The Isles: A History

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Overview

Written by one of the most brilliant and provocative historians at work today, The Isles is a revolutionary narrative history that presents a new perspective on the development of Britain and Ireland, looking at them not as self-contained islands, but as an inextricable part of Europe.

This richly layered history begins with the Celtic Supremacy in the last centuries BC, which is presented in the light of a Celtic world stretching all the way from Iberia to Asia Minor. Roman Britain is seen not as a unique phenomenon but as similar to the other frontier regions of the Roman Empire. The Viking Age is viewed not only through the eyes of the invaded but from the standpoint of the invaders themselves--Norse, Danes, and Normans. In the later chapters, Davies follows the growth of the United Kingdom and charts the rise and fall of the main pillars of 'Britishness'--the Royal Navy, the Westminster Parliament, the Constitutional Monarchy, the Aristocracy, the British Empire, and the English Language.

This holistic approach challenges the traditional nationalist picture of a thousand years of "eternal England"--a unique country formed at an early date by Anglo-Saxon kings which evolved in isolation and, except for the Norman Conquest, was only marginally affected by continental affairs. The result is a new picture of the Isles, one of four countries--England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales--constantly buffeted by continental storms.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Colley
Norman Davies possesses remarkable range, massive gusto and a spanking literary stule. His ability to synthesize vast amounts of specialized material, to draw out arresting examples and comparisons, and to combine political, demographic, environmental and cultural analysis is always impressive, and he enjoys the enviable gift of intellectual certainty...No one tackling this mega-volume can fail to enjoy it or fail to learn a great deal.
Times Literary Supplement
Ralph Buultjens
Read it with discretion, dip in here and there, gather the principle threads, peruse the conclusions—and you are guaranteed a wonderful time. You will also get know a great deal about a fascinating part of the world, its rise and fall. We can't say this about too many books nowadays.
The Boston Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195148312
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/29/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 1296
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Norman Davies is the author of Europe: A History. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of London, Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

The Canyon Cave Man. Not long after the last Ice Age, not far from the western sea, a young man was buried in a cave set high in the walls of a limestone canyon. Beside him lay a strange long object made of antler bone, variously described as some sort of sceptre or perhaps a spear-straightener. The shallow grave on the cave floor was surrounded by thousands of flints — the non-perishable parts of Stone Age spears, knives, scrapers, and burins. These in turn were accompanied by heaps of bones from the birds and animals which had supplied the cave dweller's diet: hence wild horse, reindeer, and red deer; blue hare, brown bear, Arctic fox, and willow grouse; pig, ptarmigan, peregrine falcon; and one solitary, and much older, mammoth bone. The cave and its contents remained undisturbed until rediscovered in modern times.

    Caves were one of the favourite places of refuge for prehistoric people. They provided shelter in all seasons, an even temperature, and protection from wild animals. Unlike a neighbouring cavern, which had once served as a den for hyenas and which had been used by humanoids in far remoter ages, the `Canyon Cave' had not been inhabited before the last ice had melted. Its cool, but never freezing, air was ideal for the growth of stalactites and, in our own times, for the fermentation of cheese. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived some seven or eight thousand years after the cave burial, they founded the nearby village, and called it Ceodor — their word for a canyon or ravine. When the Normans came five hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons, they called the ravine a gorge— their word both for a throat and for a narrow valley.

    Very little is known about the person who was buried in the Canyon Cave. Though he lived and died in a country which would much later be called England, he was certainly not English. We do not know what tribe or people he belonged to. We do not know what language or languages he spoke; or whether the language of his people was comprehensible to others living in the vicinity. We do not know what thoughts he may have had about his world, or whether he had any concept of the era into which he was born. We may suppose that he was a hunter, or at least that he was supported by the hunters and gatherers of his tribe. We may also surmise, since the meat of animals and the fruits of the forest were the staff of his life, that he was inured to constant wandering. He followed the herds over hill and dale in the cool, dry `boreal' climate of that first post-glacial phase. Since his cave lay barely a day's walk from the open sea, he must often have climbed up the canyon wall to the grassy track on the ridge and strolled along it towards the beach. Even if the coast were further out than it is today, we may reasonably imagine that he had cruised along it in his dugout, that he had crossed the nearby estuary to its northern shore, or even that he had made the more adventurous crossing of the long Inner Bay to a landfall beyond the sunset.

    For ninety years after its discovery in 1903 in Gough's Cave, Cheddar Gorge, the skeleton of `Cheddar Man' was kept in London's Natural History Museum. But in 1996 it was the subject of an extraordinary experiment. It was sent to the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford for DNA testing, and samples of its mitochondrial DNA were compared with a score of similar samples taken from volunteers among the villagers in the present-day Cheddar district. `To the astonishment of the scientists', as The Times reported. `a close match was found between Cheddar Man and Mr [Adrian] Targett', a forty-two-year-old history teacher at the Kings of Wessex Community School in Cheddar Village. The experiment had proved beyond reasonable doubt that a man living in late twentieth-century Britain was a direct descendant through the maternal line of a person living in the same locality in the Middle Stone Age.

    The implications of the Targett Case are very far-reaching. If the result is not just a mistake or a chance in a billion, it would indicate that a substantial proportion of people in modern Britain form part of local kinship groups which have had a continuous existence for three or four hundred generations. This in its turn means that each of those generations has adapted itself to every successive cultural, linguistic, and political wave that has taken place over the millennia. The old idea that Britain's `island race' was the sum total of numerous massive invasions, from the mesolithic relations of Cheddar Man, who repopulated the islands after the Ice Age, to the Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and Angevins of historic times, who all but obliterated their prehistoric predecessors, has been under attack for many years. It is now virtually untenable. The prehistoric gene pool must undoubtedly have been supplemented and modified by more recent arrivals. But it is still there.

    There are other crucial considerations. British people are taught in a way which leads them to assume unthinkingly, that `Cheddar Man lived on the island of prehistoric Britain'. Yet, if one reflects, every single part of that sentence is inaccurate. For when Mr Targett's ancestor was buried in the cave, the canyon was not yet Cheddar Gorge. So whoever he was, `the Canyon Cave Man' could not have been Cheddar Man. What is more, neither he nor his relations could possibly have known that they were `prehistoric'. And their homeland was still many millennia away from being England or Britain. Most surprisingly, since nine thousand years represents a mere moment in the overall timetable of prehistory, their country was not yet an island. The latest carbon dating for the death of the Canyon Cave Man was 8980 ± 150 radiocarbon years. Adjusted to calendar years, this gives a date inside the eighth millennium BC and precedes by a clear margin the median date at which geologists estimate the formation of Europe's offshore islands (see page 8, below). Even if he had been born exactly where he died, there can be virtually no doubt that `the Canyon Cave Man' was a Continental.


The History of Mankind on the peninsula which we now call `Europe' has lasted for some seven hundred or eight hundred thousand years. For over 99 per cent of that vast expanse of time, man lived in the Stone Age, using rough stone or flint tools of very slowly increasing sophistication. He supported life through hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering the wild plants and crustaceans. Though various convenient caves and open sites were occupied, abandoned, and reoccupied over long periods, there was little permanent settlement as the human troops followed the herds across the ever-changing seasons and feeding-grounds. If the passage of time in the Peninsula's human prehistory is counted on a scale of 1 to 100, the emergence of modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, would have occurred at about point 94: the last retreat of the northern Ice Sheet and the onset of the mesolithic somewhere after point 98: the earliest origins of the so-called `Neolithic Revolution' around point 99. At no stage before the final point were there any major islands off the Peninsula's north-west coast.

    For most of prehistory, the lands which are now called the British or the British and Irish Isles formed a broad promontory of the Continental land mass, an oceanside peninsula of the Peninsula. (See map, page 2.) It consisted of two parts, the main north-south trunk and a long arm protruding on the western side. Its sparse population came and went during the Ice Ages, sometimes encouraged by the warmer conditions of the interglacials, sometimes deterred by the icebound or sub-tundra conditions of the glacial advances. At the height of the terminal Ice Age, all human habitation ceased. Resettlement resumed c. 10,000 BC after an interval of perhaps seven or eight millennia. From then on, humans have been present without a break until the present day. By the time of the Canyon Cave Man the southern valleys were overgrown by ever denser post-glacial woodland; the inhabitants increasingly set up camp on coastal sites or moved into the outer islands, the remoter uplands and most northerly districts, where in due course hut-circles would become a standard form of settlement.

