Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.
This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:
- In July, first of all, a new Class II symbol stone was found, in Sanday, Orkney, where previously only a few Class I ones have been known (the difference being relief carving and Christian symbols, i. e. usually a full-length cross , on Class IIs), which makes it harder to assume that Orkney missed out on whatever cultural shift provoked Class II and thus helps to undermine the idea that II replaced I, something that Orkney previously supported. Alex Woolf (that man again) passed this on to me as soon as he got news of it, and I’ve rewarded this ill by doing nothing except muse on it. This, however, fitted fine with my argument and I was quite happy with it as information.
- And then another one came up in Easter Ross, in the Black Isle, in September, this one a Class I with a really clear Pictish beast.1 This is considerably less surprising: there’s so much Pictish material in the Black Isle that there’s a museum at Rosemarkie for it (small but lovely), but it all adds to the pile.
- Almost at the same time, excavations at Fortingall in Perthshire revealed that what had looked from aerial photography like a monastic rampart probably actually was, as there’s a substantial wall underneath it and a road through a gateway in it, and this in an area which has already produced grave-stones with Pictish symbols on and a monastic hand-bell. We’re waiting on radio-carbon dates but all this is making the excavator, none other than Oliver J. T. O’Grady who has featured here before, talk in terms of a Columban monastery such as Portmahomack has been called by Martin Carver, and here there might almost be more evidence, in the form of the bell. Even more interesting is a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon bead found in the road metalling, and the fact that till now what Fortingall was mainly famous for was its 5,000-year-old yew tree, which probably has a lot to do with the location of any cult sites that may or not have been here. In my terms, I am fine with this too; there’s really no problem with arguing for a Columban presence in Perthshire, indeed James Fraser’s new book does so extensively, and if O’Grady’s right this would bear him out.2
- another Perthshire excavation had revealed a broch, of the first or second centuries AD, at Dunning, and this does actually cause me rethinking problems. Of course it is older than I care about, technically, even though it seems to have been demolished and a Pictish fortification built on top of it, which is described as palisaded but from which I am guessing there was no wood—no-one seems to be interested in its date, anyway, but I suppose it needn’t be very much later—but as a symptom of an older culture it’s still important, albeit maybe not as important as those that remained visible. ‘Lowland’ brochs are not unknown, but the huge round towers are much more common in the north (see the map above); the more of them that turn up in the south the less good the case for a regional identity based on them gets.3 I probably have to drop it, and it’s really the only one I had left. Ah well. I suppose that, unlike Slartibartfast, I’d rather be right than happy, at least about history. Slightly before this, however,
1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005), http://www.heroicage.org/issues/8/cessford.html, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period…
2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.
3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.