Saturday, 29 November 2008

Archive: Saints and Sea-kings - Ewan Campbell

Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots
Ewan Campbell

I mentioned this one in a review of another book from the same The Making of Scotland series by Historic Scotland a while ago, but it deserves its own review I think. The other book took a look at Iron Age Scotland, whereas this one looks at the eary medieval period and the coming (and going) of the Dalriadans who settled in the Argyll area of the west coast from around 400AD (although the dates depend on who you ask).

The series aims to provide "lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themse and periods in Scottish history and pre-history", and while I'm not sure history can ever be lively for some people, I'd say the book delivers on its promise of being accessible. Nearly ten years on, it also still stands up as being relatively up to date - since this was one of the key texts for a module I studied (Early Medieval Gaeldom) and some of the things in there were fairly revolutionary at the time there's sometimes an excitement and defensiveness at some of the things that are said that are generally accepted as fact, which might date it a little. But maybe I'm thinking more about the tone of my lectures than picking up anything from the book.

There are plenty of pictures and illustrations with nice soundbites in helpful little boxes to help emphasise some of the more important facts that are presented, and the tone and language that's used is clear and there's not too much jargon. The lack of references, unless a text is specifically mentioned or quoted, is a problem, but not surprising for a book like this which is aimed at a younger audience rather than a specifically academic one, but overall the book is short and sweet and gives good pointers to further reading and sites to see. And at least with this book, you can look up the sites on CANMORE and check for the site reports yourself, unlike Cunliffe's book that also had the same problem.

On the plus side, the author presents the information clearly and in a straightforward and sensible manner. It's not an in-depth analysis of the subject, by necessity, but Dr Campbell does cover some of the more important quibbles over some of the details here and there. He covers the origins of the Dál Riata, what their everyday life would have been like, their social and political structure, religion (mainly in terms of the coming of Christianity, rather than anything useful about any pre-Christian beliefs) and the importance of Iona in the early medieval period, the sources that relate to or refer to Dál Riata, and their artistic accomplishments.

It's an easy read that doesn't repeat itself too much and doesn't rely on teh big wurdz to make the author sound intelligent. The only real negative in terms of the information that's presented is that there's an unfortunate mistake that mixes up Brythonic and Goidelic as Q- and P-Celtic languages, rather than P- and Q-Celtic. I'm not sure if there are later editions that have corrected it, but it's worth watching out for and noting. It's the only real clanger in the book.

It's a good series of books to get if you want a beginner's guide to Scottish history and archaeology and while it's not directly beneficial in terms of informing CR practice - although the mention of conical glass 'drinking horns' are interesting from a feasting perspective, I think - I'd recommend it for getting a good idea of historical background for someone looking to get a good introduction to the subject, as well as a good perspective surrounding the issues in studying it.

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