    The transformation of the oceanside peninsula into a group of offshore islands took place in the course of the seventh or sixth millennium BC. In all probability it took place gradually, not as the result of a dramatic geological catastrophe or a sudden onrush of the sea. It was partly caused by the tilting of land surfaces rendered unstable by the retreating ice, and partly by the rising levels of warmer seas. As the outer coastal range sank, its peaks were left as a string of stormbound islets. The mountains of the north tipped upwards. The western arm of the peninsula broke free, creating two separate islands, the `Green Isle' and the `Great Isle'. The ocean tides surged into the long inner bay not only from the south but also through the new and turbulent northern straits, turning the top of the bay into the `Middle Sea'. Next, to the east, the Continental coastal flats retreated southwards as the shallow salt water advanced. This greatly extended the `Sunrise Sea'. It also reduced the peninsula's Continental landlink to a narrow low-lying southern isthmus less than a hundred miles wide, between two chalk ridges. Finally, as the sea continued to rise, the isthmus itself began to shrink. It first turned to wet, salty marshland and then began to flood. After that, the currents from the west aided the currents from the east to wash away the remaining chalk, gravel, and sand. Sometime between 6000 and 5500 BC the landlink disappeared entirely. `The Sleeve' was born, with its pinchpoint at the `Southern Straits'.

    The consequences of the birth of `the Sleeve' are often misrepresented or exaggerated. It is often said that the new-formed islands were `isolated' from the Continent or `cut off'. But this is hardly correct. Of course, in strictly geographical terms, the islands were isolated, since `to isolate' means `to turn into an island'. Where once there was a strip of land, there now was a stretch of water. This would have been a serious blow for the migrating herds of animals, who could no longer cross the isthmus. The livestock on the islands, especially the larger beasts, could no longer be replenished by Continental migrants. The great elk, for example, became extinct on the Isles just as the mammoth had done. Yet man, unlike the animals, could readily adapt to the changed circumstances. Indeed, he could turn them to his advantage. There is every indication that communications actually improved. Even with the primitive boats then available, one could paddle or sail from one side of the Sleeve to the other more rapidly than one could previously have tramped across the isthmus or, in the intermediary phase, waded through the marshes. The birth of the Sleeve must have stimulated sailing techniques and marine transport of various kinds. In the period during the emergence of the Isles, the islanders became expert sailors. The islands were not cut off. Communication was simply made more dependent on boats.

    The exploration and utilization of the western seaways appears to have begun as soon as they were opened up. Little is known about the vessels and the navigational techniques of those mesolithic mariners. But the archaeological evidence is decisive in showing that people and goods were shipped back and forth across all the channels and between all the islands. After all, the distances involved were not great enough to deter fair-weather voyages by hide-bound coracles and kayaks, by dugouts, or even by rafts. Even the `Great Crossing' between the Mainland and the Great Isle at the most convenient section of the Sleeve did not exceed sixty miles. It could be completed in a day, at most in a day and night. The passage between the two largest islands was forty-eight miles at its widest and only twelve miles at its narrowest. Navigation round the Middle Sea, greatly assisted by stopovers on `Midway Island', was particularly attractive. One should not assume, therefore, as classical scholars once did, that the arts of sailing and navigation necessarily originated in the Mediterranean. And tentative beginnings in the mesolithic would be greatly expanded in succeeding ages — especially in the fourth millennium, when a further rise in sea level occurred.

    As a result, human settlement was increasingly concentrated in areas adjacent to the seaways and maritime trade routes. A western group of mesolithic communities developed round the shores of the Middle Sea. It was an integral part of a cultural region directly linked to the oceanside peninsulas of the Mainland. Archaeologists have given the modern name of Tardenoisian to the material culture of those western seaways. An eastern group of communities developed on all the shores of the Sunrise Sea in a region linking the east coast of the Great Isle with the Mainland's northern and north-eastern coasts. In between, the sparsely populated and landlocked midlands and uplands of the Great Isle were left in relative obscurity.

    Eight thousand years ago is too far back for prehistorians to know anything about the Peninsula's languages or place names. Alphabets were not yet invented. No words or voices were recorded. Not surprisingly, therefore, prehistorians have fallen into the habit of calling the most ancient places by the most modern names. For some purposes, this may be unavoidable. But it puts prehistory into a false, totally anachronistic, and frequently nationalistic context. A little historical imagination might reconstruct some more realistic solutions. The somewhat mythological ring of invented names is a small price to pay if one is to avoid the cardinal sin of anachronism.

    It is not unreasonable to assume, for example, that prehistoric people would have named the principal features of the landscape after what they saw; and many of their descriptive names, translated into later languages, would have survived into historic times. It is not entirely fanciful, therefore, in those distant days when the Sleeve was forming, to imagine troops of hunters camped generation after generation atop the high cliff which commands the southern shore of the Southern Straits. They would come to breathe the fresher air, perhaps to make signals, above all to get a better view of the herds that wended their way across the shrinking isthmus below. As time passed, they would have watched with growing perplexity as the herds floundered in the marshland and eventually refused to cross. Standing on the cliff top with the midday sun on their backs, or in later times paddling out into the waters of the Sleeve, they would have seen the magnificent line of undulating white cliffs that glinted ahead in the sunlight. In due course, they must have sailed across to the new-formed island shore, and cruising along it have caught sight of the finest group of cliffs of all. And they would have called them the `Eight Sisters'. (How the Eight became the Seven is a matter of conjecture.) One day, on the way back, they would have seen the shadows lengthening on the north-facing escarpment of their own home cliff, and would have called it the equivalent of `Grey Nose Head'. These names are less likely to have been invented by people standing on the shore than by sailors out to sea. By extension, it would have been perfectly natural for the whole of the land beyond the chalk cliffs to have become known as `the Cliff Country'.

    Ancient man navigated by sun and stars. `East' was the direction of the sunrise, and is so called in many languages to this day. The west was `Sunset', the south `Midday', the north `Midnight'. For example, in Latin oriens, `the rising sun', `the east'; occidens, `evening', `the west'; meridies, `noon', `the south'; septemtrio, `the north' — septemtriones, the constellation of the Great Bear. Similarly, in modern Polish wschód, zachód, poludnie, and pólnoc mean respectively `sunrise' and `east', `sunset' and `west', `midday' and `south', and `midnight' and `north'. What is more, one knows from anthropological studies that illiterate peoples will often take their bearings when facing the sunrise. From this position, the east is seen to be `in front', the west is `behind', the north is `the left hand', and the south, `the right hand'. We simply do not know what the Peninsula's northern offshore islands were called in prehistoric times, but it is not beyond the realms of reason to suppose that they were called by something equivalent to `the Left-Hand Isles' or, more poetically, `the Midnight Isles'.


The introduction of arable and livestock farming during the so-called `Neolithic Revolution' did more to transform mankind's way of life than anything before or since. It created permanent, settled communities, which may be seen as the kernel of civilization as we now understand it. Its economy was based on the increasingly intensive exploitation of crops and domesticated animals, whose products promised a varied diet, a potential surplus in good years, and greater opportunities for regular trade and commerce. Its social structures saw a marked division between the food producers, who invested immense efforts of physical labour into their primitive agriculture, and the specialized castes of craftsmen, merchants, miners, administrators, and soldiers, who could be supported from the food surplus. Its politics put a premium on the control of land, on the protection of settlements, and hence on the formation of territorial polities — in other words, of nascent states. Its geographic patterns transformed the landscape, which was henceforth divided into the familiar sectors of cultivated countryside, of urban areas, and of the residual primeval wilderness. Its religious ideology saw a waning of the cult of the Great Earth Mother, with its prime emphasis on birth and the reproduction of a tiny, fragile species, and a corresponding move towards a concern for the fertility of the fields — where the sun and rain, the changing seasons, and the gods of river and harvest gained absolute priority. The priestly caste busied itself with astronomy, geodesy, and climatology. Matriarchy gave way to patriarchy.

    At one time, prehistorians were apt to assume that mesolithic people would have accepted the `Neolithic Revolution' with alacrity as part of the march of progress. Now they are not so sure. Well-tried communities of hunter-gatherers may have had neither the interest nor the inclination to submit to the unfamiliar and demanding routines of agricultural life and to the back-breaking initial work of tree-felling, stone-clearing, and ditch-digging. Here guesswork is as good as a thesis. But it may well be that the neolithic innovators gained the upper hand through their one undoubted advantage, namely the concentrated military power to occupy land and hold it.

