Bits & Pieces

This is a round-up of various types of online information ranging from blogposts to newspaper articles to announcements of books and e-books.

I’ll begin with books that have recently appeared. These relate to Senchus topics and have been written by people who have commented on past blogposts here. In no particular order….

Hot off the press is The Chronicles of Iona: Exile by medievalist and blogger Paula de Fougerolles. Launched last month at The Haven (‘Boston’s first and only Scottish pub’) it tells through the medium of historical fiction the story of St Columba’s dealings with the early Scottish king Áedán mac Gabráin. Back in March in a roundup from the blogosphere I gave advance notice of this book, which is now available in print and electronic formats. The second volume in the Chronicles of Iona series is already in the pipeline. Check out Paula’s blog to keep up to date with her writing, or follow her on Twitter at @PaulaDeFoug

Seventh century Britain is in transition. Small kingdoms are dissolving and merging…..’ This is the volatile world in which a young Anglo-Saxon woman, the future St Hild of Whitby, is set to play an important part. Hild is the subject of Nicola Griffith’s eponymous novel which is due to be published in New York in the autumn of 2013. Nicola has an impressive track record as a prize-winning author so we know the narrative is in safe hands. In addition, I can vouch for her depiction of seventh-century North Britain as meticulously researched and as historically accurate as it’s possible to get. Those of you who use Twitter will find Nicola at @nicolaz or you can follow the progress of Hild via the Gemaecca blog.

Also newly published is The Last of the Druids: the Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones by Iain Forbes. This is another book I mentioned as forthcoming back in March, when I posted a link to the striking cover which shows the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab. Out in the Twittersphere, where Iain is @IainForbesPict, he and I frequently provide our respective followers with links to pictures of Pictish stones and bounce each other’s tweets to and fro. Iain’s blog is also worth a look if you’re interested in the Picts. It currently has a nice post about the stone from Shandwick in Easter Ross.

[This paragraph was updated in January 2015] Mak Wilson is working on an e-book about the historical figure behind the legends of King Arthur. The book asks the fundamental question at the heart of the debate: Fact? Fiction? or Confusion? Mak has posted extracts at his new blog (his old Badonicus site no longer exists). If you’re a frequent visitor to Senchus you’ve probably seen Mak’s comments in various threads here. Mak’s on Twitter too, as @MakWrite.

Richard Denning will be a name familiar to those of you who follow the comment threads on my blogposts dealing with the Battle of Degsastan. At Richard’s website you’ll see information on his historical novel The Amber Treasure which is set in the era of the battle. Here’s a synopsis of the story… 6th Century Northumbria: Cerdic, the nephew of the great warrior Cynric, grows up dreaming of glory in battle and writing his name in the sagas. When war comes for real though, his sister is kidnapped, his family betrayed and his uncle’s legendary sword stolen. It falls to Cerdic to avenge his family’s loss, rescue his sister and return home with the sword.

Child of Loki, Richard’s second novel about sixth-century North Britain, is also available. In addition, Richard gives his views on Degsastan on the website English Historical Fiction Authors. You can follow him on Twitter where he’s easily recognisable as @RichardDenning

The Viking Highlands – The Norse Age in the Highlands by Dave Kelday is an e-book which looks at one of the most turbulent periods in Scottish history. The description at Amazon says that the author “aims to present a coherent, historical, sometimes speculative, narrative of that long era in Highland history when the people, politics and culture of the Norse played such a vital and significant role in the life and development of the nation.” I’m no stranger to weaving a historical narrative from scattered fragments of data, having used the same technique in my own books. In an email conversation Dave told me he used controversial texts such as the Norse sagas and the Manx Chronicle in this way while keeping in mind their limitations as historical sources.

Moving seamlessly from books and e-books to blogposts, online essays and news items…….

Most of you will know by now that Scotland has been given the Disney/Pixar treatment in a new animated feature called Brave. It looks good and is already out in the US. Michelle Ziegler went to see it and has put up a useful review at her Heavenfield blog. I hope to see Brave in the not-too-distant future and will probably review it here.

Do you remember my series of posts on the origins of Clan Galbraith? One contributor to the comment threads was Peter Kincaid who runs the website which explores the history of his surname. Peter has written an interesting paper on King Coroticus, the slave-raiding warlord castigated by St Patrick for capturing young Irish Christians and selling them to the Picts. One Irish tradition associated Coroticus with Aloo, usually interpreted as a garbled Gaelic form of Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde at Dumbarton. Peter questions this identification and offers an alternative theory which suggests that Aloo might refer not to a place but to a military unit.

