Tag Archives: Picts

Yet to be wrong about Pictland

The problem with having academic interests as catholic as mine is that one ineluctably falls behind the curve of scholarship in those areas in which one’s not actively concentrating. On this occasion, this means that although when my paper on Pictland finally emerged, I knew Alex Woolf had written an article about Fortriu that might completely wreck it, I hadn’t actually found time to read that article.1 I did however obtain a PDF of it to peruse later, and, well, this is how much later it’s turned out to be.

The battle scene on the Pictish Aberlemno stone, often supposed to depict the Battle of Dunnichen

The battle scene on the Pictish Aberlemno stone, often supposed to depict the Battle of Dunnichen

The debate in which this article takes part is a bit specialised so I think a lot of detail would be unhelpful. The sum of it is that Alex looks at the untimely death in battle of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the Battle of Nechtanesmere in 685 against the army of his fratruelis King Bruide map Bile of Fortriu, canonically placed at Dunnichen in Angus, and points out that this hardly matches Bede’s description of the place at all. He comes up with a better candidate, in the far North at Dunachton, Invernessshire, but then runs up against the problem that Ecgfrith’s battle was supposed to be in Fortriu. Fortriu, whose name comes from a people whom Ammianus Marcellinus records as Verturiones, and makes one of the two main Pictish peoples along with the Dicalydones or Caledonians, is the only Pictish kingdom other than Orkney (and maybe Atholl) for which we have a name, and it’s conventionally placed in the lowlands. So Alex looks at all the evidence and arguments for that, finds them mostly wanting and where not wanting, at least only one of two or more place-name possibilities. Then he weighs up the arguments for a case that Fortriu was in fact in the North of Scotland, and finds them better, in the sense of more closely contemporary and less contradictory. It does all rather hang by a few whiskers, but this is the nature of scholarship on early medieval Scotland, there is so little evidence that the tiniest fragment has to be made suggestive and relevant. This is one of the reasons I loved the field at the time I worked on it—so much room for the imagination—and also why I was so glad to leave it, since with my stuff in Catalonia I can actually demonstrate things.

Map of the ancient divisions of Scotland, for which as Alex shows there is no real evidence

Map of the ancient divisions of Scotland, for which as Alex shows there is no real evidence

All the same, I had one or two ideas about early Scottish history that I thought were worth something, and so when new work comes out in that field by people I rate, of whom Alex is most definitely one, because my ideas on the field were so few, I get the Fear that I may finally have been proved wrong. Happily, I think this time my case actually works better for Alex’s intervention. I was arguing that in the time of King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata (Gaelic Scotland before 843), which was probably 574-608, the south of Pictland was firstly partly Gaelic-speaking (which should be obvious because Atholl, which appears happily in the Irish Annals, is a Gaelic name meaning `new Ireland’) and secondly temporarily carved up between Áedán and Bruide map Mailchon, the King of the Picts whom Columba went to try to convert, who had his base at the top of Loch Ness, to provide inheritances for Áedán’s surplus sons, who appear to appear in the Pictish kinglist. I think that actually this is the only way to make any sense of the fact that Áedán appears to have operated over such a huge geographical range, and it also helps explain a few of the names in the kinglist, but other than the internal strength of the argument there’s little enough evidence.2

The inner rampart of Craig Phradraig, supposed by some to be Bruide map Maelchon's stronghold

The inner rampart of Craig Phradraig, supposed by some to be Bruide map Maelchon's stronghold

Now, I didn’t really need Fortriu to be anywhere; the political entity only appears later than my focus, and it was easy enough to argue that it was built out of the fragments that Áedán’s sons left behind by means of resistance to Northumbria orchestrated by increasingly powerful rulers, and to hypothesise a transfer of power from the North to the South for reasons we can’t explain but possibly connected with that nation-building process. But with Alex’s case we don’t have to explain why Bruide was in the North and Fortriu, apparently so important, wasn’t. The South can remain a jumble of bits that Northumbria and the Pictish North were able to hoover up for brief periods and fight over. This works fine for me. So far, I am not yet proven wrong, and in this field, with its special evidential problems, that will do me fine.

1. Alex Woolf, “Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 85 (Edinburgh 2006), pp. 182-201.

2. All the evidence for this argument is set out in the paper, Jonathan Jarrett, “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 17 (Brechin 2008), pp. 3-24, definitive version online here, with bibliography here, both last modified 7 September 2007 as of 23 June 2009.

