Gordon Noble and Nicholas Evans
Birlinn, £14.99
ISBN 978-1780275512
Review Ian Ralston

This is both a useful, and a slightly curious, compendium. Its strength lies in providing overviews of continuing research on the northern Picts, here defined as the inhabitants primarily of present-day Aberdeenshire and Moray. The peculiarity derives from most contributions being revisions of relatively recent journal articles, partly updated, but also modified for a general readership. This is laudable, but juxtaposing independently composed essays of different vintages occasions some repetition and a slight lack of flow. A brief, final coda, however, pulls the chapters together. The principal merit is access to these interim outputs, largely based on fieldwork, and focused on the main authors’ research collaborations.

Evans’ thoughtful historical essay sets the scene well, and is critically underpinned by Woolf’s repositioning of the key Pictish kingdom of Fortríu into Moray from south of the Highland massif. Several chapters report fieldwork on significant enclosed sites, notably the coastal stack of Dunnicaer and the enclosure at Rhynie, Barflat. The general trend is to pull earlier within the 1st millennium AD the beginnings of both fortification and incised Pictish sculpture, reinforcing others’ suggestions made on art-historical grounds.

An overview of fortifications is generally strong, but widens the classification of ‘nuclear forts’ while downplaying earlier researchers’ insights, to the extent of misspelling Richard Feachem throughout. The aerial photographic record of square barrow cemeteries, assembled since the late 1970s, is fruitfully illustrated and analysed. Recovery of hacksilver in the ploughsoil around a 19th-century Banffshire hoard findspot is, with the Dunnicaer results, important in the reconsideration of burgeoning evidence for late Roman underpinnings to mid-1st millennium AD developments. A new contribution, on the early development of Christianity, is more preliminary in nature, but nonetheless adds significant new discoveries, notably the sizeable enclosure around the monastery at Kinneddar.

Complemented by a brief gazetteer, this is a worthy despatch on continuing attempts to assimilate the Picts into wider Early Historic temperate European trends.


This review appeared in CA 360. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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