What nationality was St Cuthbert? Being interested in matters of ethnicity and identity in early medieval times it’s the kind of question I like to explore. I’m grateful to Liz Roberts for pointing me to a letter on the Telegraph website suggesting that the answer to this question should not necessarily be ‘English’. It is possible that Cuthbert was as much a Scottish saint as an English one, or maybe we should simply call him ‘Northumbrian’. I know from speaking to Liz that she has her own views on the use of ethnic terminology relating to this period. She’s right to be concerned about it. Terms such as ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ are sometimes bandied about quite casually in reference to the early medieval period, without much thought being given to what they really meant a thousand years ago.

Here’s another question: where did the Picts defeat the Northumbrians on 20 May 685? The vicinity of Dunnichen Hill in Angus is seen by many as the likeliest location, but Dunachton in Badenoch is another candidate. Either or neither of these places could be the hill (or hillfort) called Dun Nechtáin in the Irish annals. The uncertainty means that the best-known event in Pictish history cannot be listed in an official inventory of battlefields. Historic Scotland’s decision to exclude Dunnichen from the list has not gone down too well in Angus, as this news item from The Courier makes clear.

Further west, in the Hebridean seaways, an archaeological excavation has recently commenced on the island of Eigg, its aim being to discover the origins of the ecclesiastical site at Kildonan. This is supposedly where St Donnan established a monastery in the late sixth century. He and his monks suffered martyrdom in 617 when the island was attacked by pirates. Because of the importance of the site I’ll be following the progress of this excavation closely. At some point I hope to run a blogpost about it.

Another excavation is hoping to unravel the mystery of Trusty’s Hill, a site overlooking the Solway Firth, where Pictish symbols are carved on a rock at the summit. Why are these carvings found here, so far away from the Pictish heartlands? Who occupied the fort on top of the hill? This was territory ruled by Britons, not Picts – or so conventional wisdom tells us. Yet the name Trusty seems to relate in some way to Tristan, and both may derive from the Pictish name Drostan, so are we looking at a genuine connection with the Picts?

Finally, but not for the last time, I recommend a visit to Heavenfield where Michelle has recently posted her latest round-up from the medieval blogs as well as the above-mentioned review of Brave. If you’re a ‘tweep’ you can follow Michelle on Twitter where she’s @MZiegler3. I’m a twitterer as well, in two guises: @EarlyScotland and @GovanStones. Speaking of Govan, I’ll be giving an update on what’s been happening there in my next blogpost, which will be published here at Senchus rather than at Heart of the Kingdom.

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Recommended reading

To those of you who follow A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe this will be old news. To the rest, it’s a nudge towards a couple of blogposts by Dr Jonathan Jarrett of the University of Oxford.

Jonathan’s areas of teaching and research touch on many of the topics that pop up here at Senchus. Many of you will recognise his name from a number of posts to which he has contributed via the comment thread. At his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe he has recently posted two items that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in early medieval Scotland. One is a book review; the other a report of a seminar paper.

The reviewed book is James E. Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, the first volume in the series The New Edinburgh History of Scotland from Edinburgh University Press. Those of you who are familiar with this book will find Jonathan’s review a useful commentary. Fraser has produced what I regard as an essential text, even if chunks of it don’t chime too well with my own views of the period. Some of his theories about the Britons, for instance, are seriously at odds with what I’ve written in The Men Of The North, particularly on key topics such as Rheged, Catraeth and the Maeatae. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend Fraser’s book as the best currently available guide through the swirling mists of the fifth to eighth centuries. It’s a bold attempt to draw all the bits and pieces together into a narrative after testing their validity against a rigorous set of criteria. The result isn’t going to please everyone, which is no bad thing in itself. But don’t take my word for it: read what Jonathan says and get an insightful perspective from academia.

The seminar paper was presented last year by Alex Woolf to an audience in Oxford. Woolf is the author of From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070, the second volume in the EUP series mentioned above and another addition to any list of essential reading on early Scottish history. His paper at the Oxford seminar considered (among other things) the influence of socio-economic factors (i.e. trade) in the shift of political power from early centres such as those in Argyll and Galloway to newer ones primarily in the East. Jonathan gives a synopsis and mentions that these ideas are likely to be incorporated into a new book in which Woolf will deal with the period before 800 previously covered by Fraser. This means two books on the same topic, by two leading scholars. The one is unlikely to duplicate the other but will rather give the reader two perspectives that can then be compared, contrasted and critiqued. When this happens, we shall consider ourselves well-served indeed.

