Monthly Archives: September 2014

Alistair Reid – An Introduction to ‘Inside Out’ by Douglas Dunn

‘Amazement is the thing’

For many years Alastair Reid could hardly be said to have been a presence in Scottish poetry. No one need search too hard for a reason — he simply wasn’t here, but in the U.S.A., France, Switzerland, Spain, or elsewhere in the Hispanic world. He appeared in some Scottish anthologies, but early in his career he seems to have been drawn towards what he has called “a deliberate, chosen strangeness”, that is, as opposed to deracination, an ‘otherness’ which some Scots have found irresistible, the prime examples being Robert Louis Stevenson for whom Scotland was “that blessed, beastly place”, and Muriel Spark who saw herself as of “Scottish formation”.

Roots are portable enough for a poet or any sort of writer either to eat them for breakfast, forget them, or be reminded through overhearing an accent or noticing a coincidence in the weather. In Scotland the temptation has been to make too much of them. Nationality sometimes seems scattered all over the page, a superficial squandering, an anxiety rather than a poetic fascination. For much of the time Reid is a poet of specific places rather than his nationality, a choice, or identity, which he shares with Norman MacCaig. In any case, a poet’s places (and events, memories, loves) are re-made by imagination whatever the immediacy of their origins in reality.
Reid is well aware of the continuities and vulnerabilities of poetry. ‘Poem Without Ends’, for example, opens:

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
Saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind, …

Meditating on these lines encourages me to believe that one of the ways Reid differs from most Scottish poets of around his age is more than an openness to experience of the world, but an unwillingness to see a poem as a closed or finished artefact. Or, as Paul Valéry believed, a poem is never finished, merely abandoned. Another way of putting it is to cite what a friend of mine used to call “the miraculous school of poetry”, poems, that is, ought to happen because they must: the poet didn’t choose to write them, but was compelled. It’s not a recipe for artless spontaneity, but its resourceful opposite. Reid’s artistry in language is conspicuous, in both poetry and prose; his command of cadence, phrase, image, and narrative, is robust, or delicate when it needs to be. Yet in a brief introductory note in Weathering (1978) he claimed the book was “something of a farewell on my part to formal poetry, which seems to me now something of an artificial gesture, like wearing a tie.” It read then as too bad to be true; and it still puzzles me. “I am more interested in the essential act of putting-well-into-words, good writing.”
When asked why he didn’t seem to have written a poem in a long while, Philip Larkin liked to say, “You can’t write a poem unless you’ve a poem to write.” Could something similar have happened to Alastair Reid and he had the sense and courage to recognise that his poetry was finished? Of course, you can always change your mind, either back to what it was before, or take a different tack entirely. Reid, though, has the comforts of translation, and prose. New poems may be few and far between, but he is still the same eminent man of letters, and wise in his art.
Poetry has its mysteries as Alastair Reid acknowledges on virtually every page. Where they come from, those unpredictable accuracies of seeing, imagining, remembering, and saying, is, if not exactly anyone’s guess, then bordering on the secret; and an attentive reader’s answer is often likely to be wrong. Take, for example, the third stanza of ‘The Waterglass’:

An underwater wind
ruffled the red-roofed shallows
where wading stilt-legged children
stood in the clouded sand,
and down from the knee-deep harbour
a ladder led to the drowned.

Evocative as these lines are of a boy, or man, using a glass-bottomed box to look at the coastal sea bed, their perceptiveness, and that of the poem as a whole, goes beyond a memory of what was observed. It enters a realm at once unsettling but filled with a sense of wonder. Some cadences and phrasings are reminiscent of Dylan Thomas when he was being lucid, which is perhaps more obvious at the beginning of ‘Isle of Arran’:

Where no one was was where my world was stilled
into hills that hung behind the lasting water, …

Here the mystery arises from asking ourselves where ‘lasting’ came from — except that water is permanent, and few other phenomena more so in a northern, wet, temperate climate. That makes ‘lasting’ no less surprising an epithet; and one of the ways in which poetry happens is when surprise coincides with a reader’s recognition, or leads to understanding anew aspects of life and the world of which the reader was ignorant or only half-aware.
‘James Bottle’s Year’ uses a calendar form with a tightness of sound achieved through a deceptively off-hand use of rhyme. Rarely, if ever, has Reid been the all-out tie-wearing formalist he dismissed thirty years ago in his remarks in Weathering. Instead, his metrical astuteness avoids any taint of showing off and opts for an appropriate form. The simplicity of the month-by-month structure of ‘James Bottle’s Year’ contributes to its success as a portrait of a mythical or iconic countryman, perhaps a poacher, or gamekeeper, or agricultural worker, though more as an emblem of hard life. Setting and chronology seem Scottish, maybe Galloway; but that might not be so, and I could be misled by memories of books by John McNeillie and Ian Niall. As with many of Reid’s poems, its place and events are simultaneously local and universal.
Like Stevenson, and many before and since, Reid appears to have loved maps, charts, atlases, and islands. Certainly the way he describes them in ‘Directions for a Map’ suggests an ingrained affection as well as an awareness of the knowledge they do not disclose:

