A Pictish Panorama: the Story of the Picts and a Pictish Bibliography.

edited by Eric Nicoll (bibliography compiled by Jack Burt).

The Pinkfoot Press, 1995. 30.00. xii, 188p. ISBN 1874012105.

Reviewed by Tim Clarkson.


This book is primarily a bibliography of secondary sources relating to the Picts, a historical people who inhabited most of what is now Scotland until their absorption by the Gaelic-speaking Scots in the ninth century. In his preface, the editor notes that the need for a bibliography of Pictish studies "can hardly be overstated". This need seems to me to be twofold. On the one hand, there is the potential usefulness of such a bibliography as a unique research tool for those who have a scholarly interest in the Picts. On the other, there is the value of debunking once and for all any lingering impression that the Picts are a 'mysterious' people, of whom we know virtually nothing.

Among the eight hundred references collected in this bibliography, there are more than enough to demonstrate the wealth and quality of knowledge currently available to researchers working in Pictish studies. Thus, while the symbol stones carved by Pictish craftsmen still defy interpretation and so preserve their own sense of mystery, almost all other areas of Pictish culture, such as language, warfare, settlement and burial practice have been to varying extents identified and are currently being analysed.

The bibliography is searchable via author and subject indexes, the latter being sufficiently specific to include headings under the names of individual Pictish kings or of little-known archaeological sites. It is described as a select bibliography, but the compiler has clearly been very thorough and wide-ranging in his task, including not only those works relating directly to the Picts, but also many publications dealing with early medieval Scotland as a whole. He has, moreover, provided a most useful service by annotating each reference with a brief indication of its content.

The title, A Pictish Panorama, was chosen to reflect the nature of this book, for it includes not only the bibliography, but also six short and authoritative papers by eminent scholars, each of whom presents key state-of-the-art research in one of the complementary disciplines of art, archaeology, history or linguistics.

The opening paper, by Dauvit Broun, notes the paucity of documentary sources relating to the Picts, but points to the use of analogy with other societies in early medieval Britain as "the most successful approach" towards an interpretation of the available textual evidence. Nowhere is the dearth of texts felt more keenly than in studies of the long-dead Pictish language, a language represented today by place-names, by a few barely-intelligible inscriptions on stone and by a list of kings. In her paper, Katherine Forsyth expresses optimism that further study of such "fossil-like" survivals will eventually lead to a much greater understanding of the language spoken by the Picts. She additionally refutes any lingering suspicions that the Picts spoke a language which was so obscure as to be non-Indo-European. Her own belief, that Pictish was a member of the P-Celtic group of languages, is here re-stated in summary form and is reinforced by Bill Nicolaisen's paper giving a brief overview of place-name elements.

There follows Isabel Henderson's study of Pictish art in the context of wider British and European art history, in which the artistry and technical expertise of the Picts are acknowledged. In the penultimate paper, Anna Ritchie shows how archaeology has complimented the literary glimpses of the Picts' daily life, although she observes that almost all of the sites and artefacts hitherto brought to light, at least on the mainland, are associated with high-status groups. Dr. Ritchie suggests that sites associated with the peasantry should be identified and analysed, and hopes that such work may even unearth well-preserved skeletal material, which would give us crucial information on the physical appearance of the Picts. In the final paper, Edwina Proudfoot expresses similar hopes for progress in understanding the links between the archaeology of Pictish Christianity and the social and organisational structures, both secular and ecclesiastical, which underpinned the creation of the artefacts and religious sites associated with the Picts.

These six papers provide a fitting preamble to the bibliography and combine with it to present a book which contains an excellent introduction to current research in Pictish studies, as well as a unique information-resource to serve the needs of all scholars who seek to study the history and archaeology of early medieval Scotland. Given the recent upsurge of interest in all things Pictish, publication of a work of this nature is timely. The fact that it is so well-produced is a credit to all those involved in its production, especially the Pinkfoot Press, a small publishing house based in the heartland of the Picts, and the Pictish Arts Society, under whose aegis the book appears. Updates to the bibliography are promised by its compiler, who states that he would welcome notification of additions or omissions. The latter, I suspect, will be few in number, for the compiler has clearly done his work all too thoroughly. So thoroughly, in fact, that I would strongly advise anyone thinking of undertaking research on the Picts to get hold of this book as a first step.

Tim Clarkson is a part-time PhD student at the University of Manchester, studying military organisation in Northern Britain, circa 400 to 700 AD. In 1994 he completed an MPhil thesis, also at Manchester, on the archaeology of the Solway region during the same period.

© Tim Clarkson 1997

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