Ninny’s Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Since not long after it came out I must have owned this book, a children’s novel by Clive King, and the fact that I still have it even though I’d not looked at it for years shows I must internally rate it somehow.1 Recently however I used the special license that parents have to revisit half their childhood stuff in the name of entertaining the child and made it the bedtime book du jour for my nine-year-old son. This means that I am freshly equipped to tell you that it’s great. It may also have a lot to do with sending me towards early medieval history as a supposed career. (Ha ha, we laugh hollowly etc.)

The narrative works fundamentally through the lead character’s slowly diminishing ignorance of his world and the politics of the time, so spoilers really could spoil it, but if I tell you firstly that he arrives in the novel as a black-haired slave to a farming population who call themselves The Folk but whom others call Angles, and then when their homeland floods sets out with them for ‘the Isles of Ocean’ in a boat, designed and built by one of their number who escaped from slavery in ‘the Empire’ with a set of craftsmen’s tools and a wealth of experience, you’ll get the general idea I’m sure. Ninny throughout the book is in search of his origins, especially that of his name, and this could get a bit hackneyed, though thankfully the motivation is never explored in depth: because he feels he wants to find out, is all we really need. But the writing is fresh, the lead character engaging, and the others who refer to the circumstances of the world whose setting the reader knows better than the hero nicely depicted. It’s also funny and terrifying by turns: I found when reading it out loud that its scary moments had to be toned down because it’s written as a sharp but wary child might speak, and consequently catches children’s imaginations all too vividly, but on the other hand as an adult there’s stuff in there I’m only catching now that I’m degree-educated and so on. So I do recommend getting hold of a copy if you have children of your own or if you like reviewing medievalist fiction.

I will risk some engagement with the historical setting, though, but because of spoilers and so on I’ll do it behind a cut. Continue reading

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.

Recent finds in soil and sea, from the heart of the Empire and well beyond its borders

Since my own work this brief ‘holiday’ has so far been mostly revising stuff I wrote long ago, rather than finding out new stuff, I’m sticking to observations culled from the Internet this post. I think almost all of them came from either News for Medievalists or the Heroic Age blog, so thanks to both those fine institutions for these links that I went and followed.

In the first place, of interest to no-one but me most likely, I have discovered a Catalan archaeology blog, ArqueoCat, which has duly been blogrolled, though nothing there has been posted since I did this. Its focus seems to be mainly prehistoric, and of course it’s written in Catalan (there is a translator for webpages offered by the Catalan government but its results are, er, erratic) but I have hopes for it and I also have the relevant language skills. If you have those, I’ve also just happened across a Catalan blog dealing in medieval romances and chivalry, Eixa altra Edat Mitjana, whose author is apparently reading this, so hullo! I warn the general readership, it is about as work-safe as Got Medieval, and phrases like “butttrumpet” may be necessary. As we’ve observed before, the Middle Ages weren’t a particularly clean-minded era.

For those of you reading mainly in English, I had Kirsten Ataoguz’s Early Medieval Art blog down in the resources section, but discovered I was never checking it, and have therefore put it with the other blogs where it probably rightfully belongs, and have simultaneously discovered, I think through someone’s notice at the Unlocked Wordhoard (how do people expect Prof. Nokes actually to read all those darn blogs? I lose too much time on the ones I follow already) Medieval Ecclesiastical Art, which is a bit late for me academia-wise but has the signal advantage of telling me about places I might actually visit, because I in turn have the signal advantage of being in Europe of course, though some of our political parties here might prefer to think otherwise.

That kind of leads us to archaeology, and recently the hot archaeology appears to be in Rome where they are claiming to have found the underground retreat where the Emperor Caligula was murdered. I am pretty dubious about this. I mean, even I have fallen prey to the whole let’s-associate-a-written-source-with-our-recent-find syndrome, it’s natural enough, but in the case I blogged about here, the source was rather more solid than Suetonius’s Vita Cæsarum and the archaeology rather clearer. This new case could be all wrong: let’s remember that the Roman digs are being led by someone who was trying to tell us he’d found genuine evidence for Romulus and Remus only a few years ago. Their level of interpretation comes across too much, in English-language media at least, as “it looks so close it must be true! what do you mean, dating evidence?” and I worry. There’s some further reports that I haven’t seen (no YouTube at work, no inclination to switch off the Black Sabbath at home—after all, heavy metal’s a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry now) here on News for Medievalists, which I guess are covering the same stuff. However, that’s all Classical so I don’t have to worry more than I choose to. Much more interesting to me, and not sensational for them so rather less likely to be over-/misreported, is this story that they’ve found evidence for ‘Dark Age’ habitation apparently in the Classical catacombs, people living among the ancient dead. A certain amount of sensationalism has crept in with a claim that these people “must” have been runaway slaves or persecuted Christians living in hiding, but I wonder (and I’m not the first). The Roman catacombs elsewhere in the city, and some of those in Milan, have turned up much more complicated scenarios than this, including anti-Christian graffiti, so I hope more investigation goes on here as it would be a window into a period of Rome about which I don’t think we know as much as we’d like.