Crossing the threads of roads to nibbled coastlines,
the rivers run in veins that crack the surface.
Mountains are dark like hair, and here and there
lakes gape like moth holes with the sea showing through.

Between the seaports stutter dotted shiplines,
crossing designs of latitude and language.
The towns are flying names. The sea is titled.
A compass crowns the corner like a seal.

But, “There are no signs for love or trouble”.

And even though, on any printed landscape,
directions never tell you where to go,
maps are an evening comfort to the traveller —
a pencil line will quickly take him home.

Too much could be made of Reid’s itineracy, just as a critic could overdo sniffing for the fragrance of influences (Auden, for example, in ‘Directions for a Map’). Good poems are seldom the result of a flying visit. ‘New Hampshire’ (Robert Frost country) reads as a well-experienced poem, as do ‘Maine Coast’, ‘Chelsea Reach’ and ‘Geneva’. He likes to settle in first, then leave. As he writes in ‘The Spiral’:

Places, addresses, faces left behind.
The present is a devious wind
obliterating days and promises.
Tomorrow is a tinker’s guess.
Marooned in cities, dreaming of greenness,
or dazed by journeys, dreading to arrive —
change, change is where I live.

It is more profound, more thoughtful, than “love them and leave them”, whether applied to places or lovers.
Curiosity ranks high in Reid’s mind and range of choices.

Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
of that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have if they live a tale
worth telling at all.

Two other cat poems, ‘Propinquity’ and ‘Cat-Faith’, when added to ‘Curiosity’, appear to create Reid’s persona as a nocturnal cat-man:

When, libertine at dark,
we let the visions in, and the black window
grotesques us back, our world unbalances.

Feline monstrousness is redeemed by gestures of respectability:

Yet, to endure that unknown night by night,
must we not be sure, with cat-insight,
we can afford its terrors, and that full day
will find us at the desk, sane, unafraid —
cheeks shaven, letters written, bills paid?

‘Mediterranean’ is more than a poem that tries to live up to its title. Embedded in it is a discreetly but passionately expressed love poem. It reads as a poem conveying a feeling of love as transient. “The garden is not ours” is repeated twice, the first time at the end of the first stanza, and then as the last line of the poem:

Dear one, this present Eden
lays down its own condition:
we should not ask to wait.
No angel drives us out,
but time, without a word,
will show among the flowers,
sure as a flaming sword.
The garden is not ours.

When he writes about love there is an active presence of privacy. Nothing is hidden. Instead, it’s made over into fiction, as if writing in your own language is a way of ‘translating’ experiences and feelings into it. He enjoyed a close association with Robert Graves on Mallorca from 1956 to 1961. Towards the end Reid fell in love with Graves’s current muse, with whom he eloped. The episode is described in his affectionate memoir of Graves, and, with considerable bile, in Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of 1982. (Acolytes of the same elder poet seldom have anything good to say of each other.) But that privacy was always there, and hardly to be explained by his affair with Margot Callas. There could be a Gravesian scenario in ‘A Lesson for Beautiful Women’ — “six eyes”, “three goddesses” &c. At the same time that sort of speculation leaves a bad taste in the mouth and overstates biography’s place in criticism.

Diversity is what Reid may have learned from his many conversations with Graves and close proximity to Graves’s example as a writer — poetry, prose, and “the alchemy of translation”. But whereas Graves translated mainly from ancient texts, Reid has translated modern Hispanic and Ibero-American poetry. Reid was unimpressed by the University of St Andrews which he attended in 1946-50 after war service in the Royal Navy, as he makes clear in two poems, ‘The Academy’ and ‘The O-Filler’. Disdain for academies and academics never did a poet any harm, though, while, for a translator of poetry it is surely more important that the poet-translator find an affinity with the translated. In his essay ‘Fictions’, Reid tells us that he first met Jorge Luis Borges in 1964 when Borges had already succumbed to hereditary blindness.

