Sovereignty

The statement below, made at the 2016 oathtaking in the Scottish Parliament, has been widely interpreted:

“Pledges loyalty to the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.”
— First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The sovereignty of the people - OK the tradition goes back a long way and a few red herrings need cooked before getting started.

There are longstanding misunderstandings about the roots or origins of the sovereignty of the land linked to the early medieval period at the Scottish stronghold/ 'capital' at Dunadd in Argyllshire - when Scots were living in Antrim and Argyllshire. The role of the Scots based in 'Ireland' has been crudely portrayed in the past in terms of some sort of invasion process, both at the outset when the Scots develop a 'kingdom' in Argyllshire and at 'the end' where Scots and Picts fused to form the Kingdom of Alba/ Scotland.

In truth the peoples of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland had been exchanging goods, ideas and possibly marriages around the Irish Sea and up to Caithness and Orkney from at least 3,200 BC. A pattern of long-range, low volume exchange appears in the archaeology and continues right through to the early medieval. So the concept of sovereignty of the land reaches back before there was any modern concept of an Ireland or a Scotland.

(We can't just match the mythic to archaeology; but it is noticeable that the archaeology points towards understandings linked to sovereignty of the land such as a living or animate landscape; where mythic figures were imagined as lying at rest within the landscape, e.g. the 'Cailleach' or Veiled One at Callanish. As part of that we find ceremonial landscapes with standing stones arranged by colour and shape to form or realise ceremonial dramas, alongside a folklore implying the rocks could come to life).

Similar concerns are given architectural form in the choice and placement of particular types of stone within these monuments. At Balnuaran of Clava, red stones that absorb the light were most prevalent around the southwest of the cairns while grey and white stones that reflect the light were concentrated on the northeast (Bradley 2000b). In this way, a contrastive symbolism of life and death, light and darkness, became embedded into the monuments themselves, underlining the likely symbolism of their astronomical alignment.
— SCARF - Cosmology and Bronze Age Monuments.

The archaeology, and myth, therefore suggests the sovereignty of the land and people isn't about Scots suddenly inventing and exporting/ imposing a localised culture. The 'Irish' or Dalriadian input came out of the earlier experiences of the connected Atlantic cultures most familiar through Newgrange, Ness of Brodgar, Callanish and, originally for Scotland, Caithness.

(If you wish to drill down into this in detail SCARF is the place to go).

Ideas and actions already familiar to the overall region simply came together/ coalesced under different, but closely intertwined, kingships. There was no need to overwrite, and no need to conquer as such, because 'the Scots' weren't something new; they were part of a shared cultural legacy. (Recent research raises the possibility the Scots of Dalriada were originally/ largely Britons, much like the people of the neighbouring Kingdom of Strathclyde).

If we can except that sovereignty of the land and people is an ancient understanding we can then get beyond misapplying modern political understandings to not an Irish or Scottish culture, (neither state existed as now), but as an Atlantic heritage.

Take the word “dùthchas”. There is no succinct way to translate it because it incorporates a rich set of ideas. My Gaelic dictionary translates it as “place of origin” or “homeland”. But on Lewis, I was told it means much more. It’s a collective claim on the land which is reinforced and lived out through the shared management of that land. It is a right which is grounded in daily habits and activities and it is bound up with relationships to others, and responsibilities. It gives rise to the idea, identified by the scholar Michael Newton, that “people belong to places rather than places belonging to people”. Gaelic turns notions of ownership on their head.
— Glasgow Herald, The Language of Resistance, 26/9/16.

So what do we find at Dunadd, the site where the first Scottish, but not Atlantic, kings are widely thought to have been inaugurated and assumed sovereignty of the land.

Dunadd is said to have been founded in 500 AD by Fergus Mór mac Erc of the kingdom of Dál Riata in Ireland (Co. Antrim). The archaeology shows no record of a large migration, but does indicate longstanding links. (Dunadd sat at the shoreline at the time and it was generally safer and often quicker to move around by boat).

Dunadd became a prosperous international trading centre where industrial scale metallurgy produced a wide range of goods and those with the means could drink wines from the Mediterranean. Christianity was spreading during this period and it is claimed St Columba became closely involved with Dunadd, inaugurating Áedán mac Gabráin in the first Christian coronation of the Dalriadic kings.

The top of the hillfort has a rock slab showing an incised footprint, (about size 7), a carving of a Pictish Boar, an Ogham, (though conceivably old Gaelic), inscription and a bowl or hollow. A stone chair or 'throne' is nearby.

It is here, largely in keeping with Ireland at the time, that kingmaking ceremonies appear to have taken place and the king symbolically married the goddess of the land or Lady of Sovereignty as she was at times referred to. This marriage placed the king in partnership with the land and occupants of the land were part of the living landscape.

The Dinnseanchas — the ancient stories and lore of place, the foundation-stones both of personal and communal identity, and of moral obligations to the land and the tribe — tell us how so many major features of the landscape came to be named after women. Almost all Irish rivers, for example, bear the names of Otherworldly women. Ancient Irish literature is filled with stories of powerful women who were incarnations of Sovereignty, the goddess of the land who was its guardian and protector. Sovereignty was the spirit of the Earth itself, the anima mundi, a deeply ecological force.
— Sharon Blackie, Marrying the Land.

This may be seem an unusual concession for a leader to make, but these were bloodthirsty times for royal rivals and gaining the sanction and support of the sacred was crucial to your chances of survival. At Dunadd we seem to see the sacred, both old and new, aligning with kingship.

However, the king is not being made divine of himself, he is taking on roles as cipher and sustainer within the relationship between the divinity of the land and the people. In so far as several sources tell; the king placed his foot into the footprint joining himself to the land and upon proceeding to the throne entered into a sacral marriage - tying together the prosperity of the land with the prosperity of the land ,. . . and it's people.

It seems to have followed from the above that the king could be removed from office if the land was not fruitful. So, we have something quite distinct from absolute monarchy or divine right to rule. We have a contract being made which doesn't set the various interested parties at odds with each other; instead all parties are set within a partnership.

In the days when our native traditions predominated, the power of Sovereignty — the power of women — was also the power to determine who should rule the land. In the old myths, Sovereignty’s power was paramount. If the power she bestowed was abused, then we invited disaster. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and prosperous, and the tribe was victorious in war. But if the king didn’t match up to her expectations, he didn’t last long. And what she expected more than anything was that the king, and through his example, the people, would cherish the land. So it was that the ancient rites of kingship in Ireland included a ceremonial marriage, the banais ríghi, between the king and the goddess of the land, and so fundamental was that idea to the Irish way of life that those rites lasted into the sixteenth century.
— Sharon Blackie, Marrying the Land.

This form of sacral kingship has been presented by various parties as an extension of various traditions from the Vedic to the 'Celtic'; but we need only look at the range of inputs - including the early indigenous traditions, far reaching international contacts and on-going Christian participation - to see Atlantic practices folding into a regionally quite unique form of inauguration and sovereignty.

Did it work, were such kingships in anyway removed from feudal models or kings such as James I and VI who became obsessed with self-professed divinity. Conflict and the pursuit of personal power certainly continued. However, Adomnan's Law of the Innocents, (essentially an early Geneva Convention protecting women, children and clerics), was enacted and agreed across much of Scotland/ Pictland and Ireland under this model of sovereignty; and as petty kingdoms developed into clans a tradition of the head of a clan as a custodian of the land and its people appears to have persisted until quite recent times.