31 January, 2015

Llangors Crannog

Viewing platform

Llangors Lake (also called Llyn Syfaddan and Brycheiniog Mere) is the largest natural lake in South Wales. It is located in south-east Wales, not far from Brecon.

Map link: Llangors Lake 

Llangors Lake was formed by glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age. It is a shallow lake (only about 7 m deep), notable for an abundance of fish and water birds (and a legendary aquatic monster or afanc).  It is also the site of the only known crannog in England and Wales.

Llangors Crannog

A crannog is an artificial island, typically constructed a little way offshore in an inland lake, river or estuary.  Crannogs were dwelling places, with access either by boat or via a causeway to the shore. Most of the known crannogs in the British Isles are in Ireland and Scotland, where they range in date from the Neolithic to the early medieval period.

Llangors Lake is the only known example of a crannog in Wales, and perhaps reflects Irish connections.

Llangors crannog from the shore
The Llangors crannog was excavated by archaeologists in 1989-1993. It was constructed from bundles of brushwood laid on the lake bed and held in place by hardwood beams and a ring of massive split oak piles, with a layer of sandstone boulders placed on top of the brushwood to create a platform about 25 m across (Wait et al 2005).

According to the information board at the site, dendrochronology dating on the timbers indicated that the crannog was constructed from trees felled in 889–893 AD. It would have been a very considerable construction project, requiring substantial resources in material and labour.

The excavation found a fragment of a very high-quality embroidered textile and a bronze hinge from a reliquary of a style associated with Ireland in the 8th to 9th centuries AD. This is consistent with the Llangors crannog having had high-status occupants, and the reliquary hinge suggests an ecclesiastical connection. One of the Llandaff charters records that a King Awst of Brycheiniog granted ‘Llan Cors’ and its surrounding estate to a Bishop Euddgwy in the 8th century AD (Wait et al 2005). The charter may just be a post hoc ecclesiastical attempt at a land grab, but it is consistent with the presence of the reliquary hinge and may reflect a genuine church connection. Perhaps the crannog was the site of a royal and/or episcopal hall.

Destruction of the crannog

A destruction layer of charcoal and charred timber indicated that Llangors crannog had been destroyed by fire (Wait et al 2005).

The destruction layer may relate to an event recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 916.  This year was the innocent Abbot Egbert slain, before midsummer, on the sixteenth day before the calends of July.  The same day was the feast of St. Ciricius the martyr, with his companions. And within three nights sent Ethelfleda an army into Wales, and stormed Brecknock; and there took the king's wife, with some four and thirty others.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online 

Ethelfleda is Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred the Great. ‘Brecknock’ is an alternative spelling of ‘Brycheiniog’.

The kingdom of Brycheiniog

Brycheiniog (anglicised version, Brecon) was an early medieval Brittonic kingdom in what is now south-east Wales. Its eponymous (legendary?) founder, Brychan, is traditionally said to be the son of a Brittonic mother and an Irish king. Whether literally true or not, the legend is consistent with connections between Brycheiniog and Ireland, which might account for the Irish-style reliquary hinge and the construction of a crannog, a type of dwelling more often associated with Ireland.

According to Asser’s Life of Alfred, Brycheiniog had been an ally (or vassal state, depending how voluntary the arrangement was) of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great, seeking protection against attacks from Gwynedd.

Helised, also, son of Tendyr, king of Brecon, compelled by the force of the same sons of Rotri, of his own accord sought the government of the aforesaid king [King Alfred]
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online

The ‘sons of Rotri’ were the kings of Gwynedd, sons of Rhodri Mawr. Attacks by Norse raiders may also have added to the pressure, as Annales Cambriae says that Norsemen laid waste Brycheiniog in 895.

894  Anarawd came with the Angles and laid waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi.
895  The Northmen came and laid waste Lloegr and Brycheiniog and Gwent and Gwynllywiog.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

The date of the alliance between Brycheiniog and Alfred is not precisely stated.  Since it was against the sons of Rhodri, it was presumably after the death of Rhodri Mawr in 878. Anarawd ap Rhodri of Gwynedd co-operated with ‘the Angles’, presumably Alfred, in 894 according to the Annales Cambriae, so the relationship between Brycheiniog and Alfred was most likely established before then. This suggests a date some time in the 880s.

As the crannog was built with timber felled in 889-893, its construction may have been a response to all this political and military upheaval, perhaps a desire for a secure place of refuge in the face of many threats and/or an attempt to proclaim an identity as an independent kingdom and resist being swallowed up as a vassal state.  I wonder if it was in existence when the Norse ‘came and laid waste Brycheiniog’ in 895, and if so, whether it was attacked and how it withstood the attack. Or indeed whether it was built as a reaction to this Norse attack, using timber that had already been felled a few years earlier.