Here are the links to Jonathan’s posts:
Review of From Caledonia to Pictland
Report on Alex Woolf’s seminar paper

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Early Medieval Govan

Govan Sarcophagus

The Govan Sarcophagus (Photo © B Keeling)

I recently uploaded a new post at Heart of the Kingdom, my blog about early medieval Govan and the carved stones of the kingdom of Strathclyde. The post takes a look at the distinctive ‘hogback’ tombstones at Govan and compares them with similar monuments at Penrith in Cumbria.

If you haven’t visited Heart of the Kingdom yet, please go over and have a look around. The topics there are obviously quite close to the ones you’ll find here. People who enjoy my Senchus posts about Pictish sculpture, for instance, may be interested to read about the equally impressive (though less well-known) sculptured stones at Govan. Although every post at Heart of the Kingdom is indexed here at Senchus on the topic page for the kingdom of Strathclyde the following list shows the ones published so far:

Hogback tombstones at Govan and Penrith
Govan: a place of assembly
Govan and the kings of Strathclyde
Pigtails and ponytails on early medieval sculpture
A 19th-century illustration of the Govan Sarcophagus
The Sun Stone at Govan
Book review: Anna Ritchie’s Govan and its Carved Stones
People, place and memory: Govan and the kingdom of Strathclyde
What’s in a name? Choosing a name for my new blog

Early Medieval Govan

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Round-up from the Blogosphere

Shortage of time meant my blogging slowed down last month but I’m looking to get back on track this week. I’ll start with a quick round-up from some other blogs. This is just a small selection of what’s going on at the moment, so I recommend Michelle’s latest round-up at Heavenfield for a wider snapshot. Some of the sites mentioned by Michelle appear in this post.

Over at the Badonicus blog Mak Wilson is publishing a series of posts on the identity of King Arthur and examining the core question of whether we’re dealing with a historical figure or a mythical one, or a combination of the two. This is a comprehensive study of sources and theories so anyone with an Arthurian interest will find it worth a look. Mak offers a balanced treatment of the topic and gives equal space to all sides in the long-running debate about the Historical Arthur. The series is currently up to Part Five.

Perceptions of ‘barbarian’ Celts and Picts is the title of a post by Iain Forbes at his Last of the Druids blog. Iain looks at how the peoples of early medieval Britain are traditionally (and simplistically) presented to schoolchildren as a homogeneous ‘island nation’ who endured wave after wave of invasion by Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Iain draws on his own memories of how this period of history was taught in Scottish schools. His recollection of learning about a homogeneous mass of ‘Ancient Britons’ struck a particular chord with me as I made a similar point in a talk I gave at the Wigtown Book Festival in 2010, which turned into a book-launch for The Men of the North.

If you visit Iain’s blog, take a look at the stunning cover-image for his forthcoming book on the Pictish symbol stones. It shows a full-sized replica (carved by master-stonemason Barry Grove) of the Hilton of Cadboll stone from Easter Ross.

The next blogpost here at Senchus will be a report on my recent visit to Dacre in Cumbria, site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery mentioned by Bede. Dacre is one of the places suggested as a venue for the famous royal meeting at Eomotum in 927, an event attended by the English king Athelstan and his fellow-monarchs from Strathclyde and Alba. An excellent summary of the meeting and its geographical context can be found in Diane McIlmoyle’s latest post at her Cumbrian blog. Diane has the advantage of being based near Eomotum (the River Eamont) and speaks from first-hand experience when she discusses the sites suggested as possible venues.

Staying with a Cumbrian theme, Professor Karen Jolly of the University of Hawai’i has a new post at Revealing Words, her blog about tenth-century Northumbria. The post is an update on her search for sites in Cumbria possibly visited by the Northumbrian priest Aldred, a member of the community of St Cuthbert. As well as producing a definitive scholarly edition of Aldred’s glosses on a book of prayers, Karen is writing a novel about him and has posted an extract on her blog.

