Geography of Caledonia

          So why aren't we calling this area Scotland? Mainly because that term won't be invented for another century or two. In A.D. 875 the Scots are just one of many people in northern Britain. Few people would consider the entire region to be the land of the Scots. Most people still refer to the area by the old Roman name: Caledonia.

          Caledonia is divided among the following lands: the Kingdom of Alban, the Northern Islands, and the Borders, which include the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Galloway, and the northern portions of the Kingdom of Northumbria. See the Map of Caledonia.

          The combined kingdom of the Scots and Picts, Alban dominates the mainland north of the Firths of Clyde and Forth. Alban is ruled by King Constantine, son of Kenneth MacAlpin. His primary home is at Scone, where sits the Stone of Destiny, symbol of his kingship. Other male descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin (and possible rivals for the throne) include Constantine's younger brother Aedh, his 13-year old son Donald, his nephew Eochaid (heir to Strathclyde), and his cousin Giric, son of his predecessor King Donald MacAlpin. The largest settlements in the kingdom are Dunadd and Dunkeld, though both house less than a couple thousand people. Geographically and culturally Alban can be divided into three regions: Dal Riada, south Alban, and north Alban.

          Dal Riada includes the islands of the Inner Hebrides and the nearby coastal lands. These coasts are marked by long peninsulas and deep firths (fjords), such that it's often hard to tell what's an island and what's an extension of the mainland. The islands and peninsulas are crowded together, separated by narrow channels - sea travel is absolutely necessary to get around. Dal Riada is the homeland of the Scots and is relatively heavily populated, especially on the Argyll peninsula. Other major regions include Kintyre, Cowal, and the islands of Arran, Jura, Islay, and Mull. The spiritual center of the Caledonian church lies in the monastery on the holy island of Iona, founded by St. Columba himself and still the burial place for the Scottish kings. Despite this history, since the king moved to Scone Dal Riada has gradually become a political backwater. Viking raids and settlement on the isolated islands are increasing. Iona is plundered on an almost regular basis, and many Scots have fled from outer islands like Tiree and Coll. King Constantine is too busy with affairs on the mainland to send many troops to defend his childhood home.

          The mainland of Caledonia is divided in two by the Grampian Mountains and the Mounth, rugged mountain regions with few natural passes. South of this line is South Alban, including the districts of Fife, Strathearn, Fortriu, and Atholl. Once the heartland of the Picts, this is now the heartland of Alban. The Picts of this region had long contact and intermarriage with the Scots and only a few elders remember the old language and customs. Here lies Alban's largest settlement at Dunkeld, the king's seat at Scone, and many other major villages in the fertile river valleys. In all Alban this region suffers the least from Viking raids, though Dunkeld itself was ravaged in 866. With the kingdom's longest land border, this region is also the area of most military activity, as Constantine eyes the rich land of Lothian, which was once part of the Pictish Kingdom.

          North of the Grampians and the Mounth lies North Alban, dominated by the Highlands and the great Caledonian Forest. North Alban includes the districts of Moray, Ross, Caithness, Sutherland, Druim Alban, and Buchan Mar. The northern Picts were always distinct from their southern brethren, seen as more wild and barbaric, and many northern Pictish communities remain in isolated dales. Even the Scots of the north differ from those of the south, for they are the followers of the Cenel nLoairn, a rival Scottish dynasty descended from Loarn, the brother of Fergus, founder of Dal Riada. (The southern Scots are the Cenel nGabrain, who follow the descendants of Gabran, Fergus's grandson.) A century ago the Cenel nLoairn were driven from Dal Riada into the north, where they settled among the northern Picts and carved out their own lands. They thus bear ancient grudges against King Constantine and the southern Scots. Life in the Highlands is hard - the rocky soils barely support meager farms and herds. Though the land is too poor to attract Viking raiders, North Alban does have large communities of Norse settlers in Caithness and Sutherland (Norse for "the south land"). Roads are non-existent and travel is difficult. The king has little authority in the north, and Northerners regularly raid each others' farms and herds.

The Northern Islands
          At the extreme northern tip of Caledonia lie the islands known as the Orkneys. Even further north, isolated by the northern seas, are the Shetland Islands. Once inhabited by Picts, today these island groups are the home of a thriving Norse culture. The islands are famous for an ancient curse which causes all animals on the islands to shrink. Horses, sheep, cattle, and even dogs are all half the size of those found in other lands. Others claim that the animals are faerie creatures brought in long ago by the tiny Picts. The curse does not affect humans, and the Norsemen of the islands still tower over most other people. The islands are ruled by Rognvald of Møre, the independent Jarl of Orkney.