Whatever the nature of the relationship between Alfred and the king of Brycheiniog, Aethelflaed clearly did not regard Brycheiniog as an ally at the time of her attack in 916. Possibly she felt that it was a Wessex arrangement that did not apply to her in her capacity as Lady of the Mercians, or that it had been negated by the death of Abbot Egbert, or that circumstances had changed and an alliance from the previous generation was no longer relevant.

It can’t be often that one queen captures another queen in battle. I wonder about the story or stories behind these fragments of archaeology and the laconic references in the chronicles. Who was the now-unknown Abbot Egbert, how was he murdered and why was he so important that his death started a war? Why did Aethelflaed blame Brycheiniog for the murder?  Was the attack on Brycheiniog really revenge for the abbot’s death? Aethelflaed seems to have acted very fast if she despatched an army within three nights of the abbot’s death, especially as news would take at least some time to travel. Was Abbot Egbert’s death merely a convenient cover for some other motive? (or an unrelated event that was attributed an unwarranted significance by an ecclesiastical chronicler who assumed that everything revolved around church affairs?)  What did Aethelflaed think of Alfred’s alliances with the various Brittonic kingdoms?  Aethelflaed and the queen of Brycheiniog may have known each other personally, or at least have met at royal court events. I wonder what they thought of each other.

Nowadays, Llangors Lake is a tranquil place between the Black Mountains on one side and the Brecon Beacons on the other. You can’t get to the crannog itself (except maybe by boat; I have no idea whether you might need a permit to land there). A walkway leads out from the shore to a modern viewing platform, with a central shelter under a roof like an Iron Age house and a gallery all round to give uninterrupted views of the crannog, the lake and the surrounding mountains. Information boards explain a little about the geography and history of the lake and the archaeological investigation on the crannog. If our visit is anything to go by, it’s home to a lot of dragonflies, ducks and swans (alas, I didn’t spot the afanc).
 
Llangors crannog from the viewing platform

References
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translation available online 
Annales Cambriae, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online 
Wait G, Benfield S, McKewan C. Rescuing Llangors Crannog. British Archaeology 2005;84, available online

21 December, 2014

The Gathering Night, by Margaret Elphinstone. Book review



Canongate, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84767-288-9. 368 pages.

The Gathering Night is set in Mesolithic Scotland around 6150 BC, when an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway (the Storegga Slide) caused a tsunami that devastated the east and north-east coast of Scotland. All the characters are fictional.

The Auk people live on the coasts and islands of what is now the western Highlands of Scotland, grouped into individual families who come together once a year at the Gathering in late summer. One autumn, Bakar, a young hunter, disappears without trace from his family’s winter camp. At around the same time, four young men of the Lynx people arrive on the west coast, having crossed all the way from the east coast where their lands have been destroyed by a catastrophic tsunami. Three of the Lynx men stay among the Heron people, south of Auk lands, and one, Kemen, comes on alone to the Auk people. At the Gathering, Kemen is accepted into the Auk people, marries an Auk girl who has just survived a murderous attack by an unknown assailant, and is accepted into the family of the missing Bakar. These events cause some resentment among other Auk families, notably the family of the assaulted girl and the Auk hunter who hoped to marry her himself. When Kemen’s brother Basajaun also turns up in Auk lands, having left the lands of the Heron people, conflict flares. Have these Lynx refugees brought ill fortune to the Auk people? And what are the Auk people going to do about it?

The Gathering Night is an unusual novel. It doesn’t really have a plot as such, although the mystery around Bakar’s disappearance and its eventual resolution provides a loose structure. The narrative is structured as a group of people taking it in turns to speak around a campfire, telling of events that happened several years previously. There is not really a central character, either. This is an egalitarian society in which people think of themselves primarily as part of a group or groups – a family, the Auk people – and only secondarily as individuals. The only one who seems to have something resembling a modern sense of self is Kemen’s brother Basajaun, and when he says to Kemen after the destruction of their lands and tribe, “A man is his own self”, Kemen is fearful and disturbed by this strange attitude. So characterisation in the conventional sense is limited, and the voices of the various narrators all sound very similar. I could sometimes tell who was speaking if I forgot to look at the tag line because of the different roles they play – shaman, hunter, child, young woman, wife, mother – but rarely from the style of speaking, because their society does not work that way.