    The `Neolithic Revolution', however, was an intercontinental movement of great duration. Its origins, c. 8000 BC in the River Valley civilizations of the Near East, pre-dated the mesolithic era. Its terminal phase, c. 2000 BC in the farthermost reaches of the European Peninsula, coincided with the onset of Minoan civilization in Crete. Even so, there is no consensus about the means of its expansion. One supposition is that bands of neolithic agriculturalists steadily pushed their way across the Peninsula in their insatiable hunger for suitable land. In this case, the newcomers would have simply supplanted the hunter-gatherers, killing or expelling those whom they could not recruit. The picture resembles that of the later conquistadores in Mexico or of American pioneers on the Oregon Trail. And the fate of the hunter-gatherers resembled that of native Americans or Australian Aboriginals. The more recent and fashionable supposition is that, while neolithic farmers did not necessarily migrate themselves, their farming techniques did. In this case, the old population of successive regions was not displaced, but was steadily converted to the new lifestyle by a process of acculturation. The mesolithic hunter-gatherers were not the victims of the neolithic revolutionaries but their ancestors. The third supposition, and the most likely one, is that the `Neolithic Revolution' spread through a mixture both of migration and of acculturation. The difficulty is to estimate the relative proportions of the two methods. Recent studies of modern European DNA strongly support the hypothesis of acculturation. One research group concluded that `the major extant lineages throughout Europe predate the Neolithic expansion and ... the spread of agriculture was a substantially indigenous development'.

    Neolithic agriculture reached the Midnight Isles some time towards the end of the fifth or the beginning of the fourth millennium. Common sense demands that the first sack of seedcorn and the first domesticated cattle were landed on the northern shore of the Sleeve from a boat. What is not known is whether they were brought over by a band of Continental migrants or perhaps by an island entrepreneur engaged in a brilliant import venture. At all events, the agriculturalists flourished on the islands. They would have been assisted by the large expanses of uninhabited land, by the rich variety of culturable soils, and by the onset of a milder and moister oceanic climate with stimulating seasonal fluctuations. Their flocks of sheep and cattle could graze on lusher and higher pastures. Their crops of wheat and barley, based on the infield-outfield system, grew more readily, even in the uplands and the most northerly latitudes. Gradually, inexorably, the way of life of the hunter-gatherers faded from the record.

    The period of transition was obviously a long one; and the activities of hunting and gathering never entirely died out. There is evidence that the late mesolithic inhabitants of the central Peaks, for example, had already learned the art of herding domesticated deer. So neolithic cattle-ranching was not a total novelty. Similarly, even when arable crops supplied the staple food, farming families did not cease to supplement their diet in the old ways. Stag-hunting, angling, grouse-shooting, blackberry-picking, and cockle-collecting never stopped. Local delicacies, such as the windblown samphire that grows on the coastal fenland, were prized in neolithic times, as they still are today.

    The technological and organizational standards of neolithic settlements have been shown to be rather more sophisticated than originally suspected. The earliest neolithic house to be unearthed in the Isles so far is located on the crown of a hill to the west of the Largest Lake on the Green Isle. Pottery on the site has been carbon-dated to c. 3795 BC. The house, measuring 21 ft 4 in by 19 ft 8 in, had two clay hearths and walls of upright oaken planks. It closely resembles a dwelling type from the central Continental Mainland that is associated with the Linear Pottery Culture. In the Cliff Country, a neolithic settlement perched on Windy Hill near one of the great stone circles gave its name to a widespread archaeological culture lasting in southern parts till the Bronze Age. It may be compared to a contemporary settlement built on an island in a lake in the west of the Green Isle, which was a similar centre of religious and ritual activity. The houses there had wattle-and-daub walls standing on stone foundations.

    Yet the best preserved neolithic settlement is undoubtedly the one found hiding behind the coastal dunes on one of the Penultimate Isles. There, a late neolithic community of cattle-herders and shellfish-collectors lived in an isolated world where arable agriculture, metalworking, and warfare were all unknown. Their hamlet of six interconnected houses was served by covered alleyways and by a communal sewerage system of slab-lined drains. Each house contained a spacious living room together with one or more side cells as storerooms or privies. In the absence of local timber, peat burned in the central hearth; and all the internal furniture — box beds, benches, cooking stands, shelves, and cupboards — was made of local flagstones. By the time that the hamlet was buried c. 1500 BC in the sandstorm which was to preserve it intact like a mini-Pompeii, the rest of the Isles had entered the Bronze Age.

    The net result of the `Neolithic Revolution' was not just that the population of the Isles multiplied significantly, perhaps to as many as a million scattered through several tens of thousands of settlements. More importantly, the Isles made up the backlog of the Ice Ages and caught up with trends on the Continent.

    The consolidation of settlement stimulated both trade in general and the western seaways in particular. The Middle Sea, where sailors could steer by reference to the circle of surrounding summits, was criss-crossed by routes linking all the Isles with each other and with the western peninsulas of the Continent. Two of the earliest commodities were semi-finished flintstones and ready-made axes. The former were produced in quantity on the Green Isle in the vicinity of the `Northern Straits' and in various locations on the southern coast of the Cliff Country. The latter, which were polished and sharpened for export, originated in factories situated among the outcrops of granite and tuff in western Lakeland. The scale of the operations can be seen at an excavated neolithic flint mine near the Wash, where eight hundred separate shafts were sunk, or at one single axe factory in Lakeland, where the debris of an estimated seventy-five thousand discarded axe-heads has been found.

    With time, the emphasis gradually shifted to the trade in precious metals — copper, gold, tin, and eventually iron. By the end of the third millennium, when the neolithic was giving way to the Bronze Age, copper-smiths were well established in the northwestern Highland Zone and marine transport was capable of moving seriously heavy freight. The classic illustration of this last capacity can be found in the operation c. 1700 BC which moved eighty-two fifty-ton bluestones over a distance of over two hundred miles from the far south-west of `the Afternoon Country' to `the Great Stone Circle'. The operation illustrates another cardinal feature of the era — the obsession with megaliths.

    The development of the seaways was matched by the development of overland trackways, especially in the southern Cliff Country. Warm wet winds blew in from the ocean; dense deciduous woodland overgrew the valleys and the lowlands; and the treeless ridges of the chalk hills stood out as a high-level zone of free movement and large-scale construction. In late neolithic times scores of huge earthwork enclosures were built on the upper contours of the southern hills, each surrounded by ditches and each served by springs or dewponds. They also served no doubt as refuges for the local population and their chattels in times of alarm, and possibly as fairgrounds or tribal assembly points. They were frequently linked to each other by grassy ridgeway tracks. Before long, an extensive network of tracks took shape where the enclosures acted as `stations' on the freeway, and the freeways wound their paths along the lines of all the major watersheds of the chalk country. The principal junction was located in the upper reaches of the Dark Water Valley at a point where the largest artificial earthen mound in the Isles was erected. A traveller could stride for days along the daisy-strewn ridges without ever having to cross a stream or ford a river. From the northernmost hill station of the system in the Midlands one could walk in twenty or thirty easy stages over two hundred miles to the Noonday Riviera. A similar journey would take one from the main western terminus on the Riviera, or from the far eastern terminus near the Sunrise Coast, all the way to the Eight Sisters and the Southern Straits. It would be nice to think that some of the port stations on the Riviera offered a regular link via the Great Crossing to partner ports on the Mainland and to a parallel network of Continental throughways.

    Much speculation has been expended on the origins of the figures cut into the chalk beside many of the ancient trackways. Some of them, such as the famous White Horse in the upper Dark River Valley, have been confirmed as prehistoric. Others, like the nearby White Giant replete with club and phallus, are less certain. Most are relatively modern.

    The megaliths or `Great Stones' are the most impressive physical manifestation of a neolithic culture, or civilization, which flourished in all the western regions of the Peninsula. They were once thought to have had precedents in the cyclopean temples of Gozo in Malta and in the pyramids of Egypt, both of which associated religious concepts and practices with building on a colossal scale. But their particular origins are now judged to lie in the spiritual tensions arising from the confrontation between mesolithic and neolithic peoples. They all apparently share some form of religious or ritual function together with some type of solar, lunar, or stellar alignment. Despite the mysteries and speculations which surround them, they clearly show that the worldview of their constructors bound the fate of mankind to the changing face of the skies and the seasons. They can be found at all points near the western seaways from the most northerly of the Midnight Isles to the most southerly shores of the Mainland and the Gates of the Ocean. The megalith builders threw themselves into their colossal labours in the fourth millennium at a time when metalworking was already affecting the cultures of the central Mainland and when the Aegean had entered the Bronze Age.

