They left no writ­ten chron­i­cles or mas­sive cas­tles, but their fin­ger­prints can yet be seen on the land and the shape of our coun­try to­day. In a new book, Alis­tair Mof­fat un­cov­ers the sto­ries of Scot­land’s for­got­ten an­cient dy­nas­ties and puts them back on

The Scotsman - - Features -

“Scot­land’s fun­da­men­tal shape and scale have

en­dured. The an­cient

names of places have a rich story to tell. The land has its own

continuity and clar­ity”

AS LOR­RIES grind through the gears on their way up to the top of Soutra on the A68, they un­know­ingly pass a place where Scot­land’s his­tory turned. The farm of Ad­din­ston in Laud­erdale takes its name from Aedan’s Stane and in 603AD a bloody bat­tle was fought there. The army of Aedan macGabrain, king of Ar­gyll, was caught by the Ber­ni­cians, re­cent con­querors of the Tweed Val­ley. And al­most cer­tainly around the tum­bled-down ram­parts of a pre­his­toric hill­fort near the mod­ern farm, the Ar­gyll men were de­feated.

Hav­ing raided cat­tle from the fer­tile grass­lands of the Tweed, Aedan had led his army north up Dere Street, the old Ro­man road which re­mained the best route to the Loth­i­ans and the Forth for many cen­turies af­ter the le­gions left. The Ar­gyll men were over­taken by the pur­su­ing Ber­ni­cians and their great war­riork­ing, Aethel­frith. Events moved quickly af­ter the bat­tle at the place also known as Degsas­tan. In 637, Ed­in­burgh fell to the Ber­ni­cians and by the mid­dle of the 7th cen­tury they con­trolled the Loth­i­ans and the Bor­ders and were push­ing into Gal­loway and Fife. Their am­bi­tion was only checked in 685 when Pic­tish cavalry killed King Ecgfrith and cut his army to pieces at Dun­nichen, near For­far.

The dis­tant rum­ble of these for­got­ten bat­tles, the ob­scure, ig­nored kings who fought and died in them and the names of their an­cient king­doms might seem Ru­ri­ta­nian, lit­tle more than a col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal cu­riosi­ties. But they are not.

When Aethel­frith won at Degsas­tan and his war­riors over­ran the Loth­i­ans, Scot­land was des­tined to speak English and not the Gaelic of the Ar­gyll men.

More than that, the Dark Ages saw many of the recog­nis­able themes of our his­tory es­tab­lished: Chris­tian­ity; an en­er­getic, ex­pan­sion­ist, dom­i­nant dy­nasty of kings; the devel­op­ment of dis­tinc­tive re­gions. But the work­ings of many of these pro­cesses are of­ten ob­scure.

So how do we read this un­writ­ten his­tory to­day? Through keen ob­ser­va­tion. The ar­chive of the feet and the eyes is our most im­por­tant re­source. The shad­ows of an­cient king­doms lie ap­par­ent even now, their fron­tiers marked by ditch and stone, an an­cient strong­hold marked by a trees still stand­ing or clearly wit­nessed.

We read their story through place names, and from ref­er­ences made in the old­est recorded his­to­ries – of­ten passed down from an orig­i­nal long since lost, such as On the Ocean by the Greek ex­plorer and sci­en­tist Pyth­eas, who ven­tured north to what would be­come Scot­land as early as 320 BC.

Be­fore the 12th cen­tury and the ar­rival of lit­er­ate monks and the kings who pa­tro­n­ised their abbeys and churches, our his­tory can be hard to see. Scot­land – more pre­cisely, north Bri­tain – in the Dark Ages seems to emerge in­stead from a tan­gle of con­fu­sion; a story told in con­tra­dic­tory frag­ments and a few, rare flick­ers of light. From late in the last mil­len­nium BC to AD1000 and even be­yond, it is a tale of shad­ows and half-lit edges.

Only the land, its rivers and lochs and the seas around it re­main, and al­though the ap­pear­ance of Scot­land has changed over the course of a thou­sand win­ters and a thou­sand sum­mers since, its fun­da­men­tal shape and scale have en­dured. The sands and the tides, the hills and high val­leys, the great rivers, the long lost wild­wood, the im­pen­e­tra­ble marsh­lands and the an­cient names of places have a rich story to tell. The land has its own cer­tainty, continuity and clar­ity.

A lot of what we might recog­nise as a po­lit­i­cal his­tory of Scot­land in the first mil­len­nium AD has been supplied by out­siders: Greek trav­ellers, Ro­man mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans and map mak­ers, Ir­ish an­nal­ists, Welsh bards and chron­i­clers now thought of as English have left us most of what passes for a nar­ra­tive.

Much has been lost, and of­ten it is the ran­dom dis­cov­ery of an ob­ject, the recog­ni­tion of a piece of dusty sculp­ture as great art or the re­al­i­sa­tion that some of the men of the north of Bri­tain were very in­flu­en­tial in their time that re­minds us that a lack of a co­her­ent his­tory writ­ten by those who lived it is only an ac­ci­dent. Be­cause records did not sur­vive, we should not drift into the un­think­ing as­sump­tion that the so­ci­ety of Dark Ages Scot­land was in­ca­pable of com­pil­ing them and was there­fore some­how prim­i­tive and less so­phis­ti­cated than oth­ers.

So much of Scot­land’s his­tory is open to doubt and in­ter­pre­ta­tion. For ex­am­ple, the­o­ries on the Cal­lan­ish Stones on Lewis, in the Western Isles, con­stantly evolve with some sug­gest­ing an as­so­ci­a­tion with as­tro­nom­i­cal events and oth­ers with pre- his­toric re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity. One lo­cal tra­di­tion says that giants who lived on the is­land re­fused to be con­verted to Chris­tian­ity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a pun­ish­ment.

It is also clear that the prin­ci­pal driver of our his­tory is of­ten fail­ure. The losers have, of course, been eclipsed by the win­ners in the his­tory of Scot­land. The rise of Dal­ri­ada, the Gaelic-speak­ing kings of the west, and their even­tual takeover of the whole coun­try have been well doc­u­mented. And the story of the Pic­tish king­doms, one of the great mys­ter­ies of our his­tory, has been in­ves­ti­gated and ex­hausted by tal­ented his­to­ri­ans.

In­stead a dim light is shed on the for­got­ten dy­nas­ties that died away and failed. Their lost king­doms are the proper sub­ject of The Faded Map.

Where were Calchvynydd, Desnes Mor and Desnes Ioan, Manau and the land of the Kin­dred Hounds? Who were the Sons of Prophecy, the Well-Born, Mac­sen, Am­darch, the kings of Ebrauc and the treach­er­ous Mor­cant Bwlc? What hap­pened at Arderydd, Degsas­tan and Alt Clut? Where was the Grims­dyke, the land of the Hali-

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