On Saturday I watched the first episode of the new BBC series A History of Scotland presented by Neil Oliver. It’s a traditional style of history documentary with similarities to Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, and I personally really enjoyed it, partly because I know very little about Scottish history already and partly because sometimes the simpler formats can be the most absorbing.
This episode introduces the separate tribes of early Scotland, notably the Britons, Gaols and Picts and describes how they first kept the Romans at bay behind Hadrian’s Wall and later, the Picts becoming the dominant culture, faced the Vikings. It goes on to try to define when and how Scotland was created from the several different kingdoms that existed. Here, Oliver tells the story of Áed, the Pictish King who was murdered allegedly by Giric, a Gaelic man in his circle who subsequently took over Pictland as King. Áed’s son Constantine and his cousin Donald took refuge in Ireland until they were old enough to return to Pictland to challenge Giric and on their return it seems a battle occurred that killed the King, giving the throne to Donald. It was from his reign onward that Kings began to be known as Rí Alban – King of Scotland.
The last event presented in the programme is the battle of Brunanburh in 937, which I had genuinely never heard of before. The battle was between King Constantine of Scotland in a northern alliance with the Vikings against Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon King. It was really interesting to see a battle like this presented from this perspective as the existence of England is only introduced half way through and in a rightfully menacing way:
The young kingdom’s survival was touch and go from the outset. Just as Scotland was forming, another power block to the south had come of age at exactly the same time. This kingdom would prove to be Scotland’s most persistent foe of all. Angle-land was ruled by an Anglo-Saxon king called Athelstan. He’d driven the Vikings out of Northumbria and by incorporating this territory had secured a new northern boundary. But Angle-land or England as it became known was not enough for Athelstan. Admirer of the Romans, he aspired to rule the whole of Britain. He decided to carry on where the Romans left off. He marched north.
The battle was a defining moment that settled the structure of Britain for the rest of its history, as it destroyed Athelstan’s belief that England could rule the entire island and secured the two areas as completely separate Kingdoms, an issue that certainly is still in the public mind today.
I think it’s great to have a Scottish-centered popular history as however hard historians try, histories of Britain do tend to focus on England and Neil Oliver discusses this issue in The BBC History Magazine podcast for November (part 2). Its very interesting to see England shown from a genuinely different perspective, as just another destructive opposing country, rather than at the centre of events. On a more positive note, the ending of the episode is really proud and satisfying and it seems as though learning about Scottish medieval history is almost like revealing a completely fresh and different side to the English history I already know.
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to next Saturday’s episode and if you’re in the UK you can watch the first one here. The BBC also have a large section on the website about Scotland’s History with good articles on each era.