The site of the tomb complex uncovered in Rome (follow link for credits)

Then from the other end of Empire, I discover that Martin Carver isn’t the only one with a Pictish-period monastery in Scotland to play with, although Inchmarnock, where digging has recently been concluded, is on the opposite coast to Portmahomack, where meanwhile the digging and finds continue, which must be almost irritating for them now that they have the Visitors’ Centre up and running and have to rearrange the display every time something new that’s old comes up. Inchmarnock isn’t quite so productive a site, or so Pictish but, as has been said here before the Picts were on Skye, though we only see them as they Gaelicise, so the dating could be crucial for such a definition. Unfortunately for the Pictish nation enthusiasts, what’s come up so far is mainly slates, and those used for writing in Ogham, which makes an Irish connection most likely. But writing on slates is always interesting anyway, my first really popular post here was about that very phenomenon, and the parallel intrigues me especially as the report suggests that the slates suggest people learning Ogham, which would be inordinately important for the literacy scholars, some of whom, of course, taught me to pay attention to this stuff. If writing was being taught, I suppose it is likely that what they’re finding is from a monastery, and we know that there was eventually one there. All the same, it’s not as conclusive as Portmahomack’s all-male cemetery, but I see that this hasn’t stopped the dig leader writing a book about it which I guess I shall now have to read, some day in my mythical free time.

Well outside the Empire in one direction, because I already mentioned Inuit cultures here once I now feel they’re sort of part of the remit even though I know nothing about them. Partly it’s because it’s useful to keep a vague notion of what else is going on where in the world during the Middle Ages just so that one doesn’t get too fixed to a European idea of progress and development. So, late Antique Alaska: we have new evidence. Constantine was founding a new Rome and these people really didn’t care, but we know more about them than we did a few weeks ago.

"A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles"

'A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles'

And lastly, and maybe most importantly of all I find this story about a sunken Arab dhow, from its cargo datable to after 826 A. D., that has been found, still mostly preserved on the seafloor with a fabulous cargo. The important thing is not so much the cargo, however, as the location, which is off Sumatra. Then the cargo becomes important, because it’s basically gold treasure and really really fine Tang dynasty pottery of the highest grades, as well as 40,000 china bowls—which are now the oldest known actual ‘china’ in the world—packed in beansprouts… Who knows what this stuff was doing on one badly-lost dhow, which seems to have come to grief on the reefs of the Gaspar Strait, but it illustrates really high-value commercial links between (probably) Iraq, via Basra and on into the cAbbasid Caliphate, and Tang dynasty China, well before we have much evidence of such contact. Also, bulk long-distance trade too: even Chris Wickham would have trouble writing off 40,000 bowls as marginal luxury traffic… So I hope for much more on this in future months.

If that isn’t enough to keep you clicking, and in some cases boggling at how little some Romance languages can change over six hundred years, well, I don’t know what would be but I look forward to seeing it…

The Wester Ross antiquarian

I did say that my recent holiday was going to be non-academic. But very shortly before going I discovered that there had once been a Pictish symbol stone found at a burial site where I was headed, among others nearby, and therefore apparently-Pictish burials. Also, the town website speaks of a vitrified fort, just as recently described. Well, these things merited investigation. Apart from anything else, this is almost as far west as Pictish culture is deemed to have spread, and without the word of Adomnán some people might doubt that you could really have been looking at Picts this close to Skye, because we’re also an easy boat ride from Iona and Kintyre. As it is, he tells (I.27) of the conversion of an aged noble on Skye to whom Columba could only speak through an interpreter.1 So this is fringe Pictish stuff potentially of great importance. Of course, since material culture is portable and language partly a chosen thing, there’s a debate to be had about what it takes to actually qualify as Pictish in such a context, but close confrontation with the material remains never hurts all the same. The fact that they were on a simply gorgeous beach in warm high summer, well, this is just the kind of cross the determined antiquarian has to bear…

