What’s in a Name?

Cuibhlean stòlda mu dheas,  [The wheels of industry at a standstill,]
Na fàsaichean a’ tuath,   [The northern lands wasted,]
An taigh-mòr falamh an Dùn-éideann   [The empty house in Edinburgh]
Gun chumhachd gun ghuth.  [Without authority or voice.]      (Macdonald, 1987)

These are some of the poignant lines from the first song I ever heard by the Gaelic folk-rock band Runrig. The lyrics, penned in Scots Gaelic, describe the economic downturn and the lack of true authority granted to the Scottish people to govern themselves – a situation that continues today after the vote for independence on September 18. Things are changing, but not fast enough.

During that historic day just passed, it came to me that the land we know as Scotland was forged from a longing for independence. The land takes her name from the Scoti, the name the Romans gave to the Irish tribes who raided the western shores of Britain. One such seagoing tribe, the Dál Riata, left the Antrim coast around 500 AD in search of a new place to call home. They found it, seemingly without bloodshed in southwestern Scotland – a land they called Albu, a name which survives today in Scots Gaelic as Alba. The word is a cognate of Albion, which is the oldest name for mainland Britain in the Brythonic language (a precursor to Welsh).

So, what does the name Scoti actually mean? Ireland was originally referred to as Hibernia in Latin and the Irish as Hiberni up until the fourth century AD. Then the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus began to use the term Scoti for the Irish. He referred to the other great enemy of Rome in Britain as the Picti, or “The Painted People.” These were the Picts. “Scoti, by contrast, is a name with no obvious Latin meaning and has been most plausibly suggested as the Latin form of an originally Irish term for ‘plunderer’”(Marsden, 1997, p. 23). It isn’t hard to imagine a young Gaelic warrior lifting his chin and spouting to his Roman captors, “We’re the Raiders and we’re going to kick your….” Well, you get the picture.

A modern Irish dictionary reveals no trace of this meaning for scot or the original term. However, another word which sounds similar makes me wonder. Scoth (plural scotha) means “a young shoot,” or “a family branch,” or “the hair forming the tip of a tail, a brush, or loose-hanging part” (Dinneen, 1979, p. 983). Could the Irish who harried the Roman military have comprised a particular clan (“a family branch”)? They most certainly were a band of young warriors (“young shoots”) to go on raiding expeditions. Was Scoti a nickname used in reference to a particular hairstyle? Did they all sport ponytails or plait their hair in certain fashion? The Highland Clans stuck heather, juniper, and other sprigs of distinctive plants in their belts or caps (and later adopted distinctive tartans) to identify one other on the battlefield), so it seems reasonable that Irish clans or tribes resorted to impressive hairstyles as a means of identification.

“This original identity of the Scots as a people from Ireland is fully confirmed by later Irish authors, writing in Latin and familiar with classical Latin sources, who use Scoti in just that sense. Most prominent among them was Adamnan mac Ronan, the learned abbot of Iona at the end of the seventh century whose Life of Columba not only makes regular use of Scoti as a name for all Irish people and of Scotia for Ireland itself, but also uses the term Scoti Britanniae, the ‘Irish of Britain,’ for the Irish settled in Argyll” (Marsden, 1997, p. 23).

These Scoti were the Dál Riata, the People of Riata, who was a chieftain or petty king. So, what sent them to the shores of Albu? At the time of their migration, the Dál Riata were squeezed into a territory measuring about 450 square miles, bordered to the west by the River Bush, to the north and east by the sea, and to the south by the Latharna people.  This squeeze resulted from the pressures of Uí Néill expansion, and the Dál Riata sought relief in the land they could see across the waves, with their leader – according to legend – Fergus Mór mac Ercca. However, there is another legend of a migration led by Riata, who a century or more earlier delivered some of the Erainn peoples from a famine in Mumu (Munster). They settled for a time in Antrim and then crossed the sea to Argyll in Scotland. Riata’s people would have had to form a relationship with the British kingdom of Stratclut (Strathclyde), a major power source in the region. The kings of Stratclut may have welcomed Dál Riatan settlement to serve as a buffer between themselves and the Picts.

In 575 AD, a pact was drawn up by the Dál Riata’s most famous king, Áedán mac Gabráin, and the Uí Néill, who thought themselves overlords of the clans of the Dál Riata who remained behind in Antrim. The agreement reached was this: the Dál Riata dwelling in Ireland were to provide military service to the Uí Néill, but their tribute belonged to Áedán (and his successors) as their rightful overking.

History repeats itself – this time between Edinburgh and London.



Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish Kings and High Kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Dinneen, P. S. (1979). Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland.

Macdonald, R. and C. (1987). Alba on The Cutter and the Clan. New York: Chrysalis Records. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSKAnXB3ujY

Marsden, J. (1997). Alba of the Ravens: In Search of the Celtic Kingdom of the Scots. London: Constable.

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