28 November, 2009

Autumn colours

The trees have mostly lost their leaves now, but the autumn colours were lovely while they lasted.

25 November, 2009

East of the Sun, by Julia Gregson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2008, ISBN 978-1-4391-0112-4. 587 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

East of the Sun is set in British India in 1928-1930. All the main characters are fictional.

In 1928, three contrasting young women board the Kaisar-i-Hind steamer, travelling from England to Bombay. Rose, aged 19, is going out to marry her fiancee, an army officer she has met only a few times. Her friend Victoria (Tor), about the same age, is ostensibly going as Rose’s bridesmaid but really with the firm intention of finding a husband in India and never, ever going back to her fussy and restrictive mother. Tor is part of the “Fishing Fleet”, the slightly disparaging contemporary slang term for the young upper-class women who go to India to look for a husband after having failed to land one during the London Season. Viva, aged 25, is theoretically chaperoning Rose and Tor, together with a disturbed teenage boy, Guy Glover, who has been expelled from his boarding school in England and is returning to his parents in India. Viva herself lived in India as a child, and is returning for the first time since her parents’ death to collect a trunk of their belongings and – hopefully – to make a new life for herself there after a disastrous love affair in England. All three women will find that India changes their lives for ever, although not always in the ways they expect.

East of the Sun is essentially three interlocking romantic storylines, one for each of the three female leads. Rose already has a husband lined up; Tor is desperately looking for one; Viva thinks she doesn’t want or need one. Their romantic adventures and misadventures, and the developing bond of friendship between them, form the core of the novel. A rather half-hearted political sub-plot pops up out of almost nowhere and vanishes again without being fully resolved, and there are occasional mentions of Gandhi, the independence movement, riots and demonstrations, but the tremendous political and social forces changing India are essentially a backdrop to the girls and their relationships. If you want to understand the political changes that ended the Raj in India, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is among the best I’ve read. If you want to imagine what it might have been like to be an upper-class girl with a restricted education trying to make a life in an exotic country halfway across the world from home, East of the Sun gives you three to choose from.

Rose, a soldier’s daughter marrying a soldier, shows the British military perspective, struggling to keep the lid on random violence along the wild and dangerous North-West Frontier. Tor, staying with the glamorous and malicious socialite Ci Ci Mallinson, shows us the brittle luxury of Bombay high society. Viva, working in a children’s home in a poor suburb of Bombay to earn money after Guy Glover has cheated her out of her chaperone’s salary, shows the perspective of the independent working woman and gives a glimpse into the poverty of the Bombay slums. All three women have their own challenges to overcome. Rose has to find out if she can build a successful relationship with a man she barely knows. Tor, eager and naïve, is like a hopeful puppy gambolling after new experiences and opportunities, but her openness leaves her vulnerable to hurt. Viva, the opposite of Tor in many ways, is detached and self-contained, emotionally traumatised by the deaths of her parents and sister when she was a child and on the run from an exploitative love affair. She has to find the courage to confront and come to terms with her past before she can build a future. Their contrasting experiences, the interactions between the three girls and the characters around them, and their developing friendship for each other, form the main strengths of the novel.

One interesting feature is the contrast between the three girls’ hopes and ambitions. Viva and some of the secondary characters, such as Daisy Barker, are trying to make independent lives and to earn their own livings within the limited opportunities open to women. Rose and Tor, by contrast, would not be out of place in Jane Austen’s world; their lives will be shaped entirely by the marriages they will make or fail to make.

East of the Sun is lavish on descriptive detail and rather chattery conversations, especially in the first half of the book while the main characters are on the ship to India. As a result, the book is long - very long – and slow-paced. I often felt that it had taken pages and pages to get nowhere very much. Readers who love detailed descriptions of exotic places and customs will find much to enjoy; others may find the novel too slow and drawn-out. The author says in the question-and-answer interview at the back of the book that she found it frustrating to be unable to include the political turmoil of the time because her three heroines wouldn’t have had much knowledge or understanding of it; no doubt this is true, though it could surely have been solved if desired by introducing another viewpoint character who did.

