Back to Book Reviews

Scottish Odysseys: the archaeology of islands, edited by Gordon Noble, Tessa Poller, John Raven & Lucy Verrill
Tempus. Stroud. 2008. 190pp 59 illus. pb ISBN 978 7524 4168 9 (18.99)

Archaeology and early History of Angus, by Andrew Dunwell & Ian Ralston
Tempus, Stroud. 2008. 192 pp, 62 figs, 26 colour plates. pb ISBN 978 0 7524 4114 6 pb (17.99)

Both these publications are in Tempus’s new, larger and more attractive format. However, an attractive cover alone (which Scottish Odysseys’ colourful picture of Boreray, part of the St Kilda archipelago, a schoolboy visit to which turned me into an archaeologist, undoubtedly has) is not everything, an error which several solid archaeological volumes—and not just this one—commit. The volume somewhat fails to live up to this fine cover or to its wistful, evocative, title either.

The book is based on 10 papers given to the Scottish Archaeological Forum (founded, it is noted, in 1969) by the various authors in October 2005. Herein are several interim works on important sites that will, it is to be hoped, ultimately see the light of day as full publications, such as the intriguing Mesolithic midden at West Voe, Sumburgh on Shetland outlined by Nigel Melton, or the great crag fort (if that be what this extraordinary feature really is) of Dun Eistean, Lewis by Rachel Barrowman. Others, such as Noble and Stevens on Bute, are more closely aligned to the subject of the volume, as is the introduction by Andrew Fleming (perhaps drawing too much on his Grand Old Man status as the doyen—or Don?!—of landscape archaeology). Another paper, which might well have served as a useful general introduction to island archaeology is by Joanna Wright on ‘Islandscapes and Standing Stones: changing perceptions’ which is a reflective, unsparing piece on what it is really like to conduct field work on a remote island with an antiquarian—and geographical— incubus in one’s head.

Noble & Stevens, however, do not stand much scrutiny, being vitiated by the mis-match between text and illustrations. For example the Highland Boundary fault is not shown running through Bute, in spite of the claim in the caption (p. 39) that it does. Similarly provoking: the whole issue of agricultural destruction, which controls the survival of monuments and the record of artefacts such as axes anywhere (and certainly on Bute, in whose treatment they are mentioned but elliptically), is generally ignored.

This is followed by the fascinating Wright paper already alluded to, then by Deborah Lamb on ‘Peeling back the layers: reconstructing a vanished Iron Age landscape’ that relies perhaps too much on assumptions on the instinctive dating of very disparate features in the landscape. These papers are followed by Barrowman on Dun Eistean then Helen Bradley on an exemplary community landscape survey on Foula. Wes Forsythe and Rosemary McConkey on Rathlin Island, follow, then Sabina Strachan on ‘A Fifer in the North’ is an exotic flower in this disparate collection. She writes convincingly on the early C17 Scottish architect Sir Wm Bruce’s lairds houses such as Jarlshof. She makes an important contribution that merits signposting to architectural historians from elsewhere in Britain. Finally, Aidan O’Sulivan’s chapter on Ireland’s western islands is largely about the Aran Islands and the search for national identity, which perhaps strays a little from the general subject but is worthy also of an introductory slot—although here it takes up the tail rather nicely.

Bradley sums up the perennial attraction of islands well (p.114): ‘a remote location, an enigmatic geography and a perceived sense of wilderness…’ Such strictures as have been made may result from the disparate authorship, coupled with the uncertain editing of Scottish Odysseys (eg, visible in the placing and over-emphasis of the illustrations at times), not least its misleading title!

Turning to Angus, this of course does not suffer from such drawbacks of multiple authorship, being based on work done as part of the Angus and South Aberdeenshire Field School from1996 to 2000. This was devised as a training exercise for Edinburgh students and concentrated on work commissioned by Historic Scotland on the cropmark archaeology of the area, which the authors define suitably loosely to permit the inclusion of important features from neighbouring areas (p. 13). This technical work has been recently published by HS and CFA in the former’s technical series as Dunwell, A.J. & Ralston, I.B.M. 2008, The Management of Cropmark Archaeology in Lowland Scotland: a case study from the Lunan Valley, Angus. Edinburgh: HS Inspectorate Research Report. ISBN CC 978 1 904 964 65 4. And a very useful read it is too.

This is a compact and very accessible summary of the archaeology of Angus that can be commended as an exemplar for other areas. As Noel Fojut states in the Preface ‘this report represents the most comprehensive account of the pre-medieval archaeology of any comparable-sized area of mainland Scotland’ (p. 10). Divided into nine chapters, running from the Introduction, which is followed by ‘Hunter Gatherers’, to the compendium ‘Celts, Romans, Picts and Scots’, this is an elegant compression of a complicated story.

As befits the expertise of the authors, the bulk of the book (the last six chapters) is concerned with the later prehistory of Angus. The cover illustration confirms this, being an excellent view of the Aberlemno Roadside Pictish class I stone, and places the area firmly into protohistory. However, what will become a textbook of local archaeology begins with a thoughtful treatment of the recovery of the evidence as presented in the pages of the invaluable Discovery & Excavation in Scotland (pp 13–19), through aerial reconnaissance and the vicissitudes of recent farming operations. These have revealed, over the years, cists, souterrains and round houses. This is a useful approach that will be imitated widely. It should be said that the sections dealing with the earlier material, chapters 2 and 3, are fresh and inviting and that the maps are extraordinarily useful, having been specially drawn for the volume. They benefit from close study and comparison (eg, the concentration of cupmarks around Forfar…keen amateurs or a significant place?—p. 39).

There is a fine colour section in Angus (many of the good APs the work of my colleague Moira Greig in her capacity as curatorial archaeologist for Angus). The artefact pictures, including the Wessex gold discs from Barnhill, Dundee and the Balmashanner hoard (nos 11 and 12) are a useful innovation in a general volume such as this, while the famous pair of forts on the Catherthuns are well-illustrated (14), and point also to another fine CFA publication: Dunwell, A & Strachan, R. 2007. Excavations at Brown Catherthun and White Catherthun Hillorts, Angus, 1995–1997. Perth: Tayside & Fife Archaeological Monograph 5.

All in all, this is a fine pair of publications that will grace any library of British archaeology. To the invidious question of which to invest in, I would say that the Odysseys while fascinating, is the more ephemeral, whereas Angus is of lasting value.

Ian AG Shepherd
Aberdeen

Review submitted: November 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.



Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page