A novel about early medieval Scotland is due to be launched next month. Chronicles of Iona: Exile looks at the relationship between St Columba and his royal patron Aedan mac Gabrain. Its author, Paula de Fougerolles, is a graduate of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic at Cambridge where she undertook her PhD. Exile will be available in e-book format and also in hardcopy and will be followed by Peregrinatio, the second title in the Iona series. An extract from Perigrinatio can be viewed at Paula’s blog.

Another early medievalist turning her hand to historical fiction is V.M. Whitworth who, as Victoria Thompson, wrote the acclaimed Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England (2004). Her recently published novel The Bone Thief is described on her blog as ‘a historical thriller set in 900 AD, in the immediate aftermath of the death of King Alfred the Great’. It was launched at York during this year’s Jorvik Viking Festival.

At the start of this year I made a resolution to visit Scotland more frequently than I managed in 2011. I need to replenish my stock of photos for this blog and do some exploring around Strathclyde for Heart of the Kingdom and my other research projects on the Britons. I was in Govan last month and will be there again in April but I hope to get to other places, not only to re-visit historical sites but also to attend events. This will happen if various schedules fall into place. An event much further afield but on my ‘get-to’ list for a rather long time is the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in the United States. I always remember the buzz on Ansaxnet (where I used to lurk in the 1990s) whenever the date of ‘Kzoo’ drew near. I really should have made the effort to attend back then, when I probably had more time than I seem to have nowadays. A recent blogpost by Curt Emanuel is a reminder of what I’ve been missing. Although not a professional medievalist Curt is a regular attendee at Kalamazoo and draws on his own happy experience of past congresses to encourage other ‘interested amateurs’ to register for this year’s event. One day, perhaps, I’ll actually make it….

Finally, an opportunity for honest bloggers everywhere to grind their teeth and growl or howl. Theft of our creativity for anonymous re-posting and other unspeakable purposes is one of the prices we pay for an unregulated Internet. It’s a sad but inevitable fact of online life. In his latest blogpost Jonathan Jarrett reports on an instance of his own stuff turning up somewhere else without permission or due credit. Alas, it won’t be the last we hear of this sort of treachery.

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New blog on early medieval Govan

Replica cross at Govan

Replica of a 10th-century cross at Govan (Photograph © B Keeling)

This week I’ve launched a new blog called Heart of the Kingdom. It’s about Govan, an important royal site in the kingdom of Strathclyde and a major centre of stonecarving in the 9th-11th centuries. The old parish church at Govan has an important collection of monuments dating from this period, including the original shaft of the replica cross shown above.

I plan to run the new site alongside Senchus as an additional venue for jottings about the North Britons. Senchus will remain my main venue for posts on things like Rheged, Gododdin, Alt Clut and the battle of Arfderydd and will still host the ongoing series on Strathclyde. Heart of the Kingdom will have a narrower focus on Govan and on the sculpture of the ‘Govan School’. It will also cover news of events or projects in present-day Govan that relate to the carved stones and their period.

Here’s a link to the new site: Heart of the Kingdom

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Picts in many places…

Pictish Symbol Stone Orkney

Symbol stone from South Ronaldsay, Orkney (drawn by JR Allen, 1903)

If you haven’t done so already, pop over to A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe and read Jonathan Jarrett’s latest blogpost on the Picts. It touches on the old question of what the terms ‘Pict’ and ‘Pictish’ might really mean.

Jonathan has blogged on this topic before, in a post called Pictland should be plural. His latest instalment has the title Picts in many places, if ‘Pict’ is the word. You can probably see where his thoughts on the topic are heading. ‘We talk of the Picts as a people,’ he writes, ‘but much suggests they were many peoples.’

Jonathan’s blogposts usually include attractive pictures and Picts in many places is no exception. I won’t spoil the treat by describing each image but, suffice to say, you’ll see some rather impressive stuff recently unearthed by archaeologists. The thing is, although these discoveries add useful data to what we already know, they don’t provide answers to fundamental questions like ‘Who were the Picts?’ On the contrary, each new discovery throws up a new set of questions, which then require new theories to explain them. All of this is good news for ‘Pictish bloggers’, of course, because it means there’s always something new to write about.

‘More stuff keeps turning up’, says Jonathan. Long may it continue to do so.

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P.S. My own musings on Pictish identity appear on this blog from time to time. I have a particular interest in the ‘Pictishness’ of Cenél nGartnait, a high-status family who lived on Skye in the 7th century.