Curiously, despite its length, the novel skips over some major events in the characters’ lives and some of the plot threads are never resolved. Tor’s whirlwind romance (so unlikely that I wonder if it is based on a real event, truth being stranger than fiction) is disposed of in a page or two with hardly anything to show her feelings. We never see the point of view of the handsome and intelligent young doctor Frank, though I found him an interesting character and would have liked to see more of him. Tor’s story and Viva’s are completed by the end of the book, but Rose is left with a lot of rather unsatisfactory unanswered questions. Guy Glover’s role in the novel is the most unsatisfying. He exhibits symptoms that would now be considered suggestive of schizophrenia (a new concept at the time, according to the novel), and pops in and out of the narrative at intervals to wreck Viva’s plans. His malevolent actions do act as a plot catalyst forcing Viva into important decisions, but his story just stops without being properly resolved, which I found disappointing.

An interesting question-and-answer interview at the back of the book discusses some of the influences and sources for the novel, and a helpful map at the front is invaluable for following the geography. A glossary of Hindi terms might have been handy, but they are almost always clear from the context so its absence is no great problem.

Lavish, detailed and very long romantic story about the developing friendship between three young English women in British India.

24 November, 2009

Appeal for votes by Alistair Forrest

My Quaestor2000 colleague Alistair Forrest is appealing for votes for his novel Libertas in the October People's Book Prize.

Libertas is a historical novel set in Spain in the 1st century BC, against the background of Caesar's civil wars.

Voting is open until 30 November, and you can vote here

Thanks from Alistair for your support!

22 November, 2009

November recipe: Fudge squares

There are lots of variations of this tea-time treat, under lots of different names. I have always known it as Fudge Squares, or sometimes Chocolate Caramel Shortbread, but I’ve seen something very similar called Millionaires’ Shortbread or even Billionaires’ Shortbread. Inflation being what it is, I suppose Trillionaires’ Shortbread is only a matter of time. Anyway, here is my recipe. If you want to make the caramel or chocolate layers thicker, just increase the quantity.

Fudge Squares

Biscuit base:
6oz (approx 150 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
3 oz (approx 75 g) butter
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) bicarbonate of soda (if you can’t measure a quarter of a teaspoon, you’re not alone. I treat this as “a smidgeon”)
1 egg, beaten

Fudge topping:
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar. If you like a really rich treacly flavour, use half dark muscovado sugar
6 dessertspoons (approx 60 ml) milk

Chocolate topping:
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain chocolate.

Grease a shallow baking tin about 7” (approx 18 cm) square.

Rub the butter into the flour, sugar and bicarbonate of soda until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir in the beaten egg and mix to a stiff dough.

Press the dough evenly into the base of the greased baking tin. This is easier if you lightly dust your hands with flour, as the dough tends to be sticky.

Bake at about 180 – 200 C for about 25-30 minutes until set and light golden brown. Cool in the tin.

Put the ingredients for the fudge topping in a small saucepan, and heat gently, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.

Increase the heat and boil gently, STIRRING ALL THE TIME, for 6-7 minutes until the mixture thickens and starts to look like fudge.

Remove from the heat and pour evenly over the biscuit base. Spread the fudge using a table knife into a roughly even layer over the top of the biscuit base. Leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Pour evenly over the fudge topping, using a table knife to spread the chocolate if necessary. Leave to cool.

When the chocolate has set, loosen the edges of the biscuit base from the tin using a blunt knife. Put a flat board over the tin and invert it so the fudge square falls out of the tin and onto the board chocolate side down. Remove the tin. Cut into 12 pieces. You can cut it up in the baking tin if you like, but I find it easier to cut up if it is turned out chocolate side down.

Keeps in an airtight tin for a week or so.

17 November, 2009

Aelle of Deira

Aelle is the first king of Deira (roughly modern Yorkshire) who can be reasonably securely dated. He lived in the late sixth century, and shouldn’t be confused with the later king Aelle of Northumbria, who reigned in the 860s, was defeated by a Norse (Viking) army and featured (loosely) in the Kirk Douglas film The Vikings. Aelle of Deira was a quite separate individual, and as far as I know has never attracted the attention of Hollywood. What do we know about him?


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 560. This year Ceawlin undertook the government of the
West-Saxons; and Ella, on the death of Ida, that of the
Northumbrians; each of whom reigned thirty winters. Ella was the
son of Iff, Iff of Usfrey, Usfrey of Wilgis, Wilgis of
Westerfalcon, Westerfalcon of Seafowl, Seafowl of Sebbald,
Sebbald of Sigeat, Sigeat of Swaddy, Swaddy of Seagirt, Seagar of
Waddy, Waddy of Woden, Woden of Frithowulf.

