The early medieval period is still often referred to by that weighted term “the Dark Ages”. A book published today by National Museums Scotland – supported by the Glenmorangie Company – aims to challenge that notion and shed fresh light on a formative period of Scotland’s history.
Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas is the culmination of four years of research that demonstrates that early medieval society was far more advanced than is often supposed, with craftsmen using complex technologies to create outstanding works of decorative art.
However, writing about the individuals of the period (AD300-900) taught me not to be dazzled by artistry alone but rather to remember Edward De Waal’s assertion that: “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell the stories that matters.”
For example, the book re-evaluates such objects as the elaborate Hunterston brooch and considers what the wearer might have felt. We believe the subtle Christian imagery of the piece may have provided protective qualities to its wearer.
Likewise, we examine among the earliest examples of a graffiti-covered school desk and other class-time doodles found during excavations at a monastery at Inchmarnock, Bute. The work of minutes, perhaps by quite a young child, these doodles include a group of horses scratched on to a piece of slate.
Women and children can sometimes be left out of the grand sweep of history at the expense of themes such as kingship or Christianity. Our book is an attempt to put people back in their rightful place at the heart of history, and breathe new life into this important period of our past.
Our long-term partnership with Glenmorangie allows us to look in depth at early medieval history. It was born when the company discovered the stunning Hilton of Cadboll stone, on the doorstep of its distillery in Easter Ross. We have a shared passion for preserving our heritage and telling the stories of those who came before us.
• Alice Blackwell is the Glenmorangie research officer in the department of Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums Scotland
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