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Scotland's Dark Ages weren't so dark after all

Early Historic Scotland has long been thought of as a barbaric and dark time, dominated by blue-painted Picts and marauding Vikings.

But Scots academics are set to dispel this notion with research to be published later this year depicting the country during this period as a place of flourishing creative and intellectual work, open to, and trading with, the continent.

For the past three years, Alice Blackwell, Glenmorangie Research Officer with National Museums Scotland, has been studying artefacts from the period, which stretches from AD300 to AD900, in an attempt to gain a more cohesive, realistic picture of how people lived.

"Scotland has often been seen as the Dark Age par excellence, because we have even fewer historical sources from this period than other parts," she said.

"But what we are trying to say is that archaeology can tell an amazing story and it's a very vibrant sophisticated one, intellectual networks and ideas that you don't necessarily get reflected in the historical material."

She added that the concept of Scotland dominated by the Picts was wrong:

"The Picts may be familiar to some and are used sometimes in media as a shorthand for the period - but this is part of the problem," she said.

"The people we know call the Picts lived in only part of what's now Scotland.

"At this time the country was home to diverse groups with different identities, speaking different languages, with contacts to different parts of Britain and Europe. It's far better to see Scotland as a vibrant melting pot where new ideas were forged from old and new, local and foreign. Sophisticated and creative objects were the result."

One of the challenges for historians in the past has come from the fact that many of the historical sources from the period were written by outsiders such as Romans, Irish or Anglo Saxons and did not accurately reflect the real lives of communities.

Among the artefacts examined have been some of the few surviving personal items from the period such as brooches, as well as more substantial items including the Monymusk Reliquary, from the eighth century, which is thought to have contained holy relics relating to St Columba.

Ms Blackwell said the results of the past three years of research are intended to "establish a new agenda, a new research framework" for the period.

"One of the really successful parts of the project over the past few years has been the recreation of items through contemporary commissions from local craftsmen.

"We made, for instance, a Pictish throne, inspired by carvings we have of them," she added.

"In this period there was no currency in Scotland," she said. "There was a huge amount of silver used, very little gold actually, and it's the main means of showing your wealth. For instance there are massive silver chains, which were probably worn around the neck, and weigh several kilograms.

"This work will help us understand for instance what the sources were recycled Roman silver or just possibly first native exploitation of Scottish silver sources - that's one of the biggest questions we aim to answer over the next years."

Ms Blackwell's full-time post was established by the whisky brand three years ago, in a move thought to be the first of its type, to investigate the early history of Scotland.

Glenmorangie have now announced that they will continue funding it for a further three years, which the academic said will allow her to examine previously unexplored aspects of it, such as the country's sources of valuable metals.

• Alice Blackwell's book 'A jewel of gold placed on a silver dish': The Glenmorangie Project on Early Historic Scotland, co-authored with fellow academics Dr David Clarke and Dr Martin Goldberg, will be published in the autumn through the museum.

TIMELINE

400 AD

THE Picts - known to the Romans as "Picti" or "Painted People" - were the predominant force in northern Scotland until about 900 Ad when it was thought they were obliterated by the Vikings.

Not much is known about the Picts but Pictish items that can still be seen today around museums in Scotland include ornately carved symbol stones featuring animals, fish, serpents and abstract geometric designs. Later stones were carved with intricate crosses.

410 AD

AS the Roman empire began to collapse, its political and military presence was finally withdrawn from the island of Britain around 410 AD.

610 AD

THE religion of Islam was founded following God's revelation of The Koran to the prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel in Mecca.

796 AD

THE beginning of Viking Age. This is the time when Scandinavians conducted a slew of raids all across Europe, extending to Africa, Asia and America.

830 AD

A DRAMATIC rise in Viking attacks on Scotland. Nine years later they moved on to the central and northern part of Scotland and colonised areas such as the Tay Valley, Shetland, the Western Isles, Orkney, Sutherland, Caitness and Galloway

 
 
 

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