NOSAS Archaeology Blog

Pictish Symbol Stone Rhynie

Pictish symbol stone from Rhynie Kirk, Aberdeenshire (drawing by John Romilly Allen in ECMS, 1903)


An excellent online resource for Scottish archaeology appeared this year. The blog of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) is the place to go for updates on current excavations and other projects in the Highlands. It started in July and is already a treasure trove of fascinating information.

Unsurprisingly, the Picts turn up in several blogposts, of which the ones listed below are just three examples I’ve picked out as ‘recommended reading’.

Pictish burial practices
Excavations at Rhynie
Highland hillforts

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Other useful links:
NOSAS website
NOSAS on Facebook
NOSAS Blog on Twitter

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In the pipeline

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
Six weeks ago I mentioned my latest book, the writing of which reduced my blogging output to a trickle in the first half of 2014. Well, the thing is now being prepared for printing and will soon emerge from Edinburgh as a bright new paperback.

This is the only one of my books to have its own website, which has now been up-and-running since the middle of August. The image above – a preview of the finished product – was posted there earlier today.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (WordPress blog)

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The day before…

Senchus is a blog about history, archaeology and related topics. The content here is apolitical, and politically neutral, especially towards modern politics. This isn’t to deny political history a place here – it’s just that any politics that do appear tend to be pretty old. Anyway, there are more than enough blogs out there which cover the up-to-date stuff.

All of which is an explanation of why I – despite being neither apolitical nor politically neutral – haven’t written much on the topic of Scottish independence. As a non-participant in the referendum, and as someone whose online presence deals solely with old history, I have chosen to stay out of the wider debate. I have, however, followed the situation closely for the past couple of years, especially on social media. My personal opinion doesn’t count towards the result but, for what it’s worth, I hope Scotland regains her independence. I would take a Yes victory as a sign that the current political landscape in Britain can be changed – and by that I mean in England too.

Today, the day before the referendum, I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme which was broadcast last Saturday. Alex Woolf, an English-born historian who has been based in Scotland for many years, explains why he is voting Yes. Alex is a renowned authority on early Scottish history. His publications are regularly cited here at Senchus and in the bibliographies of my books. Much of what he says in the radio programme resonates with me, not least because we are both Englishmen. A link to the podcast appears at the end of this post.

And finally… Although this blog deals with Scottish themes, only two posts touch on issues relating to the referendum:
Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness (a look at the misuse of terminology)
The Last of the Free (the struggle for independence in ancient Caledonia)

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BBC Radio 4 – iPM, 13 September 2014 – Podcast

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Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Eamont 927
Regular visitors to Senchus may have noticed a lack of activity this year, with barely one new blogpost per month. The slowdown has been due to a major distraction – I’ve been writing a new book on early medieval history.

The title of my latest tome is Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. It’s my fifth book on Dark Age Scotland and my second on the North Britons. It can almost be described as a sequel to The Men Of The North – or more accurately as an expanded version of the last couple of chapters – and is similarly pitched as an undergraduate-level textbook. The primary focus is on the relationship between the Strathclyde Britons or ‘Cumbrians’ and their English neighbours in the Viking period (roughly 800 to 1100 AD). Much of this relationship was characterised by mutual hostility, which is why an early working title for the book was The Cumbrian Wars. These wars, although now absent from the title itself, still represent a major theme running through the book. Many of them are obscure and little-known, partly because Strathclyde has all too often been overlooked or ignored by historians, and partly due to misconceptions about what the term ‘Cumbrian’ actually means in an early medieval context.

Most of these conflicts were fought in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in other contemporary texts alongside periods of uneasy peace or temporary alliance. This was a volatile era in which ambitious kings in Britain and Ireland competed with one another for land, wealth and status. Treaties were forged, pledges were given and oaths of fealty were broken. Each generation brought a new set of alliances and a reshuffle in the balance of power. Add a few Viking warlords to the mix and it starts looking a bit like Game Of Thrones.

The book is scheduled for publication by Birlinn of Edinburgh in September 2014. At the moment, the front cover is being created (by a designer) and a final ‘proof’ of the text is being checked (by me). In the meantime, I’ve set up a WordPress blog where I’ll post updates on the book’s progress, as well as information on the Viking period in general.

I invite all readers of Senchus and Heart of the Kingdom to take a look at the new blog, which went online today. Click on the link below…

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

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Llyfr Aneirin online

Gododdin of Aneirin

John Koch’s edition and translation of The Gododdin, published in 1997.


Lisa Spangenberg, who runs the excellent blog Scéla on things medieval and Celtic, recently posted an interesting piece of news: Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, is now available online. This thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript contains Y Gododdin, ‘The Gododdin’, a collection of verses seemingly commemorating the near-massacre of an army of Britons from Edinburgh at a place called Catraeth sometime around AD 600. Two versions of the collection are included in Llyfr Aneirin, each transcribed in a different hand.

It’s the manuscript itself that has been digitised, not an edition or translation, so what we’re seeing is one of the great artifacts of medieval Celtic literature in its original form. Whether any part of the contents – the heroic and enigmatic Gododdin verses – was actually composed in North Britain six centuries earlier is a different matter (and a highly controversial one).

