Scots, lies and videotape: historians argue while Neil Oliver makes up Scotland’s history

Sensationalist subject lines ahoy! For lo, BBC Scotland seem to have successfully created a small controversy with the first episode of a new series called A History of Scotland. A post at News for Medievalists, repeating word-for-word an article in Scotland on Sunday, goes to the length of opposing two reputable historians of Scotland, to wit Clare Downham at Aberdeen and James Fraser at Edinburgh, over this new series, presented by Scottish archaeologist-turned-journalist Neil Oliver. Now, they’re not exactly throwing daggers at each other: Downham is quoted as saying: “I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here. I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package”, whereas Fraser says: “The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars”. And Fraser, who’s been working on getting sense out of annals for years, sometimes stretching even my credulity in so doing, and Downham, who was a student, among other things, of David Dumville, and would therefore be trained to read the sources with absolute maximum scepticism, might be expected to disagree more than that, if anything. But the reporting will get the programme a few extra viewers, I guess, and I can say this with confidence because having seen the NfM post, and finding that the programme is viewable for free online, I went and had a look. And now I’m going to add to the controversy by saying: this is excellent TV, but should have been cut at the thirty-five minute mark and then they could have left out the bit where they resorted to making things up and lying about texts. I do not exaggerate, but I will elaborate. But first the good side, because there genuinely is one.

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

Neil Oliver being showy at the University of Aberdeen

[Edit: what follows lightly altered from its original state to reflect Alex Woolf's input about the production process in comments; this basically means that where I was previously being nasty about Neil Oliver specifically I'm now being nasty about the production team who apparently gave him a fixed script.]

There are far far worse ways to pass an hour while you potter with other things, and occasionally make spluttering notes, than watch this. Firstly, the director was keenly aware how photogenic Scotland is, and the country is the real star, Mr Oliver graciously allowing it to fill the screen nearly as much as does he. Several things in this episode, which he narrates in passionately excited style, are not only excellent television but also examples of what the resort to a visual medium can provide that other things can’t. Apart from hordes of re-enactors lurching through the mist in what may or may not be period armour, which I could take or leave I must admit, it brings the Pictish stones (or at least, those currently being laser-scanned in the National Museum of Scotland) into full play as coded but gorgeously-carved visual evidence, and the reconstructed crannog they show early on really made them real to me in a way that I hadn’t previously got. Also, several of the fortified sites that feature just do look really good viewed offshore from a helicopter and that’s hard to argue with. The section in the National Museum of Scotland is guided by Peter Yeoman, and was really good, though they cut very freely between symbol stones, never for example making it clear that there is only half of the St Vigeans “Drosten” stone left but cutting from it to another intact cross slab as if they were the same piece. As a result, I don’t know on what stone was actually to be found an intriguing little grotesque with horns and wings to whom they briefly cut just as Oliver was using the word “angel”. Horns? Hmm. But I can tell you no more because they didn’t tell me.

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

The Drosten Stone from St Vigeans, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, it’s understandable when the Anglians enter the story exactly at the halfway point that we get sentences like: “England was not enough for Athelstan” (and what was this England thing exactly, hey? not what it is today that’s for sure). An attempt to recast the Battle of Brunanburh (whose location Oliver is certain about, plumping for Bromborough on the Wirral without mentioning the debate of which that is only one side) as a kind of Hastings of the North in which it was attempted to settle once and for all whether Britain would be ruled by “a single imperial power or several independent kingdoms” is, well, at least arguable, though there is this weird double-think going on where when the Angles and West Saxons overrun their borders (obviously exactly equivalent to the modern English-Scottish border… ) that’s evil, whereas if the Picts do it it’s a sign of strength. And because this is TV I rather expect to see the debates cut out and only the production team’s favourite answer presented, and it pains me but it’s the nature of the genre. It’s just a pity that only a very few TV programs can handle not having a definitive answer (Michael Wood wins the crown here I think). So I wasn’t surprised to see the Aberlemno stone read assuredly as a monument of a defeat of the Angles, which I know from good old Leslie Alcock is less than wholly accepted.1

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

Battle scene from the Aberlemno II stone, supposed by some to depict the Battle of Nechtanesmere

On the other hand some things are just stupid. The Rev. Malcolm King, warden of the current community at Iona, being brought on to explain what the political benefits of conversion might have been for the Picts, should really have been allowed to talk about Ogham to nuance the suggestion that it was principally writing and the administrative potential it contained that would have made Christianity appeal to a king. And of course, there’s really very little evidence of any written administration even in Christian Scotland outside of cloisters and cathedrals till much later. But leave that aside. I’ll also leave aside the assertion that the “Picts were notorious for head-hunting”, which as far as I know comes only from the fact that there are lots of decapitated bodies on Sueno’s Stone, that they had tattoos (which is no better evidenced than the skin-painting that I think more likely) and I’ll even ignore the fact that Oliver was made to call Broichan, chief wizard (magus, is the word Adomnán uses) of Bruide map Maelchon King of Picts a ‘druid’. Or even the idea that in the great Pictish expansionist phase the “Britons and the Gaels had to pay homage to the Pictish king”, for which there is just no evidence or clarity about what it would have meant if they did, and the idea that Picts were a single unified people who can be mapped by their stones, if only because I’ve attacked that last idea elsewhere… And lastly, yes, it is true firstly that Columba did not, apparently, convert many Picts; and secondly that the Gaels in Scotland at least knew Christianity before he arrived, though it is far from clear how widespread it was beyond the leading cenela (do I have that right?) and how much work still needed doing. The Vita Columbae has enough stories about pagans and evil men in it.