What makes The Gathering Night stand out is its wonderful portrayal of daily life as it might have been for the Mesolithic people of western Scotland about 8,000 years ago. This period of pre-history, before the coming of agriculture, is so far removed from the modern world that it’s difficult to even begin to imagine what it might have been like to live at that time. Almost nothing is known, as there are no written records and very few physical remains. Archaeology has identified the sites of some camping places, food debris such as shell middens and nutshells provide some information about the diet, and stone tools say something about the technology available. But the cultural, social, artistic and spiritual life of the people who used the tools and ate the food is completely unknown. The author has imagined how it might have been by drawing on the traditions of more recent nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies such as the Sami, Inuit and Native Americans. Language is also completely unknown, so the author chose Basque names for the characters, as Basque is thought to be the only pre-agricultural language surviving in western Europe.

From these sources, together with the author’s own forays into hunter-gatherer skills (such as building a coracle), The Gathering Night creates a Mesolithic society complete with details of the hunting and gathering skills that might have been used, the wide range of foods utilised at different seasons, the reckoning of time and location, travel among the islands and lochs of the west coast, social organisation, conventions and values, spiritual beliefs, rituals, art and storytelling. We cannot possibly know what Mesolithic Scotland was really like (short of time travel), but The Gathering Night imagines it as a richly complex culture and brings it to vivid life on the page.

The Author’s Afterword outlines some of the sources underlying the novel, and hints at some of the places involved. There is no map because, as she says, “my characters imagined their land in other ways.” However, the landscape descriptions are so detailed and appealing that I couldn’t help trying to figure out how they might fit into the modern geography, and after an enjoyable hour or two with maps of Ardnamurchan, the Isle of Mull, Ardgour and Argyll, I reckon I can make a stab at identifying ‘Mother Mountain Island’ and ‘Gathering Loch’ at least, and maybe some of the other locations.

Beautiful portrayal of Mesolithic Scotland as it might have been about 8,000 years ago.

19 December, 2014

December recipe: Winter chicken hotpot

Winter chicken hotpot



This casserole is warming, easy to make, and a versatile user-up of odds and ends of vegetables. In this version I’ve used chicken pieces, although you could also make it with leftover turkey if you have a lot of turkey to use up after the Big Day. It’s a complete meal cooked in one pan, so the washing up is minimal, and if you use tinned pulses it will take under an hour to make.

You can vary the vegetables as you choose, depending on what you like and what you happen to have available. Carrot, parsnip, turnip, swede* and cooking apple would all be quite at home. Similarly, you could use butter beans or haricot beans instead of chick peas.  It’s the sort of recipe that’s more of a general guide than a set of specific instructions, and will probably be different every time you cook it. Here’s the version I made the other day, in the middle of a busy week.

Winter chicken hotpot (serves 2)

2 oz (approx 50 g) dried chick peas, or twice the weight of tinned chick peas
Two chicken pieces (wings, drumsticks or thighs all work well)
8 oz (approx 250 g) butternut squash
4 oz (approx 125 g) leeks
Half a red pepper
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms
1 small onion
1 clove garlic
Approximately 0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon medlar jelly** (optional)
1 lb (approx 450 g) potatoes

Soak the chick peas in cold water overnight. Rinse the soaked chick peas three or four times, then put them in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes until tender. If using tinned chick peas, follow the instructions on the tin.

If using chicken wings, halve them at the ‘elbow’ joint. This is quite easy with a sharp and strong cook’s knife. I find it easier to cut just on the lower side of the joint, where the wing has two small bones instead of the single thick bone in the upper part of the wing.

Peel the butternut squash, scoop out the seeds in the core, and cut the rest into chunks about 1.5 - 2 cm (0.5 - 1 inch) cubed.

Trim, wash and slice the leeks.

Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into pieces about 1.5 cm (about 0.5 inch) square.

Peel the mushrooms. Quarter them if small, or slice them if large.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel and crush the garlic.

Peel the potatoes and chop them into dice about 1 cm (about 0.5 inch) cubed.

Brown the chicken pieces in cooking oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat.

Add the chopped onion, squash, leeks, pepper and mushrooms. Fry until the vegetables are starting to colour. Stir in the crushed garlic.

Add the cooked chick peas and diced potatoes, along with the water, paprika and medlar jelly. Season with salt and black pepper.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the chicken and vegetables are all cooked. Stir from time to time, especially towards the end of the cooking time, as the potatoes tend to stick to the bottom of the pan when they are nearly cooked. If it starts to get dry, add a bit more water. 



*I believe previous discussions here established that the root vegetable that’s called ‘swede’ in the UK is called ‘rutabaga’ in the US
**Recipe for medlar jelly.  Crab-apple jelly or redcurrant jelly work equally well.



