Before Scotland

This overview is readable and fascinating if not particularly scholarly, argues Rab Houston

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Reviewed by: Rab Houston
Author: Alistair Moffat
Publisher: Thames and Hudson
Price (RRP): £12.95

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Until the Middle Ages the land that is now Scotland was a complex and shifting patchwork of peoples, languages, law codes and lordships. These are all the more fascinating because we know so little about them, for the powerful legacies of Picts, Gaels, Britons, Angles, Romans and Norse are inscribed mostly in artefacts, place names or in the landscape.

The prolific Scottish journalist and TV presenter, Alistair Moffat, has brought formidable literary and synthetic skills to this enigmatic period in a nicely produced book that is often engaging, but also sometimes alarming: a sort of Iron Age ‘Braveheart’. As a piece of entertainment it takes some beating. Written in a clear, lively and informal style, the focus is on emotive appeal as much as information.

Early Scots were just like us, we are told, but Moffat often chooses the most offbeat, even sensationalist interpretation of a phenomenon; in the best tradition of TV archaeology programmes, anything really difficult to interpret is assigned ritual significance.

Seeking the essence of the Scots in their history, Moffat looks for what is truly ‘native’ and then cheerleads it. One example is the Gaelic language, but it came with settlers or invaders from Ireland and native Scots probably spoke another Celtic language called ‘British’. The Angles, every bit as native as the Gaels, are hardly mentioned.

As an historical study the book perplexes and sometimes irritates, giving equal weight to solid scholarship, myth and speculation. Some of the boxed insets offer valuable ethnographic comparisons, but others seem to have been chosen for their wackiness rather than their relevance.

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Before Scotland can be recommended as a readable if idiosyncratic overview. However, those who prefer a more straightforward and scholarly (if no less interesting) approach should read Dennis Harding’s The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders (Routledge, 2004).