A certain historian, er, \'field-walking\'

A certain historian, er, 'field-walking'

But it’s not so easy once you start looking. The town museum, which holds the symbol stone, was closed when we got to it, which also meant that we dithered around not being sure where the fort was supposed to be either. I mean, while standing in it, this looked a lot like a fort’s ramparts:

But almost any outcrop along this coast could look like that. We eventually spoke to a locally-based archaeologist, and he gave us to understand that it was certainly somewhere around there, and that it certainly wasn’t vitrified, but might perhaps have been an Irish-style dún, where the builders had added to already natural ramparts so as to guard the harbour and rivermouth. But, on the other hand, it was such an obvious place for a fort. Does that mean it’s more likely that there was one? or that it’s more likely we’ve imagined one? It’s never been dug, so there’s no way of knowing. And the burials were found in clearing ground for building, which means that they’re now of course built over; so we’re probably looking at them here. Of course we had to spend some time on the beach getting our bearings… If I understand my informants right, then, the tiny headland protruding to the left in this picture is where the fort is supposed to be. You may well go “hmmm” at this assertion, I’m still not sure of it myself.

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Even the Pictish stone, sad to say, is not very impressive. As said I couldn’t get at it for real, but the following picture gives you the lowdown. A salmon and an eagle, and what they mean is anyone’s guess, an argument for which you can read better things than I could write here. Still, there they are; Picts at Gairloch. Of course the place-name is Gaelic; but St Columba needed an interpreter for the man he converted in Skye, so I imagine it was Pictish spoken here too, when the stone was laid down over whomever it covered. The stone was associated with burials but they weren’t recorded; the article I borrowed this image from was however published after another grave was found, of a middle-aged woman apparently in good fitness and medium height. Rest easy in Pictish madam, beneath the houses where even Gaelic is now a rarity.

More certain archaeology does however exist in the area. Out at a place called Sand, on the way to where I was actually staying, there is a marked-out archaeology trail. What is not so clear about this is whether anyone who actually qualifies as an archaeologist of the relevant period has so qualified it. There has been some digging here, but it’s not clear that it was actually on this site, and anyway what it produced was Neolithic remains. There are, down the river valley it’s set round, a variety of ancient ruins and turf and stone walls used to divide the hillsides up into ‘rigs’, which are a Scottish sort of strip farming with some resemblance to terracing except without the laborious levelling of the ground and the concomitant effects on soil fertility and moisture. How old that is, is anyone’s guess. There is some hint offered by the form of the buildings. Some were clearly roundhouses. I think we also found another one that wasn’t on the map, as a two-metre thick stone wall is hard to miss, though with the bracken as thick as it was on parts of the trail, it was actually possible to miss not only well-preserved ruins but also, very nearly, the route back to the road.

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

No shoes were however lost in the occasional marshy patches and I still got back in time for a beer before the departing bus. All the same: this trail needed some clearing, and it would benefit from someone who knows what they’re talking about giving it a once-over and maybe some proper signage. There were rectilinear buildings too; one overwrote a roundhouse, making it fairly clear which we could expect to be earlier, but as some of the rectilinear buildings were in use in the eighteenth century, seeing in this a replacement of old-style Scottish/Pictish buildings with new tenth-century ones such as we certainly are seeing at Pitcarmick (now there’s a Pictish place-name) is a bit of a leap. The roundhouses, though, they probably were medieval and quite possibly early medieval and I have little qualm about saying that, even if it’s not identifiable, I was walking amid medieval ruins in places here.

One last piece of praise. Out in this part of the world, if you have no car, you must rely on those who do. Public transport, in the form of a minibus, just about reaches Gairloch. Beyond that, you’re hitching. Sometimes, of course, this does not work out; but sometimes, it really does. We did this trail on my last day there, on the way into town to meet the bus. After walking for a quarter of an hour we were kindly picked up by two travellers. My companion, who speaks good Spanish, tried it immediately after noticing that a book on the back seat was in Spanish, and it transpired that we had in the car her, interested in her area and Spanish-speaking; me, historian of medieval Catalonia, poor grasp of Castilian and little better in Catalan, some knowledge of early historic Scotland and its material remains; and, two tourists from Barcelona who told us they’d been hoping to see some of the archaeology but hadn’t found any. This could not have worked out better. They kindly not only lifted us up to the trail, but stomped round it with us with my companion interpreting my guidebook-based guesswork, enthusing, not minding when we got lost, and then dropping us in Gairloch for that beer, all in kindest of spirits and friendliest of miens, with, furthermore, Elvis on the stereo. So this entry is for José Manuel and Teresa; you are stars, and I hope your holiday continued perfectly. Mine was pretty much perfect, after all, so it seems only fair.

view down the valley

Sand Archaeological Trail: view down the valley

Edit: minor details emended and better images used in places.