I found at once a coincidence of mind, not simply an enthusiasm for his writings, but more, a complete accord with the view of language implied in all his writing …. Borges referred to all his writings — essays, stories, poems, reviews —
as fictions.

Some might find it odd or ironic that the anti-bookish Alastair Reid should translate the inveterately bookish Borges, Director of the National Library of Argentina, whose life and mind were devoted to books and submerged in them, and in dreams of them:

Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.

Only a poet nimble in versification could have achieved these translations of Borges’ poems. They read like radiant poems in English, almost a brilliant mimicry in English of a voice in Spanish with an Argentinian history behind it as well as a near-universal erudition. Two factors perhaps made the task just that little bit easier. One, Reid knew Borges and conversed at length with him. And two, Borges’ affection for and knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic culture.
When one poet translates another, perhaps superior, almost always different, he or she is performing an act of homage that seeks for an elusive accuracy. Part of the business of translation is simply to make poems available to those who do not understand the original language. While that was conceded by the great critic Walter Benjamin, in his “The Task of the Translator”, he also claimed that translation was “a mode of its own”. That is, he believed that “the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet”. For Benjamin, “The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational”. But what if the translator is a poet, and a good poet at that, rather that artifex additus artifici, an “added artificer”? This is where poetic translation becomes interesting and aesthetically challenging; it becomes as creative as writing an original poem.
In “An ABC of Translating Poetry”, appended to his The Poetics of Translation (1993), Willis Barnstone writes:

Translation is an art BETWEEN tongues, and the child born of the art lives forever BETWEEN home and alien city. Once across the border, in new garb, the orphan remembers or conceals the old town, and appears new-born and different.
Moving BETWEEN tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language, the transference of a poem from one language to another involves differing sounds and prosody. And because there are no perfect word equivalents between languages or even within the same language (as Borges proves in his story of the mad Menard) perfection in translation is inconceivable.

A translator can accept that readily enough but still be stuck with the problem of what to do with versification and rhyme in original texts when they don’t correspond to those of the translator’s language. Reid’s rhymes in his versions of Borges are happily unforced, natural, opportunistic, while his use of iambic pentameter (the most common line in English) matches Spanish hendecasyllabics.
Some are adept at living in another language. (For others it’s to feel constantly like the village idiot.) A poet-translator has to live not just in another language but in its poetry. Translating will also pull you into the life, personality, and convictions of the translated. Both Borges and Neruda were very different from each other and each different from Alastair Reid. Neruda, for example, was a diplomat, communist, and while it is easy to warm to his hedonism it seems awkward in the context of his overarching fervour in the cause of universal social justice. Neruda was aware of the contrast of his love of food and wine with his political commitment, although I doubt if he saw them as tangential. His politics were at the service of “the justice of eating”, as he wrote in “The great tablecloth”.

The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.

… Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.

For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.

Neruda’s startling imagery, his vernacular surrealism delivered on a direct, democratic voice, when introduced in translations also offered new possibilities of writing in English (as well as many other languages).
What does living in another language do to a poet? It could perhaps submerge him in translation, weaken the instinctive and necessary servitude to his or her mother tongue, the language in which a childhood was lived. It could also provide access to stories and images which would otherwise have been unavailable, and extend them to readers and other writers. I believe this could be the case in what might be Reid’s most remarkable poem, “The Tale the Hermit Told”. A masterly dramatic monologue, it is a fiction worthy of Marquez, the story of how a village came to be lost. A boy – who is now, years later, the hermit of the title, and the poem’s speaker — is bewitched by a gypsy girl on a day of fiesta.

Time in that moment hung
upside down. In a gulp, I drank the wine.
What happened next? You must listen.
Goggling boys, girls, dogs, band, gypsies, village,
dove, magician, all rolled down my throat.
Even the music glugged once and was gone.
I was standing nowhere, horrified, alone,
waiting for her eyes to appear and laugh
the afternoon back, but nothing moved or happened.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And now, as used to be said, read on.

