In the Shadow of Bennachie: a field archaeology of Donside, Aberdeenshire BY ROYAL COMMISSION ON THE ANCIENT AND HISTORICAL MONUMENTS OF SCOTLAND
This is an excellent production, in full-colour and between hard covers, with a fine dust-jacket and handsome end boards. It is arguably the most sumptuous of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotlands Monographs yet. This report-of-survey volume has been 12 years in preparation and now makes a welcome appearance to celebrate the centenary of the Scottish Commission as (still) an independent survey body. This reviewer is consequently full of praise for the volume, but has some concerns as to at whom the book is aimed, as well as some, perhaps understandable, niggles of a local.
Much less obviously a post-Inventory inventory than its predecessors NE and SE Perthshire and Dumfries and Galloway, its organisation occasionally found this reviewer struggling to locate a site off the (full-colour and very swish) distribution maps. The choice of four-colour reproduction for these figures, although handsome, is not without a penalty for those who wish to trace the details of individual sites. The reference to the Commissions online database, Canmore, in the introduction (p. xii), is not particularly helpful. As a case study, the cursus monument at Myreton, Insch, which is plotted on the early Neolithic maps (eg, fig. 5.1), is neither discussed in the text nor referenced in the index. Only assiduous work by an SMR colleague tracked it down successfully—after an hour or so. Such professional assistance is not likely to be available to the ordinary reader! Consequently, this strong supporter of the abandonment of traditional Inventories found himself invoking the merits of a number and a grid reference—not unaware of the irony! Personal hubris apart, surely some apparatus on the Royal Commissions website could have been set up to serve such needs?
There are 10 chapters, covering, it must be realised, much more of Aberdeenshire than the valley of the Don, and raising (see on) a variety of research issues. The volume includes not only Formartine, up to beyond the eastern end of the Ythan and the northern part of the Howe of Cromar, but also far-flung individual features such as Balfour at Birse on south Deeside. It, of course, also covers the emergence of the Don into the North Sea in the City of Aberdeen.
The illustrations embrace useful one-page collections of single-monument types at common scales (eg, round-houses, p. 84; enclosures p. 94; and collections of Pictish stones p. 117). A fascinating collection of recumbents and flankers from the eponymous sites (pp 64-5) whets the appetite for an expected future monograph on this important local type. All the Rhynie Pictish stones are depicted in the now standard, but not universally loved, Royal Commission stipple (p.120). The hillfort plans are notable achievements, particularly those of the landscape-covering Tap oNoth (pp 104-5) and Mither Tap oBennachie itself (p.107). The reproduction and production values are generally excellent, although something strange has happened to the carved stone balls on p. 77 to render them rugby-ball-shaped.
The volume contains synoptic chapters (eg, 2: The Antiquarian Tradition; 3: Survival, Destruction and Discovery; 5: Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape; 6: The Later Prehistoric Landscape; 7: the Early Medieval Landscape; 8:Medieval and later landscape) by named Commission authors, Richard Tipping apart, who provides an important narrative on Environmental History as chapter 4. This is a welcome innovation. In order the authors are: 2, Adam Welfare; 3, Angela Gannon; 5, Angela Gannon, Stratford Halliday, John Sherriff and Adam Welfare; 6, Stratford Halliday; 7, Iain Fraser and Stratford Halliday; 8, Piers Dixon and Iain Fraser. Chapter 9, The Transformation of the Rural Landscape, by Piers Dixon and Angela Gannon, is an important bridge to the present day. However, these chapters are not always without controversy (eg, the interpretation of Pictish stones as boundary markers from their location close to streams in the Early Medieval one). The volumes conclusion (Chapter 10—like chapter 1, Introduction—no author credited) with a helpful discussion of the limits of field survey, recognising the importance of the (imminent) publication of the extensive developer-funded work at Kintore, to which might have been added the opportunities offered by such linear transects of the landscape as pipelines or road schemes.
