2.2 Politics and Power Structures

A photogograph of an archaeological excavation showing people excavating beside a large upright stone with Pictish carvings

Excavations at Rhynie under progress. The Craw Stane, a Class I Pictish symbol stone is in the foreground, Tap O’Noth hillfort is in the background © Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project/University of Aberdeen.

Archaeological and related evidence can show how the material culture of the past functioned to reflect and impose a dominant social ideology and its attendant social hierarchisation. Such explorations should always take cognizance of any material culture that reflects resistance to dominant ideologies.

A key development in the archaeology of early medieval Scotland in particular has been the recognition of a previously-unsuspected sophistication in the power structures and evolving polities of the region, which more than any other factor laid the foundations for the medieval kingdom. This is reflected especially in the material links with the Norse communities of the Irish Sea cultural sphere, in the complex external ties of the Picts, and in relations with the north Britons. Within Scotland the development of power centres and their relationship with pre-existing monumental landscapes, perhaps psychological as much as physical, can also be looked at more closely. It is clear that the power maps of early Scotland will repay careful attention.

The term state is laden with controversy and there is an extensive theoretical literature discussing its definition.  Some scholars would claim that states only exist in the modern world and can reinforce their claims with a text-analytical paper trail of key terminology.  In the present case the term ‘state formation’ is used loosely to describe the process which Scandinavians have come to know as riksammling, ‘kingdom gathering’.  At some point in the period between about AD 800 and AD 1200 a polity emerged in the east midlands of present day Scotland that can be fairly identified as the predecessor of the modern state.  Historians have variously termed this polity ‘the Kingdom of Scone’, ‘the Scoto-Pictish kingdom’, ‘Scotia’ and ‘Alba’.

The evidence for this polity includes later royal inaugurations at Scone which seem in some way to be connected to an event taking place in c.906 recorded in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (CKA). CKA and other sources seem to show kings from the ninth to the eleventh-century spending a disproportionate amount of time in the east midlands of Scotland and sites such as Scone, Rathinveramon, Forteviot and Forfar recur in the text more regularly than other places whilst Dunkeld, Abernethy and St Andrews clearly emerge as the chief churches of the kingdom (the king retaining an aula or hall at St Andrews at least into the mid-twelfth century). When the charter record takes off in the twelfth century it is clear that the kings enjoyed direct lordship in large parts of this territory including Gowrie, Stormont, Kinross, Fothriff (‘Dunfermline shire’), and the East Neuk of Fife. This is in contradistinction to the appearance of mormair ruling many other parts of the kingdom as a layer between the kings and the commons. [The East Neuk aside, the ‘map’ of royal direct control seems to correspond to a fair degree with parishes, contiguous and detached, of the diocese of Dunkeld].

The problem which the textual sources do not elucidate is why and how this region – a central transit zone along the Tay basin, with a corridor leading to the south-east via Dunfermline – emerged, and indeed when precisely it developed in this way. The emergence of power structures in other areas also forms an important area for further study.

A photograph of a round stamp carved with text around the edge and a ship in the centre

A Scoto-Norman object in a Gallo-Norse world? Seal matrices were essential items in the new world of charters and land grants. This example from Dunstaffnage Castle bears a (partial inscription) indicating the owner was a member of a principal family of Clan Donald. The design shows not a European symbol of lordship such a mounted knight, but rather an equivalent local symbol of martial nobility; a west highland galley © S. Campbell.

Comments 2

  1. Establishment of a Christian hierarchy?

    Is it reasonable even to hint in this context that this area reflects quite precisely ( in the situation vis a vis the Antonine Wall/Gask frontier and related military sites ) the situation at the E and W ends of Hadrian’s Wall that saw the establishment of Christian hierarchy and the early devpt of the Northumbrian ‘state’ in the 6-7th cent?

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