15 November, 2014

Catherine of Lyonesse, by Rick Robinson. Book review



Corgi, 2014. ISBN 978-0-552-57133-3. 488 pages.

Catherine of Lyonesse is set in the invented countries of Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine, which bear a distinct resemblance to sixteenth-century England and France. All events, places and characters are fictional.

Disclaimer: 
I’m acquainted with the author, Rick Robinson, by email, and Rick often comments here on my blog. I read a draft of Catherine of Lyonesse before it was published, and was very pleased to see it in print. Rick did ask me to review the book; however I had already decided to review it and ordered a copy before he asked. I should also say that I have a particular liking for the somewhat unusual genre of invented history (for a definition, see earlier post), which is set in an invented world but has none of the supernatural elements of fantasy. My own Ingeld’s Daughter is similar, although the setting is more medieval than Renaissance.
Now, on with the review.

Catherine is the elder daughter of Prince Henry of Lyonesse, heir to the old and sickly King Edmund. When her father is killed in a supposed hunting accident, seven-year old Catherine and her three-year-old sister Anne are hurried into exile in l’Aquitaine by their mother, a princess of the Aquitanian royal family. After her mother’s death, Catherine is brought up in exile at the Aquitanian court by Madame Corisande d’Abregon, ex-mistress of the King of Aquitaine and now married to the chief minister, Antoine de Chirac. Catherine is heiress to the throne of Lyonesse, which she should rightfully inherit when her grandfather King Edmund dies. The King of Aquitaine recognises her as a valuable political prize, but he is uncertain how best to make use of her. By the age of fourteen, when the main story opens, Catherine is old enough to know that she does not want to be used by anybody – she wants to reclaim her kingdom and rule it in her own right. But in Lyonesse, ambitious nobles plot a usurpation, and in Aquitaine she has enemies who would gladly see her dead, either for Court factional politics or to replace her with her more pliant sister Anne. In her support, Catherine has only her own intelligence, the education in statecraft she has received from Corisande, and two bright and beautiful young ladies-in-waiting. Can she even survive, let alone claim her throne?

Catherine of Lyonesse is a rollicking adventure yarn. Being set in an invented world, it is not constrained by real events and the story is free to take any turn the author pleases. So, unlike historical fiction, no reader can know in advance the outcome of Catherine’s dramatic – and sometimes ill-advised – escapades. Catherine is a delightful central character, warm, courageous and intelligent, but also impulsive and prone to hasty judgements that do not always work out well. The two ladies-in-waiting, brave and athletic Madeleine du Lac and voluptuous and cunning Solange de Charleville, are as vivid as Catherine herself. The court of l’Aquitaine has a believably poisonous atmosphere of in-fighting and back-stabbing, as rival factions jostle for political power and the influential position of mistress to the King. Long-standing military antagonism between Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine periodically flares into open warfare. Not least when a young nobleman of Lyonesse, William de Havilland, decides to put his experience as a mercenary ship’s captain to use as a privateer, attacking Aquitanian targets and provoking a backlash that puts Catherine in significant personal danger. The web of dynastic and political tensions surrounding Catherine creates a convincing sense of real peril.

As well as the political side to Catherine’s story, she also has an adolescent girl’s natural hopes for romantic love – though her position as heiress to a throne complicates matters – and this provides material for an intertwining sub-plot.

The different countries, cultures and languages in the novel are cleverly portrayed using variations in titles, personal and place names. In l’Aquitaine the language is Gallic, represented by French phrases, French titles (Altesse, instead of Highness), French personal names such as Catherine, Louis and Guillaume, and French spellings of place names such as Kellouique and Richebourg. In Lyonesse the language is Saxon, and the names become Kateryn or Katrin, Lewis, William, Kelliwick and Richborough. In the Republic of Ravenna, a mercantile and maritime city-state bearing a resemblance to Italian city-states such as Venice, the names become Caterina and Guglielmo. Readers familiar with sixteenth-century Europe will have great fun spotting parallels between the fictional world and real European history – almost as much fun, I suspect, as the author had in creating them. There were some that I only noticed on a second reading, and I expect there are more that I haven’t yet spotted. Catherine of Lyonesse is much more interesting than an allegory, though. Catherine has some aspects reminiscent of the young Elizabeth I and the young Mary Queen of Scots, but her actions, situation and personality are entirely her own.**

Rattling adventure yarn set in an invented world bearing a distinct resemblance to Renaissance Europe, with a cracking plot and a most attractive heroine.




**In a comment here once, Rick described Catherine as ‘a sort of improved Mary Queen of Scots’, which I think is a very apt description.