Review – Roots of Nationhood: the archaeology and history of Scotland

5 mins read
Louisa Campbell, Dene Wright, and Nicola A Hall (eds)
Archaeopress, £28
ISBN 978-1784919825
Review Edward Biddulph

The last ten years or so have been a dramatic time for Scotland. The country has seen a ‘homecoming’ celebration, a pair of referendums, and significant electoral success for the SNP. Politics, identity, nationality, and culture have become tightly woven, with the past brought to the fore to suit different ends. Roots of Nationhood is a timely volume that explores questions of heritage and nationhood. The chapters offer perspectives on themes of place, material culture, ideologies, and engaging with cultural heritage.

As the authors of the chapters that deal with prehistory remind us, Scotland as a concept did not exist in prehistory. However, as Ian Ralston and Kenneth Brophy show, modern boundaries and biases have impacted on how prehistory has been presented and studied. That is not to say, though, that we cannot talk of distinct identities. Dene Wright reveals that space started to become place in the Late Upper Palaeolithic, while Ann MacSween suggests that emerging local and regional identities were expressed through the decoration on Neolithic pottery.

Turning to the Roman period, Louisa Campbell reviews the theoretical basis for academic debate on culture, contact, and identity in Scotland during the Roman period. Traditionally presented in terms of simplistic dichotomies such as native and Roman, the narrative has struggled to recognise complex cultural dynamics. Louisa rightly questions the value of the term ‘Romanisation’, with its British colonial roots and implication of a one-way flow of cultural markers – although, given that its appropriateness has been questioned for some time, I wonder whether the term deserves any further discussion. As Louisa highlights, there are alternative and more useful concepts out there.

Elizabeth Pierce considers evidence for Scandinavian inhabitants in medieval Scotland. The evidence is surprisingly scanty, given what must have been a considerable amount of trade and contact between the two seafaring regions. However, pulling all the strands together – place-name, historical, and artefactual evidence – Scandinavian communities begin to emerge. Curiously, isotopic analysis, which provides evidence on origins and mobility, is not mentioned. Has any such work been undertaken on burial populations? If not, then this is surely a research priority.

The naming of Scotland is the subject of Dauvit Braun’s chapter. In the early medieval period, the name was applied to the landmass north of the Forth – the land of pagans and Picts. By the 13th century, ‘Scotland’ extended south, reflecting the increasing power of the Scottish kings. Scottish identity was further shaped by clerical appointments, although, as Sarah Thomas reveals, the picture is complex. What Scottish heritage means to people is revealed by a fascinating chapter by Steven Timoney that highlights the findings of a visitor survey at three heritage sites – the Tarbat Discovery Centre, Urquhart Castle, and the Antonine Wall. The results demonstrate that heritage sites remain powerful places, shaping both self- and national identity.

Stuart Nisbet sheds light on the darker side of Scottish history: the role of slavery in the development of 18thcentury Glasgow. It was a time that saw the construction of palatial townhouses, built on the profits of factories processing sugar cane produced by African slaves in Caribbean plantations. Today, little evidence of this ‘sugar triangle’ survives. Stuart’s paper is a reminder that we must do more to engage in the more shameful aspects of the past. Neil Curtis tells the story of Glasgow’s 1911 historical exhibition, which presented romantic notions of Scotland’s past, while Murray Stuart Leith brings the book bang up-to-date with a look at the use of history and Scottishness in modern politics. A sign of the times, both are today evoked less frequently.

Wisely, with a chronological range stretching from the Palaeolithic to the present day, the book does not attempt to bring the chapters together in a concluding discussion, though as a result the book struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, Roots of Nationhood is a thought-provoking and sensitively edited book that demonstrates the continued relevance of the past and heritage in modern Scotland.

This review appeared in CA 351.

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