Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

Much prefigured, this post! I noticed last October, you might recall, that Alex Woolf was more or less doing a speaking tour of the south, to which I was going to be able to make it for only a few of the papers (and thus Magistra kindly blogged one of them for me); then in November I mentioned that he’d just been to Oxford and I’d been able to talk Picts to him, and said something similar when I finally got round to talking about his Leeds paper. Since then I have been citing him a lot and now we finally get to the Oxford paper. Yes, I am behind, I cannot tell a lie. You will deduce that I follow the man’s work, and indeed, Alex put on the first conference I ever presented at and thus indirectly got me my first offer of publication, so I owe him a favour or two. I had encouraged the convenors of the Oxford Medieval History Seminar to invite him, for all these reasons, and was not at all disappointed when on 7th November he gave us a paper called “Framing Scotland in the Early Middle Ages”.

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, from Wikimedia Commons

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, by David Wyatt and licensed under Creative Commons, from Wikimedia Commons; this is the alleged 'capital' of Dál Riata

The title, as you may have spotted, comes from the fact that one of the convenors has this little book called Framing the Early Middle Ages, which is extensive in coverage but for various reasons doesn’t cover Scotland.1 Alex thus wondered out loud for fifty minutes on how Scotland might be fitted into that larger picture, looking not at political developments primarily but at socio-economic ones. There is of course really not much evidence for this sort of thing (though it benefits a lot more from the ever-increasing archaeological data than does the political account) but Alex argued that we can probably still do better than just extrapolating from Ireland and England instead… The first thing he focused on was the weirdness that in 600 or so, Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland all had their political centres in areas that have almost always otherwise been politically marginal in these kingdoms, what’s now Northumberland, what’s now Argyll, and what’s now Donegal, and that by 900 this had stopped in all three cases. This is not just because these area generated written sources, though they certainly did, because we can also get the same clues from fortresses, of which small ones were springing up in all three zones at around this time. The development of the North Sea trade network in the eighth century however seems to have pulled power over to the east coast ports, in Britain, when we get York and Portmahomack developing as (very different) sites and Ireland generally falling back somewhat.2 Alex suggested that when this sort of system developed, these marginal areas became principally exporters of men, military or otherwise, looking for prospects beyond the marginal economy of their homelands, but that when those possibilities didn’t really exist, it became viable to turn military power into a base of local influence because there was a surplus of manpower with which to do it, and sites like the Mote of Mark were where these little sub-royal powers found their links into the trade zone that their presence drove. This may have a lot to do with why King Edwin was so keen to drive into Cumbria and Carlisle, and the kings of Northumbria were generally so active on the West coast, and why Dál Riata, which was surely a miscellaneous gathering of squabbling islands in its natural state, became a political power of any standing: it must have been the main route for goods travelling on that network to go into Pictland.3 That kind of influence might, indeed, get Irish missionaries received at the top of Loch Ness and sea-kings received into alliance with Pictish monarchs; annoying or not, those people were in a position to cut off the flow of shiny things on which early medieval kingship seems to have tried to enjoy a monopoly. For the short time in which that could continue, this Great Game, whose later more famous sibling would occupy so many Irish and Scottish soldiers, was in the West.

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons, a bit late for our purposes (10th-century) but very sharp and shiny

My notes on this are pretty much covered in asterisks of emphasis; you who know my very limited work on Scotland will see how it makes things I want to argue make sense, or at least certainly could do. Chris Wickham asked why the eastern zones should ever have lost their influence, and Alex answered that they had been much more plugged into the Roman Empire and so suffered a greater degree of collapse when it withdrew. Since that’s been argued as an effect in many other places, it was hard to deny here.4 The western margins simply didn’t have as much to lose. George Molyneaux asked why such powers hadn’t generated more written sources, and Alex brought out various survival arguments as well as a plea not to think that these are big powers on a European scale.5 I asked about symbol stones, but Alex just thinks they’re later than I want to, well, OK. Thomas Charles-Edwards argued for the importance of the central zone where these powers met their eventual supplanters,6 and I also think we see that focus become very important during the eighth century and then the Viking Age, but obviously there could be lots of reasons for that…

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland: culture contact or culture clash... ?