    Megaliths are usually classified in one of four types — chambered tombs and passage-graves, cromlechs, alignments and menhirs, and dolmens. Each of them had a distinct function. It is very common, however, for particular locations to display examples of more than one type of megalith as they pass through successive phases of development.

    In many ways, the chambered tombs resembled the earthen longbarrows which had provided the standard form of collective burial in the preceding age and which in some areas continued in use. The megalithic fashion was to construct a long passageway lined and roofed with enormous stone slabs and leading to a central inhumation chamber. When complete, the whole structure was covered by a long rounded cairn of boulders. Some of the finest extant examples, which were built in the Valley of Kings on the Green Isle in the late fourth millennium, measured nearly 330ft. They would have demanded tens of thousands of man-hours of hard physical labour to build.

    Like the longbarrows, the chambered tombs were not laid down in haphazard fashion. In each region of the Isles, they all faced particular directions. In the far west of the Green Isle most faced the sunset. In the far north-east of the Misty Country most faced the sunrise. Though regional traditions varied, all megalith builders clearly saw a conjunction between the sky and the dead. In some of the larger tombs, more sophisticated refinements can be observed. Over the lintel of the entrance of the most spectacular example, an aperture was carved in the shape of a giant letter box. Experiments have shown that for a few days on either side of the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun would have gleamed through this opening, and briefly illuminated the resting place of the dead.

    For reasons that remain obscure, stones laid out in circular patterns came into fashion around the turn of the fourth and the third millennia. The result was a long series of stone circles, rings, and `henges'. In the earlier phases, the circles probably served some simple ritual purpose, such as the laying out and blessing of the dead. In later phases, both the structures and their uses became far more complex. `The Great Circle', for instance, which for more than fifty centuries has been the prime wonder of the Isles, passed through four distinct stages. In the initial stage, c. 3200 BC, it consisted of a simple earthen ring surrounding a solitary wooden centrepost. In the following millennium it was completely renovated with the construction of a double circle of the imported bluestones and of an earthen avenue set in the direction of the nearest river. There is clear evidence of a solar alignment, since the midsummer sun rises directly over the heelstone at an azimuth of 51°. Only two centuries after that, the still unfinished bluestone circles were removed, and were replaced by a ring of sarsen stones surrounding a horseshoe of trilithons. Finally, c. 1600 BC, the bluestones returned from disfavour, and were re-erected. No other megalithic monument in the Peninsula can match the grandeur of the Great Circle. The total number of lesser circles built in all parts of the Midnight Isles runs into thousands. One is easily misled, however, by the chance nature of what survives and what has disappeared. Recent excavations beneath Windy Hill, for example, show that the Great Circle formed only one section of a much larger complex, the largest part of which was built from timber. The existence of the adjacent timber circle, once 765 yards in circumference and 10 yards high, was not suspected until 1989.

    An alignment is defined as three or more stones deliberately placed in a straight line'. Some of the alignments, like that at `the Farm by the Cairn' sited on a promontory of the far north-west coast, do take the minimum form, whilst others like the `Great Circle of the North' on the Outer Isles, or the `Multiple Rows' laid out near the remote North Cape, are as puzzling as they are complicated. No less than seventy stone rows were laid out on the `Lower Moor' site alone. The supposition here has to be that the alignments are in some way connected to the movements of the moon as well as to those of the sun. For if solar movements are regular and relatively simple, the lunar cycles of 18.61 years require observations of great precision and duration. The correspondence of many alignments with the solar and lunar extremes can hardly be a coincidence.

    Speculation, of course, is essential to the game, and should not in itself be derided, even when its results must be received with caution. One prehistorian, for instance, has suggested that the megalithic year was divided into sixteen equal periods, each marked by a particular astronomical event. The regular occurrence of midsummer, midwinter, and the two equinoxes is a well-proven fact; and it is not so terribly fanciful to see them as the possible basis of a calendar or calendars, which launched seasonal festivals surviving into historic times. The existence of a prehistoric `Sixteen-Month Calendar' is something which has to be left hovering somewhere between the possible and the probable.

    Similar speculation surrounds the significance of the single standing stones, the menhirs, and of the trilithic dolmens. It may be that they were no more than straightforward markers denoting boundaries, routes, or burials. On the other hand, they may be part of far more extensive alignment systems. The most risky speculations maintain that every single standing stone is linked to sun, moon, or stars and that they form the links in countrywide alignments. One extreme theory suggests that all the standing stones in the Isles were triangulation points in a system established by Continental surveyors who linked the insular system with the Continental one through lines joining the insular Land's End with the Continental Land's End.

    Not too long ago, a heated controversy erupted over a theory maintaining that all mounds, beacons, and standing stones were markers on a coordinated network of dead-straight lines. Some of the enthusiasts for these `ley lines' have even implied that they form a kind of National Grid round which mystic forces circulate. Their fantasies exceed proof or disproof. Yet a network of marker posts and signal stations specially erected to assist early travellers does not lie completely beyond the realm of possibility.

    Knowing that the general trend in prehistory moved from the harsh conditions and primitive technology of the Stone Age to the far friendlier environment and more advanced technology of the Iron Age, it would be tempting to imagine that improvements followed each other in regular and smooth succession. In reality, `three steps forward and two steps back' would be a gross oversimplification of far more complex patterns. For example, a general `standstill' occurred in the middle of the third millennium, c. 2500 BC. Archaeologists' reports from some regions sound more like a setback. Explanations differ. But the megalith builders slowed down. Tombs were blocked up and camps abandoned. On the southwestern moorlands, fields dating from the Bronze Age that had been cross-ploughed for generations with the neolithic ard, or `crook plough', reverted to waste. Elsewhere, woodland returned to the valleys cleared earlier. Contacts with the Mainland never ceased. But there were marked variations in their variety and intensity. What is more, social conditions changed, not necessarily for the better. As revealed by the content of grave goods, social structures grew more differentiated. Local groupings spawned wealthy and powerful elites. Chiefdoms were established. Local fighting, and with time large-scale tribal warfare, became endemic.

    Into this changing and uncertain world stepped the Beaker Folk — at least that is how prehistorians used to put it. The Beaker Folk were the manufacturers and users of a highly characteristic brand of fine, red-coloured, cord-decorated and bell-shaped pottery which reached the Isles at the start of the second millennium. Various types of corded wares — that is, pottery whose decorations had been fashioned through impressions of twisted cords onto the wet clay — were widely used on the Mainland in the early Bronze Age; and they were often associated with other `ideological' changes, such as the replacement of large collective tombs with small round barrows and individual graves. Yet the bell-beakers are outstanding in quality. And they are located in such a way that prehistorians long thought of the people associated with them as a distinct ethnic group that migrated to the Isles from their original homes on the southern shores of the Sunrise Sea. Once again, however, the invasion theory does not seem to work. The Beaker Folk are now viewed as the product of an advanced material culture, which was able to spread without any major movements of people. They certainly underline the fact that the islanders cannot be viewed as a race apart from the Continentals. They were a martial people. They were archers, using flint-tipped arrows; and in the eastern districts at least their warriors still carried the polished stone battleaxes which had made such a career on the Mainland in the preceeding period. They also admired ornaments. Their clothes were festooned with polished buttons, and round their necks hung double strings of jet beads or even torcs of gold.

    With the `standstill' behind them, the islanders of the second millennium BC reasserted themselves with new vigour. Many of the existing megaliths were renovated or remodelled. In the southern Cliff Country huge new mounds and circles were raised. On the Sacred Island direct copies of older passage-graves from the Green Isle were made. Most importantly, metalworking began — first in copper, then in bronze and gold, and from c. 1500 BC in tin. Metallurgy in its turn revived Continental trade. Imports of Baltic amber, even of objects deriving from the Aegean, reveal the expanding range of commerce. As the millennium closed, contacts with the Low Countries were particularly strong. The islands' earliest example of a sea-going ship, which sank c. 1100 BC, has been found off the coast in the Southern Straits.

    The Bronze Age, therefore, which lasted in the Isles from c. 1800 to 600 BC, had more to recommend it than bronze. At first it was the age of renewed megalith-building and also of the Beaker Folk and their exquisite pottery. Later it was the scene of distinctive new cultures which archaeologists once associated unambiguously with conquering Continental colonists but whose conquests may have been somewhat less sanguinary than was once supposed. Two such groups became specially prominent — the `Flanged-axe Warriors' and the `Urnfield People'.

