Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars The Lowland Britons, 19 Jun 2014
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This review is from: The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (Paperback)
This is another book from Tim Clarkson, who is also the author of a quite superb book on the Picts. The subject covered by this title, the Britons of Southern Scotland, is mostly little known. It is well-discussed in what is another carefully written and well-researched book, regardless of whether you share the author’s choices and interpretations.

One of the merits of this book is to show to what extent what was to become the Kingdom of Scotland started with a collection of people which included the four main Briton tribes (or perhaps more accurately confederation of tribes) that lived beyond Hadrian’s Walls (but South of the Antonin one). All of these people, including Picts, Scots and Saxons (and finally the Scandinavians) slowly fused together over a number of centuries, and spent a lot of their time raiding and fighting against each other.

Another of the merits of this book is to show that these fights and wars were not related to ethnic backgrounds and there was hardly if any solidarity, with Briton Kingdoms fighting against each other just as much as they fought against Scots, Picts or Angles. The same would apply to any of the other main groups of population, with various clans and predatory warlords essentially eager to assert their domination over their neighbours, regardless of whom they might have been, because with this came prestige and power, but also tribute and obligations to send men to fight alongside their own warriors.

A third merit of this book is to show and discuss in considerable detail how these Briton (sometimes also called “Brythonic”) kingdoms evolved and were subdued and subsumed over a long period of time, with the last one – Strathclyde – finally losing its independence and being conquered in the tenth century. One possible drawback is that, at times, the author may give the impression of going into perhaps too much detail for a general reader. In other words, despite its many qualities and its fascinating subject, this book may at times “look and feel” like a piece of high quality scholarship.

As another reviewer also mentioned, more maps could have helped. A chronology, however tentative, could also have helped the non-specialist reader keep track of events and of the bewildering succession of warlords (rather than “kings” in the medieval sense of the term). However, despite these reservations, the book achieves several worthwhile objectives.

One is to demystify the period to some extent and to provide plausible explanations and theories. Here, the author’s careful analysis of the sources is both useful and valuable, in particularly when showing how the Welsh sources seem to have transposed and reconstructed events that happened elsewhere than in Wales. Just like in his book on the Picts, the author’s belief that the inhabitants of the Dal Riada were mostly pre-existing Britons with a veneer of Irish noble warriors may seem disputable, although the point is well-argued. It is anyway somewhat difficult to either prove or disprove.

Another point which clearly comes out of the book is that there was no sense of shared identity within the various groups, meaning that Picts, Scots, Britons and Angles were just as likely to fight among themselves as they were to fight one another.

Four stars.
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