Glenmorangie Research Project

Early Medieval Scotland
I have long held the view that an interest in Scottish history and a fondness for single malt whisky go well together. Those of you who are nodding in agreement will be pleased to know that the famous Glenmorangie Company is playing an important role in increasing our knowledge of Scotland’s ancient past. Since 2008, the company has been partnering the National Museums of Scotland in a major research project on the archaeology of the early medieval period (c.300-900 AD). The inspiration for the venture came from the Hilton of Cadboll sculptured stone, a magnificent Pictish cross-slab that formerly stood on the coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross, a few miles south-east of the Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain. The stone is now in the National Museums at Edinburgh but a stunning replica has been erected near the original setting. A pattern of spirals on one of the carved panels is used in the whisky company’s branding.

Hilton Of Cadboll Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone from Hilton of Cadboll (illustration in John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Partnership with Glenmorangie has provided the project with sufficient funding to pursue several avenues of study. At the heart of the research is the material culture of the Picts and their neighbours: sculpture, metalwork, jewellery and other objects. Conservation and analysis of original artefacts is obviously a cornerstone of the project, but the work has also included the creation of modern replicas by craftspeople using traditional techniques. These reconstructions were displayed in an exhibition called Creative Spirit: Revealing Early Medieval Scotland which ran from October 2013 to February 2014. Among the items were drinking horns, hand-bells and a very striking ‘Pictish throne’.

Norries Law Pictish Silver

Silver plaque from the Pictish hoard found at Norrie’s Law, Fife (illustration in Allen & Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland).

Last year, the project received a further three years of sponsorship from the Glenmorangie Company. This new phase will enable specialists to conserve and study Scotland’s earliest silver objects, including those from two major Pictish hoards (respectively from Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire). The Aberdeenshire hoard, unearthed on farmland in 2013, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. It may tell us a great deal about the role of silver as a currency of gift and exchange in Pictish society. I wrote about this hoard in a blogpost two months ago and have been keeping an eye on new developments ever since, mainly by checking Alice Blackwell’s posts at the NMS blog. Alice is the Glenmorangie Research Fellow and is leading the project through its latest phase.

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Notes & links

The image at the top of this blogpost shows the front cover of Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas, a monograph arising from the work of the Glenmorangie Research Project. An insight into the book’s contents can be seen at the NMS blog.

The Glenmorangie Research Project has a page at the NMS website.

“Glenmorangie toasts new research project after silver hoard discovery” (article in the Ross-shire Journal).

Blogpost by Alice Blackwell describing the project’s study of Scotland’s earliest silver.

Follow Alice Blackwell on Twitter: @earlymedieval.

Webpage on the replica objects produced for the Creative Spirit exhibition.

My blogpost on the Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire.

Those of you who have seen the movie Highlander will know that the correct pronunciation of Glenmorangie stresses the second syllable (the name rhymes with orangey, as in the fruit flavour).

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Picts, Gaels and Scots

Picts Gaels & Scots
Sally Foster’s book Picts, Gaels and Scots will already be familiar to many of you. It’s an essential resource for anyone who has a keen interest in early medieval Scotland. I have a copy of the first edition (1996) but merely borrowed rather than bought the second (2004). I’ve now got the third edition, published last year by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

Sally Foster is a renowned archaeologist who formerly worked as an ancient monuments inspector for Historic Scotland. She now works in academia and is currently at the University of Stirling as a lecturer on heritage and conservation, having previously lectured in the archaeology departments at Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Picts, Gaels and Scots is an archaeological and historical survey of Scotland in the Early Historic period (fifth to tenth centuries AD). The emphasis is on material culture – artefacts and sites – but a range of other topics are also covered: economy, religion, warfare, kingship and literacy. By drawing on the latest research, Dr Foster brings us up to date with the current state of knowledge on the Picts and their neighbours. Accompanying her text are drawings, photographs and maps, with a plate section of colour illustrations. The bibliography at the end of the book is a good indicator of how much new research has been undertaken since the 2004 edition. The ensuing years have witnessed some major re-thinking by historians on a number of important issues – such as the location of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu – as well as new interpretations of archaeological data. What therefore emerges from this latest edition is a clearer picture of what was happening in the northern parts of Britain in the first millennium AD.

The author’s foreword is an informative and enlightening essay in its own right, a detailed summary of the advances in scholarship that have been made in the past 10 years. It can be read online at the Birlinn blog via the link below.

Sally Foster: Foreword to the 2014 edition of Picts, Gaels and Scots.

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Kindle edition of ‘Strathclyde’

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
My latest volume on early medieval Scottish history is now available as an e-book. The paperback was published a couple of months ago but many people now prefer digital editions so I’m posting the relevant Amazon links here.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Kindle edition) – via Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

More information about the book, with a list of chapters, can be found in a blogpost on the paperback edition.

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Saints in Scottish Place-Names

Keills Cross Knapdale

Ancient chapel and cross at Keills in Knapdale, beside Loch Sween. Photograph by Erskine Beveridge in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


A research project in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow has produced a fascinating online resource: a searchable database of hagiotoponyms in Scotland. Hagiotoponyms are place-names that commemorate saints. They are found all over the Scottish landscape as names of old parishes, medieval churches, holy wells and standing stones. Many of them give clues about the geography and chronology of the cults of saints. In some cases, the cult is localised to one small district or even to a single site. In others, the cult is linked to important religious or political changes that affected a very large area. The introduction of the cult of St Andrew, for example, was obviously significant in the evolution of a national ideology for the kingdom of Alba. On a regional level, the promotion of Mungo (Kentigern) as the patron saint of Glasgow seems to have played a role in the Gaelicisation of Strathclyde.

The original project was called Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names. It gathered information on a bewildering number of hagiotoponyms, ranging from the well-known (e.g. St Andrews) to the obscure (e.g. Exmagirdle). The project team clearly worked hard, for the resulting database is huge: 13000 place-names, 5000 places, 750 saints. I only wish it had been up and running a couple of years ago, when I was writing my book on Saint Columba. Back then, my main source of toponymic information was the ever-redoubtable CPNS (aka William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland) but an online resource would have been a useful quick-reference tool. Databases are always faster than printed book-indexes when you’re trying to work out which Kildonan is the one you really need.

The link below will take you straight to the database. Enjoy!

Saints in Scottish Place-Names

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Notes, references & more links

Terry O’Hagan wrote on this topic at the Vox Hiberionacum blog last month. Terry is a specialist on Early Irish Christianity, which means he knows a thing or two about Scotland as well. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re interested in Celtic saints.

In addition to the database, the project Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names has its own webpage at the University of Glasgow.

William Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). This indispensable tool for students of early Scottish history is available as a paperback from Birlinn Books.

Birlinn is also the publisher of my book on Saint Columba.

columba_cover2

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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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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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