In an age of e-books and digitisation it’s good to get the occasional reminder of how incomplete our reading experience would be if all we had were gadgets and gizmos and glowing screens. I had such a reminder quite recently, when my bookshelf made space for a small but delightful item that winged its way down from Brechin. The attractiveness of this slender tome doesn’t start and finish with the front cover (see above) but runs through the ensuing 72 pages, most of which contain illustrations in the form of high-quality drawings or photographs. Renowned archaeologist Anna Ritchie, who wrote the accompanying text, ends her paragraph of acknowledgments by describing the book as ‘a thing of beauty’. I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment.
The book’s title People of Early Scotland means what it says, in a literal sense, for this is essentially a collection of human portraits from the dawn of recorded Scottish history. Some, such as the ‘Mother Goddess’ of Ballachulish or the wolf-masked Pictish shaman from Shetland, are representations of real or supernatural beings associated with pagan rites. Others are portraits from Christian times: a procession of hooded monks carved on one side of a box-shrine; two priests sitting serenely in ornate chairs on a Pictish cross-slab. The secular world is also represented, primarily by images of people engaged in hunting and warfare. In two drawings by artist Ian G Scott we see one of the most vibrant of all Pictish scenes: a noblewoman hunting with servants and hounds on the great cross-slab from Hilton of Cadboll. Riding side-saddle, and with an expensive brooch clasping her cloak, this is clearly a lady who enjoyed the good things in life. She gazes out from the stone, confidently displaying the trappings of wealth that identify her as a member of the Pictish upper class. I imagine her as one of the A-list celebrities of her day, a person whom other folk instantly recognised as soon as they saw her vivid portrait.
A similarly vigorous scene, albeit with a somewhat grimmer theme, appears on an impressive piece of Roman sculpture from the eastern end of the Antonine Wall. Here, the ‘portrait’ depicts a quartet of native warriors – four early inhabitants of Stirlingshire, perhaps – being ridden down by a cavalryman of the Second Legion. On this monument we see the people of early Scotland on the losing side, being stomped by invaders from the south. But a later scene of warfare shows them gaining the upper hand, this time (if we accept the traditional interpretation) in a battle against English warriors from Northumbria. The victory in question was fought near Dun Nechtain (probably Dunnichen Hill in Angus) in 685, and the carved battle-scene appears on a famous Pictish stone at nearby Aberlemno.
That’s enough description from me. I’ll let the rest of the book speak for itself to those who wish to obtain their own copy. For me, it’s a perfectly distilled sample of the things that first got me interested – and which keep me interested – in the early history of Scotland. The finest ingredients are here: text by Anna Ritchie, drawings by Ian G Scott, photographs by Tom Gray, all expertly blended and presented by David Henry of the Pinkfoot Press. This same group was responsible for another attractive little volume called Govan and its Carved Stones which I recently described at my other website. Both books are excellent introductions to their subjects and, when not in use, look pretty good just lying around on a coffee table.
Title: People of Early Scotland from contemporary images
Author: Anna Ritchie, with Ian G Scott and Tom E Gray
Date of publication: 2006
Publisher: The Pinkfoot Press, Brechin
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