The Men Of The North: 10th Anniversary

The Men Of The North: the Britons of Southern Scotland

Ten years have passed since the publication of my book The Men Of The North: The Britons Of Southern Scotland. It has since been reprinted a number of times, becoming unavailable for only brief intervals between reprints. For an author, this is an encouraging situation to be in, and I am grateful to my publishers (Birlinn of Edinburgh) for keeping the book ticking over throughout the decade. I am also grateful for the many positive comments from readers and reviewers, all of which have encouraged me to believe that the effort of researching and writing this book has not been in vain. Of course, no book is going to please everyone, and The Men Of The North is no exception. On the whole, though, it seems to have been generally well-received.

“Until the publication of The Men of the North there had never been a textbook for the North British kingdoms — its appearance should be welcomed by undergraduates, teachers, and the general public alike.” Dr Philip Dunshea (International Review of Scottish Studies, 2012)

The above quote, from a Scottish historian whose opinions I value highly, captures in a nutshell my main reason for writing The Men Of The North: I saw a gap on my bookshelf and decided to have a go at filling it myself. Ever since my first forays into early medieval history in the 1980s, I had become increasingly aware that the Northern Britons are Scotland’s forgotten people. They are far more obscure and mysterious than any of their neighbours (including the supposedly enigmatic Picts) and their significant role in Scottish history has frequently been overlooked. References to them in medieval chronicles are thin on the ground, leaving huge gaps in their story and forcing modern historians to scrabble around for snippets of information in less reliable sources (such as poems and legends). Nevertheless, I had often wondered if the various fragments could be assembled into a more-or-less coherent narrative, a stable framework around which a chronological history might take shape. It was 2009 before I took the plunge by putting pen to paper and fingertip to keyboard. The task was as challenging as I had expected it to be, but the result was a book that I felt passed the test.

The Men Of The North includes my own interpretations of certain parts of the textual evidence. This is especially true in the first half of the book, which draws data from medieval Welsh poems in which the deeds of various sixth-century North British kings and warriors are praised. Ten years later, and I can report that these interpretations remain largely unchanged. I still firmly believe that the locations of Rheged (a kingdom, or part of one) and Catraeth (apparently the site of a battle) remain unknown. I still reject the conventional notion that four North British kings joined together in a military coalition to launch a combined assault on an English royal dynasty whom they besieged or blockaded on the island of Lindisfarne. In this particular instance, I see each British king waging his own campaign independently of his alleged allies. If my views on these topics have changed at all in the past ten years, they have probably hardened rather than softened.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Some of my views have, however, shifted somewhat. On page 178 of The Men Of The North, while discussing the question of where the great battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought, I mentioned three places as popular candidates for the battlefield. These were Bromborough in Wirral (Cheshire), Burnswark in Dumfriesshire and Brinsworth in South Yorkshire. I now favour a location in Lancashire, either near the estuary of the River Ribble or further east around Burnley. This revision of my thinking is presented in detail in my second book on the Northern Britons, published in 2014 under the title Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

Several people have asked if a new edition of The Men Of The North is in the pipeline. My response is that there are, as yet, no definite plans. If a second edition does appear at some point in the future, it will undoubtedly make much use of another book, an edited volume called Beyond The Gododdin, published in 2013 by the Committee for Dark Age Studies at the University of St Andrews. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that no new research on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century should be regarded as complete unless the papers in Beyond The Gododdin have been consulted and cited.

Beyond The Gododdin

Any new edition of The Men Of The North will also cite the publications of Dr Fiona Edmonds, author of several ground-breaking papers on the Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde/Cumbria, last of the North British realms. As with the contents of Beyond the Gododdin, I regard the work of Dr Edmonds as essential reading. I recommend, in particular, two journal articles and one book chapter. Bibliographic details for these three are given in the list of references at the end of this blogpost.

The past decade has seen other new publications relating to the Northern Britons, too many to list here. I must, however, mention a major archaeological report produced as part of the Galloway Picts Project. Published in 2017, this substantial monograph gives the results of a programme of excavation at Trusty’s Hill, site of a hilltop fortress famous for mysterious carvings that look like Pictish symbols. Interestingly, the report’s main title is The Lost Dark Age Kingdom Of Rheged, reflecting the authors’ belief that Trusty’s Hill is a good candidate for Rheged’s main centre of royal power. Although I remain open-minded on this claim of a Rheged connection, there can be no doubt that the report represents a big contribution to our archaeological understanding of the Northern Britons, giving us an insight into what must have been one of their principal high-status settlements.