1. Note, however, that he doesn’t actually say that the man was a Pict; this is just implied by his unintelligibility. I also think that the text implies that while Columba can’t speak directly to the old man, the young men who greet his arrival are apparently intelligible. So I think this is actually evidence for Gaelic acculturation in progress. I gather there is detailed work on this, though I haven’t yet read it, in David N. Dumville, “Primarius Cohortis in Adomnán’s Life of Columba” in Scottish Gaelic Studies Vol. 13 (Glasgow 1978), pp. 130-131.

Call my Bluff, Northern British history style

In my 2006 tour of Scotland, sadly concluded before I began this blog, one of the places my then-partner and I flitted briefly through was the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, where I’d insisted we go when the name came up on a roadsign because of a dim conviction that there were Pictish symbol stones there. This wasn’t quite correct, but the tiny Museum was a definite recompense. Also, and here we reach the point, they had a bookshop. And since then, sitting in my to-read pile behind all the stuff that’s right-now-urgent-I’m-teaching-on-this-tomorrow important, has been Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 by the late Leslie Alcock. You see, for a while I’ve had an itching feeling that really, although early Scottish history is very obscure and there isn’t a great deal that one can safely say happened, all the same one could, with suitable caveats at every stage, write at least a short book that tried to tell you what we think happened. You know: formation of a Pictish overkingdom, arrival of the Gaels, successions, a few battles; it wouldn’t be a complete story and half of it would have to be explaining why this can only ever be guesswork, but it’d be much less frustrating than the currently fashionable trend of refusing to do any such thing and talking in terms of immutable culture groups, one of which (the Picts) suddenly disappears for no adequately explored reason. Sally Foster’s Picts, Gaels and Scots (Edinburgh 1996), I’m looking at you.

The Great Glen, central Scotland, from the air

So, because what most people know Leslie Alcock for is his 1971 book Arthur’s Britain, in which he did pretty much that for the allegedly Arthurian period, to the permanent staining of his reputation among historians it must be said, when I saw Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests it somehow leapt into my hands, because I thought there was a good chance that Alcock had written the book I thought needed to be written. If anyone was going to… But it seems not. In fact, what he seems to have done is write Picts, Gaels and Scots only properly.1 I will perhaps write a proper review of it when I get closer to finishing it, but it’s not on-topic for my current work, and it’s quite long, so I’m just sneaking sections of it while the computer (still not replaced) boots and so on. However, what I’ve read so far has mainly had me going “yes, fair enough” and not seeing much to argue about or celebrate, until today. There follow three quotes, two of which had me emphatically nodding in agreement, and one of which had me spitting metaphorical feathers. I shall give you a moment to decide which was which…

As for Ecgfrith’s treatment of Wilfrid, much of Stephen’s account may be discounted because of the large element of the miraculous. Moreover, even his adulatory biographer cannot conceal that Wilfrid was a quarrelsome and contumacious power-seeker. (4.1.2, p. 36)


In various written sources we find that kings were related to peoples rather than to territories, so we read of a named rex Pictorum, ‘of Picts’, or rex Ultrahumbrensium, ‘of the dwellers north of the Humber’. Consequently, the definition of a particular people was not wholly linguistic [pace Bede, whose ‘five gentes he began by discussing]. More realistically, it was political, so that the Picts were those who, at any one time, paid tribute, and especially military service, to a rex Pictorum (4.2.1, p. 37)


Above all these were the seven successive outstanding overlords for whom Bede uses the term ‘Bretwalda’. (4.2.1, p. 38)


Come on Professor! You knew better than that! I am quite disappointed. Look, let’s get this sorted out. Bede did not call anyone bretwalda. He doesn’t use the word. Yes, he gives a list of seven overlords (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II cap. 5), but he describes their power as follows: they “had the sovereignty of all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber”. The word ‘bretwalda’ only turns up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 827 when the chronicler, in describing the position of King Ecgberht of Wessex at that time, says:

And the same year king Ecgberht conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be bretwalda; and the first who had so great a rule was Ælle king of the South Saxons; the one after was Caewlin king of West Saxons; the third was Æthelberht, king of the inhabitants of Kent; the fourth was Rædwald king of East Anglia; fifth was Edwin king of Northumbria; sixth was Oswald who ruled after him; seventh was Oswiu, Oswald’s brother; eighth was Ecgberht king of West Saxons.

