The Shadow of the Brochs: The Iron Age in Scotland by B. BALIN SMITH and
I. BANKS (editors)
Tempus, Stroud, Gloucestershire. 2002. 256
pages, 17 tables, 76 black & white plates & figures, 31 colour
figures. ISBN 075242517X
book forms a festschrift for Euan Mackie, a pioneer of the study of
brochs and Iron Age research in Scotland. MacKie recently retired from
his curatorial post at the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow,
following a lengthy career. The scale and significance of his contribution
to the study of the Iron Age in Scotland is indicated, for example,
by a brief appreciation of his work (by Noel Fojut) on page 9 of the
book and the list of his publications at the end (p 234-6). It is also
demonstrated by the extensive references that are made to MacKie’s
work in the most through current review of Iron Age archaeology in Britain
(Cunliffe’s 1991). Research on the Iron Age of Scotland has developed
in new and interesting ways over the past fifteen years. This new book
states its aim as to provide a general overview of the state of Iron
Age studies in Scotland at the beginning of the twenty-first century
(p 217). I shall consider how well the volume meets this aim.
The title of the book suggests that Iron Age archaeology in Scotland
remains dominated by the topic of brochs (for a thorough recent summary
of brochs, see Armit 2003). The focus of this volume, as of MacKie’s
career, is upon the north and west of Scotland, the area in which brochs
are most common. Eleven of the nineteen papers are case studies from
the Northern and Western Isles, while only four address evidence for
the Scottish mainland. More particularly, there is a strong bias to
the Western Isles (six papers) that reflects the focus of the attention
of staff and students from the Archaeology Department of Edinburgh University
upon this area. The Northern Isles, by contrast, fair rather less well
(three papers, with two additional papers that address both the Western
and Northern Isles). This western emphasis is a reflection of the fact
that the islands of Orkney and Shetland, highly popular with prehistoric
archaeologists from the 1940s to the 1980s, have seen less archaeological
work that the Western Isles during the past 15 years. Despite the bias
in coverage toward the Western Isles, it is a pity that the volume does
not include contributions from the projects that are being run in this
area by the Universities of Sheffield and Cardiff, as these would have
provided a very different perspective to that developed by the research
that has emerged from Edinburgh (e.g. Parker-Pearson and Sharples 1996).
The mainland of Scotland is ill-served by the volume. Of the relevant
papers, one examines the south-west, another Caithness, while Perthshire
and Angus have a single paper each. There is no coverage of the south-east
in the volume and very little discussion of the east. The bias in coverage
reflect, to an extent, the places in which much of the archaeological
work is occurring, as Banks notes the Inner and Outer Hebrides appear
to hold a particular fascination for English University departments
(p 28). There has, however, been a reasonable amount of recent work
on some of the areas of mainland Scotland that are not addressed in
this volume (Haselgrove et al 2001, Table 3). Therefore, the
suggestion that the book provides a full statement of Scottish Iron
Age studies is inaccurate. It does, however, include a variety of interesting
and useful contributions.
The vast majority of the papers focus upon the period prior to the Roman
conquest of Southern Britain, but the Iron Age in Scotland continues
rather later and single papers in the volume address Vikings in Caithness
(Colleen Batey) and aspects of Christianity in the Western Isles (John
Hunter). One other interesting paper by Graham Ritchie focuses upon
the survival of archival material from various old excavations and the
significance of this evidence, but this contribution appears rather
out of place as not all the materials that is addressed relates to the
Iron Age. A paper by David Breeze considers the knowledge that survives
from ancient writers for the ancient geography of Scotland, and an additional
contribution by Denis Harding focuses upon early La Tène Ornamental
Style in Britain and Ireland.
This reviewer finds the particular focus placed on classification in
a number of the papers rather disappointing. Many Iron Age archaeologists
have started to move on to some rather more complex and rewarding issues
during the past fifteen years (see papers in Haselgrove and Gwilt [eds.]
1997). Although classification and detailed chronological analysis remains
important aspects of archaeological research and much more work is required
in the north and west of Scotland before we will have an adequate framework
(Haselgrove et al 2001, 30), aspects of the debate in the Scottish
Highlands and Islands are beginning to look rather dated. Does the term
‘Simple Atlantic Roundhouses’ (p 17, 55, etc) really help
us to understand the roundhouses that occur during the later Bronze
Age and Iron Age in the north and west of Scotland? For me, a more significant
issue is that roundhouses typify much of Britain during later prehistory,
while their occurrence in the Western and Northern Isles draws these
island societies into the context of a broader British and Atlantic
Iron Age. Continuities as well as differences across the north of Britain
are important but the classifications in Scotland often tend to emphasise
the regionality of culture. Thinking further about classification, is
the term ‘Complex Atlantic Roundhouse’ (p 15) any more useful?
