Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland

[Largely drafted offline, 28/10/11]

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland

Cover of James Fraser's From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795

When I first conceived my research interest, such as it be, in Pictish Scotland, one of the things I thought that the field sorely needed was a new and sincere attempt to write the period’s narrative history, not pulling the punches about the difficulties of the sources but convinced all the same that they could be used to mount some kind of story. Instead, we had Alfred Smyth’s Warlords and Holy Men, which while stimulating can also be extremely misleading and by its very title contributes to a conception of Scotland as a Celtic strangeness, whereas the field has for the last few years been trying very much to link Scotland and Pictland up to the wider world of Church, art and politics in which they clearly participated.1 I actually determined that I would some day write such a book, since I didn’t see anyone else who thought it feasible. Since I got properly stuck into Catalonia, however, several others have seen such a need and, in most cases, attempted to supply it: we now have Tim Clarkson’s The Picts, Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests (which insists that no narrative is possible but provides a comprehensive summary of the evidence from which it can’t be done and many useful insights about life and culture in the period) and now James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh 2009).2

In the course of this period an incredible amount of work has been done that upsets or resets some of the basic chronological and political foundations of this area and period, substantially by Alex Woolf, Thomas Owen Clancy and, not least, Fraser himself. We are now rather cautious in believing that Columba’s mission to the Picts took him north rather than south of the Great Glen (although since Adomnán’s claimed results of this mission are so embarrassingly scant I myself find an explanation of the episode as a claim of later territory inadequate to replace the simpler understanding of the text on this occasion), we do not believe in St Ninian at all any more and we have moved a substantial part of Pictland to the north of the Mounth rather than south of it.3 A new synthesis is badly needed, and Fraser is well-placed to provide it.

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south

View of the Mearns standing on the Mounth facing south, from Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, he does so; this book presents a sophisticated picture of slow shifts of meaning, of political self-conceptions, of the identities of peoples and of territories, and of kingship and religion, without ignoring the potential for exceptional times, individuals or groups to accelerate these changes in local or immediate contexts to considerable and significant degrees. In Fraser’s conception of Scotland both geography and climate and kings and saints make a difference to developments. This makes his book for a start much to be preferred to textbook variations on histories seen only in terms of warlords and holy men (for example), the charismatic wyrd of wild individuals building a nation that stands peculiarly and Celtically different from its contemporaries, or the contrary trend to connect Scotland so tightly to Europe that its genuine distinctivenesses are over-ridden in a picture of its participation in the greater changes of European (by which is usually meant, Carolingian) history in the period.4 (This is simply to say that the biggest warlords and holy men somehow directed the rest in a great progress towards the EU!) Fraser’s North is linked to the outside, and its distinctivenesses of language and material culture are not made large parts of the story, but nonetheless the distinctiveness of the material that he deploys will reassure the reader that this is an area with its own history. Moreover, it is an area that is not solely the cradle of a great clash of Gaelic and Pictish nations that has dominated some other versions of the period, but one which definitively includes Northumbria from its earliest emergence (albeit that Fraser puts that later than is traditionally accepted, seeing its supposed kings before Æthelfrith of Bernicia as effectively genealogical ciphers5) and also has a place for the Britons of the North, although due to Fraser’s focus as much as the extremely limited evidence, that place is largely as a bank of possible genealogical links and political allies that assist the story of the other participants in the narrative, rather than a fully-developed role of their own.6

Both the evidence and the scholarship for this period are, in fact, as Fraser makes clear, better than is conventionally imagined. Indeed, by his essentially text-based approach, justified (p. 9) by reference to the volume of new archaeological synthesis such as Alcock’s book, he is leaving a considerable amount of other evidence aside; the Pictish symbol stones, for example, are mentioned on six pages only. It is also true, however, that the sources, primary and secondary both, are still extremely bitty, enigmatic and widely dispersed, even if with the scholarship much can be hoovered up via the Innes Review, Scottish Historical Review and one or two other established journals). That Fraser has mastered this granularity of material does not, unfortunately, permit him entirely to overcome it in synthesis, and so the book’s overriding themes, helpfully set out in the introduction albeit in self-deprecating periphrasis (“If the book has any single theme…”, p. 10; my emphasis), can sometimes be hard to perceive in a wash of tiny discussions over points of art. It cannot be helped that almost all of the progress in this field must be made by hypothesis; there is no other way to deal with this evidence except to admit that we do not have enough pieces of the jigsaw to reconstruct the full picture, and that we are all arranging the pieces into something that could make a picture we each happen to like. The best outcome we can hope for is that others like our picture well enough to repeat it, as happened with the narrative of the Gaelic take-over last century. Nonetheless, Fraser does not always find a comfortable balance between the pressures to account for the positioning of each piece in detail and that of making a manageable and comprehensible book (pressures of which he is keenly aware and which he discusses, pp. 7-10); there are many references to dispute and to hypothesis, too many for easy following of many threads. (Occasionally these are broken out into separate text-boxes sitting within the main discussion, though one may question whether thus having the appendices inline with the main text is really an `innovative format’ as claimed on p. 8.) As Fraser himself writes, “Specialists in particular may feel that too many points of light have been joined up”, but the resultant task for the non-specialist may be somewhat like trying to use those points of light as the air traveller might do, to try and imagine a street-map when passing over a town in an airliner.