A.D. 588. This year died King Ella; and Ethelric reigned after
him five years.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


At some date before Pope Gregory the Great was appointed Pope, he apparently saw some Anglian slave boys for sale in the market in Rome, and enquired where they were from:

What is the name," proceeded he, "of the province from which they are brought?" It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. "Truly are they De ira," said he, "withdrawn from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?" They told him his name was Ælla: and he, alluding to the name said, "Hallelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
--Bede Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. I.

This incident is undated, but presumably occurred after Gregory came back to Rome from a journey to Constantinople in around 585/586 (Catholic Encyclopaedia), and before Gregory was made Pope in 590 AD.

He [Pope Gregory] sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. [….] However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis

Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 AD, so Aelle was king of Deira at this date.

Aelle had a brother called Aelfric:

…the kingdom of Deira devolved upon Osric, son of Edwin’s uncle Elfric…
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III Ch. 1

Two of Aelle’s children are known by name, a daughter called Acha who married Aethelferth of Bernicia (see earlier post for more information on Acha), and a son called Edwin (Eadwine) who was exiled by Aethelferth of Bernicia and later regained his kingdom (Bede Book II Ch.12). Eadwine was killed in 633 at the age of forty-eight, according to Bede (Book III Ch. 20), and was therefore born around 585 AD.

Eadwine had a nephew called Hereric, implying the existence of another sibling, but it is not known whether this was a brother or sister, or whether (s)he was a child of Aelle or of Eadwine’s (unknown) mother. Bede describes Hereric’s descent as ‘noble’ (Bede Book IV Ch. 23), which is consistent with royal descent from Aelle, but this is not certain.


Aelle appears in various genealogies:

Eadwine son of Aelle son of Yffe son of Wuscfrea son of Wilgils son of Westerfalca son of Soemil son of Saefugel son of Saebald son of Siggot son of Seubdaeg son of Woden son of Frealaf
--Anglian Collection

61. Woden begat Beldeg, Brond begat Siggar, who begat Sibald, who begat Zegulf, who begat Soemil, who first separated Deur from Berneich (Deira from Bernicia.) Soemil begat Sguerthing, who begat Giulglis, who begat Ulfrea, who begat Iffi, who begat Ulli, Edwin, Osfrid, and Eanfrid
--Historia Brittonum ch. 61

See also his genealogy in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted above.

Reginald of Durham (12th century chronicler)

"Aethelferth not only drove from his kingdom Aella king of the Deirans whose daughter he had married, but after inflicting a series of defeats on him and expelling him from several refuges he deprived him of his life and kingdom together."
-Quoted in John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga.


The genealogies are remarkably consistent for four or five generations before Aelle, and even the names in the upper reaches are broadly similar, so either the surviving manuscripts all copied from each other or they were all derived from the same tradition.

The date given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Aelle’s death (588 AD) does not fit with the statement by Bede in On the Reckoning of Time that Aelle was still king in Deira, reigning at the same time as Aethelferth in Bernicia, in 597 AD when Augustine arrived in Kent. I’ve argued elsewhere that the date in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may be mistaken, perhaps arising from a confusion between two kings named Aethelric, and that a date of 605 AD for Aelle’s death and Aethelferth’s takeover is a better fit with more of the sources. (You can make up your own mind whether you agree with me).

However, the reign length for Aelle given in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t contradict Bede, and there seems no particular reason to challenge it. It’s possible that “thirty years” was just an approximation meaning “a long time”, or that it meant what it said. AD dating was popularised by Bede, and prior to its widespread adoption the standard method of reckoning dates was by regnal years (“in the Xth year of the reign of King Y”), as can be seen from the records of some of the Church synods given in Bede’s history. A system of reckoning time by regnal years requires keeping records of kings and their reign lengths. Reign length is thus the sort of information we might expect a scribe to have access to from early sources, perhaps king-lists from Northumbria and its component parts of Deira and Bernicia and/or stories handed down in oral tradition.

