Scota: Mother of the Scottish People
An ardent, lifelong passion for history compelled me recently to start researching and writing on various historical topics. Curiosity, along with the presence of certain books in my library, led me to look into the history of Scotland. Scottish history is chock full of fascinating stories and quaint legends. Surprisingly, I discovered that the founding, mythical ancestor of the Scottish people was a woman named Scota, daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh and wife of a Greek prince, whose story may be based on actual events as borne out by DNA evidence.
Legend and Sources: Medieval Documents
I like to think there is always a kernel or more of truth to some legends. Before there were written records, oral tradition was the primary means of handing down history. The story of Scota was brought to us through oral history, and nowadays there are scientific methods that can actually prove that there is some truth in the legend.
There were some enterprising Scottish historians in the 14th and 15th centuries CE who recorded their version of the history of the early Scots. John of Fordun (1360-c. 1384 CE), a prominent Scottish chronicler and member of the secular clergy, wrote the Chronicles of the Scottish People from 1363 to 1385 CE. The following century, Walter Bower (c. 1385-1445 CE) wrote his chronicle, Scotichronicon, beginning in 1440 CE, which expanded the scope of Fordun's work. One version of the legend of Scota comes from these works, based on oral traditions and earlier sources that probably no longer exist.
The Story of Scota
The tale begins with a Greek prince named Gaythelos, who is called "Goídel Glas" by Bower. As happens quite often in history, the royal prince was not given any position of power by his father. Gaythelos, being angry about this, caused much destruction and trouble in his father's kingdom, even going so far as gathering his own army. His father forced Gaythelos into exile.
Gaythelos sailed across the Mediterranean to Egypt where the Pharaoh Chencres was in a struggle to drive the Ethiopians out of his lands. The Ethiopians had a powerful kingdom to the south and at various times had ruled parts of Egypt. Gaythelos joined his army with that of the Pharaoh during the fight, and together they pushed the Ethiopians out of Egypt. At the end of these hostilities, Gaythelos formed another alliance with Chencres to help keep the Children of Israel in bondage. In recognition of Gaythelos' loyalty, bravery, and strength, Chencres gave Gaythelos his daughter Scota in marriage.
The Scotichronicon goes on to tell us that Chencres was the pharaoh who died when the Red Sea parted as he was chasing the Children of Israel. The people of Egypt were looking for reform and saw the death of the pharaoh as their opportunity to make changes. Gaythelos was viewed as a continuation of the status quo, and after a period of civil unrest, Gaythelos was again driven into exile.
The army and people that went into exile with Gaythelos proclaimed him their king and called themselves "Scots" after their queen; however, there was no kingdom to rule. They wandered the desert for years before Gaythelos took his family and his tribe of Scots and sailed from the African continent to the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal). There, they settled in the northwest corner of the peninsula at a place called Brigancia. The Romans later called this city "Brigantium," and it is now the city of A Coruña, located in the autonomous province of Galicia, Spain.
Scota gave birth to a son named Hyber; it is said the old name for Ireland, "Hibernia," comes from this son. The descendants of the Scots tribe lived on the Iberian Peninsula for several generations in a state of perpetual war with the local Iberian tribes. Eventually, some members of the tribe sailed across the Cantabrian Sea -- the Bay of Biscay -- in search of a new place to live, and settled in Ireland. Some of these settlers established a home in Scotland in the area that comprises contemporary Argyll. After the time of the Romans, the people in this area were called the Scotti and ultimately the name of the country to the north of Britain became "Scotland."
There is another version of the legend in the Irish record called the "Leabhar Gabhála" or the "Book of Invasions." This chronicle was written by monks in Ireland in the late 11th century CE to rationalize the existence of Gaels in Ireland. In this version of the legend, the ultimate ancestor of the Gaels was a Scythian king named Fennius Farsa. Scythia was located north of the Black Sea in what is now the eastern Ukraine. For unknown reasons, Farsa lost his throne and escaped to Egypt. His son, Nial, married the daughter of the pharaoh and had a son named Goidel. This family refused to participate in the persecution of the Children of Israel and was banished from Egypt, wandering throughout northern Africa. Eventually they sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and settled in Iberia.
Among the descendants of Farsa was a man named Mil -- also known as Milesius and "Míle Easpain" or "the Soldier of Spain." Mil's nephew had been killed in Ireland by the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the previous occupiers of the island, and Mils departed Spain on an expedition to avenge this death, bringing his wife Scota with him. Tragically, both Mil and Scota were killed in the fighting leaving their three sons -- Eber, Eremon and Amairgen -- to complete the conquest of Ireland. The Gaels considered Scota to be their ancestral mother and called themselves the "Scots" for this reason.
Scientific Evidence and Legend Confirmation
Regardless of these different versions of the legend, there are similarities between them, the most obvious one being the voyage from Iberia to Ireland. In recent years, there have been significant advances in the science of DNA collection and analysis, which have allowed scholars to reevaluate ancient myths and legends. Dr. Bryan Sykes, among others, has specialized in the study of DNA and applied it to the history of the human race.