          Along the western coasts of Caledonia are dozens of islands known as the Hebrides or Western Isles. The northern or Outer Hebrides, often called the Long Islands, are controlled by Norse settlers, who call their lands the Sudreyjar (southern isles). These lands are open to the full brunt of Atlantic storms, and villagers are forced to hold their thatch roofs down with stone-weighted ropes. It is said that gold and silver wash up on the beaches after especially great storms, but no one dares touch it for fear of angering the merrow, the sea folk, who expect their treasure to wash back to them in the next storm. Though Norse culture and language dominates the halls of the lords, many Vikings have inter-married with the local peoples and the common people are just as likely to speak Gaelic as Norse. Each island or piece of land has its own petty lord, but all recognize the leadership of Ketil Flatnose, though he's never claimed the title of jarl.

The Caledonian Borders
          The exact boundaries of Caledonia are not very specific. As far back as the Romans it wavered between Hadrian's Wall, connecting Solway Firth and the River Tyne, and the Antonine Wall, connecting the Firths of Clyde and Forth. The wide lands between these two lines are often referred to as the Borders, neither quite Caledonian nor quite English. The kingdom of Alban exists entirely north of the Borders, but still claims parts of the Borders based on the ancient claims of the Picts who once ruled that region. The Borders are currently divided between Strathclyde, Galloway, and Northumbria.

          Strathclyde is the last British kingdom in the north, centered on the great keep on Dumbarton Rock, a stronghold in which they successfully resisted the attacks of Picts, Scots, and Angles. Unfortunately, the legendary defenses of Dumbarton proved insufficient to stop the Vikings. Five years ago, Olaf and Ivar, the Viking leaders of Dublin, destroyed Dumbarton after a four-month siege. King Arthgal was captured and taken to Dublin as a prisoner and ransom demands were sent to his son Rhun. To many it looked like the end of Strathclyde, but young Rhun had a few tricks up his sleeve.

          Rhun was married to Brighde, the sister of King Constantine of Alban. Realizing Strathclyde needed a powerful patron, he turned to his father-in-law, who was happy to accept the British as allies. Of course, before Rhun could take charge he had to become king. Constantine thus sent diplomats with gifts to Dublin, requesting that Arthgal be killed. His request was fulfilled and Rhun became king, with Constantine standing beside him to offer all the advice he needed.

          With help from the Scots, Strathclyde is back on the road to recovery and even a new age of greatness. A new keep is being built a few miles east of Dumbarton, and Strathclyde's troops, with Scottish help, are busy taking advantage of the chaos in Northumbria and the Isle of Man to extend their king's authority into Galloway. Rhun coordinates all of his military activities with Alban, and when he dies his kingdom will pass to his son Eochaid, a grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin. For all intents and purposes, Strathclyde is now an appendage of Alban.

          Galloway has always been a somewhat empty land of desolate hills, moors, and forests, in which Pictish settlements still exist to this day untouched by the outside world. Centuries ago it was part of the British kingdom of Rheged, but when that kingdom fell to the Angles it became something of a no-man's land, claimed by Strathclyde to the north, Northumbria to the east, and the Isle of Man (to which the heirs of Rheged had fled) to the south. Though all influenced Galloway to some degree, in actuality none of them possessed effective control over the region. In recent decades the coasts have been settled by Gaelic-speaking Vikings from Dublin, further disrupting any royal authority. However, now that both Northumbria and Man have fallen to the Norse, Strathclyde, with help from Alban, has finally begun to make real inroads into the area.

          One of the great nations of the Anglo-Saxons, Northumbria controls the eastern half of the Caledonian Borders, though its heart lies in central Britain around the city of York. Northumbria fought numerous wars with the Picts, and that tension was inherited by the kingdom of Alban. Though there have been no major wars between the two kingdoms, border skirmishes and raids are regular occurrences in Lothian and Strathearn.

          In 862 Northumbria entered a protracted period of civil war between Osbert and Ella, rival claimants to the throne. Taking advantage of this, in 866 the Danish invaders Ivar and Halfdan Ragnarsson conquered York without a fight. The rival Northumbrian kings set aside their differences to expel the Vikings, but both were killed attempting to take back York, allowing the Danes to place a string of puppet English kings on the throne. Today Northumbria is officially ruled by King Ricsig, though everyone knows that Halfdan pulls the strings and effectively controls the country - with one exception. The Danes have been so busy in the south that they have ignored the Northumbrian lands in the Caledonian Border region, where English lords remain independent of Danish control. Threatened by Vikings to the south, and fearing the rattling sabers of Alban and Strathclyde, the people of northern Northumbria have been thrown on their own resources and are desperately trying to decide what to do.

More Information on the Mundane World of A.D. 875:
Life in the Dark Ages
Peoples of Caledonia
Geography of Caledonia
The Church in Caledonia
The British Isles
Western Europe
Distant Lands
Map of Western Europe
Map of Caledonia

Return to the Index of Background Files

Caledonia: A Light in the North