    The Bronze Age `Flanged-axe Warriors' are better known to archaeologists by the modern name of the region of the southern Cliff Country where their settlements were first identified. But it seems wrong to give them an insular label when it is abundantly clear not just that their elite elements came from the Mainland c. 1700 BC but also that they brought their Continental lifestyle with them. Their chief advantage lay in an arsenal of much-improved weaponry which included efficient bronze axes with side flanges, long offensive rapier-like daggers, and stone maces. There is little doubt that their equipment, and their Continental experience, would have enabled them to subdue the local population rapidly. However, it is not necessary to imagine their arrival as a pre-run of the Norman Conquest. It is more likely that small groups of raiders established an efficient overlordship, and perpetuated their kind by taking the local women as wives. It is also possible that local leaders simply imitated the weapons and the techniques that they had observed on the other side of the Sleeve. In these ways, the political and cultural scene could change abruptly, whilst the basic population and the gene pool changed only slightly. Cultural innovations included new burial customs based on bell-barrows, cremations, and elaborate grave goods for use in the afterlife. One such burial in a valley of the chalk hills in the vicinity of the Great Circle presents a fully caparisoned warrior in all his glory. `He possessed an axe and two massive daggers, one of which had a hilt sparkling with a gold inlay and was hooked to his belt from a finely chased gold plate. Two other gold plates enriched his dress, and as a badge of rank he carried a curious sceptre with a stone head and elaborately cut bone mounts. Such sceptres suggest a truly princely pomp.'

    Three centuries after the Flanged-axe Warriors, the Urnfield People made their appearance. They have been named from the large incinerators which were made for funerary use. But their most striking characteristic lay in a particular combination of pastoral and arable economy which enabled them to reclaim large stretches of poorer land in a steady, peaceful manner. As a result, having taken over the areas previously dominated by the Beaker Folk, the Urnfield People moved into the uplands, pressed on into the empty spaces of the Misty Country, and crossed over in force to the Green Isle. Two new crops assisted their success. The first was barley, which thrived in the bleaker northern lands. The second was flax, which was spun into fine linen to accompany the warm clothes made from wool and sheepskins. The Urnfielders were master artisans perfecting the flint, copper, gold, and bronze of previous times. When they died, their cremated ashes were placed in the traditional urn, and buried in a deep pit. Where megalithic tombs or stone circles still stood in the vicinity, the urn pits would share the sacred ground of the older monuments. Where this was not possible, they huddled together in dedicated cemeteries. One such site lies on the wild western slopes of the Peaks. Beneath the ground, a central pit lined with stout oaken posts contained the urns of two obviously illustrious people. Above ground, a causeway led across an open ditch to the stone entrance, and a ring of high posts linked the palisade which surrounded the whole. It was not just a tomb; it was a monument.

    The final phase of the Bronze Age, which followed the turn of the first millennium, witnessed new variants on the preceding themes. Several smaller cultures emerged, which may or may not have been backed by migrant colonizers. Agricultural techniques improved. `The hoe gave way to the plough, and the woman to the ox.' Hardier strains of wheat were grown. Great attention was paid to the delineation of fields, whose boundaries in the southern chalklands were permanently marked with deep white furrows. Textile techniques also advanced. Uptight looms held the warp threads taut with cylindrical clay weights, whilst spindles sprouted side whorls to increase the speed and balance of the spin. Religious fervour may have declined. Urnfield cremations were still practised. But the time had passed when the aura of the megaliths inspired elaborate ritual and ceremony.

    Three late Bronze Age sites illustrate the variety of settlement, and of human fortune, at that time. The first of them, on an inland plain towards the eastern end of the Noonday Riviera, was a solid farmstead. It was presumably established by a family of Continental migrants, since it bore little likeness to other Urnfield settlements in the same neighbourhood. A cluster of round thatched huts was surrounded by earthen banks and linked by well-worn tracks to the cattle compounds beyond. Four or five small squarish cornfields completed the ensemble. The community used pottery with handles and with incised decorations, much as was used at that time on the opposite shore of the Sleeve.

    Three hundred miles to the north, another site of the same vintage was situated beside a stream flowing from the desolate eastern foothills of the central Peaks. It poses a puzzle in that the poverty of its location in a wild dank cave does not match the wealth of its contents. Whoever its inhabitants were, they possessed an astonishing array of equipment. Their weapons included socketed bronze axes, spears, and swords: their tools, an elegant shouldered bucket or situla and a mould and tongs for bronze founding: their ornaments, a golden armlet and ring. Nor were they short of food. In a short spell of residence, they managed to eat huge amounts of beef, mutton, and game, and to smash a great pile of crockery. There are evident traces of wheeled vehicles, possibly chariots. The supposition has to be that here was the temporary halt of a man of rank, perhaps a defeated chieftain followed into exile by his faithful retinue. Their end came suddenly, perhaps from a spat in the ravine. The cave was abandoned with all its treasure in the company of three corpses.

    Three hundred miles further north still, a hamlet of ranchers huddled behind the dunes near the longest promontory of the Furthest Isles. They herded shorthorn cattle and two breeds of sheep, whilst cultivating a few small fields, fishing, fowling, and hunting seals. They lived in sturdy stone-built houses designed to a unique plan, where an open hearth burned in a central courtyard from which four or five side-chambers and a cattle stall were set into the surrounding wall. For many generations, they fashioned their implements from local materials — slate, quartz, and whalebone. But the day came when a bronze-smith arrived and set up his workshop in one of the courtyards. The Bronze Age had reached the Furthest Isles at the very time that the Iron Age was reaching the southern shores of the Cliff Country.

    The abandonment of the megaliths may indicate a shift in religious belief in this period. A site on the edge of the Eastern Wetlands hints at what the shift may have involved. Four million timber piles were driven into the flooded marsh to support an avenue leading to an artificial `holy island'. Votive offerings of broken swords, jewellery, and sacrificial victims, both animal and human, were cast into the lake. If the sacred of the neolithic had been largely perceived in the skies, the sacred of the late Bronze Age was increasingly associated with the gods of river, lake, and forest. Natural springs attracted votive offerings right up to Christian times.

    The Iron Age may well have begun on the Isles with the importation of Continental artefacts, especially swords and daggers, rather than with indigenous manufacture. At least a thousand years separates the very earliest instances of iron-smelting in foreign areas, with which the islanders could have maintained some form of contact, and the establishment on the Isles of societies dependent on iron-based technology. Yet the Isles possessed plentiful sources of iron. It was only a matter of time before the benefits of ferrology were generally adopted. Iron ore was plentiful; copper and tin were scarce. Even so, the transition from Bronze to Iron lasted many centuries. At first the bronze-smiths copied the designs of imported iron tools and weapons without changing the metal in their crucibles. Later they would retain bronze for certain items whilst increasingly turning to iron for swords and sickles. Finally, they abandoned bronze altogether, and became full-time ferrophiles.

    A moment from the long transitional phase has been preserved in a hoard of loot dumped on the bed of a lake in the hills of the southern Afternoon Country. According to a distinguished archaeological team, a raiding party of hillsmen must have looted a farmstead on the nearby plain belonging to a warrior with Continental connections. They escaped with a fine haul, but were then forced by the hot pursuit to offload it. They never recovered it from the lake, perhaps because their pursuers caught up and killed them. According to another distinguished archaeologist, this interpretation is — well, a different sort of offload. The deposit in the lake is more probably a votive offering. Nonetheless, whichever interpretation one follows, the important fact is that the items in the hoard are a mixture of bronze and iron. Traditional bronze spears and axes and a bronze razor lay alongside a crude iron sickle fashioned in a bronze-style shape, and a great iron sword in a fine winged scabbard.

    Iron, however, was not the only innovation of the Iron Age. Horse-power was equally important. The presence of horses on the Isles, initially for riding, is well attested from 1000 BC at the latest. In the following centuries they were increasingly used as draught animals to pull wheeled wagons, and for military purposes as chariot-teams or cavalry mounts.

    The advance of military techniques clearly raised the threshold of fear and insecurity. As a result, one of the prominent features of the Iron Age lay in the rapid multiplication of hill forts. These were not the same as the crude enclosures of the neolithic period. They were usually significantly smaller, but much more thoroughly protected with steep approaches, deep V-shaped ditches, elevated stone-faced multiple ramparts, high wooden palisades, and fortified gateways. Indeed, at several of the best-known sites, an Iron Age fort could huddle in a corner of an ancient enclosure, just as later Roman camps might be located alongside, within, or atop an older hill fort. Over three thousand hill forts and `cliff castles' were built in the early centuries of the first millennium, especially in the south and western Cliff Country and in the Afternoon Country. Such, indeed, was their proliferation that they had clearly become an essential part of the social and military system of local areas. A detailed study of an area immediately to the south of the upper reaches of the Dark River reveals a dense network of hill forts each averaging 12 acres in size and each controlling a territory of some 120-150 square miles.

