Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mists of antiquity, fog of scholarship

A brief notice (at 200 words, it's hardly long enough to qualify as an article) in the Times Online caught my eye this week. It has the rather convoluted title, Romans and a Link to Egypt - but Scots came from Ireland, a title so lengthy as to account for a fair percentage of the word count! I was amused to see that the author, Magnus Linklater, manages to work in a reference to our own dear Ninth Legion in his first paragraph!

"The earliest written accounts [of Scotland] are to be found in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law invaded southern Scotland with the 9th Roman Legion in 81 AD."

Okay, the father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, did invade southern Scotland, but may not have been the first to do so. Archaeologists are more and more inclined to expand the role of his predecessor-but-one, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, to include a certain amount of ravaging in the Lowlands. Nor was it just the Ninth Legion that accompanied Agricola. Britannia was a four-legion province, after all. And by limiting his involvement to southern Scotland, Mr Linklater does his memory a grave injustice.

But that's only Mr Linklater's first paragraph. Here's his second:

"At that time Scotland was inhabited by tribes of Celtic origin, notably the Picts, about whom very little is known but who left behind many distinctive stone carvings."

Notably the Picts? Well, we've already scotched (ouch!) that factoid. But, from Agricola and the Ninth Legion, Mr Linklater has effortlessly drawn us onto the subject of the Picts. Where will he go next?

"Around the 6th century, the Picts converted to Christianity and some of their carvings show links with the Middle Eastern Coptic church. This image [what image?!] of two hands receiving a loaf of bread from a raven, depicts StAnthony and StPaul the Hermit in the desert. It is found on a monastery wall in Egypt and a Pictish stone at St Vigeans, Dundee."

Egypt?! Is Mr Linklater subtly suggesting a link between Pictish Dundee and monastic Egypt? I'm afraid we'll never know because, in the next paragraph, his final one, he's off on another tangent.

"Originally referred to as Alba or Alban, the name Scotland is said to derive from the Scots, a warlike Celtic race from Northern Ireland who invaded southwestern Scotland in the 3rd and 4th centuries and established the kingdom of Dalriada."

Mr Linklater should perhaps have pointed out that the Scotti (for it is they to whom he alludes!) are first mentioned in the 4th century (not the 3rd) and that the evidence for Dalriada is even later.

And that's it. A frustratingly teasing promise of Romans in Egypt that ends with an enigmatic early Scottish kingdom. Not with a bang but with a whimper ...

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