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Essay: Scotland’s Geo-Political Quagmire

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  • Published: 29 May 2023*
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In 2014, the people of Scotland voted in a referendum offered by the UK on whether Scotland should sever her political and economic ties with England and go her own separate way as an independent nation. National sentiment behind this referendum is not without precedent, as Scotland has borne the yoke of English subjugation in one form or another for almost a millennium. This is not the first attempt by the Scots to gain their independence from their southern overlord. It should, however, be the last. Throughout the past thousand years, while English conquest of Scotland was in many cases brutal, Scotland’s attempts at independence have been half-hearted and only rebounded to cause her to rely logarithmically more heavily on the English Crown. This paper will deal with the history of Scottish subjugation, why all but one bid for independence from the Crown failed, and the political, economic, and historical reasons why Scotland should cease further suits for total and sovereign self-governance.

The relationship between England and Scotland is among the most complicated in history. Their proximity to each other and the vast differences between the two cultures create a boiling whirlpool of national tensions, beginning in the 11th century and only reducing to a simmer within the last 300 years. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, for instance, Edward I did not simply invade Scotland because “Scotland is full of Scots.” This is a quote from the movie Braveheart, the wildly inaccurate portrayal of the events leading up to and during William Wallace’s rebellions between 1297 and 1305. In fact, relations between the two kingdoms were much more amicable at that point than they would become in the following 400 years. Causes have actions have effects, and where the history of Anglo-Scottish tensions actually begins is much less grandiose than a king mounting a large-scale invasion upon his neighbor for the prize of ruling a larger portion of the island. That honor goes to Wales. The initial cause which would spark the chain reaction of Scottish subjugation actually begins almost 200 years prior to the First Scottish War of Independence. Several small-scale “wars” and skirmishes occurred between Scottish and English forces in the years immediately before and continuing after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of these fracases took place in the Borders, the long-disputed regions along the frontiers of England and Scotland; for the most part, these were territorial wars that were often demonstrations of frustration by either side at the boundaries which were established in 973. The most consequential of these meetings often ended with the death or imprisonment of a Scottish king, whether by English or Scottish hands.

After the death of Duncan I at the hands of the somewhat-undeservedly-infamous Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (known today simply as Macbeth) in 1040, English interests in Scotland began to increase exponentially, as prior to this point in history, England had only been established as a unified state since the 10th century, a mere hundred years prior. Now that England had her feet under her, attentions began to creep northward into the Anglo-Norse region of Northumbria, and further still into the civil-war-ravaged nation beyond the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. Macbeth died in battle at the hands of Malcom mac Duncan on 15 August, 1057. His stepson Lulach “the Foolish” ascended the throne, only to be cut down by the same man seven months later later on 17 March, 1058. Malcom mac Duncan (or simply Malcom III) ascended the Scottish throne that year with the support of an English Army resulting in rising tensions on the Anglo-Scottish borders, as well as exacerbating already red-hot political tensions between the English King Edward the Confessor and the Welsh King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn following the assassination of Welsh Prince Rhys ap Rhydderch five years earlier. Malcom III’s reign would encompass the first 35 years of Scoto-Norman relations as, eight years later, William the Conquerer would defeat the exhausted armies of Harold Godwinson, who had usurped the throne allegedly promised to William by Edward shortly before his death in January of that year. Harold had repulsed a viking invasion attempt in Yorkshire, likely itself aimed at taking the English throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, not a month before William landed in Sussex. The forced march south to meet William is chief amongst the reasons owed to Godwinson’s defeat.

Norman control of England caused a significant shift in power on the borders. Malcom had granted asylum to Tostig Godwinson after being deposed by the Northumbrian nobility, who later joined Harald Hardrada and died therewith at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September, 1066. When William I defeated the English forces at Hastings, several other Anglo-Saxon nobles sought refuge with Malcom III, increasing Norman distaste for their northern neighbors. Morcar, who succeeded Tostig as the Earl of Northumbria, launched a rebellion in the north against William I, supported by the Welsh. After surrendering to Norman forces twice in 20 years, Morcar was finally imprisoned in Normandy, where it is probable that he died in captivity. Anglo-Danish uprisings in the northlands, stirred by the Witenaġemot-elected Wessex claimant Edgar Ætheling, resulted in the Harrying of the North, a series of small campaigns launched between 1069-1072 in order to subjugate the rebelling Northumbrian commons. Once that had been accomplished, William I turned his army north and met Malcom III at Abernethy where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Malcom III “became [William’s] man” and mediated a peace between the exiled Edgar and William I. The oath taken by Malcom III to William I was quickly proven a formality, as Scottish raids into Northumbria resumed, resulting in the death of the Bishop of Gateshead; Bishop William Walcher was the first non-Englishman to hold the see by appointment of William I after the Harrying of the North. In 1080, a decade after the Harrying, William I sent his brother Odo and his eldest son Robert Curthose to harry the north a second time. This time Malcom III sued for peace, and kept his word for over a decade.