by Douglas Dunn, from Inside Out

Foreword to Picts, Gaels and Scots by Sally M. Foster


Picts,-Gaels-&-Scots I first wrote Picts, Gaels and Scots in 1996. Turning now to updating the 2004 version, I find I have amended this new edition of Picts, Gaels and Scots rather more than I originally thought I would. Why? I have respected the book’s original intentions to provide a wider context for monuments in the care of Historic Scotland and left my overall structure and thesis about the evolution of power — it still works in general terms. Certainly, I have introduced significant new discoveries, updated references, quietly deleted some outdated material and done the odd bit of finessing. But 18 years after the first edition, and ten years after the second, the fact is that the work published in the last ten years has begun to profoundly alter how we appreciate and perceive the early medieval peoples of Scotland. This Foreword offers my personal reflections on this; it also flags up where you may observe shifts in content. The changes are often relatively subtle — and something of a challenge to deal with in a work of concision such as this —but their impact is cumulative. If you are unfamiliar with the ground covered in the last edition (Foster 2004), then you may well get more out of this Foreword by reading it last; this will also help you locate the places I discuss below. For familiarity with the detailed evidence, and to become more critical of its interpretation, do please follow up the Further Reading.


The character of recent work

Outstanding overviews and momentous monographs exploring a particular site or subject in detail now have a place on our bookshelves. In 2004 my revisions were largely informed by new historical, place-name and art-historical research (some of which is now fully published, below) so it is heartening to see how archaeological fieldwork now begins to offer significant new insights as well.

James Fraser (2009) and Alex Woolf (2007) have dissected and then rebuilt the history of the period in The Edinburgh History of Scotland series. Fraser and Woolf build on not just their own groundbreaking research, but also that of Dauvit Broun, Thomas Clancy, Nick Evans, Alasdair Ross and Simon Taylor, in particular. Through Glenmorangie’s enlightened sponsorship of National Museums Scotland, in 2012 David Clarke, Alice Blackwell and Martin Goldberg produced a sumptuous Early Medieval Scotland. Individuals, Communities and Ideas, full of innovative and imaginative ideas and with a focus on what artefacts can tell us. Two lifetimes of scholarship have come together in George and Isabel Henderson’s 2004, The Art of the Picts, resolute in their singularly art-historical perspective. The reports of many important archaeological excavations have now appeared (notably Barrowman 2011, Carver et al 2012, Crone and Campbell 2005, Dockrill et al 2010, Hunter 2007, James and Yeoman 2008, Lowe 2008, Sharples 2012) or will do so very shortly.

Comparative studies such as Ewan Campbell’s magisterial 2007 Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, ad 400–800 have considerably advanced our understanding of the nature and significance of the type of material imported into Scotland and its international context. The teams of scholars involved in Katherine Forsyth’s 2008 Studies on the Book of Deer or Heather James et al’s 2008 exploration of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross-slab show how much can be gained from the detailed inter- and multi-disciplinary study of a single object, or a category of monuments, such as sculpture in Foster and Cross 2005. Stephen Driscoll et al’s 2011 Pictish Progress offers us informed reflections on how study of the Picts has changed in the last 50 years, and introduces new lines of enquiry. In addition to the dividends from sustained seasons of research-led fieldwork on a single site such as Portmahomack (see below), several significant landscape-centred studies have also been published that shed light on early medieval settlement in Angus and Strathdon, or are ongoing in Strathearn (Dunwell and Ralston 2008; RCAHMS 2007; Driscoll 2011). Meanwhile, Alasdair Ross’s work on dabhaichean (davachs) is of exceptional importance for our understanding of the early and sustained origin of land divisions (Ross 2006). Casual finds from metal detecting and of sculpture (new and rediscovery of ‘lost’) continue to enliven our vision of early medieval Scotland. Serendipitous discoveries from development-led archaeology include some notable firsts, of which the Knowe of Skea on Berst Ness in Westray, Orkney, is a good example (1).

Threatened by coastal erosion, EASE Archaeology with funding from Historic Scotland discovered a late Neolithic structure that became the focus for late prehistoric settlement. From the mid 1st millennium bc to the mid 1st millennium ad, associated with what may be ‘shrine’, several hundred humans of people, including many infants and children, as well as some animal burials, were inserted into the rubble. This sites stands out because across Scotland as a whole we have recognised very few Iron Age burials, let alone cemeteries on this scale or of this nature. A site such as this is also of great interest for what it may tell us about pagan ritual practices in the face of incoming Christianity, and when this happened.


Key advances in thinking

The highlights of this recent work largely bear on our perceptions of the Picts rather than their Gaelic neighbours. A series of themes emerge that I will briefly introduce. A key trend is for recognising the importance of understanding the prehistoric roots of early medieval society. For example, the regional character of early Christian ritual practices is likely to lie in the creeds and ceremonies that preceded them (Carver 2009). The 2010 discovery at High Pasture Cave in Skye of the bridge from a lyre dating to about 400 bc hints at a long antecedence for music and possibly song, poetry and dance associated with ritual practices. We should not study Pictish history as if it began in the late third century (Fraser 2009). Archaeological evidence from sites on the Moray Firth such as Birnie, Culduthel and Clarkly Hill now emphasise that continuity with settlement evidence spanning the Iron Age to mid 1st millennium ad, although the later remains can be very ephemeral (Hunter 2007).