Thirty years (approximately) is a long time to hold down the most dangerous job in early medieval Britain, but reigns of that sort of length are not unknown. Oswy of Northumbria ruled for about 28 years (“with much trouble”) according to Bede (Book III Ch 14), Aethelferth ruled for 24 years in total according to Historia Brittonum, and Alfred the Great ruled Wessex for 28 years between 871 and 899. Perhaps Aelle of Deira was similarly long-serving. If he was, he would presumably have been at least middle-aged and perhaps approaching old age by the end of his reign. This may indicate the context in which Aethelferth successfully annexed Deira. If Aelle did rule for thirty years or so, it’s a reasonable inference that he was an effective ruler (or possibly a very, very lucky one), but no-one remains at the height of their powers for ever. If he was ageing and/or in poor health he may have been an easy target for the aggressive and militarily able Aethelferth.

If Aelle ruled in Deira for 30 years, and his reign ended in 605 when Aethelferth began his 12 years of rule in Deira, then Aelle would have begun his rule in Deira somewhere around 575 AD (give or take a few years if the 30-year reign length is taken as an approximation). If we disregard Reginald of Durham’s late account and say that Aelle’s reign ended five years before Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira, that would place Aelle’s reign from 570 to 600 or thereabouts. Interestingly, either scenario would make him roughly contemporary with Peredur, killed in 580 AD according to Annales Cambriae and traditionally associated with York. Given that Aelle’s son Eadwine controlled York in the next generation (by 627 AD), this raises interesting questions about the relationship between Aelle and Peredur and the political territories they controlled. More about Peredur in a later post.


Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Marsden J. Northanhymbre Saga. Kyle Cathie, 1992, ISBN 1856260550
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Anglian Collection, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Catholic Encyclopaedia, Pope St Gregory I (“the Great”), available online

15 November, 2009

Book Giveaway from Nan Hawthorne

Nan Hawthorne is giving away free e-book copies of her novel An Involuntary King to readers outside North America. Here is what she says:

"I recently checked the price that Amazon.co.uk charges for my novel, An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. I was appalled. Of course, it's a combination of the fact that the book costs too much anyway and that postage to ship from my printer to your green and sceptered-isle is likewise.

So I am making this offer to those to live in the land where my novel takes place, namely England. If you purchase the ebook version on Smashwords, I will give you a coupon for 100% off the cover price there. That is, I am giving you the book.

You will need to contact me to get the coupon code first. Email: hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com

You can check out the book's page on Smashwords for more information on the book itself.

To qualify you just have to tell me the name of the town and county you live in and the name of your favorite king or queen of England. That part is just to humour me.

Don't dilly dally... there's an expiration date for the coupon. It's not for a while, but still..."

-Nan Hawthorne

So there you go - to get a free e-book copy of Nan's book, all you have to do is email her on hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com, with the name of your town and county and the name of your favourite king or queen of England, and Nan will send you a coupon code.

I checked with Nan, and the offer is open to anyone outside North America.

10 November, 2009

The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2000. ISBN: 0099414732, 315 pages.

Set in Rome and Britain in 70 AD, immediately after the political turmoil of the Year of Four Emperors, this historical mystery launched the immensely (and deservedly) popular Falco series. Emperor Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian are secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Hard-bitten and not very successful private informer Marcus Didius Falco is short of funds, as ever. When he has the opportunity to rescue a pretty aristocratic girl from the thugs who are chasing her through the Forum, he naturally hopes for a reward from her wealthy family. Instead, he finds himself commissioned to investigate a murky financial scam, which soon turns out to have even murkier political overtones. When the trail turns murderous, Falco finds himself travelling to the godforsaken wilds of Britain, where he encounters two perils - working as a slave in the silver mines, and the beautiful, classy senator’s daughter Helena Justina.

I’ve read The Silver Pigs many times since it first appeared, and listened to the BBC radio adaptation starring Anton Lesser at least twice, and it’s just as fresh on an umpteenth encounter as on the first. The plot races along even faster than Helena Justina’s carriage driving, with plenty of unlikely twists and turns. I always lose track of who is double-crossing who among all the nefarious dealings – involving stolen silver, smuggling, attempts to bribe the Praetorian Guard, and a conspiracy against the Emperor – but for me that never matters. I read The Silver Pigs not for the whodunnit (although the murder is ingeniously resolved), but for the fun and energy of Falco’s world, the strong cast of characters and the sharpness of the writing.

