Last Christmas, my brother bought me Tim Clarkson’s The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. In the past week or so I finally decided I had enough time to read something more substantial than internet scatterings, so I delved in. What I’ve found is a compelling, sober narrative that has me making time to read again.
The word “narrative” isn’t used on a whim here – Clarkson tells the story (or stories) of Scotland from the Roman period through the Viking age. (As a side note, it’s striking – though maybe it shouldn’t be – how the “making of Scotland” is substantially framed by the involvement of non-native powers.) In its scope and general method, this book stands alongside others such as Alfred P. Smyth’s Warlords and Holy Men and Alistair Moffat’s Before Scotland – and probably plenty of others, but those are the one’s I’ve read.
Where it differs is in its resistance to flights of fancy and rhetorical flourishes. Clarkson describes the difficulties involved with the source material (which is often late, and often disinterested in modern notions of historical accuracy) and outlines the controversies over locations such as the battle of Degsastan or the kingdom of Rheged. He offers several theories and indicates which ones he finds plausible or not – but he doesn’t hesitate to tell us when we just can’t know something, even if that means leaving a map speckled with blank spaces or question marks.
This is an accessible and swiftly moving read, probably ideal for a reader like me who knows the broad strokes and some of the details of Scottish history but who isn’t an expert – though a reader with less knowledge on the subject will find in Clarkson a sure guide, who brings to this work the same good sense and clarity that is on display at his blog Senchus. The several maps, together with genealogical tables, a timeline, and plentiful list for further reading, round out the picture and invite further study of a confused, fascinating period.