Dr. Sykes is the Chairman and Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University in England, and since April 2000, he has utilized his laboratory to explore the genetic roots of the people of the British Isles and Japan. He discovered DNA could be categorized into seven basic groups, and these seven groups he hypothesized to be from seven ancestral women. He calls these women the "Seven Daughters of Eve": He has named these clan mothers Helena, Tara, Jasmine, Xenia, Velda, Katherine, and Ursula. Sykes found that 95% of Europeans could be traced back to these ancient clan mothers, and through mutations, determined these women lived anywhere from 45,000 to 17,000 years ago.
In tracking the clan mother's DNA, it was verified that the ancestors of the Irish came from the Iberian Peninsula. There was also a direct correlation of similar DNA among men in Ireland and surveys of Y-chromosomes among the Basques of Northeastern Spain and the people of Galicia in Northwestern Spain and Northern Portugal. The male Y-chromosome evidence found by Sykes also determined that the Irish Gaelic tribes first journeyed to the Argyll area of Scotland. There seems to have been a gradual colonization of the western part of Scotland from the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata during the first half of the first millennium CE, which had a tremendous cultural and political impact. So the kernel of truth in the legends of Scota and the people of her tribe is confirmed by scientific evidence.
Scotland's Stone of Destiny
There is one other angle to the story of Scota to consider regarding the Scottish people, and that is the story of the "Stone of Destiny," also known as "Lia Fail" in Gaelic or the "Stone of Scone" in English. The stone has been used in the crowning of Scottish kings throughout history. The existence and origins of the stone are shrouded in mystery, legend, and mythology that have biblical roots.
Another name for the stone is "Jacob's Pillow"; supposedly, it was used as a pillow by Jacob when he had a dream of angels. This stone somehow came into the possession of Gaythelos, and when he was exiled from Egypt, he took the stone on his long journey to Iberia. Ultimately the descendants of Gaythelos and Scota took the stone to Ireland, where it was established as a seat or throne in Tara. The stone was brought to Scotland from Ireland by King Fergus c. 498 CE, and he was crowned on the stone. There is a story of how the Irish monk and missionary Saint Columba brought the stone to the Isle of Iona in the 6th century CE. The 9th century CE saw Kenneth MacAlpin (r. 841 or 843-858 or 859 CE) bring the stone to the sacred locale of Scone, where he was crowned upon it. From that point on, all the Scottish kings were crowned on the stone at Scone until 1286 CE.
In 1286 CE, Alexander III of Scotland (r. 1249-1286 CE) died, leaving an infant granddaughter as his successor. She was known as Margaret the "Maid of Norway" and it was agreed by the Scottish nobles that she would be their queen. However, on her voyage from Norway to Scotland, she unfortunately died at the age of seven. There were thirteen claimants to the throne, and the Scots asked Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307 CE) to act as mediator. A Scots noble, John Baliol, was chosen and crowned at Scone, but many Scots resented Edward's interference in their government, and Baliol began an alliance with the French in 1296 CE and fought against the English. Baliol lost a critical battle at Dunbar in April 1296 CE.
As the victor, Edward I annexed Scotland to England and placed the Scots under military occupation. He also seized the honors of Scotland, along with the Stone of Scone, and brought it to Westminster Abbey. He built a chair, known as "St. Edward's Chair" or the "Coronation Chair" with a slot underneath to hold the Stone. Thus, when the kings of England were crowned on the chair, it signified that they ruled Scotland as well.
Some doubt exists regarding the actual stone captured by Edward I. There is a theory suggesting the monks at Scone Palace hid the real Stone in the River Tay or buried it on Dunsinane Hill and fooled the English troops into taking a substitute. If the monks did hide the Stone, it was so well hidden that no one knows what actually happened to it. No other stone matching the existing description has been found. The stone Edward I did seize has been analyzed and found to be of red sandstone quarried near Scone.
The legend connecting Scota to the Stone of Destiny did not appear in written records until the early 14th century CE, in order to increase the significance of the Scottish people's history. In 1996, an agreement was made to return the Stone to Scotland, and in November of that year there was a ceremony at the border of Scotland and England, transferring the Stone. It now resides in Edinburgh Castle with the rest of the Honors of Scotland. A replica of the Stone can be seen at Scone.
1. Scota and Gaedel Glas in a 15th century manuscript of Bower's Scotichronicon. This file is in the public domain.
2. Replica of the Stone of Scone at the original location at Scone Palace, Scotland. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Bubobubo2, June 2009.
- Walter Bower, "Scotichronicon," ed. D.E.R. Watt and others, 9 volumes (2987-1998).
- "Women of Scotland" by David R. Ross.
- "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" by Bryan Sykes.
- "The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings" by Tim Clarkson.
Ms. Susan Abernethy has always loved history. At the age of fourteen, she watched "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" on TV and was enthralled. Truth seemed much more strange than fiction. She started reading about Henry VIII and then branched out into many types of history. She pursued her passion for history in college, and has remained a lifelong student of European history. Recently, a friend graciously allowed her to write for her women's history blog, Saints Sisters and Sluts. Susan's blog, The Freelance History Writer, is now a contributor to the following websites: Medievalists.net, Historical Honey, Early Modern England, and Mittelalter Hypotheses -- A German blog on the Middle Ages.
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