and heavy immigration in the 1800s from both Scotland and Ireland.  This was greatly supplemented in the major northern and eastern US cities in the huge Irish influx following the so-called potato famine.  Appalachian culture and speech derive largely from Scots-Irish and northern English rural cultures and speech.

Franks and Normans
Now enter another Germanic influence, the Normans, who were related to the Angles.  The Normans were Vikings who conquered a section of the European mainland in what is now modern France.  They settled and learned the Latin of that area, which had developed as a different language from the way the earlier Franks as a whole people had learned Latin.  The Franks were eastern Germans who crossed west of the Rhein in the Roman era.

In the Frankish-Roman culture that developed under Charles Martel and his son Charles the Great (Charlemagne), the Latin language developed into a different language, named after them Frankish, or French.  This heritage shows up clearly in the German-language name for their country today:  Frankreich, meaning Frank-realm.

The Normans conquered Britain in 1066 in a disputed succession to the throne of the English, who ruled the island up to the highlands.  (The English, or Anglo-Saxons, had also been recently ruled intermittently by their cousins the Danes.)  This new culture-language group imposed their sovereignty.  They warred with but made treaties with and intermarried with the Celtic-Angle (Saxon) nobility, imposing Norman French as the language.  But the Normans in each region tended to take on the identity of that region.

Scots, Normans and French
The Scottish Normans had intermarried with the Scottish-Anglo nobles, including both the highlands and lowlands peoples.  Robert of Bruce was the son of one of these mixed marriages, being the son of a royal Celtic Scots woman.  In the early 1300s he led a Scottish rebellion against the cruel King Edward I of England who tried to suppress the Scots and Welsh, as well as the Irish in what amounted to genocide.  It is largely from this time that a fierce rebellious identity against the English develops.

Over the centuries following 1066 when the Norman William the Conqueror took over the English throne and its claim to all of Great Britain, the Norman-English, Norman-Scots, Norman-Irish, Scots-Irish, the Norman-French and the Frankish-French vacillated in their relationships between close allies, friendly rivals and bitter enemies, due to all this tangle of common ancestry with its irritating threads of differences as the different ethnicities developed differently in the different islands and realms.  (Is your head spinning yet!?)

In the ongoing struggle for independence from the English throne, the Scots often had treaties of friendship and military alliance with the French, who gradually absorbed the French-Normans politically and ethnically.  This assisted the French in their fights against the English throne, as well as exacerbating the bitterness between England and France.

Uniting the Crowns
Early modern history unites the two peoples when a lack of succession to English Queen Elizabeth leads her to name the Scottish (Norman) Stuart (Stewart) King, James VI of Scotland as her successor to the English throne of the Tudor dynasty.

Thus the Scottish Stuart family began to rule both England and Scotland, but as two separate countries.  It is this King James VI of Scotland and I of England that commissioned the Union translation of the Bible known as the King James translation.  This was an attempt to provide one new translation that would suit both Catholics and Protestants.

The two thrones were united under Queen Anne Stuart in 1701.  There has been a restiveness for independence, harking back to the brief period of independence under Robert Bruce and a short period after him, before the English Normans definitively put an end to that possibility.

Germans Again
This unity was weakened when in the early colonial period, the Stuart line ceased and the related Norman-Germanic heritage bestowed the crown on the Royal House of Hanover from Germany (who changed their name in World War One to Windsor).

A few years ago, "devolution" was agreed, by which the Scots again got their own parliament and some autonomy.  The move for full independence has continued.

Unifying Scotland
Briefly, lowland and highland Scotland has drawn closer together in the late 1800s and in this century.  Scots have also distinguished themselves in the armed forces and politics of the British Empire, as loyal subjects of the British (some say English) King/Queen.  Scots have also been distinguished since the Middle Ages as scientists, inventors, teachers, administrators and missionaries.

On the other hand, the world well knows the continuing struggle that the Celts of England have undergone to remain independent.  From the time of World War I, Ireland has been an independent country.  The northern counties of the island, however, are a well-known other story!

The majority of occupants in the northern counties, known as Northern Ireland, wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, which incorporates the countries of Scotland, Wales and England, and whose official name is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  The northerners feel British, even English, due to ongoing heavy settlement from Scotland and direct rule from London.

