New book on the Viking period

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

My fifth book on early medieval Scotland was published this week.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age traces the history of relations between the Cumbri or North Britons and their English neighbours through the eighth to eleventh centuries AD. It looks at the wars, treaties and other high-level dealings that characterised this volatile relationship. Woven into the story are the policies and ambitions of other powers, most notably the Scots and Vikings, with whom both the North Britons and Anglo-Saxons were variously in alliance or at war.

As well as presenting a narrative history of the kingdom of Strathclyde, this book also discusses the names ‘Cumbria’ and ‘Cumberland’, both of which now refer to parts of north-west England. The origins of these names, and their meanings to people who lived in Viking-Age Britain, are examined and explained.

The book’s main contents are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Cumbrians and Anglo-Saxons
A discussion of terminology and sources.

Chapter 2 – Early Contacts
Relations between the Clyde Britons and the English in pre-Viking times (sixth to eighth centuries AD).

Chapter 3 – Raiders and Settlers
The arrival of the Vikings in northern Britain, the destruction of Alt Clut and the beginning of the kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbria.

Chapter 4 – Strathclyde and Wessex
Contacts between the ‘kings of the Cumbrians’ and the family of Alfred the Great.

Chapter 5 – Athelstan
The period 924 to 939 in which the ambitions of a powerful English king clashed with those of his Celtic and Scandinavian neighbours. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Brunanburh.

Chapter 6 – King Dunmail
The reign of Dyfnwal, king of Strathclyde (c.940-970) and the English invasion of ‘Cumberland’ in 945.

Chapter 7 – The Late Tenth Century
Strathclyde’s relations with the kings of England in the last decades of the first millennium.

Chapter 8 – Borderlands
The earls of Bamburgh and their dealings with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Carham (1018).

Chapter 9 – The Fall of Strathclyde
The shadowy period around the mid-eleventh century when the last kingdom of the North Britons was finally conquered.

Chapter 10 – The Anglo-Norman Period
Anglo-Scottish relations in the early twelfth century and the origin of the English county of Cumberland.

Chapter 11 – Conclusions

Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Illustrations include maps, photographs and genealogical tables.

Published by Birlinn of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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Antonine Wall website

Antonine Wall Rough Castle

The Antonine Wall at Rough Castle near Bonnybridge (© B Keeling)


A new website for the Antonine Wall was launched last month, giving this famous Roman monument some well-deserved publicity by promoting it as a major heritage attraction. With fewer surviving traces than Hadrian’s Wall – most of which was constructed in stone – the turf-built Antonine frontier is a less visible feature of the landscape. In some places the remains of its ancient, grass-covered earthworks blend with the surrounding terrain. Nevertheless, it has much to offer the visitor, as the new website makes clear.

I recommend having a look around the website, which is nicely designed and easy to navigate. It’s worth bookmarking for content updates and for news of heritage events. In one section the site is described as ‘a host of resources and information for anyone planning a trip to the Antonine Wall or researching its history’. I’d say this is a pretty accurate description.

Highlights include ‘Top Ten Things To Do’ which is a good summary of the best-preserved locations, such as the still-impressive ramparts at Rough Castle and the bath-house at Bearsden. For anyone planning a visit there’s an interactive map with all the main locations marked. Another section lays out the historical background with pages on ‘The Romans in Scotland’, ‘Living on the Wall’ and other key topics.

Here’s the link…

The Antonine Wall: Frontiers of the Roman Empire

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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 Men Of The North is 4

The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland
I’m pleased to see my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland back on the online bookshelves after a month or two of being listed as ‘out of stock’. It was recently reprinted by the publisher – Birlinn of Edinburgh – which means normal service has now resumed at Amazon and elsewhere.

The reprint has coincided with the fourth anniversary of the book’s publication, almost to the day. Much has happened since August 2010, not least the inevitable appearance of new research relating to the North Britons. I’ve been able to pick up on some of the latest developments for my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age but this only deals with the period after AD 750. I have no new output in the pipeline for the earlier period (c.400-700), with which The Men Of The North is primarily concerned. My only current publication on the era of Urien Rheged and his contemporaries is a book review of Beyond The Gododdin which appeared in the journal Northern History a couple of months ago. Writing the review necessitated a detailed reading of the book itself, which turned out to be a very valuable exercise. For instance, it enabled me to catch up on the latest research (primarily linguistic and technical) on the poetry attributed to the sixth-century bards Taliesin and Aneirin. It would be useful to add some of this material to The Men Of The North, if only in the chapter endnotes and bibliography, but this will only happen if a second edition appears at some point in the future. I would especially like to cite those parts of Beyond The Gododdin that support my scepticism – expressed in Chapter Four of my book – on the way in which Taliesin and Aneirin are frequently accepted as reliable guides to sixth-century political geography. In the absence of a new edition of The Men Of The North, and with no similar publications on my ‘to do’ list, I may have to use this blog as the place to update my bibliographic references on Rheged, Gododdin and other North British kingdoms.

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The Men Of The North: The Britons Of Southern Scotland

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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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Fortunate Fellow

Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests
Last year, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland conducted a survey of its Fellowship to gather views on the Society’s activities and to invite suggestions for future developments. The survey, which took the form of an electronic questionnaire, was completed and returned by more than 650 Fellows. An initial report on the data has recently been made available at the Society’s website. It may be of interest to readers of this blog so I’ve posted a link at the end of this post.