Edinburgh city lights

Edinburgh city lights

The specialist will, in fact, find a great deal here to stimulate, and even if Fraser’s picture is constituted of a thousand variables, the presence of some well-known and fixed points in the narrative, and perhaps more than there might have been in many others’, mean that we can proceed with a reasonable belief that the variability averages out rather than distorting in one or other particular direction. Thus, although Fraser shares the near-universal love of the Scottish medievalist for explaining politics with reference to reconstructed genealogy, it would not cripple his narrative if, for example, one were to find fault with his idea that the Miathi mentioned by Adomnán were in fact once part of a wider polity that included British Strathclyde and whose rulers retained links there for a long time after this was broken up, if Clancy’s reconstruction of the relationships of the four kings who vied for power in Pictland in the early eighth century should not in fact explain the effective power-base of the carnifex King Unuist map Uurguist (Oengus mac Fergus) or if, as I once argued, the sons of Ædán mac Gabráin should after all have found kingdoms in southern Pictland instead of in Ireland (as Fraser substantially believes).7 The courses of events and their interpretation by Fraser would realign, more or less, with most reasonable persons’ sense of what was likely based on his (and our) evidence before the next heading was reached. We might be more irritated by the occasional jokes about contemporary relevance,8 and suspicious of repeated phrases such as “Is it a coincidence that… ?” for which amateur conspiracists have equipped us with a Pavlovian distaste. All the same, there is no way that a book like this could be written, by anyone, without each reader who feels that they have expertise in the field too periodically suffering attacks of difference of opinion. If such a reader, after shouting, “Oh come on!” to the empty room, goes on reading because the book is so interesting, the author can probably consider this a success, and that was certainly this reader’s experience.

The book may however be harder going for the non-specialist. Despite Fraser’s detailed explanation of his refusal to accept that many of our sources, especially the Vita Columbae, tell us as much about the times they describe as that when they were written—something that Fraser can ignore fairly cheerfully when an unexplained entry in the Irish Annals supports a hypothesis, but if this were a crime who then should ‘scape whipping?—the reader new to these materials will likely be led to distrust everything the sources, and their mediator, says, even if he describes this process with the catchphrase, “opening the door to the historian’s laboratory”, borrowed from Marc Bloch but here a hokey claim to scientific credibility that may irritate more than reassure.9 Such a reader might also be better served if Fraser’s admirable and dogged pursuit of accuracy in name-forms, including Northumbrian rather than West Saxon spelling of the Old English ones—thus Aeðilred not Æthelred, Edwini not Eadwine, still less Ethelred or Edwin—had been relaxed so that, for example, they were served with Dalriadans not Corcu Réti and so forth, however much more accurate Fraser’s choices may be. (There may be good reasons for having a place called Fortriu that is described with the adjective Verturian and whose people are Waerteras, but it will certainly mislead the new reader.10) The only names that reliably occur in the forms in which a reader is used to them from older work are the Gaelic ones, in fact, and while Fraser’s intended audience may have been Gaelic-literate, philologically-educated but historically-untrained Scotophiles, because of these strategies of presentation one cannot comfortably set this book for the students or recommend it to the laypersons who could also benefit from such a volume. This is a pity, as it may be a long time before we see a better, cleverer and more erudite attempt to make sense of the history of this period, and the fact that it entertains, both structurally and philologically, this love of obscurities clouds more of its considerable scholarly and interpretative merit than those deserve.

1. Alfred Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (London 1984), repr. New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 1989), excellently reviewed by W. D. H. Sellar in “Warlords, Holy Men and Matrilineal Succession (‘Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, A. D. 80-1000′ by Alfred P. Smyth)” in Innes Review Vol. 36 (Glasgow 1985), pp. 29-42; The other books that were being set when I started on this stuff were Archibald Duncan, Scotland: the making of the kingdom (Edinburgh 1975), which runs through the early Middle Ages pretty fast, and Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots: early historic Scotland (London 1996, rev. 2004), which is more of an introduction to the archaeology than any kind of history. There is also Michael Lynch, Scotland: a new history (London 1991, rev. 1992), which is really no use for the Middle Ages at all.