Now this is Bede’s list, but with Ecgberht added on, fine. But where the word came from is a whole big range of debate.2 I’m not going to have that debate here, I don’t really have a view, but I do know this: it wasn’t from Bede. And I would have expected Leslie Alcock to know better.

1. He seems to have gone back rather on Arthur’s Britain, in fact; as well as saying that he now believes that no history worth the name can be written of Britain before at least 550, and really before 600 except that one has to explain the starting positions of the book at least a bit, he also cites Arthur’s Britain, in two different editions, as an example of work that attempts this and fails!

2. If you feel like pursuing the debate, though, I guess I should point you at Patrick Wormald’s “Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum“, in idem, Donald Bullough & Roger Collins (eds), Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford 1983), pp. 99-129, and Steven Fanning, “Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge MA 1991), pp. 1-26.

Pictland should be plural

The Picts have recently been invading the blogosphere. I didn’t start it, though my rant about the Pictish Arts Society has been part of it. But at about the same time Carla Nayland opened the very vexed question of Pictish matriliny at her blog, and the comments have ballooned into a very interesting exploration of just who and what the Picts were, which is something of course which we will never really be able to settle, but that’s not going to stop bloggers trying :-)

I’ve weighed in quite a lot there already, and when I found myself building another mini-essay for her comment box, I decided at the last minute to bring it here instead. Partly because I’ve dominated that too much already, partly because I think it will work better with pictures that I can’t provide there, and mostly because I want to establish a claim on some of these ideas, which I’ve been wanting to find time to write up properly for ages, in my own space on the web. Selfish, but that’s blogging for you, it’s about thinking you have something to say, isn’t it. So here goes. Let’s mark that with the traditional Pictish Beast and get down to the politics.

A so-called `Pictish Beast’ as seen on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland

Carla says, you see: “There’s little doubt that the people fighting the Romans were the same people who later became called the Picts.” And this is indeed a staple of the field, but I’d have to quarrel I’m afraid. I think Picts means too many peoples. Let me explain.

Map of Pictland c. 600 A.  D.

There’s a huge area of what is now Scotland that Pictland is supposed to cover, in which we can dimly detect lesser political formations. At first there’s the Caledonii and Verturiones mentioned in Ammianus (if that is Ammianus, I forget), then we get a whiff of a kingdom of Argyll later on, this mysterious place Fortriu, Orkney seems to be sort of a kingdom or sub-kingdom apart…

All this could make a model like England, where there are lots of kingdoms and maybe sometimes an overking but we can still talk about the English as a lump, even if maybe not before the Viking Age. But there’s also the material culture. In the North-East, the `Picts’ build (or had built and now lived among) brochs.
Mousa broch, Shetland
In the south-west they like souterrains to store their grain in, in a way that the rest of `Pictland’ does not. An excavated souterrain at Ardestie, near Dundee
In the East and South-East they bury like the British, in long cists, except that sometimes the `Picts’ recycle symbol stones as grave-slabs, which is extremely difficult to understand given what I think the symbol stones are; An early cist burial at Angus being excavated
but elsewhere they either like reusing cairns, for important people presumably, or we just don’t really know what they did. Some Pictish place-names are identifiably Pictish because they are recognisably P-Celtic; but some don’t appear to be Celtic at all, and the actual script of the symbol stones, where it’s used, is Ogam imported from Ireland, and has `maqq’ instead of `mapp’ so that the language of writing may even have been Gaelic. The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands
No way are these all the same `people’.

You just can’t talk about Pictish material culture or society the way you can talk about `Saxon’ archaeology, except where we’re dealing with art and the stones, which seem to be élite statements of some kind because they must have cost real wealth to get made. Pictland is a political construct, just like England, which is built out of smaller units; but the lost history of those units seems to be much more various than in England, and we probably need to think of Pictland in terms of something that exists as a unit only for brief periods, like Wales for example except more often than that, and at other times is a grouping for whose various inhabitants and their local cultures only outsiders from beyond the walls would use the same name.