You can see, firstly, that it was a very full seminar, and secondly that there was an immense potential for discussion. I subsequently gathered from Alex that this paper, and the others he’d been doing on his tour, were sort of rehearsals of chapters from a book he’s putting together, partly because these are days in which almost all UK academics would like to have a book published between 2008 and mid-2013 but also because he feels there is room beside James Fraser’s book for something that takes this kind of socio-economic view. I think a book by Alex on the early period would form a very interesting counterpart to Fraser’s, as their approaches are probably different enough that one could profit from both, but I think two things are for sure when it comes out; firstly, it’ll be fascinating and invoke parallels from periods and places no-one else would ever have thought of comparing, and secondly, it will cause avid discussion. Both of these things happen a lot round Alex, and here’s to it.


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), Scotland’s absence regretted p. 6 n. 6.

2. For the development of the North Sea zone the classic account is Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989), though his new Dark Age Economics: a new audit, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2011) might have some repositioning of his argument. For York, I’m going on Richard Hall, “The Making of Domesday York” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988) and Dominic Tweddle, “York, Ciudad de Alcuino” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (Barcelona 1999), pp. 171-174, transl. as “York: Alcuin’s Town” ibid., pp. 504-506, though I realise there must be more recent stuff out there, I just haven’t read it yet; Portmahomack is a different matter, with the latest published word, at least, being Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

3. Here, I am actually working substantially off James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, Edinburgh New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), but it would be worth adding Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: A Dark Age Hillfort in South-West Scotland, Oxbow Monographs (Oxford 2006) and, even now, James Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriata (Edinburgh 1974).

4. Here I think principally of Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), though fairness would probably also oblige me to mention Richard Hodges, “Anglo-Saxon England and the Origins of the Modern World System” in Hooke, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, pp. 291-304, which attempts a similar argument with rather less basis in about half a page.

5. In this question George was riffing on, and Alex largely conforming to, a piece by Kathleen Hughes called “Where are the writings of early Scotland?” in idem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 1-21.

6. Professor Charles-Edwards has a small and well-groomed dog in this particular fight, as he has been arguing that kingship really develops around the control of land, not the supply of shiny things, for a very long time now, and archæologists have increasingly not been paying attention to him because, of course, we have shiny things from the period than information about land control: see his “Kinship, Status and the Origins of the Hide” in Past and Present no. 56 (Oxford 1972), pp. 3-33, “The Distinction Between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement: continuity and change (London 1979), pp. 180-187, and “Early Medieval Kingships in the British Isles” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 28-39, the first of these picked up and applied interestingly to English archæology, at least, by Chris Scull in his “Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 17-24, though the latter two are in the bibliography of Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003).

10 responses to “Seminar CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

  1. David Hillman

    Was not the Celtic sea , at least in the 5th and 6th centuries an important trading area locally and for far off luxuries. Is this not at least as important as any military reason for the curious importance of islands in the early history of Anglo-Celtic Britain? Tintajel, Man, Anglesey,…And in English parts too Wight, Lindisfarne, Thanet,… Just curious.

    • If you mean the Irish Sea? Certainly sites like Tintagel were hubs of luxury trade, even until the eighth century in some cases. But since the point here was that access to that network allowed the local build-up of military power… aren’t you actually agreeing with the post?

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  4. After reading some of your comments on various matters re. Scotland,the Scots and Scottish Independence I’m curious as to why,since you obviously can’t stand us,you take such an interest in our history,even though you apparently draw the wong conclusions about a lot of it? Is it possibly the usual colonial mindset that we’ve become so used to over the last 300+ years? The days of we Scots getting taught our history from an imperialist and non-Scottish perspective are over. SAOR ALBA!