Building on his 2003 PhD, Fraser (2009) has introduced us to the concept of Pictish ethnogenesis, the creation of the idea of a single people with common ancestry. He has deconstructed and made good sense of what it meant at any time to consider oneself a ‘Pict’ and how the concept was successfully manipulated for political ends (see chapter 3). Although living beyond the Roman empire, we know the Picts were affected by it, and a fascinating aspect of Fraser’s critique is his consideration of the ways the Picts shaped their identity by consciously promoting a sense of difference from things ‘Roman’, something that their British neighbours did not do. Yet, as he recognises, the Picts did adopt and nativize certain Roman/late Antique practices, but unlike their contemporary neighbours they were more coy about doing so.

The Picts are the only early medieval peoples whose territories were limited to what is now modern Scotland. The roots of today’s European nation states lie in how 19th-century peoples chose to use their understanding of their early medieval pasts (Geary 2002) and in today’s political environment this material still risks uncritical use, at worst abuse. Gaels, Britons, Angles and Norwegians lived here too, but there can be a tendency to overlook the significance and implications of this diversity. We might want to see the unique symbol-incised stones as non-Christian, as signals of resistance to an incoming ideology in much the same way as we like to think that those pesky Picts opposed the Romans (think Asterix and the Picts, which appeared in my Christmas stocking in 2013).

In fact there are other possibilities that we ought to be more open to, and there is serious scholarship that considers this. Understanding what the early medieval sources meant at the time they were written rather than the time they were describing is the key to much modern historical scholarship.

Trends in scholarship push the popular pendulum in one direction or other. In writing a book that focussed on the Picts, Gaels and Scots, the critic’s finger can now be pointed at me for placing an over-emphasis on the role of the Gaels in the formation of what we now know as Scotland. In general, and arguably curiously, Gaelic expansionism has tended to be sought as the answer for many changes in Pictish society, rather than looking to the Northumbrians, or to within Pictish society itself (Fraser 2009). My work reflected the earlier historical zeitgeist, and in this edition I admit I have simply attempted to keep up with the times (see chapter 7, in particular). To add to this, archaeological material and the art-historical perspective forcibly reinforce just how very widely connected the Gaels and Picts (both north and south of the Grampians — the Mounth) were with Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, and indeed beyond (e.g. Henderson and Henderson 2004; Campbell 2009). In the same brush with flighty zeitgeister, we now also need to play down earlier ideas about the precocious nature of the early Scottish state (Broun 2013; see chapter 7) despite the increasing archaeological and art-historical evidence for the sophistication and intellect of these early peoples.

The other major historical upheaval has been Alex Woolf’s 2006 recognition that the main Pictish kingdom of Fortriu lay north of the Mounth and not in the Perthshire area, as previously thought (see chapter 3). Turning the Pictish world upside down has helped the historians to make far better sense of their existing sources (Fraser 2009). The University of Aberdeen’s Kingdom of Fortriu project, presently focussing on the hinterlands of the Pictish monastery at Portmahomack and fort at Burghead, and a wider research interest in the Northern Picts (for example, Noble et al 2013), aim to add to our understanding of why and how the Picts emerged in this area.

Other important recent scholarship has focussed on artefacts. There are new appreciations of which items of metalwork are actually Pictish (including, possibly, the hanging bowl from St Ninian’s Isle), although we need more work on the corpus of material in Scotland as a whole to establish its place of manufacture (Henderson and Henderson 2004). Work that takes into account the later biographies of artefacts, including 19th-century replicas made of them, has also helped to recognise that not all early historic objects are what they seem (Foster et al forthcoming). For example, some of the material in the Norrie’s Law hoard is not original but produced in the 1830s by a Fife jeweller. The Pictish symbols have been enthusiastically analysed to slightly bewildering if apparently good effect by an ‘information theorist’ (Lee 2010) and there is increasing confidence they are likely to represent names.

Several research-led archaeological fieldwork projects have led to the identification of new types of early medieval sites, or new appreciations of known monument types. A nice example is Murray Cook’s recognition from modest but sustained fieldwork that some small enclosures in Aberdeenshire are early medieval in date (Cook 2013; see chapter 4). The University of Aberdeen and Chester’s excavations at Rhynie have identified a new and distinctive type of royal enclosed site that invites comparison with Scandinavian pre-Christian cult sites (Noble et al 2013; see chapter 3; 2). Here the imported finds endorse what a high-status site this was (3).