2. T. Clarkson, The Picts: a history (Stroud 2008, 2nd edn. Edinburgh 2010); Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003); note also Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), the second volume in the series of which Fraser’s is now the first.

3. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 94-111; Thomas Owen Clancy, “The Real St Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28; Alex Woolf, “Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85 (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 182-201.

4. The former trend perfectly embodied in Smyth, Warlords; for the latter see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in dark age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 6 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Martin Carver, “Conversion and Politics on the Eastern Seaboard of Britain: some archaeological indications” in Crawford (ed.), Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World, St John’s House Papers 8 (St Andrews 1998), pp. 11-40.

5. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 149-154.

6. Though here we now have Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh 2010).

7. Respectively, Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 15-17, 45-49 & 135-136; Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-king: Nechtan mac Der Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125; Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex’ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill (ed.), Aethelbald and Offa. Two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42; Jonathan Jarret [sic], “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 15 (Balgavies 2008), pp. 3-24, corrected version online here in PDF with Bibliography here.

8. For example, the crack, “For some, the vessels bearing vikings [sic] to Britain and Ireland a few years later were a part of God’s message to the Insular world. They would have had a field day with the combined threats of climate change and international terrorism!” (p. 341) seems to me, for example, to use a perceived silliness in the thinking of the time to make ours seem equally silly, and one suspects that the monks of Lindisfarne or the modern farmers of Kenya would not see the funny side.

9. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, pp. 2 & 8 and frequently thereafter, at the former citing Bloch without reference, though his Feudal Society, transl. L. A. Manyon (London 1989), 2 vols, is in the Bibliography.

10. Such a reader will be stymied especially by the fact that the reasons there are for this practice are set out not in this book at all but in Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, p. 31 n. 45!

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8 responses to “Getting to grips with James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland

  1. A nice review. I had a very similar reaction. I would have thought that a series like this would have stressed wanting to produce textbooks for students and a baseline history for the rest of us.

    • Maybe there has to be a book like this before one like that can be written, though. The thing is that I’ve seen both the Woolf volume and this one much cited by academic writers, as have you I’m sure, and I’m sure it will have its readership, but I wonder if it’s the readership to which it has apparently been marketed? See also Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations, though the writing there is more readily penetrable I think.

  2. Henry Gough-Cooper

    A very fair review. Revisiting the volume after a couple of years, my problem is not so much with the terminology or the reasoning as with Fraser’s convoluted style. The many subsidiary clauses in the sentences, often awkwardly matched to the main subject, do not make for comfortable reading or intelligibility. I notice this same unnecessary difficulty in his papers, too: he has not been well-served by his editors.

  3. A perceptive and useful review, Jonathan. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the final paragraph. It’s always good to hear a teacher’s opinion on a work that someone like me (an ‘independent scholar’) evaluates primarily as a resource for lone-furrow research.

    On readers who claim expertise in the field, you wrote:
    ‘If such a reader, after shouting, “Oh come on!” to the empty room, goes on reading because the book is so interesting, the author can probably consider this a success, and that was certainly this reader’s experience.’

    …..and my experience too. The book certainly makes for compulsive reading, even if (to use just one example) we don’t all buy into Fraser’s theory about the Miathi.

  4. This is going to sound as an utter off-topic but I thought you might be interested:
    IX century Alfonso III of Asturias halls and bath have been discovered in the Castillo de Raices.
    Apparently it can be proven now that the kingdom of Asturias sort of existed back in the VII century, even before the Arab invasion.

    • I certainly am interested! That deserves its own post here, thankyou. The ninth-century angle is very interesting indeed, but the fact that there were castles and fortified sites in the seventh century is not controversial, and it doesn’t seem at all unlikely that a prospective kingdom would pick them up when it formed; I don’t think the fact that the complex has a seventh-century context proves at all that there was a kingdom there then! It’s hard to say what that could even mean; you certainly couldn’t prove any territory wider than Oviedo itself…

      • More news on the subject
        Apparently the archeologists do believe that the castle proves that there was some center of power. You know how it goes, “The building does not work only as a fortress but also as a display of power”. In any case, this is far better than the blank space in history books, between IV-IX centuries: “Here be Visigoths” and that is all.

        • Well, absolutely, even building such a thing demonstrates power. The question lies in the supposed continuity between that focus of power, and something calling itself a kingdom there centuries later. If there was an old fortress at Oviedo, and Pelayo or whoever determined to try and unite the area from somewhere else, took over that old fortress by diplomacy or marriage (as he did Cantábria, allegedly) and established a capital there… the archæology would look just the same, wouldn’t it?

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