The structures that have traditionally been described as brochs fall
into this class and, if the term ‘Atlantic’ has relevance,
why do brochs also occur in eastern, central and southern Scotland?
Is the term Complex Atlantic Roundhouse really very much of an improvement
on the traditional term ‘broch’?
The wish to project a simple classification is also evident in the search
for a single ceramic sequence for the Western Isles that occupies two
of the papers of this volume (Ewan Campbell, Ann McSween). The regionality
of Iron Age culture is important and the ceramic sequence for the Western
and Northern Isles perhaps has an added significance within the British
Iron Age because of the difficulty researchers encounter in trying to
make it sit easily within a simple chronological sequence (for the general
context, see Haselgrove et al 2001, 3). It should be noted,
however, that the authors of the two ceramic papers in the current volume
do propose the type of critical and contextual analysis that should
enable more complex ceramic sequences to emerge in due course. The paper
on the souterrains of Skye (Roger Miket) contains a useful list of monuments
and some of the results from the recent excavation of two examples,
including the souterrain associated with the interesting rectangular
house at Tungadale. The author’s apparent desire to search for
a single explanation for the purpose of souterrains (p 82-5), whether
they are argued to be specifically domestic, storage or ritual structures,
provides another example of the same old-fashioned classificatory approach
to the Scottish Iron Age. Recent research (e.g. Hill 1995) has emphasised
the difficult of separating ritual and symbolism from everyday life
in the British Iron Age. Why should souterrains not have both practical
and ritual functions?
To me, the excitement of the Iron Age in Atlantic Scotland lies in variability
and regionality of the evidence for the communities. Why do we need
to look for simple and standardised explanations for evidence that actually
expresses so much more about the past? Perhaps this focus upon simple
classification results from the relatively limited impact of post-processual
approaches within the Scottish Iron Age (as noted in the discussion
of the papers in the volume by Beverley Balin Smith and Iain Banks on
p 221). It also clearly results from the limited amount of works that
has been undertaken over much of the area. Despite my critical comments
on some of the papers in this volume, the Iron Age archaeology for the
Highlands and Islands of Scotland has considerable potential. The excellent
condition of preservation of much of the architectural evidence for
the stone structures that exist across the area provides a promising
context for exploring past society in new and challenging ways. Research
across Scotland as a whole is being held back by the scarcity of funding
and the general absence of co-ordinated research designs.
There are, however, promising signs. The report by Steve Dockrill upon
the initial results of the major project at Old Scatness (Shetland),
illustrates what is possible given adequate resources. Another interesting
paper is Julie Bonds’ account of food and farming in the Northern
Isles, which demands a rethinking of power relations because the animal
bone information does not fit easily with the site hierarchy models
that have been developed in the past. Iain Banks demands attention to
the south-west, an area that has been neglected and one that appears
quite different from other better-known areas of Scotland, while Ian
Armit argues that substantial houses (or, in his terminology, ‘Complex
Atlantic Roundhouses’) served different purposes in various areas.
These papers help to knock holes in some of the questions that are asked
in the book, for example, what was ‘the purpose and function of
the broch’ (p 218). Is it not time to look at the Iron Age of
Northern and Western Scotland in more stimulating ways?
University of Durham
Review Submitted: September 2003
Armit, I. 2003 Towers in the North: The Brochs of Scotland.
Cunliffe, B. W. Iron Age Communities in Britain. Third edition.
Gwilt, A. and Haselgrove, C. (eds.) 1997 Reconstructing Iron Age
Societies. Oxbow Monographs No. 71, Oxford.
Haselgrove, C., Armit, I., Champion, T., Creighton, J., Gwilt, A., Hill,
J.D., Hunter, F. and Woodward, A. (eds.) 2001 Understanding the
British Iron Age: An agenda for Action. Iron Age Research Seminar
and Prehistoric Society, Salisbury.
Hill, J. D. 1995 Rituals and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex.
BAR 242, Oxford.
Parker-Pearson, M., Sharples, N. and Mulville, J. 1996 ‘Brochs
and Iron Age Society: a reappraisal’, Antiquity 70, 57-67.
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.