Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland by Tim Clarkson

One of the best books I’ve ever read on early medieval history, and by far the best on this part of the world. It’s steeped in research, doesn’t hesitate to say when something is unknown – which can be a refreshing change for books on this period – and is open about the value or otherwise of its sources.

The “Men of the North” are a sort of medieval Welsh tradition of heroes from former Brittonic or British parts of post-Roman, pre-11th century parts of Britain. That mainly means Glasgow, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire, with forays south as far as Cumbria (Lake District) and fluctuating borders to fit the constant warring of the period.

The existence of a separate kingdom of the Britons is usually only mentioned in passing, usually something like, “at this point Scotland didn’t exist, and was inhabited by Picts, Angles, Britons, Gaels, and Vikings in different places,”  occasionally followed by more in-depth discussion about thePicts (mysterious), Angles (plenty evidence, especially in language), Gaels (become the leaders of Scotland, spoke Gaelic) or the Vikings (bloodthirsty artistic types who take over the north and the south-west and bring plenty more language with them). On the Britons, most books were silent.

I’ve always wondered what was happening in my part of the world during the Dark Ages, but I figured that a lack of surviving sources had made it impossible. Well now I know better. Yes, the sources are sketchy, but Mr Clarkson has woven a remarkable tapestry from them, clearly identifying the gaps and places where repairs have been necessary along the way.

Having read it the whole way through now I’ve got several new threads to follow up: battles I’d never heard of; locations to visit; artefacts to investigate; there is so much detail here I foresee it becoming dog-eared through constant reference. This book is unlikely to make it to the boxes in the loft.

One question jumped out at me right away though. I’d always understood that the Brythonic language disappeared because of the influence of Old English in the Lowlands. Mr Clarkson suggests it died out because the ruling classes spoke Gaelic and that’s what took over. If true, for how long was Gaelic the main language spoken in the Lowlands? And for how long before Scots developed?

Additional note 25th March
I should have added yesterday that the existing placename evidence for Lanarkshire strongly suggests Gaelic was spoken here (Kilbride, Airdrie and lots of Auchen- places being good examples). I’m intrigued by the rate and time of changeover, not disputing that Gaelic was spoken in the south.