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

The replica Stone of Scone at Scone Palace

But we then get to the stuff that is actually misleading. You could tell it was coming because we switched from named sources to “historical records”. The Vita Columbae, which stands between Oliver’s script-writers and their myth-busting, is “more like a fairy tale than a true story”, but what “records tell us” must never be denied. Mr Oliver does in fact show us a source, and he finds it, to his surprise, in Paris, a manuscript which he describes later as “the birth certificate of Scotland”. In it, he assures us, we find otherwise unknown facts about the first real kings of Scotland. The program hypes up the obscurity of the manuscript, with Oliver asking the French curator whether many people come to see it? She answers, in French, that ‘only specialists in Scottish history’ really use it, “seulement les spécialistes en histoire de l’Écosse”, but the translator says instead that such people as access it do so in microfilm. As you will see, whoever translated the text for Oliver was similarly free with it… Oliver of course gets to sit with the actual codex, and to my eye, because I was still struggling at this point to remember what it must be, it’s quite Gothic, later than I was expecting from his hype. He points at king’s names, and then we disappear into a huge and enthralling reconstruction!

The story is made to revolve around Constantine, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin, because, Oliver reveals, Kenneth is never called King of Scotland; he was a King of the Picts. This is perfectly fair, though Oliver is not allowed to mention that Constantine’s father Alpin is usually thought a Gael; Alex Woolf has recently unhinged that piece of argument, so it may not be needed.2 Oliver goes on to narrate, over dramatic reconstruction events, with lots of bearded men and worried boys sitting by fires looking moody, how the grandsons of Kenneth were not allowed to succeed, and they, cousins Constantine and Donald, were sent off to exile in Ireland when King Giric took power from the do-nothing King Áed by sticking a dagger in him (which is not said, but shown in reconstruction). Then eventually Constantine and Donald come back, but different; once Giric is displaced, the cousins succeed to a Pictish kingship but as Gaels by upbringing, and bringing Gaelic courtiers with them. It’s on Domnall and Constantine that Oliver is made to place the blame for the Gaelic takeover, not Kenneth. Somehow the Gaels and Gaelic bishop whom Giric is said to have installed don’t achieve this in the same way. Oliver then takes us through the rest of Constantine’s long life, which involved fighting King Æthelstan of England twice and losing both times, before finally retiring to Kilrymont (St Andrews) as a hermit.

It’s a fantastic story, and one I really thought I should have remembered. So, I have done some digging to see why I didn’t quite remember it, and the answer is, because Oliver or his writer has enhanced it quite considerably. Let’s start with the manuscript.

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock

First folio of the Pictish King List, from Paris BN MS Latin 4126, facsimile by Brantonei Draiktan Spurlock and taken from Bran Mak Morn's Pictish-Elven Witchcraft site, acknowledged here as their copyright requests and linked through the image

The manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4126, otherwise known as the Poppleton Manuscript. It is as it stands thirteenth or fourteenth-century (you see? Gothic) but is thought to be copied from an twelfth-century compilation, and obviously the original texts may have been older. May. I discover in web-searching that Oliver has started with this program a campaign to bring the manuscript back to Scotland, which is a sort of fair enough as it does contain many unique texts. The one Oliver means, which he once calls “The Chronicle of the Kings”, making it sound terribly official, is one of these, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. (Oliver translates Alba as ‘Scotland’ throughout, explaining once after several uses that this is “a Gaelic word meaning ‘Scotland'”, which is somewhere where others might disagree…3) Now this manuscript is so painfully obscure and unknown, that there is an online text and parallel translation of it for you to peruse. And if you do, you’ll find a few differences between what Oliver should have read, and the story he is made to tell. Let me quote you some significant bits of Timothy Weeks’s translation, linked there with the text running in parallel.

Áed held the throne for 1 year. The shortness of his rule has left nothing memorable to history; but he was killed in the town of Nrurim.

Oliver’s words manage to imply, by saying that the Vikings raided Scotland for two years and that Áed “did little to stop them”, reigned twice as long as he did, but leave that for a minute, there’s worse to come.

On the other hand Eochaid the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric the son of [a gap in the copy, but other texts name his father as Dungal] ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ordinator to Eochaid. In his second year Áed the son of Niall died; and in his 9th, on the very day of St Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his alumnus, was then thrown out of the kingdom.

Now Oliver says Giric killed Áed (or at least, “Áed is killed by his own men; all the evidence points to Giric”), and makes him Áed’s right-hand man, Eochaid never being mentioned. He doesn’t actually call Giric king but he certainly doesn’t say there’s anyone else in power. Also, the Irish exile of the heirs is not here. I’m not even sure where he has got it from, although Wikipedia currently notes it as a suggestion of Alex Woolf’s. It’s certainly likely, but we don’t actually know where they went, which rather knocks out the program’s Gaelic acculturation theory. And then Oliver is made to hypothesize that Giric was killed at Dunollie by the returning cousins, because there’s evidence of burning there, which would be fine as a hypothesis if the manuscript didn’t say that Giric was thrown out, so that even if he was killed it can’t have been in the kingdom if the manuscript—I’m sorry, “the records”—are to be believed. Then we reach the cousins.

Donald the son of Constantine held the throne for 11 years. At that time the Norsemen laid waste to Pictavia. During his rule a battle was fought at Innisibsolian, between the Danes and the Scots: the Scots were the winners.

It’s still between Scots and Picts here, you notice. But it’s Donald! or, if I may, Domnall, the returning outcast, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin—ach, I’m going Gaelic from here except in the quotes—Cinaed mac Alpín. There’s nothing of Causantín here, although because Oliver has to make much of him later he is clear that the younger son was present, for which there is no evidence. Oliver does mention Domnall’s death, but none of the events of his reign. Let’s go on.

Constantine the son of Áed held the throne for 40 years. In his third year the Norsemen raided Dunkeld, and all of Alba. Certainly in the following year the Norsemen were beaten in Strathearn, and in his 6th year King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, were to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.

