Early settlements in Orkney and Caithness

Map of Orkney & Caithness

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

Two fascinating archaeological projects have been going on in the far north of Scotland. Information can be found at their respective blogs via the links below.

In Orkney, this year’s summer excavation at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay ended a couple of weeks ago. The Cairns is the site of a substantial Iron Age settlement near Windwick Bay on the eastern side of the island. At its heart are the remains of a broch – a huge stone tower – which may have been built as early as the fourth century BC. The broch’s walls are 5 metres thick, making it one of the largest examples of its type. In recent years, archaeologists have been unearthing new pieces of evidence and joining them together to build up a history not just of the broch itself but of the entire site around it. What has emerged is a remarkable insight into how this place was used by successive generations of inhabitants over a period of several thousand years, from Neolithic times to the Iron Age, and from the era of the Picts and Vikings to c.1150 AD.

Link The Cairns Project


In Caithness, a project to locate and investigate the remains of prehistoric settlements is shedding light on a previously little-known period in the area’s archaeology. Laser-scanning with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has enabled archaeologists to identify previously unrecorded features that traditional aerial photography might otherwise fail to pick up. This new technology is revealing a rich Bronze Age landscape of hut circles, mounds and other sites which can be surveyed on the ground. The sites will now be studied alongside the chambered cairns – long regarded as the primary prehistoric evidence from Caithness – to build up a more detailed picture of how local people interacted with the land 3000 years ago.

Link Bronze Age Caithness

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Bits & pieces

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (see fourth item below). Photo © B Keeling.

Just a random selection of interesting items….

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‘Cult and Kingship – Understanding the Early Pictish Royal Centre at Rhynie’ was the title of a paper presented by Dr Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University to the Royal Scone Conference. A video of this and other presentations can now be viewed at the blog of archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen.

Scone with its ‘Stone of Destiny’ is famous as the place where medieval Scottish kings were crowned. The conference Royal Scone: A Scottish Medieval Royal Centre in Europe, held in Perth in November 2014, sought to better understand this important site by placing it in a wider North European context. Scholars from Scotland and beyond came together to discuss themes such as royal inauguration, state-formation and the archaeology of assembly places.

This is the kind of event I’m always sorry to miss :-(

Link Papers from the Royal Scone Conference, 2014.

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Here’s something else I’d like to see, if I can get to it between now and May…

Roman Empire: Power And People, McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee. 24 January to 10 May, 2015. Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sunday: 12.30-4.30pm.

This exhibition of sculpture, jewellery and other items from the British Museum is a showcase of the wealth of the Roman Empire. Material from outlying territories such as Scotland is also included.

Below are links to two media reports on the exhibition, followed by a link to the McManus itself.

Report from Herald Scotland website

Report from BBC News: Tayside & Central Scotland

McManus Art Gallery & Museum

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James Drummond was a renowned Scottish artist and antiquarian of the Victorian era. His illustrations of historic sites and old monuments include a number of images relating to the time-period covered at this blog.

A selection of Drummond’s work can now be seen at the Canmore database after being digitised by trainees on the RCAHMS Skills for the Future scheme. I spotted a couple of images with early medieval connections: the Cat Stane (although Drummond didn’t show the Early Christian inscription) and the Loth Stane (where the legendary King Loth of Lothian is supposedly buried). There are also some nice pictures of standing-stones from various parts of Scotland.

Link Highlights from the James Drummond Collection at RCAHMS

Link ‘Fine lines: Edinburgh-born James Drummond’s art digitised’ (BBC News)

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‘Wall of Eternity’ is the new name for Hadrian’s Wall in promotional literature to Chinese tourists.

The name emerged as the top choice during a poll in China which asked people to suggest suitable names in Mandarin for 101 tourist sites in Britain. A sign featuring the new name has already been produced for the Roman fort at Housesteads.

I quite like one of the alternative suggestions – ‘Great Wall of Britain’ – but I have to admit ‘Wall of Eternity’ does sound more evocative.

Link ‘Hadrian’s Wall given new Chinese name as part of tourism campaign’ (article in the Newcastle Chronicle)

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Last but not least, a new location for a popular blog…

Historical novelist Nicola Griffith has recently moved her excellent Gemaecca site to WordPress where it can now be found at gemaecce.com (note the different spelling). Fellow-bloggers will need to amend their links accordingly, to keep track of Nicola’s research on St Hild of Whitby and seventh-century Britain.

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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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