This dynamic was complicated, in that the minority non-Scots Irish, identified with the common history, culture and religion to the broader Irish identity and culture.  Conflicts have continued over the question of political identity, complicated by the religious identity, and often reduced to simplistic terms by international media.

Historical Foundations
The strong link with England or Scotland or both goes back definitively to the period of King Edward I, the Norman King of England, who so brutally repressed the Scottish moves for independence, or even self-government.  King Edward gave the rule of Ireland to the Deburgh family, who led several other Anglo-Norman lords as petty kings in various Irish counties, following the traditional Celtic pattern of government in Ireland.

The greatest strength of the Anglo-Norman lords was in the north, and there was a division between the Anglo-Norman petty kings and the native Irish petty kings.  By this time, the early 1300s, there had been no High King in Ireland for about 150 years.  The northern areas were already closely connected to Scotland as the original home area of the Scots tribe.

Renewed Scottish Connections
The situation was complicated when Edward Bruce was invited by the tribal Kings of Ireland to break their stalemate by becoming the High King of Ireland.  Edward was the brother of Robert Bruce (de Bruis), the Anglo-Norman-Scots leader of the Scottish independence rebellion against King Edward, and sometime king of Scotland,  The High Kingship of Edward Bruce was partly facilitated by the fact that, while the Bruces were legitimate heirs of Kenneth MacAlpin through their mother's Celtic line, they were also Anglo-Norman on their father's side.

Further, Robert had married Elizabeth DeBurgh (or Burke), one of the many daughters of Richard DeBurgh.  Deburgh was also kin to the Scottish royal line, through his mother Princess Margaret of Scotland.

Protestant and Catholic
From the early centuries of the Christian Era, the Irish became a base for several missionary movements to Britain and northern Europe.  The old Celtic Church of both Ireland and Scotland was finally merged with the Roman form of Christianity only in the 800s or so.  Since then, the character of Ireland has been staunchly Roman Catholic, with strong symbolism in Patrick.  Though unassociated with any Roman form of Christianity in his lifetime, the Roman Christian Church adopted him as a "saint."

More important in modern Irish history, however, is the influence of the Protestant Reformation, of which Scotland became a strong centre.  The strong links between Scotland and Northern Ireland down the centuries led to the identification of those northern Irish counties (with their high population of Scots) with the Reformation.

Reformed Christianity, expressed in England in the Puritan and Roundhead movements, also commonly called Presbyterianism, became a cultural value in the northern Irish counties.  Thus the common reference to the Irish conflict as Protestant versus Catholic.  Political identity, as mentioned earlier, became tied up with religious preference and cultural identity.

The Scots had settled heavily in the northern counties of Ireland under the Scottish King James VI, who had become King James I of England.  James encouraged Scots Protestants to settle in Ireland, largely with the goal of building a base of political support among his preferred constituency, hoping this would  This mix of religious identity with the cultural identity of these Scots-Irish as Irish and yet British has added a distinctive character to the culture, religion and speech of Northern Ireland.

Similarities and Differences
These are just some of the fascinating details indicating the lines of similarity along with the great differences and long-standing animosities between the English, Scots and Irish peoples.

For more on this fascinating British mix, see this excellent resource by Bryan Sykes:
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland


Also related:

See related reviews and articles on this site:
Modern Celtic Delights and Insights
Germanic and Celtic
Models of Assimilation
Our Genetic Journey - Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
Religion as Culture
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Scots Language and French Influence
The Subtlety of Assimilation
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group (A variation of the above topic)

For more
Bluegrass and Celtic Connections
Celtic Music and Dance in America
Celtic Nations World – Celtic Culture Around the World
Edward Bruce, Ireland, Scotland - Wikipedia
Irish Potato Famine
Lallans (Scots) Language Online
Peoples of Caledonia
The Picts – Alba West
The Pictish Nation

Related on the Internet:
Blood of the Isles Website on British Genetics by Bryan Sykes
Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes (UK Title: Blood of the Isles)
Hadrian's Wall – Wikipedia
Scots and Picts – BBC
Ullans – Ulster Scots Language and Literature
Jordy (Geordie) Language

First written 1 November 2000 on an Internet Discussion Group
Rewritten and posted on OJTR 15 June 2006
Revised 12 September 2009
Last edited 31 March 2012

Copyright 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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