    Hill forts, of course, came in many shapes and sizes. In the north-east corner of the Afternoon Country, so-called `vitrified forts' can be found, where the stone-faced ramparts were fused by heat into a solid mass with the underlying rock. In the `Headlands' so-called `ring-forts' of circular shape were the fashion from the third century onwards. So, too, were the `cliff-castles', which exploited the natural coastal defences and which closely resembled counterparts on the other side of the Sleeve. One such surviving example protected a hamlet of eight or nine courtyard houses lined up along a cobbled street. The inhabitants were tin-miners, who extracted the precious metal from long subterranean galleries underneath the fort. By the time the Romans came, several of the larger forts supported communities large enough for the Romans to call them oppida — `towns'.

    The presence of tin in the Headlands had many consequences. It revived the western seaways after a long period of slow progress. It revitalized the intercourse of the Isles with the Mainland to the point where the Continental tribe of the Venetii built a powerful fleet to protect their sea trade. Trade grew to the point where barter was no longer sufficient. According to some authorities, the first insular currency, used far and wide beyond its original sphere in the tin trade, was wrought from standardized iron bars. Most portentously the tin trade attracted merchants from the distant Mediterranean.

    These Mediterranean adventurers brought the Isles into the realm of literate and recorded history. One of them, Pytheas of Marseilles, made the perilous voyage in 325 BC, and wrote an account of it where he calls his destination `the Tin Islands'. He relates how the natives brought the tin in carts to a small coastal island, where they met the foreign traders. His full text has not survived, but key extracts are known from later authors. One further consequence is certain. The Greeks, who ran the southern stage of the trade, were familiar with coinage. Before long, the chieftains of the Isles would be minting coins of their own.

    In districts where natural defences did not exist, well-defended settlements were constructed in the middle of lakes or swamps. Lake villages had been invented in the central Mainland in the midfirst millennium. They appeared in the Isles two or three centuries later. The technique was to build a huge raft of logs, float it away from dry land, fix it to the lake-bed with stakes, cover it with a floor of stones mixed with brushwood and clay, and then use the man-made pontoon as the base for a complete, palisaded village. Archaeologists have discovered several such pontoons. But the best known example lies in the Western Wetlands (not far from the Canyon Cave). Dating from the second century BC, it was still functioning in the early Roman period. Its palisade enclosed an area of some 12,000 square yards (2.5 acres) within which sixty spacious round huts were linked by cobbled alleyways. A fortified causeway, wide enough for carts, led to cornfields and pastures on the higher ground. A landing-stage offered mooring for the boats and dugouts of fowlers and fishermen. Craftsmanship reached particularly high standards. Blacksmiths forged sickles which could pass muster in any later age. Bronze-smiths concentrated on fine domestic vessels, like bowls and cauldrons. The carpenters had mastered both the construction of heavy work platforms and the delicate lathe-turning of rounded ladles, handles, and spoons. The weavers used an improved loom with bone bobbins. The millers ground flour from a hand-operated rotary quern.

    Iron Age artefacts were often as beautiful as they were utilitarian. A school of decorative art flourished that had no parallel in earlier ages. It may well be that a measure of inspiration was drawn from the fine Greek and Roman goods which were now finding their way into all the `barbarian lands'. But just as Scythian and Sarmatian jewellers and craftsmen on the Pontic steppes took classical models and transformed them into something wonderfully brilliant and original, so Iron Age artists at the western extremities of the Peninsula achieved a similarly unique aesthetic fusion of their own. `The orderly human spirit of classical taste fled before the free, flamboyant, visionary spirit which now inspired barbarian genius to yield at last one of the most masterly abstract arts which Europe has known'. A drinking cup was not just a container to aid consumption of the newly fashionable and much-appreciated Mediterranean import — wine; it was a slender, elegant, shining object to admire. A sword or a shield was no longer a mere weapon; it provided the occasion for exquisite mouldings, inlays, and edgings in patterns of striking beauty. A horse-harness was not simply a device for controlling the beast; the bits, rings, and dainty snaffles, and even more the elaborate head armour, were a source of pride, and a sign of status, of the horse's owner.

    The old debate of conquest or acculturation reappears in Iron Age studies in its acutest form. At least two major tribes of Continental migrants have been identified for certain in the Cliff Country and several more in the Grean Isle. But two from thirty or forty such tribes does not add up to a decisive element (see Chapter Two).

    Coastal salt pans added one last innovative feature of the Iron Age landscape. The greatly increased demand for salt probably arose from the new, inestimable capacity to lay down surplus meat as salt beef and salt pork, and hence to allay the immemorial terror of winter starvation. Henceforth, salt became a staple necessity, and the salt trade a major, Continent-wide business. Prehistoric man was edging away from the age-old concerns of life on the very brink of daily subsistence.


Viewed as a whole, the Prehistoric Age in the Midnight Isles displays immense variations in time and space. Historians must necessarily generalize. But in so doing they inevitably select, rationalize, and oversimplify. One standard oversimplification already mentioned is chronological: the tendency to reduce the complex rhythms of change and reaction to fit periods and sub-periods of perceived progress. Another one is geographical. The Isles have never displayed uniformity. Important regional variations were always present: but they cannot be described through the conventional pattern of core and periphery. It is perfectly true, of course, that the south-eastern lowlands of the Cliff Country enjoyed important advantages that carried increasing weight as the density of settlement intensified. They were sheltered from the worst ocean storms, and possessed an attractive variety of light soils and pasture, a wide-ranging network of river valleys and dry trackways, and the readiest access to the Mainland. Yet it is not true to describe these advantages as either determinant or decisive. There were times and spheres where the Green Isle marched ahead of developments in the Cliff Country. And it was only in the terminal Iron Age that the inland areas of the Cliff Country could match the achievements of the older coastal settlements.

    Constant discernment is required. There can be little doubt, for instance, that the remote northern and western uplands of the Great Isle were less developed than most parts of the Green Isle. The northern Highlands of the Misty Country were settled late and sparsely. The Outer Isles lay at the very terminus of the long-distance seaways and on the wrong side of the turbulent Northern Strait. Only the long northerly coastlands of the Sunrise Sea, which stretched in the lee of the Highlands as far as the Penultimate and the Furthest Isles, offered a comparable habitat to those further south.

    The mountainous parts of the Afternoon Country no doubt experienced similar challenges. Archaeologists once assumed that it was the last stop on a civilizational line running east-west from the Southern Strait to the Middle Sea: in other words, that it was inevitably the most backward of all regions. In reality, the land link with the southern Cliff Country was probably less vital than the sea link with the Green Isle. The coastal settlements on all sides of the Middle Sea formed a natural cultural and commercial community which was not in the least isolated. A famous copper mine on a promontory opened c. 1700 BC must have attracted numerous Bronze Age merchants and prospectors from near and far.

    The Green Isle, like the Misty Country, was slow to throw off its post-glacial lethargy. The first mesolithic settlers were few and far between. A well-examined site close to the most northerly coast was inhabited for about five centuries on either side of 7000 BC. This means that those first settlers may possibly have walked across the land bridge before it was severed. In later ages, however, the Green Isle was in no sense retarded. On the contrary, it was doubly linked to the outside world, both by the short sea routes to the Great Isle and by the longer but well-tried route to Iberia. In the neolithic age its farmsteads were as sturdy, and its megaliths and their decorations as numerous and impressive, as anything elsewhere. In the age of metallurgy, its mineral wealth gave it exceptional prominence in metal manufacture, in the metal trade, and in metal-based art. Estimates which compare the total quantity of ore mined with the total number of artefacts manu factured suggest that less than 1 per cent of prehistoric metal implements have survived to the present day. Even so, the Green Isle excelled in certain categories. The abundance of copper led to specialization in the heaviest, and most expensive, type of bronze axes and of high-quality bronze cauldrons. The presence of gold inspired the production of magnificent hammered sun-discs and crescent-shaped lanulae or gorgets which found their way very far abroad. One great hoard of 146 gold objects from the west coast contains a collection of gold collars, bracelets, and dress-fasteners of such massiveness that they may only have been worn on ceremonial occasions. But it also illustrates the unusual quantity of disposable wealth of the Green Isle's Bronze Age society. In the Iron Age, all the usual developments are found, from horse-drawn transport to dazzling decorative art. But the total number of hill forts, not exceeding fifty, was much smaller than in the Cliff Country, and lake villages were unknown.

