Sunday, 4 October 2009

Archive: Before Scotland - Alistair Moffat

Before Scotland
Alistair Moffat

This is one of those books that seems to promise so much to start with and then it all ends up falling a little flat. It started off so well and then...what the hell happened there?

As the title suggest, the book covers the history and pre-history of what eventually became Scotland. For the earliest pre-history I wasn't expecting too much because there's not really much that can be said that's particularly concrete about it, is there? But I was impressed with the way Moffat weaved a story of the pre-historic peoples and made them seem almost tangible - not dim and distant, living in a murky past of generalisations, but real: ancestors of the land. Understandably, given the nature of the evidence, Moffat has to draw from a much wider area than just Scotland for much of this section - not just to put the evidence from Scotland into context, but also to help flesh things out. His mentions of Doggerland were really interesting - not something I've really come across before and it really made me chew things over in a way I've never done before. In a way, though, it kind of distracted from the Scotland-specific information, and with a distinct lack of maps and specifying which country he was talking about sometimes, it wasn't always clear where he was referring to. Or which part of Scotland, even.

The biggest strength with these chapters was the way Moffat managed to paint such a vivid picture of the people and bring it into a modern context as well - pointing out the way in which many of the islanders still hunt the birds today, for example (although more for tradition than subsistence these days). It's strange to think that things like this have been literally going on for thousands of years and it's easy to romanticise and view it through rose-tinted glasses but I think Moffat manages to stay just on the right side of that.

But then I began having problems. First of all, Moffat seemed to jump from the Bronze Age right to the end of the Iron Age in the blink of an eye, which was disappointing. The emphasis on how people lived, from what the archaeology can tell us, changed to looking at the historical sources and the effects of the Romans - for the most part it's nothing you can't find elsewhere (although it is more up to date) with a few interesting tidbits here and there that piqued my interest. As soon as he got past the Bronze Age, gone was the way in which Moffat painted such a colourful picture of the Stone and Bronze Age people (terms that he eschews, for the most part, as many academics do these days...). Instead of drawing all the strands together into weaving a story like he did before, he seemed to stay a little aloof and detached. The tone changes from almost warm affection for the subject to verging on dry - which is not to say it gets dull or boring, it's just a big let down given the previous chapters.

And if I ever end up meeting the author? I somehow doubt that I'd ever have the balls to mention the Romans in front of him. The chapter on 'Caledonia' starts with more of a rant on the Romans and modern historians attitudes towards them, than dealing with the actual meat of the book...It's probably safe to say he's not a fan...I have to admit that when he started on about how the Romans did nothing for Scotland, in the longterm, my concentration wandered off into the land of Monty Python...WHAT'VE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?!

I don't want to be overly critical of the book - I wouldn't want anyone to be put off by my disappointment with some aspects of it because what you find here is solid - even with a distinct lack of any referencing (which is not good, but it's not meant to be an academic book so it's almost forgiveable, I s'pose). As an introduction to all of the different elements that contributed towards the making of Scotland, this is a great resource and in many ways it's refreshing. While it does seem that as soon Moffat starts getting into the meat of my favourite subject - the Celts - he loses some of his enthusiasm. I wonder if it's because he's covered it already in another book and he's trying to offer something different from that? Maybe he's just not keen on the labels, especially loaded ones (to some archaeologists) like 'Celts'? He certainly doesn't seem to be keen on the Romans, but at least he's upfront about that bias.

In spite of the slight disappointment, there's nothing terrible or bad here, it has to be said. There were still plenty of bits that caught my eye - the suggestion that many of the Pictish carvings were meant as offerings to the gods which were supposed to endure, for all to see, is worth exploring a bit more I think; Moffat suggests the 'tuning fork' on Pictish stones, for example, is a carved version of a broken sword. Instead of the sword being ritually broken and then being ceremoniously thrown into a bog or river, the carving lets the offering remain in sight, making it more permanent. To make the treaty that it commemorates more permanent?

There's good stuff to ponder and it's definitely worth a read (even if the change in tone half-way through makes it a little harder to stick with). For the absolute beginner it's maybe a bit broader in scope than you might be looking for to start off with, and in that respect, for something short and sweet I'd suggest something like Richard Hingley's Settlement and Sacrifice, and then something like Sally Foster's Picts, Gaels and Scots. What Before Scotland offers is something a little more up to date than authors like Foster does now, and it also helps puts the specifically Celtic stuff into a broader context that will help give a better idea of how Scotland came to be. Read it for the context, or as a good compliment to other books if you want something more up to date. Or just because it's a fun read (barring the last couple of chapters, that is....).