Peoples of Caledonia

          If western Europe is barbaric, then Caledonia is downright primitive. Much of the land is untouched wilderness. The scattered inhabitants lives in tiny villages or isolated farmsteads. The cities are nothing more than fortified centers with populations of a few hundred. Caledonia is inhabited by five different peoples: Picts, Scots, Britons, Angles, and Northmen.

The Picts
          The Picts are the oldest inhabitants of Caledonia, which derives its name from one of their ancient tribes, the Caledonii, who dominated the area when the Romans first arrived. The Picts are a small, dark people with a reputation for magic and secrecy and for defining inheritance exclusively through the mother's line. They are often associated with the ancient brochs (thick towers), menhirs, and stone circles scattered throughout the British isles, though their own legends claim that these structures were in place even before the Picts arrived. Their names (Latin Picti and Gaelic Cruithni both mean the colored or painted people) refer to their habits of painting themselves with woad and extensive tattooing. With their small size and mysterious ways, the Picts are often confused by others with the Caledonian faerie folk, with whom they have close ties.

          Though the Picts were once famous for fighting off both the Romans and the Angles, for much of the last century their culture has been dying out, replaced by that of the Scots. Even before the conquest of Kenneth MacAlpin the Picts were ruled by a mixed Scottish-Pictish aristocracy which came to dominate their lands at the beginning of the century. The southern Picts have largely been assimilated into Scottish culture, though there are still some independent Pictish communities in the area of Galloway. Many northern Picts in the Highlands retain their ancient customs and language (Pritennic), but they are rapidly being pushed into the least desirable lands by Scottish immigrants.

The Scots
          The Scots are actually recent arrivals, having migrated from northern Ireland during the fourth through sixth centuries. Their name is also reflective of their origins: Scoti is a Gaelic word for raider or predator. The Scots were viking long before the Norse took up the habit, raiding and settling in the islands and peninsulas of south-west Caledonia. Eventually, however, they settled down and founded the kingdom of Dal Riada, centered on the Argyll peninsula with its capital at Dunadd. The Scots fought numerous wars with their Pictish neighbors, instigating the formation of a united Pictish kingdom, after which the two nations took turns conquering and being conquered by each other. In 834 Kenneth MacAlpin, the son of a Scottish king and Pictish princess, became king of Dal Riada and claimed lordship over both Scots and Picts. Fifteen years later the last Pictish resistance was eliminated when Kenneth invited their leaders to a feast at Scone. In the middle of the feast, the Scots removed the pegs in the Picts' chairs, which had been loosened beforehand, allowing the Scots to slay the Picts in the ensuing confusion. The Stone of Destiny was subsequently moved from Dunadd to Scone, signaling the foundation of the new united kingdom of Alban.

          As for Scottish culture, forget everything you think you've ever learned about it, most of which was invented from whole cloth by 19th century romantics. At this point in time there are no kilts or tartans. There are no clans, just tribes and families. The "Mac" found in Scottish names still has its original meaning: "son of". Music is a national pastime, but bagpipes are played only for the great lords - the common people don't get to hear them. As you might guess from their name, the Scots have a reputation as a wild and aggressive people. Feuds and violence are common; the vast majority of Scottish rulers die in battle or are murdered. Like their Irish brothers, the Scots speak Gaelic, though it's already taking on a distinctive Scottish dialect.

The Angles
          The Angles (English) arrived in Caledonia soon after the Scots, migrating from Germany by way of southern Britain. They rapidly conquered the former Pictish and British lands in Lothian and Bernicia, forming new kingdoms which would eventually unite into the English kingdom of Northumbria. They speak a distinctive dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Originally Northumbria was the dominant English kingdom, but later lost this position to Mercia and, more recently, Wessex.

          The Angles are ruled by a typical warrior aristocracy. The king is supported by a group of warrior thegns, from whom he selects ealdormen to administer districts of his lands. However, like other German tribes, the Anglo-Saxons are notorious both for their elaborate legal codes, including the practices of weregild and trial by oath or ordeal, and for democratic institutions known as moots, popular assemblies which have judicial and legislative powers. English kings have well-defined rights and powers, a custom which the Celts often laugh at. All kings have to keep their people content lest they rise up in arms (a tradition the Scots are always willing to uphold), but only Anglo-Saxon kings have to suffer commoners quoting "laws" at them.

The Britons
          Before either the Scots or Angles arrived the Picts' southern neighbors were the British, the semi-Romanized Celts who dominated southern Britain centuries ago. Though once wealthy and civilized, the British fell into chaos when Rome left and the Angles and Saxons invaded, pushing them to the remote western borders of the land. In Caledonia the British still live independently in the kingdom of Strathclyde. The British are the people of King Arthur and still retain a romantic belief in their own faded greatness. They speak Cymric, a language closely related to Welsh.

The Northmen
          The most recent migrants to Caledonia are the Northmen, Vikings from Norway and Denmark. Viking raids began over a century ago, mostly (due to prevailing currents) along the western coasts. Many raiding parties used sparsely inhabited islands and coastal areas as bases for further raids, and eventually began to settle. In the Orkney and Shetland Islands the Norse completely swallowed the natives, but in the Western Isles they more often inter-married with natives, producing mixed Scottish-Norse populations. Many of these groups continue their ancestral custom of viking, and have even spawned second-generation settlements such as those in Galloway.

          The Norse combine the ferocity and violence of the Scots with the stubborn egalitarianism of the English, producing a society in which every man dreams of piles of booty and his own lands and is willing to go out and fight for those dreams. Famed for the height and often described as giants, the Vikings are feared by all other peoples of Caledonia and, as the last non-Christians in the west, are often seen as a plague sent by God as some dire punishment. Despite this, the Norse can make good neighbors. As long as a region appears well-defended the Northmen are friendly, generous farmers, herders, fishermen, and traders, restricting their raids to more distant lands. But the instant they sense weakness the raids start up again.


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