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 Certainly, I have introduced significant new discoveries, updated references, quietly deleted some outdated material and done the odd bit of finessing.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).

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