    Several features of the most prominent sites point to the very special nature of the Green Isle's legacy. One such feature lies in its unusual continuity. Whereas many of the enclosures or fortresses of neolithic origin in the Cliff Country were reoccupied and reabandoned in different periods of their history, several sites on the Green Isle reveal continuous utilization from the Stone or Bronze Age right down to the dawn of Christian times. Such sites evidently combined a place of sacred ritual with the seat of princely power. A huge circular shrine in the north was built c. 100 BC on top of nine occupation levels stretching back to the Bronze Age. Forty-seven yards in diameter, it was supported by rings of timber posts and roofed with six or seven overlapping sheaths of thatch. From the single entrance, a long earthen ramp led down to the bottom of a pit at whose centre a massive pole was erected — presumably as some sort of totem. For reasons that are obscure but not unique the whole structure was deliberately burned to the ground shortly after its completion, and covered with a cairn of stones. The ruins contained the bones of a Barbary ape, which can only have come from North Africa and whose existence, probably as a gift, implies the high status of its owner.

    The so-called `Fort of Kings', on the banks of the Royal River, contains a complex of remains of still greater antiquity. At one side stands `the Mound of Hostages', a megalithic passage-grave dated to c. 2000 BC. Next to the Mound is a rectangular space which was once wrongly dubbed `the Banqueting Hall' but is now thought to mark the gateway where many ancient tracks from all over the island converged. On the other side, one finds two adjacent double-ditched ringforts. In the middle of the larger one `The Stone of Destiny' still stands, a manifestly phallic object of ritual importance. `The Fort of Kings' is one of three or four such `royal places' on the Green Isle. Its real importance lies in the fact that it continued to be used as the seat of the island's High Kings until c. AD 900. It stands `in the dim shadows where mythology and history converge'.

    At which point, a word must be said about the nature and limitations of archaeology. Archaeology is a wonderful discipline, to which we owe the bulk of our knowledge about the world before historical and literary records. Its methods grow ever more ingenious, its analyses ever more sophisticated. It makes use of a wide range of auxiliary sciences, from epigraphy to numismatics, and it has co-opted a dazzling array of high-tech procedures, including carbon dating, aerial photography, and DNA testing. Yet archaeology will never fully overcome its fundamental reliance on material evidence, and its inevitable focus on material culture. What is more, it has naturally attracted a scientific, body among which scholars with a materialist philosophy, including Marxists and Marxisants, hold prominent positions. In consequence, it tells us much about past technologies, economies, societies, and even collective cultural practices. But its views on the higher realms of human life, like religion, are limited by the material nature of its evidence. It has little to say about individual human beings — their faces, their personalities, their quirks, their feelings, their ideas, their aspirations.

    From this situation, one of the few sources of salvation can be found in mythology; and here again it is the Green Isle which comes to the rescue. Unlike the Cliff Country, which later experienced three or four major subjugations that effectively cut its inhabitants off from knowledge of their prehistoric roots, the Green Isle saw only one significant civilizational shift — the coming of Christianity — between prehistoric and mid-medieval times. The folklore and mythology of `the Green Isle' are much more in touch with local prehistoric events than are their counterparts in the neighbouring isle.

    Generally speaking, historians keep their distance from mythology. They demand reliable sources, and much prefer digs and documents to oral traditions. As a result, they are capable of writing books on prehistory which lack any sense of the human condition. They may be missing a trick. For if mythology is unreliable in the standard informational sense, it certainly isn't irrelevant. It shelters some of the few tenuous chains of information which link the historical with the prehistoric past.

    No one needs to be reminded too strongly about the dangers of trying to relate myth to history. Nor can one fail to take account of Romantic nationalist inventions and of the verbose mumbo-jumbo of New Age and neo-pagan commentaries. Even so, the fact remains that among the froth, the forgeries, and the flights of pure imagination, the myths and legends are inhabited by the fleeting echoes of the prehistoric past. By the time that `the Green Isle' became literate its residents were Celtic-speaking Christians. But they were well aware that they had a pre-Christian, and a pre-Celtic, past.

    One of the very first works of literature from the Green Isle, the `Book of Invasions', sets out to record the sequence of peoples who made up the island's pedigree. Written by medieval monks who had been taught that the world was created only four or five thousand years before their own time, it contains the story of Cessair, Ladra, Bith, and Fintan — in effect, the Green Islanders' Foundation Myth. One may make of it what one will. One is wasting one's time to relate it to any modern system of chronology. Through all the layers of poetic licence, of charlatanry, of misattribution, and of confused memory, however, there run the delicate gossamer threads which convey a strange but intriguing strand of truth.

    The first expedition to the Green Isle was reportedly organized by the goddess Cessair. Before setting out, she told her followers, `Take an idol ... and worship it.' And the idol said, `Make a voyage, embark upon the sea.' So Cessair gathered her company together — her father Bith (Cosmos), her brother Ladra (the Aged One), the helmsman Fintan the White, son of the Ocean, and fifty maidens, one from every nation on earth. And they took ship and set sail. After many adventures, they landed on the southern shore of the Isle, at the confluence of `The Three Sisters', that is of the three rivers, whose sources lie in the mountains that gave birth to the island-goddess Eriu.

    Cessair was drowned by a Great Flood which carried her companions far and wide. Bith was carried to the far north, taking seventeen maidens with him. He died on the mountain named after him, where the maidens buried him under a great cairn on the mountaintop. Ladra was carried up the eastern coast, taking sixteen maidens with him. `He died of excess of women' (or, as a mischievous monk added in the margin of the earliest text, `it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock'). At all events, he was buried on the shore under a great mound that stands there to this day. Ladra was `the first dead man who went under the soil of Erin'.

    As for Fintan, he survived because he had the power to turn himself into fish, falcon, or eagle. During the Flood, he chose the form of a leaping salmon, but lost an eye to a marauding hawk which pounced as he leapt from the water. After that, he made his way to the very centre of the Isle, to the place where the great stone circle would be built on the Hill of Uisnech. There he planted the berry which grew into the sacred Ash, the central tree of all the Isle. It was Fintan, too, who later designated the island's five provinces. Standing on the Stone of Divisions on the Hill of Uisnech, he was asked, `How has our island been divided?' He replied: `By Knowledge in the West, Battle in the North, Prosperity in the East, Music in the South, Royalty at the Centre.' Most importantly, Fintan could commune with the birds and the beasts. On one occasion he conversed at length with the Hawk of Achill, the bird that had plucked out his eye, and related his whole life story:


My life before the black flood
Was fifteen years of years.
After the Flood God gave me
Five thousand five hundred years.


Known to later generations as Fintan mac Bochra, the sole survivor of the Green Isle's first immigrant ship lived on in legend until the coming of Christianity. Summoned then by the High King, he was the oldest man on the Isle, and could recount the whole of its history:


...
I was [already] in Erin
When Erin was a wilderness
until Agnoman's son came,
Nemed, pleasant in his ways.
...
The Fir Bolg and Fir Galion
came; it was long [thereafter].
The Fir Domnann came;
they settled in Irrus in the West.
Then came the Tuatha Dé
in clouds of dark mist,
and I lived among them
though it was a long life.
...
After that came the sons of Mil
out of Spain to the south,
and I lived among them
though mighty was their combat.
I had attained to long life,
I will not hide it,
when the Faith came to me
from the King of the cloudy heaven.
I am white Fintan
Bochra's son, I will not hide it.
Ever since the Deluge here
I am a high and noble sage.


    By using similar sources, scholars attempt to retrieve a world of prehistoric culture which sceptics have always thought beyond recall. In contrast, some mythologists are convinced that in the myths and legends of the Green Isle there are fragments not just about the prehistoric past but from the prehistoric past. `The Song of Amheirgin', for example, was supposedly composed by the chief bard of the Milesians, who Fintan mac Bochra said came from Iberia. It was passed down by word of mouth for countless generations until finally written down in medieval times. Reconstructed by a modern English poet, its origins are said to begin in 1268 BC:


I am a stag:       of seven tines,
I am a flood:       across a plain,
I am a wind:       on a deep lake,
I am a tear:       the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk:       above the cliff,
I am a thorn:       beneath the nail,
I am a wonder:       among the flowers
I am a wizard:       who but I
sets the cool head aflame
with smoke?
   