Aaaand it’s Alba. Though the Scots and… who? The Albanese? still seem to be separate. Oliver says this text calls Causantín King of Alba, but it doesn’t. That’s a different text in the same manuscript, a list of the kings of Scotland, which unlike some texts in this manuscript also survives in other copies. Some of these do indeed call Causantín King of Alba, but one still calls him King of Picts. Meanwhile, across the sea, both Annals of Ulster and Chronicon Scotorum, both reflecting what was at this stage a common text that later became associated with the abbey of Clonmacnoise, first use the title of Domnall, not Causantín. Oliver admits this but for some reason the program pins the real honour on Causantín. And yet it’s clear from the Chronicle itself that it was still possible to see both peoples separately even if Causantín is said, apparently, to have placed them under the same law, which might have been worth a mention but doesn’t get it, pity as it would have been good evidence of the “cultural takeover” that was ‘just as effective as genocide’ of which the two Gaelicised kings stand accused in the program.

So. A manuscript that doesn’t say what this program says it does; extra details silently supplied from elsewhere, these details usually being theories without evidence but otherwise usually being uncredited lifts from Alex Woolf; several kings missed out to streamline the story; an allegation that the text in which the royal titles occur is unique to that manuscript when in fact it’s a different text that isn’t; royal murders imputed without base in the evidence to succeeding kings… I think I’ve made my point. Alternative views better founded are not hard to locate.4 So I can see why Dr Downham had her reservations, there is a serious degree of fast and loose with the truth here, and the fact that the BBC Scotland website labels this as “factual” will bother me for a while yet. Actually the best image for it is a fantastic one they managed to get of a falcon, just after discussing the massive slaughter at Brunanburh. It darts its head down off camera, comes up with something and champs its bill, nom nom nom, and one has to sort of shiver because of the association with carrion. But what it’s actually got in its bill is down, because it’s preening. And that just about sums up parts of this spectacular but seriously distorting programme for me: fluff and preening, and an implication of meat that isn’t really there.


1. Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 172-173, concluding, “This discussion of possible interpretations of the Aberlemno battle-scene in politico-military terms has been necessary to demonstrate their essential frailty.” I do wish I’d met this man.

2. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 87-93.

3. For example Dauvit Broun, “The seven kingdoms in De Situ Albanie: a record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba?”, in E. J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (edd.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton 2000), pp. 24-42.

4. Apart from Woolf, Pictland to Alba, see Broun, “Scotland before 1100: writing Scotland’s origins”, in Bob Harris & Alan R. MacDonald (edd.), Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation c. 1100-1707. Vol. I. The Scottish Nation: Origins to c.1500 (Dundee 2006), pp. 1-16, with a detailed discussion of the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba pp. 8-14.

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55 responses to “Scots, lies and videotape: historians argue while Neil Oliver makes up Scotland’s history

  1. Intriguing. Strangely, your discussion makes me want to watch the show – with a print out of this page beside me so I can ‘read along’ with captain subtext…

  2. Pingback: The life of Galla Placidia and A History of Scotland | Past Presenters

  3. I haven’t seen the programme, but from your description, the complaints sound rather familiar: it’s Simon Schama’s History of Britain all over again. (For anyone who’s got access to History Today, read Jeremy Black’s review on Schama’s series from December 2000 or Martin Smith ‘History and the media: are you being hoodwinked?’ from March 2003). The detailed complaints may be different (Schama not making the distinctions between reconstructions and archive footage clear, and using misleading music/visuals), but I suspect the underlying cause is the same. The current model for most popular TV histories is that you choose a charismatic ‘expert’ on the subject (for some reason usually male) and you get them to give their stories and theories. Whether the result is accurate is a secondary consideration to whether it makes ‘good television’. And the cop-out, if needed, is that it’s the expert’s ‘personal view’, and since experts disagree on the topic, how is anyone to say whether it’s accurate anyhow?

    I can’t think of many historical TV series which aim to give you a ‘balanced’ view of a topic, I suspect because that’s not seen as appealing to the audience: there is no point in giving you an audience a debate on Celtic versus Pictish cultural influences on early Scotland until they first know and care who the Celts and Picts were.

  4. I don’t think I’ve any quarrel with the approach when it’s only interpretation, after all historians arguing only makes good television when it’s David Baddiel and Robert Newman pretending, but this was misrepresentation of a text, which is easier to avoid and harder to justify. On the other hand, the way the evidence became a guest star was kind of nice. Certainly, as to your last paragraph, I think they made the right choices about what to make the programme about.

    I hadn’t really perused the fuss about Schama but it’s interesting that you say “not making the distinctions between reconstructions and archive footage clear”, because that is kind of the TV equivalent of what he did with Citizens, isn’t it? Which I thought was a fabulous book, at the time.

  5. I enjoyed this, John. But I don’t agree about it being unreasonable to translate magus in the case of Broichan as ‘druid’ – that’s the absolutely standard Hiberno-Latin term for them, and it certainly would have been the obvious word for Adaomnan to use if he meant ‘druid’, as I think he did. After all, Broichan in the VSC (with his swirling mists and weather magic) does exactly the kinds of things which druids (magi) do in other mid-to-late 7th/early 8th century hagiography from a Gaelic context – in Muirchu especially.

  6. ‘Adomnan’ not ‘Adaomnan’ of course. D’oh.

  7. Hullo Bo, I was hoping you might turn up, sorry not to have been in touch, things chaotic as ever. I bow to your superior knowledge here of course, but I didn’t know there was Hiberno-Latin equivalence here. Isn’t the Morgannwg-value worth avoiding, I mean, were the Muirchu magi anything like what we think Cæsar druids were like?

  8. Ann Thropologist

    Ojo, Dr J, apart from the rest of the gleefully sputtery post, which was highly enjoyable, your rather lazy repetition of the ‘Scotland as subsidy recipient’ has been skewered by others a few times over. These examples come from the Herald, which is neither pro-SNP nor pro-independence.