This is, as already has been indicated, much more than a field survey of the Don. In the synoptic chapters, the opportunity is taken to review much of the archaeology of the North-East of Scotland. There are inevitable concerns to the local in this process. For example, this reviewer would question the plot of the enclosure at Barflat, Rhynie, which he discovered with Ian Ralston as a result of the appearance of the Rhynie Man carving in early 1978. Regular flying since then has built up a suite of photographs in the Aberdeenshire SMR whose interpretation does not agree with the regular, probably multi-period, feature shown in fig 6.20. He would in particular question the omission of the annexe visible in Shepherd & Greig 1996, 43, although perhaps the proximity of an escarpment will not have eased the difficulty of the plotting. As an example of the wide perspective taken which is akin almost to an enumeration of research topics in NE prehistory, in the chapter on enclosures is the embanked monument at Quarry Wood, Elgin (in far-flung Moray). This, admittedly which has been variously described as a henge or a fort, is placed in the settlement enclosure category (p. 96) on the basis of comparison with the wider cropmark record. The perspective does occasionally also run out of the NE altogether, for example, in correcting the [old] view that souterrains north and south of the Mounth differ materially (p. 88). These are all research questions appropriate, perhaps, to an academic analogue institution, conducting academic research—now an AHRC independent research organisation—such as the Commission. However, it is perhaps a pity that they were not raised or discussed previously with those who grapple with them daily. They also emphasise the puzzle as to whom the volume is aimed.
Perhaps as part of the process of responding to such unarticulated and unmediated questions, the volume is peppered with interesting, if not controversial, statements that often require, but do not receive, further glossing. For example, the judgement that the Den of Craig, Auchindoir, bowl is not Neolithic but Bronze Age (p. 46) requires further argument, considering that its Neolithic age has been accepted by commentators up to now. Furthermore the four conventionally-defined henges from the Don are reduced by half—but with the addition of two (or, arguably, four) new possibilities, some previously unknown (eg, Nether Towie p. 56). True, some justification is offered (oddly, in the size of one of them, Whitestripes), but inspection of the Cambridge APs of one deleted example, Dilly Hill, Inverurie suggests to the reviewer that the modification mentioned as a justification is post-henge (p. 96). Similarly, the passing reference to the cropmark of the Barmuckity cattle fold [far from Donside, near Elgin in Moray] being a medieval moated site (p. 96) needs to be argued out.
The reference to field-walking (p. 47) is to a specially-commissioned piece of work (another innovation) by Tim Phillips on the Brindy Burn, near the Cothiemuir recumbent stone circle (RSC). However, as the authors rightly say, extrapolating from this limited exercise is not easy, even when the other field walking in Donside (not a common pursuit in these climes, admittedly) by Bill Howard at Kirkton of Bourtie, is taken into account. That said, the Commission has been cavalier in its referencing. One looks in vain in the chapter on enclosures for a reference to the hillfort typology proposed as long ago as 1979 by Ian Ralston (Ralston et al. 1979), while the animadversions on the impact of agriculture (chapter 3) might have been bolstered by reference to a Commission publication of over 20 years ago that made the same points (Shepherd 1986, 9-23). Finally, the caption on p. 76 below a photograph of a bank barrow near Nairn, given as the closest parallel to those in Perth & Kinross, omits to mention the similar one found at Muirton, Lossiemouth by Moira Greig (Discovery Excav Scot 1996, 74).
This is a typical Royal Commission production, studying an area from afar, with (arguably justified) little reference to local perspectives. This was once possibly a good approach, if locally provoking. An interesting environmental awareness has also crept in, viz the argument that abandoned farmsteads are as important as recumbent stone circles (p. 251) and that plaggen soils should be treated as monuments (p. 250). It may indeed be the time to look at new or richer farmsteads rather than marginal ones as offering greater potential for research. Certainly, Chapter 8 by Dixon and Fraser, which uses the parochial structure as an important way-in to landscape history, is a valuable contribution, as are the earlier chapters referred to above.
Altogether this volume constitutes an important contribution to Scottish landscape history—one that is long awaited, most handsome and very welcome.
Ian AG Shepherd
Ralston, I.B.M., Sabine, K. & Watt, W. 1979. Later prehistoric settlements in north east Scotland: a preliminary assessment, in Chapman, J. & Mytum, H. (eds), Settlements in North Britain 1000BC–AD1000. Oxford: British Archaeological Report 118, 149–73.
Review submitted: May 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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