   
I am a spear:       that rears for blood
I am a salmon:       in a pool,
I am a lure:       from paradise,
I am a hill:       where poets walk,
I am a boar:       ruthless and red,
I am a breaker:       threatening doom,
I am a tide:       that drags to death
I am an infant:       who but I
peeps from the unhewn
dolmen arch?
   
   
I am the womb:       of every holt
I am the blaze:       on every hill
I am the queen:       of every hive
I am the shield:       for every head
I am the grave:       of every hope.


Most European nations are aware that their present territory was once ruled by foreign powers, dominated by different cultures or inhabited by alien peoples. If pressed, the French know full well that France only started its career after the arrival of the Franks, the Italians that the ancient Latins occupied only a small part of their peninsula whilst the rest was occupied by Celts, Etruscans, or Greeks. The Spaniards cannot overlook the fact that Spain only came into being after eight hundred years of Moorish, Muslim rule. The Magyars know that their forefathers crossed the Carpathians in AD 895 to settle in 'Hungaria', the former land of the Huns. Wherever one looks on the map of Europe, except perhaps in Iceland, one sees layer upon layer of settlement, statehood, and occupation.

    On the other hand, present-day nations and regimes have a strong inclination to believe that they and their forebears have 'possessed' their present territory since time immemorial. Belief in the unbreakable bond between 'Blood and Soil' was one of the most powerful psychological motors of nineteenth-century nationalism. Europeans were thoroughly indoctrinated with the notion that every inch of ground within their national frontiers was eternally 'theirs' and hence inherently 'French' or 'German' or 'Polish' or whatever. Popular gurus of prehistory attracted their audiences by evoking 'the ancestral heritage', by urging an imaginary leap over vast spans of time, by magnifying the links between 'us' and 'them', by identifying the people and places of a remote past with the people and places of the present. 'I have led [my reader] ... over mountains and up dales', cooed the author of a pioneering guidebook to 'Prehistoric Britain', '... and have journeyed to and fro over the past hundred thousand years':


It has been a long way to go in both time and space, but I think we have seen all the finest of our ancestral monuments, all the places where the past stirs the imagination: the places where formerly we were and from which we have come.


    Thanks to such evocations, prehistory and archaeology have inevitably developed in an intensely political context. Nationalism has never been far beneath the surface. Immense efforts have been made to discover a past to which modern people could relate, and, where necessary, to exclude those elements of the past that were politically inconvenient. Prussian archaeologists would prove beyond question that the prehistoric monuments of Prussia's eastern borderlands were indisputably Germanic. A few decades later Polish archaeologists working with identical material established that the selfsame monuments were indisputably, and ab origine, Slavonic. Neither side paused to ask whether those monuments were not, at least in part, Celtic. Nowadays, the Ancient Celts have few advocates in Central Europe. But similar exercises are still in progress. Since 1992, the creation of FYROM - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - has provoked furious quarrels with Greece over the classification and national attributions of the ancient Kingdom of Macedon.

    This is a useful starting point from which to ponder the percep. tive comment that 'every generation gets the Stonehenge which it deserves — or desires'. What sort of Stonehenge will match the needs of the next millennium?

    Early in 1997 a British archaeologist specializing in stone circle produced a hypothesis that promised the new answer. Stonehenge he argued, displays several characteristics that are alien to other stone circles in these islands; it could not, therefore, have been the work of native builders. His solution postulated that Stonehenge was designed and constructed by the same people who built the great megalithic monuments at Carnac in Brittany. So, with the United Kingdom an active member of the European Union, the UK's prehistoric showpiece was set to be Europeanized.

    Fortunately or unfortunately Dr Bud's hypothesis did not receive universal acclaim. In fact, most of the professionals were distinctly sceptical. But one of the most interesting aspects of the whole affair was the manner in which it was discussed. Under a corny headline SO GALLING — ANCIENT BRETONS MAY HAVE BUILT STONEHENGE, The Times reported 'England's greatest monument, Stonehenge, may have been built by the French': 'Dr Aubrey Burl says that the stones were not manhandled into position by burly Britons but by visiting Gallic engineers overseen by French overlords'. Under the headline STONEHENGE IS FRENCH IMPOSTER, the archaeology correspondent of The Independent fumed with similar pseudo-indignation: 'Stonehenge — the pre-eminent symbol of Britain's ancient heritage — was not built by the British at all but by the French'. Humour apart, such sentiments are barely distinguishable from those of an irate Greek correspondent reporting on the latest announcement by FYROM's Department of Antiquities. The language of scholarly reactions was hardly more circumspect. A report prepared for the Archaeological Institute of America began, 'A British scholar has claimed that Stonehenge, England's most famous prehistoric monument, was built by the French.'

    It is a nice irony that Dr Burl himself has entered the lists on the vexed question of prehistoric nomenclature. He has been at pains to dismiss the 'pseudo-antiquarianism' and 'bogus romanticism' of scholars who allegedly sow confusion by abandoning the conventional names of prehistoric sites and by replacing them with newly invented or obscure, usually Celtic variants. A particular target for his ire was Mr Magnus Magnusson, the well-known broadcaster, who in the preface to a book on the Standing Stones of Callanish in the Outer Isles dared to use the neo-Gaelic form of Calanais. As Dr Burl announced, the oldest recorded form of the site's name was neither the Gaelic Calanais nor the Anglicized Callanish. It was the Old Norse Kalladarnes, meaning 'the promontory from which a ferry can be hailed'. The Vikings, it seems, provided the oldest layer of surviving place names in the Outer Hebrides. Which is no doubt the case. Dr Burl is arguing that to adopt Kalladarnes would sow just as much confusion as to adopt Calanais. Callanish, he implies, has gained the right to acceptance through long usage. 'Names,' he protests, 'should be respected.' Familiarity and practicality are to be the dominant criteria. 'Stonehenge', for instance, is the accepted, conventional form. No one in their right mind would consider dropping it for the older Anglo-Saxon Stan-heng or the still older Latin form of Circea Gigantum, 'The Giants' Ring'. After all, Stonehenge is administered by English Heritage.

    Which is all very well. It is reminiscent of the arguments that go on all over the world. Geographers argue whether the highest summit of the Himalayas should be known as Mount Everest, as the Nepalese Sagarmatha, as the Chinese-influenced Chu-mu-lang-ma Feng, or as the native Tibetan Chomolungma. Australians debate whether the most famous natural feature in Australia should be called by the English name of Ayers Rock or by the most common Aboriginal name of Uluru. There is no easy answer, For names carry cultural associations, and in some instances indications of ownership. The real point about the prehistoric sites of the Isles is that none of the historical names applied to them possesses the right associations. Conventional names are conventional, and nothing more. All modern names which have been coined in the absence of their unknown prehistoric counterparts are equally inappropriate.


So, to begin at the beginning. When the second stage of Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain c. 2700 BC, it could not have been called Stonehenge, which is an English name. The English had not yet arrived. The English language had not been invented. The Plain would have been there; but it could not have been named after Salisbury, since Salisbury itself had not been founded. One may deduce that a year equivalent to 2700 BC once existed; but no such date could have been conceived before the birth of Christ or the concept of a Common Era. There was no country called 'France', and nothing equivalent to it; there was no 'England', and there was no 'Britain', and no 'Brittany'. As yet, there were no Ancient Gauls, no Ancient Britons, and no Ancient Bretons. This holds good even if each of those later communities would owe much to the gene pool of their unidentifiable predecessors. Only two things can he said with absolute certainty about prehistoric life on 'the Midnight Isles' at that period: it was not English; and it was not British.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii
List of Maps xvi
List of Tables xvii
List of Appendices xviii
Introduction xxi
Chapter One The Midnight Isles 1
Chapter Two The Painted Isles c. 600 BC to AD 43 45
Chapter Three The Frontier Isles 43 to c. 410 103
Chapter Four The Germanico-Celtic Isles c. 410 to 800 151
Chapter Five The Isles in the West 795 to 1154 227
Chapter Six The Isles of Outremer 1154 to 1326 303
Chapter Seven The Englished Isles 1326 to 1603 403
Chapter Eight Two Isles: Three Kingdoms 1603 to 1707 531
Chapter Nine The British Imperial Isles 1707 to 1922 659
Chapter Ten The Post-Imperial Isles 1900 to Present 871
Notes 1059
Appendices 1091
Index 1183
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