    I watched the program after reading this, and lost patience with the breathlessness of it all – it was just a bit too glossy. It was wonderful to see the symbol stones, though.

  9. No worries! Been busy myself. Yes, in short – we know the Irish had druids because they feature in the laws and penitentials up to around 800. But the literary ones of Muirchu and the later tradition, though very much spiced with Biblical imagery (Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerors, the priests of Baal that Elijah does in, etc) do resemble Caesars: they are of very high status, constitute a learned class, are advisors to kings, and are diviners and pagan priests.

  10. Bo, many thanks, that’s interesting and something I hadn’t got. How do these guys relate to the brehons? I find various antiquarian writings online telling me earnestly that they were different learned classes each with their own secrets but I’ve no idea how much to take seriously. Yes, OK, I should read something, but it’s much simpler to ask you until such time as I have to teach the area…

    Meanwhile, Ann, those two Herald reports don’t even agree. In the first Scotland receives less welfare spending than the North of England; in the second, more than the North-East. Are these per capita figures, or just total spending per region? The North-West is surely more populous than Scotland so that would make a difference. But there’s no clarity or comparability. Both agree that London pays more tax and gets more spending than Scotland, but there is no clarity over whether what Scotland actually pays is less or more than it gets, except the final ‘estimate’. The second does at least have this:

    Adding up how much tax Scots and Scottish businesses generate is far from easy. But Oxford Economics, the consultants, did so earlier this year, based on Treasury figures for 2005-06. They found the tax haul from Scotland was £49bn, compared with total spending of £49.2bn. Scotland, in that year at least, was in the red – but not by very much and certainly within any margin of error.

    … but then ruins it by saying:

    The big figure includes the UK’s entire North Sea revenues of £9.7bn for 2005-06. That could be controversial: there is dispute about how much oil and gas is from Scottish waters. The exact size of Scotland’s oil bonanza has always been open to question, a key battleground in the statistical war between Nationalists and Unionists. How North Sea revenue might be divided is also questioned. There are extensive gas fields off the coast of north-east England. A split might mean 75% or even 95% of the total coming to Scotland. It should be borne in mind that the £9.7bn figure came at a time when Brent crude was trading at as much as $50 per barrel. Today it is more than $90.

    And as I said offline, where I’d rather have kept this, this is just flaming daft. The oil revenue should not be part of the figures either side of the border, excepting only that part which actually comes to the government. Similarly, balances like Salmond’s are achieved by using that total figure, on the assumption that under separate rule the oil revenues would be nationalised; but at the moment, the UK government sees nothing like that figure and whether Scotland could ever lay claim to it shouldn’t be allowed to enter into this debate.5 We need figures with only the oil revenue’s tax contribution before we have an answer to this question. Until then we’re just opposing news stories.

    Thus, against your two, I cite this report from the Scotsman, which quotes both SNP and opponents saying that the subsidy is dangerously high. Are the representatives in government less well-informed than the Herald, then? At the very least, my repetition is no lazier than yours.

    5. I lost any belief in Salmond’s credibility after the stupid story over his ‘beliefs’ about the Stone of Scone… “Salmond has rejected the idea of using science to get to the bottom of the mystery.” Well, yes, where’s the outrage and patriotic one-up-manship in knowing the truth, eh? He needs a rise in racialist grievance to get what he wants.

  11. I should say, that I support the right of any community to decide on their government. If Scotland wants to be separately run, it should be. Similarly Fife, Wessex, London, Galloway, Man, Sealand, Watford… (Please, someone make Watford secede.) My ideas of what a state should do are pretty minimalist and I don’t think ‘nation-states’ are necessarily desirable, however ineluctable they currently be in some places. So I don’t at all object to the existence of the SNP or the genuine and justified sense of grievance felt by many Scots about government from England, though I do notice that some Scots seem to feel about the same way about government from “Embra'”. What I object to is the resort to underhand assertions, appeals to ‘belief’, and number-juggling without clarity or foundation to try and increase discontent artificially to political ends. I don’t think the SNP in general does this, but Salmond is swimming in a sea of it.

  12. Just want to point out for no particular reason the we tried secession once over here. Didn’t work out too well. Be careful what you wish for and all that…

    P.S., I know you were joking, but the set up was too good to pass up.

  13. The last few jobs I’ve applied for have all been in the USA, because there’s nothing doing over here till the Research Assessment Exercise unclenches the government’s funding. If we were still under the same rule I’d have nowhere to apply at all. There’s that, at least.

  14. The saga continues with Neil Oliver’s response to his historian critics: they don’t know anything about television, so why should he listen to them?

    • Gosh, there are quite a few of us aren’t there? I wonder who his “most qualified consultants” were? One or two of the theories in the episode I saw seemed a bit, how can I put it, luupine…

  15. kevin halloran

    Regarding the battle of Brunanburh I’m probably more upset by Oliver’s conclusions than anyone. In October 2005 the Scottish Historical Review published an article by me that was a demolition job on Bromborough. It was covered in the Herald and in July 2006 in History Today. There are some good academics on the side of Bromborough but it’s also obvious that there are self-publicists and local media and tourism interests involved. Rather than debate they simply ignore contrary opinion and prefer to flood Merseyside press, radio and TV with the same old stuff. The BBC treatment was partial, unfair and inaccurate.

  16. Indeed, I’ve seen several bits and pieces on the ‘net emanating from such local media outlets using Oliver’s programme as their basis. He’s of course happy to go there and tell them what they want to hear. I suppose the real measure of his worth would be if he’d do the same for any of the other contenders… But if not of course, the other measure is whether he admits that there’s disagreement when addressing these audiences. I’d almost like to see one of these talks, but I might not make any friends come questions.