This helps explain another question asked in Carla’s comments, about what happens to the Picts, in fact, because I think that the answer is that really, the most identifable thing about them, their stonework and sculpture, is an élite cultural manifestation that needs to be thought of as court or noble culture. Most of the so-called `Picts’ would have had precious little to do with this stuff, however distinctive it be. So when the élite changes, as it does with Cinaed mac Alpin’s takeover, even if maybe not by much, there is a sea-change in élite self-representation, the nobles may be the same people but they fairly quickly change their fashions, and the result is that we stop seeing the only thing that really identifies itself as `Pictish’ so quickly that we wonder where all the `Picts’ went. Well, they were probably still there but with nothing to identify them by. I bet that Pictish went on being spoken just as much—but then the Vikings arrived and messed up the place-name map for ever.

Let no-one say I can’t take criticism as well as I give it

A so-called `Pictish Beast’ as seen on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland

By means I won’t go into, I have recently got hold of the newly-published Vol. 17 of the Pictish Arts Society Journal, and I discover therein a rather worrying paper by one Jonathan Jarret [sic], entitled “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabrán, King of Dál Riata” (pp. 3-24). Quite why a paper on a Gaelic ruler most famous for his defeats of the Picts is doing taking up most of a journal (there are only 40 pages, and 4 other papers occupy the remainder) on the Picts and their culture is hard to immediately determine, but the answer may come in an apologetic foreword from the editor, who explains that due to a “longer than acceptable” delay and lost graphics many contributors withdrew their papers. Jarret’s offering is therefore one of the few stalwarts, but a cruel reviewer might hazard that the author (who appears, from his easily-Googlable web-pages, to work not on Scotland at all but Catalonia a good three centuries later) was hard-put to find an alternative. His lack of awareness of the latest scholarship is surprising; the latest reference given in the strangely-formulated bibliography is from 2000,1 and he thus misses such important work as Alex Woolf‘s papers in the 2006 Scottish Historical Review arguing for a relocation of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu to some distance north of where it is conventionally supposed to have been. The fact that Jarret is pouring forth opinions about a period before the term ‘Fortriu’ is used (as he acknowledges) might excuse him for continuing despite this, as he seeks only to designate an area by the name, rather than ascribing an organised structure to it; but all the same, can he really be unaware of articles in the foremost journal of the field on his immediate subject? If so, should he really have been published, even in a minor one?

With such provisos made, the paper is not without its interest, but much hampered by its author’s rather young style. Jarret lowers hopes at the start by simultaneously apologising for and trying to defend the practice of hypothesizing where evidence lacks. He then leaps into the source material, but he is only at p. 5 before he is using sources which he has not explained, and does not until several pages later when he needs a deus ex machina source to extract himself from an irredeemable tangle over the fates of Áedán’s grandsons. It may be that he intended to mention the sources in proper order but was carried away by a lengthy and perhaps unnecessary, however correct, passage arguing with Benjamin Hudson’s theories on the Prophecy of Berchán; Jarret’s theory about it is hardly better-supported, though, and he or his editor (again, if there was one) would have done better to stick to whatever structure he had originally envisaged. Jarret at least shows a reasonable awareness of the difficulties of the material (although little enough care is taken about this when the author has a pet theory which it can be twisted to support), but the structure is an unhappy compromise between geographical and chronological. Again, editing could have made this clearer (and the paper shorter!)

The core of the paper is a suggestion that some of the successions recorded in the Pictish king-list could be best explained if, firstly, it be accepted that Pictish king-ship regularly proceeded down the female line, which is at variance with Bede’s testimony on the issue—the author’s rather outdated anthropological references do little to increase his pretence to authority here—and then, secondly, that a number of Áedán’s sons were found political marriages which allowed them so to succeed in those kingdoms. He is not of course the first to suggest such explanations for the king-list’s oddly familiar names, but he draws a far greater significance from the marriages suggested than, for example, Marjorie Anderson ever would have. The complexity involved in his suggestions would in fact have been much clarified with a family tree; one might generously and regretfully suppose that this was one of the ‘lost graphics’.

Most interestingly perhaps, Jarret envisages many kingdoms under the Pictish political umbrella, and this idea would make Pictland, with its various material cultures and obscure royal lineages, much more like other medieval states and thus more comprehensible if more fully developed. On the other hand, the idea of Bruide map Maelchon as a kind of high king agreeing these marriages with the briefly-mighty Áedán goes far beyond the evidence of that ruler’s control over the area’s supposedly-lesser entities, unless the evidence be the Vita Columbae‘s natural concentration on the one, distant, Pictish ruler its subject managed materially to affect. Jarret therefore follows his sources’ bias here rather than countering them. As a result his picture of a partly Gaelic-ruled Pictland is terribly Ionan, and will have to remain the hypothesis of which he warns the reader at the outset.