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The Heroic Age (issue 14)

The Heroic Age is a free online journal covering the history, archaeology and literature of early medieval Northwestern Europe.

The current issue is published in two installments, the first of which (under the theme ‘The state[s] of early English studies’) is a joint venture with the medieval culture journal postmedieval. The second installment, published a couple of weeks ago, deals with various aspects of Anglo-Saxon law.

Although neither theme relates specifically to Scotland, a couple of articles touch on subjects covered here at Senchus. For instance, Nathan Breen’s study of Queen Wealhtheow (a character in Beowulf) looks at the roles played by Anglo-Saxon royal women in legal transactions such as land-grants. It caught my attention because I sometimes blog here on gender-related topics (e.g. inter-dynastic marriage) with special reference to the women of early medieval North Britain. Another article I found particularly interesting looks at Cnut, the Scandinavian king who ruled England in the early 11th century. The author, Jay Paul Gates, examines changes in the discourse of kingship in the Late Anglo-Saxon period, including the important shift in terminology ‘from king over a people to king over a territory’. This transition has a close parallel in Scotland with the disappearance of the title rex Pictorum, ‘king of the Picts’, in c.900.

If you’re not yet a regular reader of The Heroic Age, drop by and take a look at the current issue, or browse the back-issue archive. The journal is an excellent resource and well worth a visit. See the links below…..

Current issue (issue 14)
Journal homepage
The Heroic Age blog (maintained by Larry Swain)

Arthurian links

King Arthur

King Arthur depicted in an Italian manuscript of c.1350

There isn’t much about King Arthur here at Senchus, which might suggest that I have little interest in this enigmatic figure (in any of his several manifestations). In fact, my apparent disregard conceals the fact that I owe a big debt to him – or rather to those who have written about him. The broad field of Arthurian studies sparked my interest in early medieval history in the first place (around 30 years ago). That’s probably a tale in itself, which might get an airing sometime in the future.

This post is a quick round-up of some interesting Arthurian stuff I’ve found on recent travels in the blogosphere. Although I don’t get involved in the ‘Historical Arthur’ debate these days – having voiced my opinions a while ago – I still enjoy reading about it from time to time. I also keep half an eye on that other fella – the Arthur of legend – especially when he turns up in local folkore woven around mysterious heroes and ancient monuments. And it’s no coincidence that I enjoy modern glossy presentations of Arthuriana, such as the excellent TV series about Merlin. I’m a sucker for mock-medieval drama and brightly coloured heraldry, so when these appear in an Arthurian context my interest in the wider topic receives a boost.

I’ll begin this round-up with Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore, a blog created in October of last year by Diane McIlmoyle. Deservedly described elsewhere as “the up-and-coming premier blog on Cumbric studies”, Diane’s website is a veritable treasure-trove of information. I’ve already found plenty of useful stuff there, mainly because of the many connections between medieval Cumbria and Southern Scotland. A couple of recent posts on Arthurian topics caught my eye: one on Urien of Rheged (a 6th century North British king who turns up in the romances) and another on Morgan Le Fey (whom the romances portray as Urien’s wife). Another Arthur-related post looks at the origins of the Merlin legend in old Welsh traditions about the battle of Arfderydd (fought in Cumbria in 573). Diane always manages to strike a neat balance between scholarship and readability, which is why her site is one of my regular stops.

Meanwhile, over at the Badonicus blog, Mak Wilson has recently completed a detailed contribution to the Historical Arthur debate (as part of an idea for a screenplay). His eleven-part series has covered a lot of ground, from the battle-list in the Historia Brittonum to the famous reference in the Gododdin poetry. Along the way, Mak has looked at a number of genuine early figures called Arthur, any (or none) of whom might have had something to do with the origin of the legend. In the final instalment he steps back to consider the data and (very wisely, in my view) doesn’t commit himself too strongly to one theory or another. This is a thoroughly researched study with enough nuggets to keep even non-participants in the Great Arthurian Debate interested. A strong Scottish thread runs through it, as when Mak looks at the Dál Riatan princes called Artúr (referring to papers by fellow-bloggers Michelle Ziegler and Jonathan Jarrett) and also the Gododdin verses (some of which which were probably composed at Edinburgh).