  17. kevin halloran

    The MO of the Bromborough mob is actually quite funny although clearly effective in today’s soundbite media world. They rehash some old piece of evidence which their mates in the Merseyside press, radio and TV cover as a “major new find proves Bromborough was Brunanburh”. This then finds its way to the national press etc which prompts a further local article: “Times (or whoever)aupports case for Bromborough.” They feed the BBC a completely distorted account of the debate over Brunanburh and once again local articles appear to the effect that “Major new BBC documentary supports Bromborough claims.” I tried to debate with them at a meeting of the Battlefields Trust some years ago. They turned up mob-handed, refused to answer questions on their “evidence” and behaved so boorishly and unprofessionally that Paddy Griffith of the BT said they would never again be allowed to give a lecture to the Trust.

  18. I’m English and I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. I don’t care if the history is bent. I expect that. History on telly is always bent. The truth, in all its complexity and from all its perspectives, just too hard for a Saturday night family audience to understand. A Saturday night audience wants a story, with a basis of truth if you are lucky. This delivers. History is not mathematics and cannot be. You have to accept that it is always one man’s interpretation, and make the due allowances.

  19. No, I don’t agree. I agree with you about the demands of the audience, but I don’t agree that something that meets those demands should be billed as `factual’ or historical when it is so significantly airbrushed, simplified or imagined. The word `interpretation’ should have been in there somewhere. Presenters like Michael Wood manage to argue their point of view while leaving it clear that there are others (which are wrong, but exist); Oliver was preaching his own Gospel and all dissent was omitted or ridiculed. That’s not necessary and it’s not history.

  20. Hi Jon,
    I would just like to note a factual misunderstanding running through this stream. Neil Oliver did not write the script and had no input into the content of the programme. He was brought in essentially as an actor to front the piece after thee text was set.
    The series had an ‘in-house’ historian, Mark Jardine, who is doing a part-time PhD at Edinburgh on an eighteenth century topic. he identified a single ‘expert’ for each episode. The script was then written by members of the production team and sent to the expert who then red -penned it and sent it back and this happened three or four times – the expert was essentially involved in damage limitation. As well as the production team there was a senior executive involved who often over-rode changes suggested by the consultant and accepted by the team. As the consultant for the first programme I tried to persuade them to introduce a more time-teamy detective story element and say “some say this others say that, we go for one rather than the other because..”, but they refused and insisted that the narrative should not be ‘problematized at all’. The production team were often very apologetic about the ‘interference’ from above and felt nearly as uncomfortable about it as I did. Although we knew Neil Oliver would speak the words from an early stage he didn’t come in until the whole script was finished and only ‘tweaked the odd phrase’ to suit his ‘voice’. he had no influence on the content.

    • The issue of the authorship of the text is very interesting – it certainly seemed as if there was a deliberate attempt to conceal who actually wrote the words put into Oliver’s mouth. I do think that any historian who acts as a mouthpiece for somebody else’s words is taking a risk. Inevitably one ends up with less control, but will be held responsible in the public view. Far better to stand by one’s own words than by a committee-worked script. (Michael Wood’s worst television series was Art of the Western World, where someone else wrote his script; since then, I think, he’s always written his own words.)

      Unfortunately, I’m not surprised at the executive approach. Too much documentary television seems to me to suffer these days from a catastrophic loss of nerve. The concern is to keep the casual viewer from flicking over to something less demanding, so it’s considered better to say something that is wrong rather than introduce any element of complexity to proceedings; the result is that the major terrestrial channels too often end up making documentaries for people who don’t really like documentaries. I would venture that these are not the values on which the reputation of British documentary television was built. The argument, of course, is that the traditional audience is no longer there, so programmes cannot be made the way they used to – though Russell T. Davies has shown with Doctor Who that if you embrace old-style values, suddenly the old-style audience comes back.

      I do sometimes wish that the Open University exerted more pressure on the BBC to bring the programmes it’s associated with up to a higher academic standard. But the OU probably feels that it needs the BBC more than the BBC needs it, and can’t take the risk.

      Having said all that, I did think A History of Scotland, whilst not perfect, was better than many other similar programmes.

      • I know some hardcore Dr Who fans who regard Davies’s sexing-up of the franchise as an abomination, but I submit that they are failing to recognise quality TV because it’s not as stuffy as the canon.

        As to the topic, I’d agree that it was (again) quality TV but the extent to which it was, not just bad history but biased history, was rather severe, and Alex’s revelations about them ignoring the experts is worrying. I wonder who the person who thinks he knows better in the production team is?

  21. Oy… Thanks for the clarification, Alex; Neil Oliver’s stamp on the final product seems so heavy, and his voicing of the lines so impassioned, that it’s difficult to imagine they weren’t his. I can understand your discomfort. I’ve edited lightly to remove quite so much of the onus from Oliver and hope that if I ever meet him he’ll have less reason to throw his drink in my face. I hope you got paid for your trouble…

  22. kevin halloran

    I’ve just bought your book From Pictland To Alba, only partly because you reference my article!! I’ve got a complaint in with the Editorial Compliance Unit at the BBC because I believe that the reference to Brunanburh lacked impartiality, balance and fairness. If I have a beef with Oliver (!!??)it’s more to do with some of his post facto press comments along the lines of “everything points to the Wirral.” I had a very favourable response to the article from academics and as I’ve corresponded with several people who’ve worked on Brunanburh and don’t support Bromborough it was a shock to hear that “most historians” favour that identification. I’ll let you know what the Beeb decides.

  23. Kevin,
    the location of Brunanburh was one of the things where I thought it might be nice to play up the mystery and show the Wirral Burnswark and Michael Wood’s suggestion near Sheffield (maybe get viewers to vote on it!). As you will have seen in the book I mentioned the variety of possibilities and make some half hearted nod at preferring the Wirral. I think this reflects my view still, I would rather be not be made to make a choice without more evidence but if pressed hard would say the Wirral is slightly more likely in my view. I would rather not be forced to choose though.