Rome in The Silver Pigs is a city teeming with people from all walks of life, all of them busy making a living, raising their families, trying to get rich quick, arguing, gossiping, fighting, joking and trying to put one over on each other. Its richness and vitality remind me in some ways of Dickens’ London, or Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. Never mind the Great Men and the marble monuments, Falco’s Rome is a city of jerry-built apartment buildings, dodgy fast-food joints, street markets, brothels, unsavoury taverns, labourers, craftsmen, debt collectors and muggers. There is a wealth of historical detail, but it’s there to create a world and never simply slathered on for exotic background.

Falco is a marvellous character, streetwise gumshoe and hopeless romantic by turns. An ex-legionary who served in Britain during the trauma of the Boudican revolt, he is as tough as an old Army boot and a casual womaniser (or he would like you to believe he is – I’m never sure how many of the Tripolitanian acrobat girls are wishful thinking), but his little niece shows him up to be a big softy at heart and he writes sentimental love poetry that nobody reads. His cynical, witty narrative, in a slangy style reminiscent of Marlowe, is nothing less than a delight. Helena Justina, cool, intelligent and self-possessed, makes a worthy match for him as their relationship develops (in this and subsequent books).

The secondary characters are no less colourful. Falco’s gimcrack apartment building is owned by a retired gladiator called Smaractus who employs a team of heavies to collect unpaid rent, and the ground floor is occupied by a laundry run by the kindly but no less formidable Lenia, who has her eye on marrying Smaractus at a profit. Falco’s old friend and ex-Army colleague Petronius is a world-weary watchman, ever ready to drown his sorrows in a flagon of cheap wine, usually only to find that they can swim. Falco’s domineering mother and tribe of sisters have very little truck with the idea that Falco is supposed to be the head of the family. Emperor Vespasian, the tough provincial army general who came from nowhere and made himself Emperor, has a splendid cameo role (in the radio adaptation Michael Tudor Barnes plays him as a bluff Yorkshireman, and now it’s his voice I always hear for Vespasian when reading the books).

But the great strength of the Falco novels, for me, is the racy, humorous writing style. Some examples:

  • A Praetorian guard officer on investigating smugglers: “…. tracking the weevils back to their biscuit….”

  • On Britain: “If you simply cannot avoid it, you will find the province of Britain out beyond civilisation in the realms of the North Wind. If your mapskin has grown ragged at the edges you will have lost it, in which case so much the better is all I can say.”

  • On Bath: “Hot springs gushed out of the rock at a shrine where puzzled Celts still came to dedicate coinage to Sul, gazing tolerantly at the brisk new plaque which announced that Roman Minerva had assumed management. […] I could not believe that anything could ever be made of this place.”

  • On a shady dealer in metals: “…..a loud British wideboy, all twisty electrum necklets and narrow, pointed shoes …..”.

  • On a brawl in a brothel: “The table toppled over, pulling down a curtain to reveal some citizen’s white backside rising like the Moon Goddess as he did his anxious duty by a maiden of the house; the poor rabbit froze in mid-thrust, then went into eclipse.”

  • On Helena Justina, when Falco first meets her as an enemy: “…burnt caramel eyes in a bitter almond face….”, and later, when he realises she is far from an enemy, “….warm caramel eyes in a creamy almond face….”

Warm, humane, funny and unsentimental, The Silver Pigs is lighthearted but not lightweight, ranging from the tragic to the absurd with a cast of colourful characters and a vivid recreation of ancient Rome in all its grubby glory.

03 November, 2009


The Attacotti are mentioned in a small number of sources as a tribe who attacked Late Roman Britain in the second half of the fourth century. Who were they, and where did they come from?


Ammianus Marcellinus

The major source for the Attacotti’s existence is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote a history of Rome in the late fourth century. In Book 27 of his history, he writes:

It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.
--Ammianus Marcellinus

“At that time” refers to 364 AD, so his account is roughly contemporary with the events described.

St Jerome

St Jerome was a Christian priest who lived between about 350 and about 420 AD, and who travelled to Gaul some time around 365–370 AD. In one of his writings, he mentions the Attacotti as a British tribe and describes them as cannibals:

Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.
--Quoted in the Wikipedia entry

The Wikipedia entry says the Latin is capable of a less dramatic interpretation, if the word “humanis” (human flesh) is a mistake for “inhumanis” (animal flesh”, in which case the Attacotti’s dietary preferences would be “haunches of fatted animals” and “sow belly or cow’s udder”. I’m not qualified to comment on the Latin, but I have to say I find this a much more plausible scenario. Cow udder is a traditional dish, along with things like pig’s head brawn, tripe and chitterlings. Animal haunches – otherwise known as hams – need no comment.