I followed the link given by Lisa and selected a random page from Llyfr Aneirin. It contained one of several verses beginning with the words gwyr a aeth gatraeth (‘Men went to Catraeth’), neatly crafted in an elegant script from 800 years ago.

Lisa has helpfully added other relevant links to her blogpost, including the digitised version of Llyfr Taliesin, the Book of Taliesin. Elsewhere on her site you’ll find links to various useful resources, so I recommend a look around if your interests lean towards Celtic medievalia.

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Notes & links

Check out Lisa’s blogpost The Book of Aneirin digitized and online and her Celtic web resources page.

The National Library of Wales ran its own announcement last week: Warriors went to Catraeth.

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Question: How far does the poetry attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin reflect genuine North British history?
The jury is out, so we’re faced with a choice of answers. These range from wide-eyed enthusiasm (‘it’s all true’) through sensible scepticism (‘some of it might be true’) to sombre pessimism (‘this is poetry, not history’). Help is now at hand for those of us who aren’t specialists in Celtic literature, via the papers in Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. This very useful book, edited by Alex Woolf and published by the University of St Andrews in 2013, brings us up to date with current research. Anyone who wants to use the Taliesin poetry or The Gododdin as historical sources should read it. The papers represent a variety of opinions, all of them wise and measured, some more optimistic than others. But the main message is simple: let’s be more cautious when using these Old Welsh poems as ‘history’. Accepting them as authentic chronicles from the sixth or seventh centuries, or as reliable gazetteers of ancient North British place names, is no longer an option.

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5th Anniversary

Pictish stone Aberlemno
The Senchus blog is 5 years old today.

Back in 2008 it began as a notepad or jotter for various historical musings, but I’m not sure how to describe it now.

Thanks to everyone who has given input via the comment threads, where many interesting discussions have taken place over the years. And special thanks to Michelle Ziegler for pointing me towards WordPress, which has certainly made the admin side easy and straightforward.

Future plans? Hard to say, but I’ll probably just continue as before. Plenty of ideas for new posts in the pipeline. The biggest problem, as always, is finding enough time – a familiar tale to those of you who run your own sites in the Blogosphere.

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Blogging about Pictish Christianity

Isle of May & St Ethernan's Church

The Isle of May, with the ruined medieval priory in the foreground.


Earlier this month I wrote a blogpost about the presumed Pictish ritual site at Dunino Den, a place seemingly used for pagan ceremonies before being taken over by Christianised Picts in the 8th century or thereabouts.

I had hoped to continue this religious theme by reporting on my visit last year to the Isle of May, a small island in the Firth of Forth. There I explored the remains of a 12th-century priory occupying the site of an earlier church allegedly founded by St Ethernan 300 years earlier. Ethernan seems to have been active in Fife and other Pictish territories in an era of Viking raids.

Unfortunately, I haven’t got around to writing it. I’ve been keeping it on the back-burner because I first wanted to read Peter Yeoman’s paper ‘Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots’ which I figured would give my report some useful scholarly beef. I still haven’t made any effort to obtain this paper, but I’m now thinking I should go ahead and write something about St Ethernan anyway. So that’s what I’ll do – but not just yet, as I’ve got an item on the Strathclyde Britons in the pipeline for Heart Of The Kingdom, and (like most of you, no doubt) I never seem to have enough time to do all the things I want to do with social media.

In the meantime, and in the absence of my delayed blogpost on Ethernan, those of you with an interest in Pictish Christianity should hike over to A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe where Jonathan Jarrett has written an excellent and enlightening summary of the current state of play, woven around notes on a lecture delivered last year by Alex Woolf. Our old pal St Ninian or Nynia – formerly a key figure in the story but now increasingly remote – gets a namecheck, as does the slightly less enigmatic St Columba (about whom I have written a book).

In his blogpost Jonathan reminds us that the traditional picture presented by Bede simply doesn’t hold water. What this means for Columba and Ninian is that neither of them can justifiably be called ‘The Apostle of the Picts’, regardless of what Bede says. The old image of two well-organised ‘missions’, respectively evangelising the northern and southern Picts, can no longer be sustained. It’s ecclesiastical propaganda designed to promote the interests of later generations of clerics in Pictland and elsewhere. The story also has to take account of new archaeological evidence from major sites such as Portmahomack. The picture of how Christianity became established in Pictland seems instead to be a multi-textured patchwork of individual missionary endeavours, woven by an unknown number of largely unsung characters working quietly in various districts, setting up their own churches and liaising with local secular elites. These patches were somehow knitted together to form what we now think of as the ‘Pictish Church’ with its primary centres at St Andrews and Dunkeld, but it must have been a slow process. Somewhere along the way, at quite a late stage, St Ethernan slots into the picture. He gets a mention in Jonathan’s blogpost, and Peter Yeoman’s paper gets cited too. As for me, I’m reminded to write my long-overdue report about the old ruined church on the Isle of May.

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Reference:

Peter Yeoman, ‘Pilgrims to St Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots’, pp.75-91 in Barbara Crawford (ed.) Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World (St Andrews, 1998).

See the notes at the end of Jonathan’s blogpost for other useful books and articles on Pictish Christianity.

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