  24. kevin halloran

    Alex,
    I’ve always been happy that historians have different views on Brunanburh: I don’t think, for instance, that Michael Wood will ever be persuaded against Brinsworth. I have a problem with Bromborough and it’s nothing to do with the merits of its case although I try and show these are overstated. What changed – and what prompted me to write the article – was that it became very clearly apparent that some Bromborough supporters were determined to “prove” Bromborough and began to regurgitate old stuff as “new discoveries” and interpret evidence in quite eccentric ways. They have ready access to the Merseyside press and North-West radio and TV and the last few years have seen a rash of articles and programmes to this effect.
    Their scholarship is frightening: at one meeting when I asked why they thought Aethelweard (c980) and other tenth to twelfth century sources avoided the Burh form they said it was irrelevant as they were “not contemporary”. They then proceeded to discuss their evidence – a mix of thirteenth century charters and a map of 1732.
    Best wishes,
    Kevin.

  25. kevin halloran

    Jonathan,
    Just a note of apology for monopolising the board with Brunanburh stuff. I had absolutely no idea that Alex was involved in any way with the TV programme. I’m obviously disappointed he didn’t find my article more convincing but that’s par for the course when you get involved in controversial topics. I would normally have let the BBC thing pass by – I never watch TV history and haven’t even seen AHOS – but felt obliged to take some action: there are two (yes, two) Brunanburh novels in the pipeline plus a screenplay by Chris Spellman in America. I’ve been advising on these and the BBC effectively destroyed my credibility. I also believe that we’ve found the actual battlefield and a variety of negotiations re access etc are delicately poised. Again, the BBC series has caused me real problems.

  26. Kevin, I’m not sure how much good commenting here will do with those problems, but I’m sorry to hear any case of the BBC hampering scholarship obviously.

  27. kevin halloran

    Jonathan,
    Thanks for the thought. I’ve found the whole thing completely dispiriting. I spent thirty years researching Brunanburh, read everything, retranslated every document and visited every site. The BBC covers the battle for the first time in a generation (last time it told us it was at Brinsworth in In Search of the Dark Ages) and simply plumps for the tired old Bromborough line. The predictable result: headlines in the Merseyside press scream :”BBC Documentary proves Bromborough…” I then have correspondents and even people in the village pub saying my stuff must have been boloney as the BBC didn’t even mention it. I don’t blame Alex or even the BBC but the debate deserved better: Alex has his opinion but others, eg Mike Mullett, Professor of History and Head of Department wrote that my work was:”Full, scholarly and definitive” while another historian wrote that it would be “Difficult for Bromborough to recover…”
    A very great deal of work undone just because TV didn’t want to “problematise” an issue. Well, I intend to dig the battlefield up as I can see it’s the only way to establish the truth.
    Kind regards,
    Kevin

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  29. I live in Australia and I watched the TV show but disappointingly it never went any further than the 1500’s. I am now reading Neil Oliver’s book of the same name and am puzzled by the population which provided 1000’s for each and every battle some not too many years apart. Where did they come from? I was always lead to believe that there never was that many people inhabitting either Scotland or England. also, when it came to signing the Covenanters Charter when Charles 1 introduced the New Book of Prayer to Scotland, every man woman and child signed the petition. Very odd as they did not attend school. At a much later point when emphasising this uprising, a mention was made that many had never held a pen and were more used to agricultural implements and their marks had even been made in blood. It would have been better to clarify that point at the beginning to make the earlier statements more credible. Apart from that little grouse, I am enjoying bits of history – fact or fiction? – that I had never learned before. I live in hope that the series will return to Tv at some point so that I can watch it again with a new perspective.

  30. This brings back bad memories but I won’t rake over the past except to say that my very limited involvement with the BBC over AHOS meant that I will never take anything the broadcaster has to say on historical topics seriously again.
    The question of numbers in the medieval period remains a constant frustration: the medieval witness simply cannot be trusted to count. If we consider just one Anglo-Scottish battle, Brunanburh in 937, there is no real consensus on the size of the opposing armies, except that modern estimates are much more conservative than some earlier suggestions. The sources vary from generalisations such as “numberless” to quite specific figures, such as the 615 ships of Simeon of Durham, the “800 captains (?)” who died around Anlaf Guthfrithson and the 30,000 dead Scots mentioned in the same source. The Latin poem in William of Malmesbury suggests the coalition were “a hundred thousand strong”. It would be disappointing if some future archaeological discovery proved there were only a few hundred involved! Most historians (hate to use that phrase) seem to have settled with no real evidence whatsoever on around 20,000 per side, still a quite massive undertaking in the context of tenth-century Britain.

    • I can understand how ships could be counted, more or less, though I would still expect round figures to be used once we got to the hundreds (and where one would be able to beach hundreds of longships in most of the battles where they are claimed to have appeared has often foxed me). Recent attempts to get numbers for protests in Britain, even quite organised ones, have however left me utterly sceptical that anyone was in a position to count men more than approximately in any early medieval battle. One might achieve some precision by knowing more or less how many men were on one’s own side and comparing the enemy force, but unless someone happened to be able to do that from high ground either before or at the earliest stages of the battle, and unless our sources somehow got that guy’s figures, I don’t really see how the numbers we have could be accurate, even if someone wanted them to be which I doubt many did.

  31. iain paterson

    “Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, …”

    Ok very funny. But i can’t take someone seriously – even a real historian – who indulges in populist english-bias rhetoric. And, by the way, ‘conquer..again and again’. Name one ‘conquering’ that had as enduring effect on Scotland’s trajectory as the William of fame had on England. No reason to be supercilious. methinks – iain paterson, vienna

    • You might have a point there; I was meaning to be supercilious at Neil Oliver, but that phrase does take in more people than I’d intended. It seems a bit late to rephrase but I’ll take this opportunity to apologise.