Two projects exemplify what can be learnt from studying existing material afresh and in detail, and selective excavation of sites: Jane Geddes’ forthcoming study of the large collection of carved stones from St Vigeans and the University of York’s excavations at the Pictish monastery of Portamhomack. Like other collections, the St Vigeans Pictish stones are surprisngly diverse: 20 cross-slabs (with different functions), possibly four free-standing crosses (ditto), four recumbent grave-covers, a house shrine, architectural sculpture, the finial of a stone chair or possibly internal architectural feature, a pillar cross (possibly the upright for a table altar), a disc-headed cross and a cross-marked boulder. In the 8th and 9th centuries, secular rulers apparently patronised a church settlement, and in the early 9th century endowed its sanctuary with some highly prestigious monuments, possibly marking the arrival of relics of the Irish St Féchín. From these fragments, Geddes reconstructs a stone church with ornate furnishings and possible internal divisions, enclosing highly valued relics and high-status burial monuments. The iconography (e.g. of St Vigeans 7, see 83) tells of intellectual and theological rigour, and of concerns with pre-Christian practices such as bull sacrifice and pagan priesthood. Some of the monuments stood outside, and we also get a sense of how the church’s cycle of rituals extended from the church’s distinctive knoll and into its wider estate (4). More generally, it has become possible to think of the Picts as building technically accomplished and ornate stone churches (Clarke et al 2012) and of supporting major church settlements.

The sculpture from Portmhomack also suggests that there was an elaborate stone church there, probably dating from the 8th century when a large monastery was established on the site of an earlier Iron Age settlement and burial place, possibly after a break in settlement (5, 6). From the excavations we know that a massive sub-rectangular enclosure was built to enclose a church, graveyard and a series of workshops for fine metalworking and vellum working, built on either side of an connected by a well-laid road. These discoveries have finally given the lie to the notion that Picts were not capable of major intellectual, ecclesiastical, architectural and artisanal enterprises (Carver et al forthcoming; see chapter 5).

All in all, perceptions of the Picts have changed dramatically, for ‘who could imagine, for example, that the Pictish churches, patrons of vigorous schools of sculpture were without the necessary books and place for the celebration of the Eucharist or a range of scholarly texts for teaching purposes? Indeed, what we know of Pictish metalwork and sculpture encourages us to think that patronage of the arts in the service of the Church was of a high order’ (Ryan 2013, 8). The extraordinary series of slates inscribed with texts and sketches recovered from the monastery on Inchmarnock vividly illustrates how learning took place in the west (7; 12) (Lowe 2008), and we should expect something similar in eastern Scotland too. The Henderson’s (2004) challenge historians and archaeologists to ‘allow for a political maturity and economic infrastructure’ that is the match for the production of the Christian art that they interpret as evidencing a deeply erudite mindset. Not everyone is yet ready, however, to abandon the idea that Pictish monuments may also carry ‘secular’ information and meanings.


Future directions

In a feisty short article in Antiquity for 2011, Martin Carver reviewed a tranche of recent publications on the Picts, a people he describes as either ‘lost, found, repossessed or argued away’. Recognising the tensions that arise from current scholarship in ‘normalising’ them, he pleas for some serious archaeological investment, to give the Picts an archaeological voice, to enliven them through situating them in their local landscapes. The historians have done a fantastic job at reworking their finite sources, but excavations such as Portmahomack illustrate the potential difference that archaeology can make and the wider public interest and benefits this can generate (8).

So, we must make sense of the Picts (and their neighbours) in their prehistoric context, but we must also look at their contribution to the study of European social evolution (Driscoll 2011), indeed to Europeanisation. We will look to Scandinavia and Ireland because they have a better understanding of how polities developed from a landscape served by a network of votive cult sites, and in time they will look more to us. This is not, however, an excuse for not being historically informed or ignoring the questions and ideas that historian pose. Archaeology has the unique potential to tease out the nuances of how and why people did things differently at different times in at different places and to establish the impact on the ground of that tension between local practices and the centralising force of the church, and for uncovering pre-Christian practices. We need to look back into prehistory, but we also need to give fuller attention to what happened in the early Viking Age in Pictland, which is when major establishments such as Meigle and St Vigeans are clearly still blazing with energy and action (Woolf 2007).