Scotland's Hidden History
Ian Armit in association with Historic Scotland
Published 1998, Tempus 176pp 112 illus. (25 col.) Hardback
This new mid-sized hardback from Tempus fills the gap between the guide book and the conventional subject-based history book. There's a good summary at the start, and the chapters are arranged by time period, describing each site in turn in a lot more detail than you'd get in a guide book. Ages covered include the first Neolithic Settlers, Bronze Age Tombs and Henges, the Iron Age, Brochs, the Romans, Picts and finally the Vikings.
The book has a lively, informal and readable style, and dipping in and out is a pleasurable way to read it. It has thoughtful analysis of sites like Skara Brae, and is bang up to date with descriptions of the Barnhouse Settlement on Orkney and the Cramond Lioness, found in the sediment in the bay on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
The plans are good - I'd have liked more. The colour plates are good, although the sumptuous photographic excesses of Max Milligan in Circles of Stone have made me unnecessarily over-critical. It's not fair of me to compare these with a thirty pound art book so I won't!
The description of Cairnpapple Hill makes it sound more interesting than I'd at first thought, and convinces me that we must make time next time we're near Edinburgh, and not spend all our day in the city. Unless I'm mistaken, Isbister chambered tomb is not local-authority owned, but on the land of maverick farmer Mr Simieson - who wouldn't take too kindly to being referred to as a 'guide' I shouldn't think. There's a good description of the fragile sandstone carvings at Ballochmoyle, and Armit considers whether they were inspired by 'hallucinogenic phenomena experienced by intoxicated shamen'. Although he acknowledges the complexity of the sites around Callanish, and the Ponting's moon re-appearance on the horizon theory, he doesn't have time for theories of complex calculations of the path of the moon at Callanish, or the Hill 'o many Stanes. This puts him in line with current archaeological thinking, which is fair enough I suppose. There's thorough coverage of the Broch-building tradition, Pictish stones and carvings .
If I was to create in my head a 'Fantasy Guide Book' it would have photographs by Max Milligan, layout and style from Julian Cope's Modern Antiquarian, the attention to detail, wit and extensive coverage of Aubrey Burl, the plans of Alaxander Thom and a good smattering of the text from this book.
An index by geographical area would be a very useful addition. Although each chapter has a map, there's no overall guide to each area of Scotland, making it difficult to think, OK - I'm going to North Uist (for example), what can I find there from all periods to see? Having said that this book will definitely be going on our next outing to Scotland, and there's no better praise than that.
Review by Andy Burnham
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