Fellows who completed the questionnaire were entered into a prize draw to win a Society publication. By a random stroke of good fortune the lucky winner was none other than Yours Truly. This meant that I had to choose one item from the Society’s mouthwatering catalogue of books on Scottish archaeology and history. But which one? The catalogue bore such an uncanny resemblance to my own wish-list that the choice seemed impossible. After much head-scratching, I managed to trim the candidates down to a manageable two: The Stone of Destiny: Artefact and Icon (a collection of papers edited by Welander, Breeze and Clancy) and Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain AD550-850 by Leslie Alcock.

Stone of Destiny: artefact and icon
I eventually chose Alcock’s book, a comprehensive study of the Early Historic period by one of the pioneers of modern Scottish archaeology. Based on his 1989 Rhind Lectures to the Society, the book was published in 2003, three years before Alcock’s death. Its wide scope encompasses the material culture and social organization of peoples such as the Picts, as well as a range of important archaeological sites. Some of the sites had been excavated by Alcock as part of a long-running programme of ‘reconnaissance excavations’, the main objective of which was to examine major centres of power mentioned in the annals and other primary sources.

Alt Clut Dumbarton

Alt Clut, Dumbarton Rock, was excavated by Alcock in 1974-5 (Photo © B Keeling)


I had already amassed a large collection of Alcock’s publications over the years, but Kings and Warriors had somehow not found a path to my bookshelf. Thanks to a bit of luck it’s sitting there now – a hefty tome which dwarfs a couple of slender neighbours. It looks fittingly like the magnum opus of a great scholar, one whom I was never lucky enough to meet in person but whose published work has often shaped my thoughts.

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Society of Antiquaries of Scotland – Report into the 2012 Fellowship Survey

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Notes

I am grateful to the Society not only for the gift of a book, but also for mentioning my blog and Twitter account in the announcement of the survey report (see link above).

Leslie Alcock’s ‘reconnaissance excavations’ of hillforts and other high-status sites were published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and are available as full-text PDFs on the Society’s website. A good example of an article in this series is:
L. Alcock L & E.A. Alcock, ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974–84; 5: A, Excavations and other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984′, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 122 (1992), 215-88.

Kings and Warriors was reviewed by Jonathan Jarrett in 2008, at his blog A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe.

With no more prize draws on the horizon, I’ll need to scrape a few pennies together to buy The Stone of Destiny from the Society’s website, which is where copies of Kings and Warriors can also be purchased.

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Book news

The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings
Birlinn Books of Edinburgh, the publishers of my books, have now transferred The Picts and The Makers Of Scotland to their main imprint. Both originally appeared under the John Donald subsidiary imprint, which is where Birlinn tend to place most of their scholarly non-fiction titles. My two academic books – The Men Of The North and Columba - will remain at John Donald.

The move has necessitated a format change for Picts and Makers, with both being slightly reduced in size. In the case of Makers, the contents have not been altered, except for tidying up a couple of stray typos. I have, however, made a small change to one part of Picts (in the chapter on Brude, son of Maelchon) to bring it into line with what I’ve written more recently in Columba. Those of you with copies of the original book can pick up the amendment at the end of this post.

Makers has a minor change to the front cover (see image above). The warrior is now looking out from the book rather than gazing over to the right. At the moment, Amazon UK seem to have both versions in stock, which means people have a choice between the original John Donald book (with the warrior’s face in profile) and the slightly smaller reprint (which is cheaper by a few pounds). This will last until copies of the original version run out.

The new versions of both books are available in paper and digital formats. Here are the paperback links on Amazon UK:

The Makers Of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels & Vikings

The Picts: a history

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(A note on the 2013 reprint of Picts)

Tim Clarkson, The Picts: a history (Birlinn). Amendment to the 2010 edition, page 80: new final paragraph in the section ‘Columba and the Picts’.

–> What was Brude likely to gain by allowing a delegation from Iona to enter the heart of his realm? The answer probably lies in an awareness that the old gods of Pictavia now had little to offer. In every corner of the British Isles, paganism was retreating in the face of a sophisticated international religion whose leaders were rapidly gaining influence at the centres of political power. By contrast, the cults of the old gods operated in local contexts which must have seemed small and petty by comparison. To a wise and ambitious king such as Brude, the eventual triumph of Christianity may have seemed inevitable. To a hagiographer like Adomnán, the conflict between the old religion and the new required a more dramatic image. It was presented in the Vita as a face-to-face confrontation between Columba and the high priests of Pictish paganism. These ‘wizards’ or druids were trounced by a few spectacular miracles which proved the superiority of the Christian God. The chief druid was Broichan, Brude’s own foster-father, who continued to resent Columba even after the saint miraculously saved him from death. Broichan’s antipathy was not shared by Brude, for the monks were granted permission to preach throughout the kingdom, and some Picts received Christian baptism from Columba. The actual number of converts is unknown, but Adomnán gives no indication that Brude himself was among them. The king may have remained a pagan to the end of his days, perhaps as a matter of personal choice, or to maintain the goodwill of those among the Pictish elite who felt little enthusiasm for change.

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