The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged

On a personal level, the biggest change in my involvement with the Northern Britons since 2010 has been my participation in a number of local heritage projects at Govan on the south side of Glasgow. Most of these projects had a connection with the Govan Stones, a collection of sculptured monuments displayed in the old parish church. The stones were carved in the ninth to eleventh centuries when Govan was a centre of ritual and authority in the kingdom of Strathclyde. The heritage projects helped to raise awareness of the stones not only among the local community but more widely across Scotland as well as internationally. When I first came aboard in 2012, there were some thirty monuments to be seen. Three others, thought to have been lost, were unearthed last year (as I reported at this blog — see link below). Like the archaeological data from Trusty’s Hill, the rediscovered stones at Govan will be studied and analysed, and the information will increase our knowledge of early medieval Scotland.

Govan Sarcophagus

The Govan Sarcophagus

Govan Stones

Banner outside Govan Old Parish Church where the stones are displayed

I expect the next ten years will yield further new information on the Northern Britons, whether in the form of archaeological discoveries or re-interpretations of historical texts. It will be interesting to see if The Men Of The North gets left behind, like something outdated and obsolete, and whether a revision or update then becomes desirable for author and reader alike. If this is what happens, and if I haven’t made a start on a second edition by September 2030 (the book’s twentieth anniversary), I may need someone to give me a not-too-gentle nudge.

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Links :

My blogpost from September 2010, announcing the publication of The Men Of The North.

The first review of The Men Of The North, at Michelle Ziegler’s Heavenfield blog.

My blogpost from 2019 on the carved stones rediscovered at Govan.

My sceptical views on a supposed ‘coalition’ of sixth-century North British kings at Lindisfarne.

My book review of Beyond The Gododdin for the journal Northern History, available online at my Academia page.

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References :

Tim Clarkson, The Men Of The North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Tim Clarkson, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Edinburgh, 2014)

Fiona Edmonds, ‘The Emergence and Transformation of Medieval Cumbria’ Scottish Historical Review vol.93 (2014), 195-216.

Fiona Edmonds, ‘The Expansion of the Kingdom of Strathclyde’ Early Medieval Europe vol.23 (2015), 43-66.

Fiona Edmonds, ‘Carham: the Western Perspective’, pp.79-94 in Neil McGuigan and Alex Woolf (eds) The Battle of Carham: a Thousand Years On (Edinburgh, 2018).

Alex Woolf (ed.) Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales (St Andrews, 2013).

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles, The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: the Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway (Oxford, 2017).

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The Govan Stones: new discoveries

Govan Stones 2019
A major archaeological find at Govan has been causing quite a buzz in the past week or so. No doubt many of you will already be aware of the news from social media and other sources. The find is indeed exciting: three early medieval carved stones, long assumed to have been lost forever, have been rediscovered in the graveyard of the old parish church.

The discovery happened during a community archaeological project called Stones and Bones which is run by Northlight Heritage, a charity closely involved with the conservation of the church (known as ‘Govan Old’) and its collection of early medieval sculpture. The significance of the new find becomes clear when we look back at the long history of the Govan Stones.

wr_gopc

The story begins a thousand years ago, in the Viking Age, when Govan was a centre of royal power in the kingdom of Strathclyde. In those days, the site of Govan Old was occupied by a church that served the spiritual needs of Strathclyde’s rulers – a powerful dynasty of Britons whose realm extended northward to Loch Lomond and southward across the Solway Firth. The kings with their families and other members of the local elite worshipped at Govan, burying their dead in the churchyard and marking the graves with elaborately carved stones. After the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century, the line of local kings came to an end but the gravestones remained. In later times, when the old kingdom of the Britons was barely a memory, many of the stones were re-used by prosperous Govan families as memorials for their own deceased. Hence we see the initials of people who died in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inscribed on a number of stones, overlaying the Viking-Age carvings of crosses and interlace patterns. In the early nineteenth century, the churchyard still contained more than 40 ancient monuments. Most were recumbent cross-slabs, designed to lie flat over graves, but there were other types too, the most impressive being 5 hogbacks and (after its discovery in 1855) a magnificently carved sarcophagus.

Govan Stones

Hogbacks and cross-slabs in the churchyard of Govan Old, c. 1900 [T.C.F. Brotchie]

In the late nineteenth century, Glasgow landowner and politician Sir John Stirling-Maxwell arranged for cast replicas to be made of the early medieval stones. These were then individually photographed, with the images being published by Sir John in 1899 under the title Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan. Some years later, the sarcophagus was placed inside the church for safekeeping, to be followed in 1926 by many of the other stones. The rest remained outside. A plan of the churchyard, drawn in 1936 (see below), shows 19 stones lying in a line along the east wall. On the other side of the wall lay one of Govan’s famous shipyards.

