Knitting An Early Medieval Scottish ScARF

A Scotty Scarf!

Image: Jose M Vazquez (Flickr Commons)
Used under a CC Licence

If you are a scholar of Early Medieval Ireland, you are also a scholar of Early Medieval Scotland. We can’t begin to understand one, without viewing it in conjunction with the other. It’s that simple.

Ok, there’s also Early Medieval Britain, Wales, Norse Scandinavia, Merovingian & Carolingian Europe; but Early Medieval Scotland is really, really important. It occupied a central position between Ireland, Northumbria, Saxon & Norse Britain and onwards to Scandinavia. If the Irish and North Sea can be considered major medieval ‘highways’; then Scotland was possibly one of the biggest and most complicated medieval ‘cultural roundabouts’ of its day.

Which is why the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) deserves to be widely consulted by Irish based scholars. Essentially, it’s a one-stop-shop for all current archaeological knowledge and thinking concerning Scotland, ranging from the palaeolithic/mesolithic to the modern-day. Launched last year, the site itself is the framework.

(ScARF) reflects the current state of knowledge regarding Scotland’s past. As understanding of the past changes, so too will ScARF. It should be seen as a live document that will be constantly updated, edited and improved.

ScARF is therefore not a routine publication as it is one that is revised from day one. It is also multi-authored and necessarily multi-disciplinary, reflecting the variety of approaches and people who conduct research into the past.

It’s a fantastically rich resource for anyone considering post-graduate research on any aspect of Scotland’s archaeology and history; and its medieval section is no exception.

The Medieval Panel was tasked to critically review the current state of knowledge regarding Medieval Scotland, and to consider how that knowledge could be added to, re-evaluated and accessed. The key aim was to develop a template for maintaining a relevant, responsive and inclusive research framework.

To this end, the five headings under which they have arranged their recommendations illustrate the wide-ranging collaborative approach that future directions will hopefully aim for.

  • From North Britain to the Idea of Scotland
  • Lifestyles and Living Spaces
  • Mentalities
  • Empowerment
  • Parameters

The words ‘multi-disciplinary’, ‘collaborative’, ‘holistic’ and ‘social’ can be much abused in academic grey literature. But the way they are employed within the medieval research framework is more than lip-service. Interdisciplinary approaches are undoubtedly the way forward for modern and future scholarship and is very refreshing to see it championed by ScARF.

The astonishing impact of the advent of technology within archaeological research in the last 20 years or so, works both ways. It allows us to go over old ground in new ways, sure; but more importantly, it also facilitates looking at new ground in old ways. Within the early medieval period, and landscape approaches in particular, that really does means integrating archaeology with history, literature, languages, placenames and folklore. To this end, it is equally refreshing to see ScARF highlighting the importance of harnessing local expertise, knowledge and traditional skills.

From my own perspective, the sections dealing with of early Christianity in Scotland are of particular interest; spirituality, the medieval church and a very interesting case study on the early development of the church.  For such an important cultural participant in the early medieval region, you’d be surprised at how little is known of Scotland’s early Christian sites; despite a wealth of untapped attestations in saints cults and placenames.

Understanding regional expressions of Christianity through work on saints’ dedications and cults, sculpture, burials and landscape offers the best potential, including the potential to track networks of patronage. Through a landscape approach, it should be possible to explore the question of how regional prehistoric character and specific local circumstances affected local manifestations of Christian practice.

My own research has been attempting to do something related with regard to Patrician hagiography; and previous approaches elsewhere in Ireland (such as the Making Christian Landscapes Project led by Tomás Ó Carragáin and John Sheehan, UCC) have already been seen to produce significant results and clearer understandings when applied to regional studies.

A very welcome and potentially crucial component of medieval ScARF is the acknowledgment of the importance of prehistoric legacy in the early medieval period.  In a section dealing with the inheritance of the prehistoric past, we read of the contrasting views with which researchers can potentially harness when looking at the past ‘in the past’.

Of course, this is another particular interest of mine; but I have always maintained that, in a way, early medieval populations inhabited a more complete prehistoric landscape then people in prehistory. Prior to urbanisation & large-scale land division, and at the very end of the Iron Age (whatever we eventually decide THAT was/is); the widest extent and presence of prehistoric monuments and remains would have been most visible and strongest felt within the early medieval period. While the prehistoric motivations and cosmologies involved in their original creation may be irrevocably lost to us; their destruction, augmentation, inclusion or isolation within the early medieval period carries large potential to inform our understanding of the early medieval character and mindset.

All in all, there is a huge amount to take in with ScARF.  I haven’t had much of a chance to glance at some of the other chronological periods; but by the looks of it there is something for everyone here. The identification of research gaps in Scottish archaeology and directions for future research will no doubt inform and influence the next generation of scholarship, as well as providing those of us already engaged with a wide-ranging framework with which to take stock. I wish it every success.

For those interested, the early medieval Irish equivalent can be found at

One thought on “Knitting An Early Medieval Scottish ScARF

  1. Pingback: Saints in Scottish Place-Names | vox hiberionacum

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