Picts, Gaels and Scots

Sally Foster

Published in the Historic Scotland series by B. T. Batsford Ltd at 15.99 paperback (ISBN 0 7134 7486 6)

Review by Andy Tyrrell

It is almost second nature for me (as I suspect it is for most reviewers and all graduate students) to wear my most cynical hat when asked to review or expound an opinion on any academic work. With this in mind I have to first point out what a useful book Sally Foster's Picts, Gaels and Scots is to those who might have had little or no contact with the peoples of early medieval Scotland, or Alba, depending on your pedancy. Much of the information is well documented and all the crucial stuff in terms of sites, political geography, who's who, etc., is here. However I think that my primary beef must lie with what I think must ultimately be an unhappy mating between the publishers of the Historic Scotland series and Foster herself, for their progeny is perhaps simplified at best.

To elaborate: I have had a problem with the English Heritage and the Historic Scotland series since they began. Their remit - bringing archaeology to the masses in an accessible form - is a worthy one, and no-one could deny that this is what they have done. With the quality of data and illustrative material at their disposal, it would be hard for them not to make at least an attractive hash of it. Unfortunately, it is a constant irritant that somebody (and I assume it is either the publisher or the quangos themselves) feels it necessary to tone down the intellectual meat of the books. For example, Foster talks of zoomorphs on Pictish stones, stating that "Each animal traditionally possessed specific attributes and associations which their artists may have been trying to evoke." (p.74). What are these attributes? What is this hypothesis based on? Ethnography? Contemporary material from other regions? Literary reference? None of these questions is answered later in the text, and I'm sorry to say that it is not the sole occasion where this lack of substance happens, either. This is why I feel that Foster would have been better advised to write an academic work through an academic press; she is wasting her obviously considerable knowledge and communicative clarity in this work. The impression one gets from this book is that much of what is being said is entirely speculative. If this is so, which indeed it is for the earlier parts of the period which the book deals with, one would at least expect an explanation of such a stance. This is not tantamount to an admission of failure. For me to have recommended this book wholeheartedly, it needs to have had proper references and an acceptance that if its readership is competent enough to be told, for example, that Christianity had an impact upon the formation of the nation state in 900 AD and its maintenance thereafter, then it is quite capable of understanding some models for how this happened and what relevance it has to our understanding of the Picts as people.

Admittedly, it could be unfair to damn this book purely because it meets the need of its target audience (new scholars, amateurs and sundry interested parties), but for us graduate students and, by default, those in the ever more unassailable ivory towers there will be little unfamiliar and much to frustrate. Other minor quibbles include the use of what is nearly solely high status material (good photographs perhaps?) and constant reference to the King lists in what is in essence a neo-marxist model (although this is not explicitly mentioned, just my interpretation) of the evolution of Alba - a considerable irony. The poor old proles are limited to Chapter 4 (Agriculture, industry and trade: the currency of authority). It doesn't take much imagination to guess in what vein these laudable three activities are seen: legitimation of power and the expression of wealth. Well yes, that's fine but for many lower status peoples these were a way of life, a means of existence. The greater bulk of the people who made up the Picts, Gaels and Scots seem to have been forgotten.

My largely unfavourable opinion of this book is based on the genre rather than the content, which by and large is commendable for its accuracy, or the style which is fluent and easy reading. As a simple book to introduce yourself to early historic Scotland, one could do a lot worse, but I think Foster and Batsford could certainly have done better.

Andrew Tyrrell is a Ph.D. student studying Anglo-Saxon population Dynamics at the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield.

Andrew Tyrrell 1996


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assemblage 1996