Speaking of the Gododdin brings us seamlessly to an informative post about early Welsh poetry at Edward Watson’s Clas Merdin blog. Among other things, Edward discusses the origins of the older Cynfeirdd poems attributed to the 6th century bards Taliesin and Aneirin. He begins with an extract from a poem of the slightly later englynion genre. Here we meet the North British hero Llywarch Hen (‘Old Llywarch’) lamenting the fact that he is carrying under his arm the severed head of King Urien (he of Arthurian fame). “Woe to Rheged because of this day”, weeps Llywarch, as he hurries away from the scene of Urien’s demise. The blogpost ends with an overview of modern scholarship and a mention of Jenny Rowland’s indispensable Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a Study & Edition of the Englynion. Two earlier posts, both Arthur-related, also held my attention. In one, published in February, Edward writes about ancient tracks and alignments around South Cadbury hillfort and Glastonbury Tor, drawing on folk-tales and antiquarian musings. This follows on neatly from a January post on the archaeology of South Cadbury (sometimes called “Cadbury-Camelot”), a site excavated by the late Leslie Alcock during his time at the University of Wales in Cardiff. Here we have an indirect Scottish connection because Professor Alcock later moved to the University of Glasgow where he spent the remainder of his academic career. In Scotland he launched a pioneering programme of excavations at a selection of early medieval centres of power, focussing on places mentioned in the old chronicles: Dunollie, Dumbarton and Dundurn, to name but three.

And that’s the end of this round-up. I know there’s a lot more Arthurian blogging going on but the items I’ve mentioned here are among the small number that have hooked me in recently.

Viking mice?

Episode 5 of the BBC Radio Scotland series ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’ was broadcast last week. It’s currently available via the BBC iPlayer, until Wednesday 23rd March. The series is presented by Alistair Moffat and looks at how the DNA of today’s Scots has been influenced by contact with various peoples in the past.

Some folk have a much better handle on this kind of topic than I have. I find it intriguing and fascinating, even though I’m no scientist. Michelle of Heavenfield, who certainly knows a thing or two about genetics, sometimes tries to explain particular aspects to me. Not an easy task, but she perseveres nonetheless. I like to be fed scientific information in simple bite-size chunks, which is why I don’t feel too much out of my depth when I read Michelle’s posts on plague (even the ones at her bioscience blog Contagions). She breaks the jargon down nicely so that even an ‘un-scientist’ such as myself can understand what’s going on. Historical geneticist Jim Wilson takes a similar line in ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’. This is the type of science I can handle, the kind that doesn’t leave me scratching my head in bewilderment or reaching for a dictionary.

The Scots: A Genetic Journey

In Episode 5 of the BBC series, Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffatt discuss the impact of the Vikings on Scotland’s gene pool. Jim talks about research indicating a substantial Norse component in the DNA of places such as Orkney and the Western Isles. As an Orcadian himself, he has a personal stake in the topic, and it’s interesting to hear what he says about his own family’s genetic heritage. I’m familiar with the Orcadian data from reading about it a few years ago but I didn’t know that the studies extended to rodents as well as humans. It turns out that the mice of Orkney share DNA with their Norwegian cousins, suggesting perhaps that their ancestors arrived as stowaways on Viking longships. Someone should write an adventure story about this – or even a screenplay for an animated film.

In the same episode, Alistair pays a visit to Stirling where he and local historian John Harrison talk about the Viking impact on the Picts, and about the great battle of 839 which decimated the Pictish elite. Also on the itinerary is Dumbarton Castle, built on the site of Alt Clut (‘Clyde Rock’) the ancient fortress of the Strathclyde Britons. Here, on the highest point of the castle, Alistair and Yours Truly talk about the Viking attack on the Rock in 870. This was no ordinary raid but a full-scale assault on one of the major political powers of the time. It culminated in the surrender of the Britons, and the capture of their king, after a prolonged siege. The weather was terrible (during the radio recording, not the siege) but Alistair and I somehow managed to say what we wanted to say in spite of a fierce gale billowing around the summit.

The sixth and final episode of the series is broadcast on Wednesday 23rd March at 2.05pm. The accompanying book, published by Birlinn, had its official launch in Edinburgh ten days ago. A description of it can be found on Alistair’s website.

BBC Radio Scotland – The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Episode 5)

A new Pictish frontier

I’ve placed this post in two subject categories. It’s mainly about the Picts, so that’s the first category, but it’s also about Blogging, so it gets added there too. I rarely write about being a blogger – probably because Senchus is more of a scrapbook of historical notes than a traditional weblog – but this post is different to most of the others here. It mentions two other blogs, one of which provided the initial spark to write the post, the other subsequently publishing an expanded version of the main points.