  5. I’m very curious to know where you’ve got this impression that I hate the Scots. I think Neil Oliver’s first programme that I discussed was historically very dodgy and I think Alex Salmond’s a charlatan rabble-rouser whose maths doesn’t add up, but that isn’t the same as hating an entire country and its people. (And if that is where you got your impression, you must have skipped over far far worse from me about English television and politics!) Since I’m part descended from Aberdeenshire family and my most recent partner is Scottish, it would be a touch strange for me to be found to loathe the Scots. Nor do I think it’s colonialism; how would that even work out in this kind of interaction? (And what on earth do you make of the fact that my primary research is on Catalonia? Am I also supposed still to be fighting the Napoleonic Wars or travelling with George Orwell?) So I’m not inclined to be troubled by this sort of harangue, as I don’t think it relates to me as I actually am at all. If you have problems with my conclusions, though, that’s a different matter and I’m happy to be corrected if you can show me where I’m wrong and on what basis.

    The days of we Scots getting taught our history from an imperialist and non-Scottish perspective are over.

    You say that, but of the top five people working on the Picts who are teaching in Scottish universities at the moment, two are American and three English. (And in England, it’s pretty much just me.) But then, of course, from a purely “Scottish” perspective, the Picts wouldn’t matter, would they?

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  7. I’d be interested to know whether your zealous interlocutor would prefer — to explore one of many possible examples — Danes, Norwegians, or lowland Scots to write the history of the Northern Isles.

    Is this form of anti-intellectual, anti-scholarly cussedness in fact the implausible offspring of an over-enthusiastically imbibed civic nationalism? I.e., would the enlightened view be that historical writing is strictly a matter for those who just happen to live in the Isles (for instance), now, regardless of their family origins?

    Here’s the test: what if the would-be historian were, say, a third generation Pakistani immigrant resident in Kirkwall? Would such a person ever get to contribute to the retelling of official local the recommended exclusionary practice? Or is the proposed historiographical methodology really something to do with good old-fashioned ethnic essentialism? In which case, which ethnicity are you talking about up there in the Northern Isles? Does right historical knowledge simply ooze forth from those people who are deemed to have the right blood? And what’s the process exactly? Does the stuff off historical lore arise automatically from the genes, or do you sup it from the air about you as you grow? The mechanism must be fascinating. Particularly if it’s one that combines ethnic and political essentialism with some kind of metaphysical trick. I can think of all sorts of historical figures who’d just love that kind of thing.

    If adequate historical thinking can actually be taught, why is it that you can only teach a Scot? What if you grew up somewhere else but you’ve come to Scotland recently and really like it? How exactly do you establish your credentials? Is it a matter of loving and feeling a sense of belonging to some kind of agreed narrative? Who agreed it? If it’s purely a matter of politics, are some Scots excluded from this special-access knowledge because they’ve never thought of voting SNP? Can Malcolm Rifkind safely express a view on any part of Scottish history? What about David Cameron? (Some English historians would think not, but they don’t have a say in this.)

    On the other hand, should anyone, by the terms of the fantasised exclusionary school of writing and thinking about Scottish history (whatever they actually are), can any non-Scot outside Scotland *ever* expect a Scot to have anything worth saying about anything whatsoever that has ever happened outside the northern half of the island that is called Britain? And does that naturally include Shetland?

  8. Forgive the scribal slips (‘official local the recommended exclusionary practice’ for ‘official local lore according to the recommended exclusionary practice’; ‘the stuff off’ for ‘the stuff of’, etc etc): the questions remain genuine.

    • Erudite and pointed as ever, JPG, and the only thing I would add is that while the anonymous beastie may for all we know indeed be an SNP voter, and while I am no especial friend of the SNP, I don’t see any sign from their limited material on immigration policy (their basic position being that Scotland should be allowed to make its own policy) that they would in fact deliver the Scots-taught-by-Scots-about Scots society he or she seems to wish, perhaps not least because they too have thought it as far through as the impossibility of defining the terms required!

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