      However, if you’re going to quote me quote me right. Therefore, as a conquest with a lasting effect I nominate 638, the capture of Edinburgh, not that large a chunk of Scotland I realise but the one that decided the name of the capital city of the country till this day. If not that, then the Norse conquests of the ninth century that arguably broke the Pictish kingdom for good and left the WesternNorthern Isles speaking a form of Old Norse till the eighteenth century. As to the enduring effect of William, that’s an essay question I set my students so you can’t expect me to try and answer it here… But I don’t think I set up any contest of conquests here; if there’s a nation with a thousand-year history that hasn’t been conquered at one time or another I can’t think of it. England’s material superiority over Scotland is enough to explain the overall military trend without drawing any implications about national character or whatever; you did that all by yourself.

  32. RACIST / SUPERIORITY COMPLEXES ARE SO APPARENT IN SO MANY OF THE ABOVE COMMENTS, DEPENDING ON WHETHER YOU ARE LOOKING THROUGH YOUR ST.GEORGE OR ST.ANDREW TINTED SPECTACLES.
    EDUCATED MEN BLINDED BY PRIMITIVE INSTINCT,

  33. jack knight

    hi , love this site, can anyone tell me how many picts were at aberlemno battle, the swamp helped then take controle of this battle, and the ships that sank in the river tay ,at broughty ferry ,when dundee was sacked, the ships were full of goods belonging to the dundee people at that time ,but thats all i cantell you, regards jackie ,

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  35. The article reeks of jealousy.

    • This post, you mean? Quite possibly: certainly, this would be one of the many times in my life where I’ve been better-qualified in some respects for something that someone else was doing than they were, but in this case, there are plenty of other respects in which I couldn’t replace Neil Oliver. Given the which, I’d much rather his script-writers gave him something more accurate to say!

      • kevin halloran

        Whether one is questioning the tax affairs of the rich, the sexual propensities of celebrities or, as here, inaccuracies in a BBC production, the ‘politics of envy’ card will invariably be played. I fought a short, bitter and entirely unproductive war with the BBC and its historical consultants over aspects of this series. I did not have to be a student of military history to know that the front rank of my enemy’s artillery would be loaded with the standard ammo used on these occasions – that I was motivated by envy, bitterness and arrogance is disputing with such ‘experts’. And I most certainly was. But does that invalidate the criticisms made? In my opinion it does not. Indeed, the BBC’s defense of its position and the light shone on to the interactions of ‘expert’, editor and producer and the priorities accorded to historical truth, narrative flow and entertainment value, proved to me at least that all its output should carry a heath warning that the first will always be sacrificed to the second and both to the third. It is in the nature of the beast and it is a characteristic that extends to all parts of the media and in my – admittedly jaundiced – view it has and will continue to have a corrupting influence among academics and researchers.

        • Although there are those – I realise you have your disagreements with Michael Wood also, Kevin, but at least his views are based in research – who do show that good scholarship can also make good television, I’m inclined to think that it’s worthwhile to sacrifice something to entertainment value, if firstly it brings people to look further into the subject, rather than merely reinforcing their prejudices, and secondly if when they do look into it opinions more expert are not too hard to find, and that’s kind of where I saw and see this post coming in. Anyone Googling the series would have found, as I did when I wrote this, that there was obviously scholarly disagreement with it, but would have been little wiser as to why. They obviously don’t have to believe me either but at least they can read this post and understand where that disagreement was coming from and why. Whether we’ll ever get to the point where a TV programme encourages expert comment on what corners they cut, though, I somehow doubt…

          • kevin halloran

            I have the greatest respect for MW and it matters not at all that we disagree as to the locality of Brunanburh. What I find unpalatable – at least as I perceive it – is the tendency of the new breed of Bromborough supporters to weigh evidence not on its merits but as to how far it can be said to support a particular identification, their manipulation of the media and their – again in my opinion – abuse of a privileged position. The location of Brunanburh remains a topic of debate and contrary opinion ought to be respected, not sidelined and ridiculed. The Bromborough group have pushed their views so far and have become so enmeshed in media and local tourist interests ( witness the Brunanburh trail, the signposts and the many articles, radio and TV programmes proclaiming Bromborough as the site of the battle) that reasoned debate is now impossible.
            The recent Brunanburh Casebook is typical: how can you have a ‘casebook’ without inviting contributions from MW ( or me for that matter )? That its editor suggests seriously that the location on the Wirral is now so well established that only the battle’s specific location remains at issue is simply outrageous. And if I seem miffed, well I am. After studying the subject for several decades I don’t like to be told on forums that ‘Neil Oliver considers a Wirral location is accepted by all serious historians’ or that ‘the BBC seem pretty certain it was fought at Bromborough.’. Apologies for my crankiness.

  36. pictishbeastie

    “and now receives heavy subsidy from England, ” You really are a bit of an idiot,aren’t you. The quoted phrase is patently untrue as has been proven time and time again by people more qualified to know about these things than you,you ridiculous,arrogant buffoon! We actually subsidise England and have done for years. As we say round about here,if you dinnae ken whit yer talkin aboot it’s ay best to jist shut the fuck up! Incidentally,I can’t really find it in myself to believe very much by anyone who thinks they were speaking a form of Old Norse in the Western Isles until the 18th century. I think you’ve maybe got your geography fucked up and really mean the Northern Isles! You choob! As I’ve said about you before,since you obviously hate us so much why don’t you just fuck off and leave us,and our history,alone. You really are a vile little nothing of a man.

    • I’m surprised you say this, since you must have seen that I’ve already been called to task on those figures and came up with cites that showed Scotland in the red the last year that reasonable figures were available. Alex Salmond’s figures for the viability of an independent Scotland are based on the presumption that that Scotland would be able to nationalise the whole North Sea oil field and then treat all its revenue as government income, which of course the UK currently doesn’t do. So, quite apart from the fact that he’s basing the future of his country on a dwindling fossil fuel resource whose current operators Scotland would have to expropriate, the numbers don’t add up the way he says they do, or that you say they do. If you can produce any evidence, mind, some of this proof that you claim is so prevalent, I’ll look for more recent figures for my side.(My older figures were given in this comment. If you can’t, though, you might want to check what you’re being told.