In the grand scheme of things far more sketchy and less well-researched things have been published on the Picts, frequently indeed in this same journal although it also once deservedly had a good name for scholarship, and while one hopes that Jarret’s new work on Catalonia is better-founded (as, with the vastly superior levels of evidence from that area, it obviously could be), he would not have needed to be ashamed of this paper in 2000, when it seems to have in fact been drafted. Unless however he was in fact unable to prevent the journal’s editors (the journal, worryingly, is ceasing publication with this final issue) from using a text, apparently unreviewed and unedited, dating from then rather than its much-subsequent publication date, it will be something of an albatross on his CV should anyone be able to find a copy to read. Even if the fault lay entirely with the editors, hopefully unlikely, Jarret will find it hard to convince outsiders of his blamelessness. His comfort may lie in the fact that those who will read it and be qualified to comment were probably already aware of his work in 2000, when he seems first to have been presenting this paper. This reviewer can only wish Dr Jarret better luck with his new work!

1. For example, all authors are credited as authors, none as editors, even where it is well-known that the texts are ancient—the author appears well aware of this but this seems an inexplicable alteration for an editor to make. Likewise, all primary sources are identified by sigla but there is no note explaining the sigla used—indeed there are no footnotes or endnotes at all!

Or, to put it another and less contrived way: before I got mail from them two weeks ago saying it was in print, I hadn’t heard from these people since 2001. They’ve lost the family tree, though admittedly even I can’t open that file in anything any more—but I could have redrawn it much better in Flash if they’d only asked, as well as fixing the other flaws that seven years’ detachment lets me now detect. They have deleted all the endnotes, which made quite a lot of difference. They’ve not done any corrections except mangling the bibliography; I certainly didn’t get to see any proofs; and a previous editor told me it would never come out and that I should submit it elsewhere, as a result of which a couple of people reading this who’d expressed an interest are now owed my sincerest apologies. If I’d ever thought they’d do this I would not have offered you the paper, I’m sorry. I suppose I’m glad it’s out at last, but really, when speaking before of the particular fringe of fundamentalist ethnists that inhabit amateur Pictish studies, I have before now, I admit, childishly hyperlinked the phrase “blue-rinse loonies” to the Pictish Arts Society’s pages. And now that they can hardly bother me more, I have to say: well, this is why…

On the other hand, as they have also not done anything as serious as making me sign over copyright, I can also say, if you can’t get hold of this but would like to, and are willing to take into account the modifications I would have made, the paper (still as of 2000 but this time with endnotes intact!) is up for download on my web-pages and I’d much prefer that version to be cited, however amateur it looks. (Bibliography here.)

Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

On Wednesday 17th October, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar was given by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was asking, “The churches of the Picts: when, where and what were they for?” Which is fair enough really. As he said, the simple answer was, ‘during the Pictish period’, ‘in Pictland’, and, ‘for the Picts to worship in’ but actually pinning it down beyond that was tricky. Thomas is very cautious, as anyone in that field has to be to avoid getting stuck into heavy politics and stupid anthropology comparisons, or just being mistaken for a blue-rinse loony. He did however have some new input on the place-names that filled out the picture of the early Scottish Church a bit, which otherwise looks terribly western-focussed and therefore Gaelic. He found good evidence to suppose that a widespread pastoral network existed in genuinely Pictish territory (where we agreed to define Pictish as ‘not Gaelic’, except maybe in Atholl but that’s my own personal bee in the bonnet) before the Gaelic takeover of the ninth century, although some at least of that probably had to be blamed on the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. As a counter to that, however, he also opened up the suggestion that Gaelic was always a privileged language for those in charge of the cult, because writing and Christianity both seem to have been imported in it (except where a rival Anglian import was preferred) and that the Pictish Church may therefore have had little use for Pictish.

By and large, it was a paper full of interesting ideas not pushed too far, and though no-one was very much the wiser at the end in some ways, Thomas is very good at leaving us feeling better about how little we know in this area, because he always has some hopes that we might some day work it out and ideas to follow up.

Happy to answer further questions about this should anyone be interested, but for now that’s as good as you get because I had to move house and prepare a lecture the week I drafted this and my brain is mostly elsewhere…