Further Reading: Kings and Kingship

Kings & Kingship in Early Scotland
This is the first in a new series of blogposts in which I’ll be recommending stuff to read. By ‘stuff’ I mean printed items, things that don’t require some kind of electronic gizmo to unlock their information. If it exists in online format only, then it won’t be listed here.

In the series I’ll be selecting – in no particular order – various books and journal articles regarded by me as useful ‘further reading’ on topics covered at this blog. What these items share in common is the simple fact that I have perused all of them at some point in the last 25 years or so, in most cases more than once. I won’t be highlighting individual authors, either to show my appreciation of their work or to promote their latest book, but rather specific publications that I have found particularly useful. This means I won’t be including stuff suggested by other people but not yet seen by me. Every item showcased here is sitting on my bookshelf, or flickering in the loan history of my library account, or lurking somewhere in my stash of dog-eared offprints. The entire series will be unashamedly subjective, each item being chosen on the basis of nothing more weighty than my own opinion.

What better way to begin than with an acknowledged ‘classic’ from one of the foremost scholars of early Scottish history: Marjorie Anderson’s Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland. First published 40 years ago, with a revision in 1980, Kings and Kingship continues to be cited as a standard text. Its most recent reprint was issued a couple of years ago by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh (the publisher of my own scribblings).

The book’s title is self-explanatory: a study of royal authority and the individuals who wielded it, rather than a collection of royal biographies. One section does provide an excellent overview of political history, but the most useful aspect for many readers is Anderson’s comprehensive survey and analysis of the primary sources. Few scholars of her generation were better equipped to tackle such a complex topic. She was the wife of Alan Orr Anderson, editor of the magisterial Early Sources of Scottish History (which she later revised) and with whom she produced what is still regarded as the definitive edition of Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba. In Kings and Kingship she closely examined the regnal lists of the Picts and Scots, assessing their usefulness (or otherwise) as repositories of reliable historical information. She had already presented much of this analysis as far back as 1949-50, in three articles for the Scottish Historical Review, but some of her views had changed in the ensuing years. So, in 1973, her earlier findings were reissued, with updates, in a single monograph. As an exercise in how to approach the historical sources with the caution they deserve, rather than with uncritical acceptance of what they appear to say, Kings and Kingship was an exemplary work. It was Marjorie Anderson’s magnum opus and, after four decades, its influence is still felt today.

The 2011 reprint from Birlinn includes an introduction by Nicholas Evans of the University of Glasgow, highlighting the book’s importance. Dr Evans also adds a bibliography of recent publications on the subject. Strangely, given the vast number of times I’ve borrowed Kings and Kingship from the library – often with multiple renewals – it remains a notable absentee from my bookshelf. I should really do something about that.

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Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland. Published in Edinburgh in 1973; revised 1980; reprinted with new introduction 2011.

Publisher’s webpage for 2011 reprint.

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Additional note

Marjorie Anderson’s contribution to scholarship was acknowledged in a festschrift published two years before her death in 2002:
Simon Taylor (ed.) Kings, clerics and chronicles in Scotland, 500-1297: essays in honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday (Dublin, 2000).
Like so many of her own publications, her festschrift is an invaluable resource in its own right.

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9 comments on “Further Reading: Kings and Kingship

  1. Susan Abernethy says:

    Love your concept here Tim. I’ve put this book on my Wish List.

  2. I have added this book to my wish list too! I will be looking for it here in America. I am wondering how her work stands up to recent discoveries and even DNA studies? My paternal DNA traces back to the Dalriata through my immigrant ancestor John Hamilton. I am also supposedly related to Robert Bruce through my Jackson, Fuqua, Bates, Fleming, Stewart, Bruce line. I love learning about Scottish History but some periods are so confusing and require examination from multiple sources. I am currently reading Magnus Magnusson’s History of Scotland right now.
    http://www.gransfamilyhistory.com

    • Tim says:

      Hello Teresa. You’re right about some parts of Scottish history being a bit confusing. If you’re interested in ancestral DNA you may be aware of a book called The Scots: A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat & Jim Wilson, and the related website ScotlandsDNA.

  3. Melisende says:

    Looking forward to more recommendations Tim – and just realised – I also have your book (The Makers of Scotland)! – SPOOKY!

  4. I dipped into this book for the first time in ages a few months ago because I was somewhere with a copy on the shelf, I now forget where, and I very nearly made off with the copy, I was so enthralled by it. It’s so full of ideas, and yet so careful! Of course, as a lowly Master’s student I cited it as cast-iron authority for all my wildest speculations about Scottish royal genealogies and more or less ignored the cautions. I should still own it, though. Perhaps this year’s Leeds will have a beneficent second-hand bookstall that just happens to have a copy…

  5. Tim says:

    It’s such a useful thing to have on hand. I always feel reassured whenever a library copy is sitting on my bookshelf, and it’s always a wrench to give it back. If I ever see a secondhand copy I’ll probably grab it, regardless of condition or price.

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