Govan Stones

Govan Stones 2019

Aerial view of Govan in the 1930s, showing the churchyard (highlighted in green on this copy of the original), the River Clyde at upper right and the Harland & Wolff shipyard in the centre.

And so we come to one of the darkest chapters in the story of the Govan Stones. In the early 1900s, the shipyard erected huge sheds right up against the churchyard wall. These enormous buildings were demolished in 1973. Unfortunately, the demolition work brought debris crashing down on the ancient stones lying beside the wall. At the time, it was believed that nearly all of these precious monuments had been reduced to shattered fragments amongst the rubble. A few survived, though badly damaged, and are now inside the church.

Fast forward through four decades to 2019 and the Stones and Bones ‘community dig’. One of the dig’s local volunteers was Mark McGettigan, age 14, a pupil of Lourdes Secondary School in Cardonald. Mark was using a probe to search for objects buried beneath the surface near the eastern edge of the churchyard when he made a remarkable discovery:
I was just prodding the ground to see if there was anything there and suddenly it made a noise and I realised I had hit something. Myself and two of the archaeologists worked out the area of the object and started to dig it out and clean it. I wasn’t too sure at the start what it was. But then we checked with the records and we realised it was one of the lost Govan Stones. I am extremely happy, in fact I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.”

The stone turned out to be a cross-slab from the Viking Age, carved in the 10th or 11th century. Nor was it a lone discovery: another two slabs were also found. All three have been matched to their corresponding photographs in the Stirling Maxwell survey, published 120 years ago, and identified as ’30’, ’38’ and ’40’ according to Sir John’s classification of the Govan monuments. The composite image at the top of this blogpost shows the three photographs grouped together (by me) but in the original 1899 publication they appear on separate pages.

Conservation and analysis by specialists are the essential next steps for these important relics of Scotland’s ancient past before they can be put on public display. In the meantime, it is quite possible that other stones – hitherto thought to have been reduced to rubble – survived the disaster of 1973 and still await rediscovery. We shall see what happens in the coming months but these are certainly interesting times for Govan’s ancient heritage.

Below are some photographs of the new finds, reproduced here by kind permission of archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

Govan Stones 2019

Uncovering one of the three cross-slabs (Mark McGettigan kneeling at top right).


Govan Stones 1899

Frazer Capie (Riverside Museum) and Ingrid Shearer (Northlight Heritage) using the 1899 survey to identify the three slabs.


Govan Stones 2019

An early medieval masterpiece revealed (the stone shown as ‘No. 40’ in the picture at the top of this blogpost).


Govan Stones 2019

Photogrammetric recording by Dr Megan Kasten of the University of Glasgow.

Finally, a message for those of you who enjoy getting out and about to see Pictish stones and similar ancient stuff. If you haven’t yet visited the collection at Govan Old, you’re missing out on one of Britain’s premier ‘Dark Age’ attractions. The Govan Stones are an absolute must-see for anyone who has an interest in Viking-Age sculpture, Celtic art or Scotland’s early history. Govan was the capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the last realm of the Cumbri or Northern Britons. Hardly anyone seems to know about this kingdom, even though it was a major player on the turbulent political stage of the ninth to eleventh centuries. Its inhabitants are the most obscure, the most enigmatic of Scotland’s early peoples. If you think the Picts and their symbol-stones have an aura of mystery, see what you make of the Northern Britons and their hogbacks. Stepping inside Govan Old feels like entering the heart of a strange, forgotten realm that somehow got left out of the school history books. The exciting new discoveries by Mark McGettigan and his fellow community diggers have brought a little bit more of this long-lost kingdom into focus.

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Notes & Acknowledgments

My thanks to Frazer Capie for telling me about the discovery and to Ingrid Shearer for letting me use the press release images and other media information.

The Govan Stones and the churchyard have Scheduled Monument status and are protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The Stones and Bones community dig has scheduled monument consent from Historic Environment Scotland.

The Govan Heritage Trust is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to secure the future of the church and its rare collection of early medieval sculpture. Anyone wishing to support the Trust can contribute via this link.

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Links

The Govan Stones Project has a website and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

Other useful Twitter accounts for news and updates about the latest discoveries:
Northlight Heritage
Love Archaeology
Dr Megan Kasten
Dr Kasten has produced a superb 3D image of one of the newly unearthed cross-slabs.

And, lastly, a couple of media reports, one from Scotland and one from the USA:
Lost Glasgow
New York Post

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