Clarkson’s The Picts: A History

A HistoryTim Clarkson, The Picts: A History. Tempus, 2008

As you may have noticed I’ve been taking quite a few talking points from Tim Clarkson’s The Picts for some time now. I think its time for a more general review. I’d say it must have been generally received well as its is getting hard to find already. Both Amazon US and UK only have it via secondary sellers, some of whom are jacking up the price already.  I hope they are planning a reprint.

This book is set apart from all other books on the Picts that I know of by being the first narrative history of Pictish history from pre-Roman times to creation of the unified kingdom of Alba. This book is intended for a general readership; its not an academic treatise. It takes bravery to attempt a narrative history of the Picts because just about everything about them is controversial. Rather than get bogged down in all the controversies, Clarkson generally goes with the consensus or traditional opinion. This may not sit well with people who want to shake up Pictish studies by proposing bold new theories. Yet, in the long run, Clarkson may well fare better than they do. Bold new theories come and go like fads. They sound good at first, but then they wear thin and ultimately you wonder why you ever like them. Pictish history is littered with bold new theories (or what were once bold new theories). In Appendix C Clarkson lists 16 Pictish puzzles, areas where there are multiple competing theories. He lists the theory he has used in the text and alternative theories. Some academics may not think there are enough maybes, possibles, and probables in the text. I suspect had he put in all of the qualifiers that academics would prefer the general reader couldn’t stand to read it. I think many general readers will appreciate the clarity. Playing it fairly safe on controversial topics means that he is generally safe and the appendix listing all the ‘puzzles’ should assure academics that he knows the alternatives. Tim Clarkson blogs at Senchus, if you want to ask him questions about the book. I would have preferred a more extensive bibliography. It currently lists only books, and I think some of the primary articles helpful to the reader. I’m am unused to books lacking footnotes or endnotes, but this again goes to the general readership aim.

In the first four chapters he addresses what little we know of the Picts before the historic record begins. This largely amounts to chronicling the Roman invasions of Caledonia and legends of Pictish origins. These chapters necessarily talk about legendary material and he does a good job putting them in a historic context. We enter into the historic period with the fifth chapter “Maelchon’s son”, Brude son of Maelchon, who St Columba obtained a grant for Iona from and where Columba contended with Brude’s wizard/priest. I’m rather uncomfortable with the suggestion that his father was Maglocunus/Maelgwyn Gwynedd. I doubt that Maglocunus of Gwynedd was the only man in the first half of the fifth century with that name. Regardless, Clarkson is far from the first person to hypothesize this.

The narrative really picks up speed and becomes more detailed with the seventh chapter on “Brude and Ecgfrith”. From this point on, Northumbria is involved in Pictland as much as Dalriada.  Unfortunately throughout Pictish history, an outline is all that ever becomes really stable. Apart from an outline constructed by a few stray facts and annal entries, all narratives of Pictish history, no matter how academically couched, are modern constructions, and we should keep that in mind. From Brude ap Beli through his successors the sons of Derile, Bede and Adomnan become our primary sources. Columban influence in Pictland waxes under Adomnan and then waines by Bede’s time. Brude ap Beli, Adomnan and Brude’s Northumbrian cousins are a fascinating bit of history. Refreshingly, Pictish history doesn’t recede into the shadows after Bede. The narrative picks up with Oengus I and his dynasty. From this point, Pictish succession becomes convincingly patrilinear. I would have appreciated a family tree for Oengus’ descendants. Oengus ruled long enough to be succeeded by his grandsons rather than sons, so following the succession among grandsons and great grandsons can become complicated. Oengus does, however, give us a bona fide Pictish royal dynasty to work wtih.  Unfortunately, Oengus’ dynasty lasts only about two more generations before the Danish invasions begin and the ‘twilight of the Picts’ occurs. I’ve always tried to avoid the Viking period, so I’ll avoid it here as well. Clarkson rounds out the book with a chapter on legends that surround the disappearance and persistence of the Picts.

Clarkson should be congratulated for producing the first sound narrative of the Picts. I think that most people who have a keen interest in early Scottish history would find this book a good foundation to their studies. It is impossible to thread the needle and write an uncontroversial history of the Picts. My use of this book as talking points for this blog has illustrated some areas where there are other interpretations. I may find a few more talking points in the future but that does not distract from this book being a solid history. I hope you enjoy it and feel free to add your observations in the comments section here.

[Addendum 1/19/09: I just learned that a new printing of the book has been done and can be ordered from here. Other book sellers should receive additional copies relatively soon.]

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