The Kings of Alba: c1000–c1130

Stephen Driscoll on a work of Scottish history that is likely to appeal chiefly to specialists

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Reviewed by: Stephen Driscoll
Author: Alasdair Ross
Publisher: John Donald
Price (RRP): £25

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Scottish historians have relished the party atmosphere of post-devolution Scotland; their subject is no longer regional, it’s national.

Nobody has enjoyed the party more than the early medievalists, the custodians of the national origins, who through critical re-engagement with the primary evidence have given early Scotland a glamorous and exciting make-over.

Dr Alasdair Ross is among this new generation of Scottish historians. He confidently identifies the 11th century as the key moment in the national narrative, when the petty Celtic kingdoms faded away and the medieval kingdom was born. Interestingly, Alba was not governed along Anglo-Norman lines, but as a Gaelic kingdom with distinctive customs, laws, names and social institutions. 

To the professional academic, an examining of the readings and hypotheses inspired by the sparse and oblique source material is certainly welcome, not least because Ross comprehensively traces ideas from medieval chroniclers to modern scholars.

Few historians of any era escape criticism and Ross shows little tolerance for speculation whether ancient or modern. Some will feel that alongside the deconstruction should go some rebuilding. 

Those without a deep interest in Scottish medieval historiography will find this book heavy going, because despite the focus on royalty there is little by way of narrative. There is no rhetorical vehicle or overarching argument to convey the reader over the rough and unfamiliar terrain of this Gaelic kingdom.

In a volume dominated by source criticism of annals and chronicles, the most original contribution is Ross’s discussion of the peculiarly Scottish Gaelic land unit term, davoch, which he argues is the key component of a system of land organisation that underpins the kingdoms of Alba and Moray. Unfortunately, the provision of maps is poor, which frequently renders complex discussion of the extent of kingdoms unintelligible, and significantly weakens the volume.

Overall this is a valuable addition to the field, but will appeal only to those with a well-developed interest in Scottish or Northumbrian history.

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Stephen Driscoll, professor of historical archaeology, University of Glasgow