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Drifting through the blogosphere last Friday (February 18th) I called in at one of my regular haunts – Jonathan Jarrett’s medieval blog. Scrolling down to Jonathan’s ‘currently reading’ section, I spotted Guy Halsall’s 2007 book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West. By coincidence, this book should also be listed here at Senchus in my own ‘currently reading’ section – if I had one. I started reading the book last Friday, then had to put it on hold for a while because I’m already working through something else (Dennis Harding’s The Iron Age in Northern Britain). I am however looking forward to settling down with Halsall’s book as soon as I finish Harding’s (which, btw, is an excellent archaeological ‘prequel’ to early medieval Scotland).

Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations & The Roman West

One thing I couldn’t resist, before putting Barbarian Migrations back on my bookshelf, was a glance at Chapter 4 ‘Society beyond the frontier’, especially the sub-heading ‘North of Hadrian’s Wall: the Picti’. In this section, Professor Halsall questions the conventional view that the Picts of Roman times (as opposed to those of the 7th-9th centuries) dwelt north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus. He points out that the peoples below the isthmus as far south as Hadrian’s Wall (whom we usually think of as simply ‘Britons’) are absent from the documentary record between the 3rd and 5th centuries. In this period, he reminds us, the only people north of the Wall who get a mention are the Picti (‘painted men’). Thus, if we had no preconceived ideas about Late Roman or early medieval political geography, we might reasonably infer that anybody living north of the Wall was regarded by the Romans as a ‘Pict’. By the same argument, the ‘tribes’ located by early Roman geographers between the Wall and the Forth-Clyde isthmus (e.g., the Votadini and Selgovae) would cease to be described merely as ‘Britons’ in the 3rd century and would instead be viewed (by the Romans) as members of a southern Pictish confederacy. Halsall envisages this confederacy dissolving during the collapse of Roman Britain, after which the Votadini and their neighbours reasserted their separate identities by shaking off the foreign label Picti to become ordinary Britons once more. The northern Pictish confederacy, less directly affected by the Roman withdrawal, retained its identity to emerge as the familiar Picts of early medieval times.

It’s certainly an interesting theory – and no less plausible than the conventional one. It makes us think about complex issues such as ethnicity and identity, and about the impact of Rome on people living north of Hadrian’s Wall, and about the dramatic Pictish attacks on the Wall as described by Gildas. One drawback with my plucking this theory out of the book is that it gets presented here in isolation, whereas its correct context is Halsall’s wider study of barbarian peoples on the frontiers of the Western Empire. Thus, Halsall adds weight to his Pictish theory by pointing to the situation in Germany, where large barbarian confederacies formed along the Rhine frontier. If relations between Romans and barbarians in North Britain replicated the Rhine pattern, then a large and hostile confederacy – composed of the dreaded ‘painted men’ – should probably be expected in the region immediately beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

In the book, the Picts (and Scots) make their first appearance at the beginning of Chapter 4, in consecutive sub-sections. These are followed by a longer study of the Germanic barbarians east of the Rhine and a final (shorter) section on the Moors. All of these peoples turn up later in Chapter 12 which deals with the 5th and 6th centuries. I haven’t yet given either of these chapters a full reading, but even a brief glance shows them to be useful ‘compare and contrast’ studies of the various groups lurking beyond the imperial frontiers.

Having returned the book to its slot on my bookshelf on Friday night I resolved to write a brief blogpost about it. What I didn’t know was that on the same evening, in St Andrews, the biennial Anderson Lecture was being delivered by Professor Halsall himself, on the very topic I intended to blog about. On the next day, the text of the lecture appeared at Halsall’s own blog, ‘Historian on the Edge’, but it was Monday 21st before I spotted it during a leisurely cyber-ramble. By then, I had already written a draft of this post. My first thought was to not bother posting after all, because the main points were now available in much greater detail elsewhere. But I figured it might still be of interest, especially if it contained links to the lecture text, together with an account of how a couple of journeys around the blogosphere prompted it and shaped it.

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The two books mentioned in this post are:

Guy Halsall, Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Dennis Harding, The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, natives and invaders (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004)

I’ve drawn attention to Guy Halsall’s ‘compare and contrast’ approach in an earlier post on the Picts. A link from there takes you to his blog or you can go directly to the text of his Anderson Lecture.