When William I died in 1087, his third son William Rufus was given the English throne much to the contempt of his older brother Richard Curthose, who was given the Duchy of Normandy, his father’s original title prior to the Battle of Hastings. This resulted in open rebellion by Curthose against William Rufus, who answered swiftly with an excursion into Normandy. Malcom III saw this as an opportunity for expansion, and in 1091 led an expidition south to besiege Newcastle. The threat was enough to bring William II back to England and this time, Malcom III was ready for a fight. Fortunately for both sides, a peace was sued via the mediation of Edgar Ætheling, and Malcom III once again returned to Scotland. Not a year later did that peace begin to crumble. If it is to be believed that Cumbria was under Scottish control in 1092, the settlement of English peasants in the village surrounding William II’s newly-constructed castle Carlisle may have been the catalyst. Whatever the cause, Malcom III once again travelled south to Gloucester to confront William II on the issue of lands and estates granted by William I being seized by his son for purposes of English resettlement. Malcom III found William II unwilling to negotiate, who instead delegated the matter to English barons. Malcom III found these conditions unsuitable, and returned again to Scotland. It is unlikely that William II’s intention was to provoke casus belli to Malcom, but according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, war is what William II received:

“For this reason therefore they parted with great dissatisfaction, and the King Malcolm returned to Scotland. And soon after he came home, he gathered his army, and came harrowing into England with more hostility than behoved him….”

As Malcom III was besieging Alnwick, he was ambushed by a small force of knights led by Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria. Accompanied by his son Edward and Edgar Ætheling, all three men were killed in the fighting which ensued, leaving the army leaderless, and Scotland without a king. Malcom III’s wife Margaret would die nine days later of a broken heart.

The resulting power vacuum made way for Malcom III’s brother Donald III to succeed him, interrupted in 1094 by a deposition attempt by Duncan II with the support of landowners and clergymen in the Lowlands, and the Anglo-Norman nobility to the south. A sequence of misjudgments by Duncan II, however, would see him killed in battle on 12 November, 1094 — outmanned, outmaneuvered, and out-supported. Donald III’s reign was marked by nativist policies, which would see the exiled Anglo-Saxon nobles which had taken refuge in the courts of Malcom III and Margaret driven out of Scotland. These policies were wildly popular with the Highland clans, who had supported Donald’s recapture of the Scottish throne from Duncan II. Events to follow would be mostly shaped by this nationalist rhetoric, and passions would only increase among Scots in the next two centuries, culminating in the First Scottish War of Independence.

In 1100, Henry I took on the English throne from his older brother, William II, who had died in a hunting “accident”. By 1124, three sons of Malcom III had reigned over Scotland, and the fourth was on the throne. Alexander I of Scotland had died at his court at Stirling without an heir, and was succeeded by his little brother David. Henry I was essentially a patron to David, as David had spent much of his younger years in exile in England. His beginning as a territorial lord came upon his inheritance of the title “Prince of the Cumbrians,” which was the vast swath of what is nowadays split between northwestern England and southern Scotland. David I’s brother Edgar bequeathed to David this territory in 1099; David was 15 years old. David I was installed as the King of Scotland in 1124, much to the resentment of the native Scots.

Alexander III was King of Scots from 1249 until his untimely death in 1286. His first wife was Margaret Plantagenet of England, the daughter of English King Henry III. During his reign, Scotland enjoyed a time of peace and economic growth which had seen many noble families grow in wealth and power. King Alexander’s heir-apparent was his three-year-old granddaughter and only living descendant: Margaret, Maid of Norway. While the succession of Alexander III was laid out in law by the time of his death, there were two small problems standing in the way of the Maid’s ascension. The first of these was the fact that the “Maid,” contradictory to her title, was only three years old. Secondly, and rather more substantially, was the matter of Alexander’s second wife Yolande of Dreux’s alleged pregnancy. This child would fill the gap in succession that existed directly under Alexander III after the deaths of his children Margaret (1261-1283), Alexander (1264-1284), and David (1272-1281). It is uncertain whether Yolande suffered a miscarriage, the child was stillborn, or if any child really existed at all. What is known is that Margaret, Maid of Norway’s ascension to the throne was all but a certainty.

Scotland’s First Interregnum (1286-1292) was overseen by a regency of two bishops (Glasgow and St Andrews), two high lords (the Lord of Badenoch and the 5th High Steward of Scotland), and two earls (Buchan and Fife). These six men governed Scotland from the death of Alexander III, including the oversight of Margaret’s ascension from Norway.


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