Hidden historical heroines (#08: Scota)

Scota is a psuedohistorical character in Irish and Scottish mythology, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharoah to whom the Gaels traced their ancestry; she allegedly explains the name Scoti, applied by the Romans to Irish raiders, and later to the Irish invaders of what would later be known as Scotland.

If Scota lived at all, she lived sometime in the centuries around 1400 BC. Tradition holds her as a daughter of either the Pharaoh Nectanebo or of Pharoah Akhenaten and his consort Nefertiti.

According to the historian Eusebius she married a Scythian prince. ‘Scota’ was probably an archetypal name bestowed upon her at this time; originally it was probably ‘Sacathach’ or ‘Scythian’, a title given to the foreign princess as a gesture of acceptance by her new husband’s people.

 This Scythian prince is known by various names in the various sources but most commonly as Nel (later Latinised into ‘Miles’), an individual who assisted in the building of the Tower of Babel and was famed for being proficient in many languages. Nel was the younger twin, and since his brother was the accepted Scythian heir he was forced to travel to seek his fortune in Europe.

 Eventually Nel and Scota stopped in Spain, where they had eight sons. Nel’s beloved uncle was sent out as the head of an exploratory expedition to find somewhere that the exiled Scythians could settle permanently. When this uncle was captured, tortured and killed by the indigenous tribesmen of what would become Ireland, it became personal for Nel. He settled his people in Kerry on the south-western coast and took up arms against the tribesmen. They fought their way to Tara – the ancient capital city of the indigenous Irish and later the spot where the High kings of Ireland were crowned – but Nel fell in battle the night before a decisive battle.

In true Egyptian queen style, Scota took control of her husband’s men and led them in their final advance and during the Battle of Tralee. Defeated, the indigenous tribesmen retreated into the hills but Scota – eager to claim a decisive victory – pursued them and was cut down. As a 17th century poet immortalises:

 “In yon cool glen, beside the mount, close by the wave, fell Scota while pursuing the enemy across the hills. Though Scota died early in the fray, her forces went on to victory and it is she that is remembered”.

Scota’s grave reputedly lies in a valley, south of Tralee town, in an area known as Glenn Scoithin. A trail from the road leads along a stream to a clearing where a circle of large stones marks the grave site. No formal archaeology has ever been undertaken in this glen to establish the legend’s validity either way.

Nel and Scota’s eldest surviving son – Gaedheal – gave his name to the Gaelic people and language. The Gaels became overlords to the indigenous people of Ireland, and after a few generations, expanded over the Irish Sea to Scotland.

At his coronation in 1249 the Scottish King Alexander III heard his royal genealogy recited back through 56 generations back to Scota. It was also accepted that the Stone of Destiny – the flat rock upon which Kings of Scotland (and thereafter Britain) were crowned – had been brought over from Egypt by Scota. The Scottish Declaration of Independence (Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 A.D.) makes the following statement:

“We know, Most Holy Father and Lord, and from the chronicles and books of the ancients gather, that among other illustrious nations, ours, to wit THE NATION OF THE SCOTS, has been distinguished by many honours; which PASSING FROM THE GREATER SCYTHIA through the Mediterranean Sea and Pillars of Hercules, and SOJOURNING IN SPAIN among the most savage tribes through a long course of time, could nowhere be subjugated by any people however barbarous AND COMING THENCE ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED YEARS AFTER THE OUTGOING OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL, THEY, BY MANY VICTORIES AND INFINITE TOIL, ACQUIRED FOR THEMSELVES THE POSSESSIONS IN THE WEST, WHICH THEY NOW HOLD…”

It might sound like just another origin myth, but it is certainly true that the Gaels had come to Ireland by the Late Bronze Age. Some of the dates and names in the legend do accord with parts of the accepted history of both Ireland and Egypt. The wrecks of two Egyptian ships, discovered near Hull in 1937, have been radio-carbon-dated to the period 1400 BC to 1350 BC.

In 1955 archaeologists were excavating an ancient burial mound in Tara and discovered the skeleton of a Bronze Age prince, carbon dated once again to around 1400 to 1350 BC and wearing a rare Egyptian necklace of faience beads. Stones inlaid in the golden collar found around the neck of the boy-Pharaoh Tutankhamen are of identical manufacture and design… so maybe it’s not such a leap of faith to imagine an Egyptian Warrior Queen riding recklessly through the hills of Tralee.

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