Notitia Dignitatum

The Notitia Dignitatum (List of Offices) is an official list of late Roman administrative and military posts from about 400 AD. Some of the military units listed have names that could be variant spellings of Attacotti:

Section VII:
In Italy:
Atecotti Honoriani iuniores

In the Gauls with the illustrious master of horse in Gauls:
Atecotti Honoriani seniores
Atecotti iuniores Gallicani.
--English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units

If these refer to the same tribe as the Attacotti of Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome, this suggests that the Late Roman Army had recruited some troops from the rebellious British tribe and sent them off to serve elsewhere in the Empire. Whether the service was voluntary (for the promise of pay and the chance to see the world), or compulsory as part of the price of defeat, or a bit of both, is open to question.

Where were the Attacotti from?

St Jerome, a contemporary who could have met some of the Atecotti soldiers stationed in Gaul, is clear that they were a British tribe. Ammianus, also contemporary, considers them to be distinct from both the Picts and the Scots (Irish). Since they attacked Roman Britain and since Ammianus brackets them with other tribes from outside the Empire, it’s a reasonable inference that they did not live within the Roman province of Britannia.

I can think of two plausible locations for the Attacotti:

  • One of the tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, north of Hadrian’s Wall but outside the area associated with the Picts

  • A tribe living in the area associated with the Picts, but sufficiently culturally distinct to be considered a separate group by Roman observers.

Southern Scotland/north-east England

Ptolemy’s Geography, compiled in the second century AD, lists four tribes living in what is now southern Scotland/north-east England, roughly in the area north of Hadrian’s Wall and south of the Forth–Clyde line. This area was outside the Roman province in 360. In later sources the Picts are usually associated with the area north of the Forth–Clyde line. I suspect that the term “Picts” was applied rather vaguely, and perhaps meant different things at different times to different people, but if Ammianus applied the same regional association the tribes of southern Scotland would not have counted as Picts. The tribes listed by Ptolemy are:

The Novantae dwell on the side toward the north below the peninsula of this name
Below are the Selgovae
From these toward the east, but more northerly, are the Damnoni
Further south are the Otalini
--Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2

None of these names looks obviously related to “Attacotti”, but the name “Picts” doesn’t appear in Ptolemy’s Geography either. It is entirely possible that one (or more) of the tribes acquired a new name between the second century and the fourth, or that “Attacotti” was invented as a new umbrella term to group them together. This possible location, combined with St Jerome’s lurid description, may underlie the legend that a race of cannibals once lived in the region of Glasgow.

Culturally distinct group among the “Picts”

Since St Jerome says the Attacotti were a British tribe, I’ll take that as an indication that they came from mainland Britain, not Ireland, and consider where they might be found amongst the “Picts”, but the same line of argument could be applied equally well to an Irish tribe.

“The Picts” was clearly a sort of umbrella term for a multiplicity of different tribes. Ammianus Marcellinus recognises two subdivisions, and there may well have been many more. The Pictish origin legend refers to seven regions, and Ptolemy’s Geography lists many tribes in what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. I touched on the likelihood of multiple regional groupings among the “Picts” in my earlier post about the name, and Jonathan Jarrett has discussed the issue in more detail. Similarly, Ptolemy reports a large number of separate tribes in Ireland. One would not necessarily expect Latin writers based in the Mediterranean lands to be experts in the detailed nomenclature or comparative anthropology of hostile “barbarian” tribes from beyond the fringes of the known world. The terms “Picts” and “Scots” may have been rather vague catch-all labels, perhaps (probably?) no more precise than modern labels like “Asian”.

If the Atecotti army units in the Notitia Dignitatum were indeed recruited from the Attacotti tribe, there is the possibility that they, or records about their recruitment, were the source of Ammianus’ and St Jerome’s information about the Attacotti. In which case, “Attacotti” may have been their own name for themselves. Presumably the Roman army bureaucracy would have wanted to know what to call the new recruits, and the simplest way to find out would have been to ask them. If the Attacotti thought of themselves as a distinct tribe, and either didn’t accept or had never heard of the Roman label of Pict, they would naturally give their tribal name and the scribe would naturally write it down as best he could.