      A fair catch with the Northern/Western Isles confusion, though, and I’ve fixed that, thankyou for the notice, if not for the abuse. As I’ve said before where you last raised this, just because I find fault with some of the nationalist campaigning material doesn’t mean I hate the Scots. I don’t believe it’s required to swallow everything Salmond puts out in order to want the best for Scotland. Indeed, if I thought as I do about those figures and hated the Scots as well, then you would think I would shut up and wait to be proved right at your expense. As it is, I call the facts as I see them and hope Scotland gets a better deal than Salmond, or Cameron, is going to offer it. And a Happy New Year to you also…

      • Fascinating how this thread has evolved although I suspect that just as all roads lead to Rome any discussion of Anglo-Scottish relations will for the next few years at least end up impacting on the independence question. For myself, I have no views either way, although I find it all a bit ‘grubby’ that it seems to have come down to economic advantage or disadvantage. I suppose this was inevitable in what was anyway originally an arranged marriage brokered on financial considerations and which has since been a rather loveless union.
        Of course in a Europe defined by the EEU and (effectively in military terms) by NATO there is no longer much if any risk – real probably, perceived certainly – in pursuing just about any project that suits the prejudices of the day. If it goes belly up then no real harm done and someone will bail us out no doubt.
        I can understand what Scots are against but what are they for? What is Scotland (or England for that matter)? How is it defined? It seems that what we mean is a dynastic construct within certain borders that existed for a relatively transient period sometime in the past. My own view is that the ‘Scots’ have no real claim on Strathclyde and the Northern Isles and that any future Northumbrian government would be more than justified in seeking the return of Lothian.

  37. Forgive me for again dipping my toe in these controversial waters but I feel I should expand on my earlier question ‘What is Scotland?’ It is an irony that Scottish nationalism and perhaps even Scottish nationhood could a). only exist in opposition to England and b). depends for much of its strength and unity on what has been termed the ‘Triumph of English’, ie the English language. This has not only had important implications for the unity of England but surely for that of Scotland too. Before this we had a number of languages – Cumbric, Gaelic, Norse and English (throughout much of Lothian) – and although in the absence of the virtual universal adoption of English we might postulate a ‘triumph of Gaelic’ this seems to me a very unlikely outcome. I suspect that the historical reality would have been that much of lowland Scotland would have gravitated towards England, the Cumbric west might be pining still for reunification with a Welsh motherland and the Northern Isles would be Norwegian outposts.

  38. Dolphin Henry Overton III

    I found your rebuttal to the program quite interesting and quite consistent with what I find while researching the history of Scotland. As a man of science living in the USA with a large percentage of Scottish blood coursing through his veins and a desire to learn more about his heritage I cannot seem to find a consensus of opinion regarding the early development of Scotland (0 to 1200 AD). I stumbled across the Neil Oliver videos and have watched enough that I thought I should fact check them and immediately ran across controversy in every corner of the internet. I have to admit that it is quite frustrating but that the more I read the more the puzzle seems to come together. However like others whose historical perspective that I read, my interpretation based on what I have read will be exactly that, mine and will differ from others. Of course the difference being that I am not a historian. What I would like to ask is for a historical reference that you consider to be the most accurate and in keeping with what modern historians have come to a reasonable consensus of opinions on the highest probability of events that one would consider as The History of Scotland. Thanks.

    • Well, I’m afraid that there is little such consensus to reason from! With the evidence so scant and difficult to interpret, accuracy just isn’t testable; we’re all merely trying to construct a plausible account of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. (That doesn’t, of course, excuse, riding roughshod over what the few sources say as Oliver’s script-writers did at times here.) You might find my more recent post on James Fraser’s Caledonia to Pictland useful; his book and Alex Woolf’s in the same series probably don’t represent consensus, given the limits on its possibility already mentioned, but they are the most recent and comprehensive attempts at the period up to just after 1000 and will be the starting point for academic study for a while hereafter.

  39. I’d recommend the books by Fraser and Woolf to anyone seeking an overview of the current state of knowledge about early medieval Scotland. As Jonathan points out, neither author claims to solve all the puzzles, but between them they give the reader a useful insight into the reasons why so few certainties exist. Consensus remains elusive because the information in the historical sources is usually insufficient for the demands we wish to place upon it.

  40. While not expecting “A History of Scotland” to be more than an enjoyable romp through one interpretation of Scottish history, I was shocked that it skipped the 11th century entirely! Where were Malcolm III and Margaret?

    Also, where were Gospatric of Northumbria and the other immigrants before and after him (presumably including St Margaret) who brought English to Edinburgh and to the rest of the south-east?

    And what happened in the 12th century? Where was the crucial link between the Breton immigration into Ayrshire and the rise of the Stewarts and Bruces?

    Furthermore, why no mention of the long chain of Border forts, such as Oliver Castle? Sir Walter Scott though that the Borders were important to Scottish history, so if he’s worth a mention for his toadying to the Hanovers, why not address (pro or con) his views on the lands he so loved, the lands where most of the Scottish vs English wars took place?

    • I didn’t see that episode, so I can only guess at the answers to your questions. However, if I was going to guess, I would say that dealing with the issue of the often-moved border between England and Scotland would have caused problems for the idea of Scotland as a natural and territorially-defined entity that the script was pitching for the tenth century (“England was not enough for Athelstan!”, i. e. there is an end to it and therefore a border, Athelstan was not just expanding England, and so on). St Margaret probably also opens those issues up, as does, well, almost anything where Scotland borrows from or is made to take from the English. Of course they couldn’t fit everything one would wish into an hour anyway, but I could probably be persuaded that there was a policy in the selection they made. Still, I didn’t see it so my suspicions may be unfair.

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