A related possibility is that the Attacotti were somehow sufficiently distinct from the Roman idea of a “Pict” for Roman observers to conclude that they must be a separate tribe. This could have been due to a difference in any cultural marker - customs, religion, language, appearance, etc. For example, if the Romans assumed all “Picts” were “painted people”, maybe the Attacotti didn’t use body paint or tattoos? Material culture certainly varied widely across the territory associated with the “Picts” (see Jonathan Jarrett’s article for some examples). I’ll focus on one: the brochs.

The broch-builders

Brochs are impressive and sophisticated drystone towers, found only in what is now Scotland. Many have a double-skinned wall with a passageway and steps in the space between the inner and outer walls, and appear to have been two- or three-storey buildings. The double-skinned wall would act as a barrier to stop rain seeping in to the dwelling areas, and would also have helped circulate heat through the structure (see explanation and a reconstruction drawing here). If the cattle lived on the ground floor in the winter they would have contributed to the central heating – you get a lot of heat off a cow – without too much in the way of smells or mess in the dwelling area. As usual, there’s a debate about the purpose of brochs – defensive castle, farmhouse or stately home? – and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have fulfilled more than one role at different times and places.

Not only are brochs confined to what is now Scotland, they are concentrated in defined areas, mainly Caithness (the north-east corner of the mainland), the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland), and the Western Isles (see distribution map on the Wikipedia page). This restricted distribution is consistent with (though does not prove) the possibility that brochs were mainly built and used by one or a few tribes.

As an interesting straw in the wind, it’s worth noting that Norse place names in Scotland are also heavily concentrated in the Northern and Western Isles and to a lesser extent in Caithness (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). I should stress that I am not suggesting a direct association between Norse place names and brochs. For a start, they are separated by a thousand years or so, as brochs are mostly considered to have been built in the century or so either side of 0 AD, and Norse place names are mostly considered to date from around the ninth to twelfth centuries. However, the one thing that never changes about history is geography, as the saying goes. The Northern Isles and Caithness are the areas most obviously open to seaborne contact with Norway. Maybe there was cultural contact between these regions long before the historical Norse (Viking, if you prefer) settlements in Scotland, leading to the development of a distinctive cultural identity among the people living in the Northern and Western Isles and Caithness, expressed in the building of brochs (and possibly also in other ways that haven’t left evidence).

Place name

The Pictish origin legend says that their land was divided between the seven sons of Cruithne. In the Pictish Chronicle their names are given as:

Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn
--Pictish Chronicle

In the Irish translation of Historia Brittonum their names are given as:
Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.
--Historia Brittonum, Irish

“Got” or “Cait” is the origin of the modern name Caithness. Clutching at straws, how about a connection between “Cait” and the “-cott-” element in Attacotti? This is no more than dictionary fishing on my part, and I am not qualified to say whether there is any possible basis for a connection on linguistic grounds, so it may well just be a superficial resemblance. But possibly an interesting one.

Speculative interpretation

How about the broch-builders or their successors, living in what is now Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as a candidate for a culturally distinct tribe who in the 360s AD were called the Attacotti by Ammianus Marcellinus and St Jerome?

If other aspects of their culture were as distinctive as their architecture, such a tribe may well have seemed sufficiently culturally distinct from the other tribes the Romans called “Picts” to warrant a separate name.

Contact with Norway across the North Sea may have stimulated the development of a distinctive culture in Caithness and the Northern and/or Western Isles, as happened with the Norse (Viking) influence in similar areas in later centuries.

An echo of the name Attacotti may – and I stress ‘may’ – possibly be traceable in the name of Caithness.

Needless to say, other interpretations are possible.

Ammianus Marcellinus, available online
Graham-Campbell J, Batey CE. Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey. Edinburgh University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0748606412. Searchable at Google Books.
Historia Brittonum, Irish, available online
Notitia Dignitatum, available online, English translation, omitting the lists of units, Latin text, including the lists of units
Pictish Chronicle, available online
Ptolemy, Geography, Book 2, available online

Map links
Location map showing Shetland and Orkney (The Northern isles) in relation to Scotland and Norway