The bestselling historian tells the story of the landscapes, peoples and culture of early medieval Britain in eight walks, an epic sea voyage and a north-south ride by motorbike.
The five centuries between the end of Roman Britain (410) and the death of Alfred the Great (899) have left few voices save a handful of chroniclers, but Britain's 'Dark Ages' can still be explored through their material remnants: buildings, books, metalwork, and, above all, landscapes.
Adams explores Britain's lost early medieval past by walking its paths and exploring its imprint on valley, hill and field. From York to Whitby, London to Sutton Hoo and Falmouth to Mallaig, In the Land of Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of our island's history.
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About the Author
Max Adams is the author of Admiral Collingwood, The Prometheans, the bestselling The King in the North and In the Land of Giants. He has lived and worked in the North-East of England since 1993.
Max Adams is a critically acclaimed biographer and archaeologist and the author of Admiral Collingwood, The Prometheans, The King in the North and Aelfred's Britain. A teacher of woodland and tree histories, he manages an area of woodland in County Durham. www.theambulist.co.uk
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In the Land of Giants
By Max Adams
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2015 Max Adams
All rights reserved.
The kingdom of Dál Riata : [Rothesay to Kilmartin
Argyll and Northumbria — walking insights — Bute — landscapes of memorial — Dunagoil fort — wild camping — Dark Age entrepôts — Kingarth and St Blane — St Ninian's Point — Inchmarnock — rescue by boat — Tarbert — St Columba's cave — Cladh a Bhile — Kilmory chapel — another rescue — Lochgilphead — Dunadd — Kilmartin Glen
In the early medieval period the west coast of what is now Scotland, together with its islands from Arran to Skye, formed a Gaelic-speaking kingdom with very strong ties to the ancient lands of Ulster. As a historical entity it comes into focus only in the later sixth century: from then on the fortunes of its four principal kindreds, the Cenél Loairn of central and northern Argyll, the Cenél nGabrain of Kintyre, the Cenél Comgaill of Cowal and the Cenél nngusa of Islay are recorded in the annals of the famous monastery on Iona. Scholars cannot agree whether Dál Riata was originally carved out by Irish warbands or emerged from an immigrant community, but its kings laid claim to much of Ulster and its greatest holy man, St Columba (more properly Colmcille), was born in Donegal. Dál Riata came into conflict with its neighbours the Picts, the Britons of Dumbarton and the Northumbrians; but its most celebrated king, Áedán mac Gabrain, had a daughter who married into the Bernician royal family and the monastery on Lindisfarne was an Ionan foundation. Kings and clergy travelled between the two kingdoms regularly through the seventh century.
Much of that traffic must have come by way of the sea and the Stanegate. But other cross-country routes existed. I explored one of these in 2011 when I walked from my home on the north-west edge of County Durham to Glasgow, the city on the Clyde founded by the enigmatic sixth-century saint Kentigern, or Mungo as he is often called. That walk reminded me that a proper journey is more than a day trip; that the trail only makes sense when you live on it; that landscape can best be read at walking pace. In choosing a place to camp, you have to read the countryside with your senses far beyond merely checking for car parks or cafés.
A more profound insight is that when you are teasing a route through a landscape which has changed only superficially over the millennia — that is to say, the hills and rivers have not moved much, and many of the settlements are very ancient — you find yourself confronting and solving problems that would have been familiar to generations of travellers on foot or horseback. Sometimes the names of places give you clues: fords will naturally enough guide you towards crossing points on rivers; welles offer the chance to locate fresh spring water; a tun with the prefix straet suggests an establishment on a Roman road where goods and repairs might be sought. And some ancient settlements were named after local landmarks with prominent features like flat-topped hills so that you could navigate your way towards them. The landscape is full of signs and waymarks for the informed traveller. The name Peebles means both a place where tents are pitched (handy) and a shieling where animals were pastured in the summer. If I didn't have a map or the internet, I would head for this place, hopeful of a night's stay and food. Peebles still has a very excellent campsite (hot showers, soft grassy slopes; a washing machine) and offers plenty of good food. Travellers, like columns of ants, tend eventually to find the best routes through the land, avoiding hazards like bogs and brigands, often keeping to high ground once it has been gained and trending towards the gaps between major river systems, although just because a ford or ferry exists doesn't mean to say that the traveller wishes either to pay the fare or attract what might prove to be unwanted attention.
These days, bridges have replaced ferries and fords for the most part. Even so, the traveller on foot aims to avoid main routes, by and large. Walking along the verges of a busy A-road is a form of sensory torture and a risk to life and limb. So it was that I found myself making for the gap between the headwaters of the Rivers Clyde and Tweed. This gap, in the glen where Biggar sits, is no more than seven miles across. A Roman road runs through it and in experiencing for myself this age-old reality, I came closer, I thought, to an insight into the ancient mind. The whole journey, ending in Paisley where St Mirren, the Ulster-born contemporary of Colmcille, founded his famous church, took eleven days and spanned a hundred and eighty miles; but it took me back fifteen hundred years and more to the days when saints, pilgrims and warriors trod the same paths.
For my venture into the Land of Giants I wanted to complete the journey between Northumbria and the ancestral seat of the kings of Dál Riata, so I persuaded my partner Sarah (an Ulster Scot) to join me on a small adventure through the hills, lochs and glens of Argyll to Dunadd in Kilmartin Glen, where a footprint carved in rock tells of kingly naugurations and where excavation has revealed a treasure trove of exotic European luxuries. Even today this is not an entirely straightforward journey. By car it is a much longer route than it would be as the crow flies. Sea- lochs must be crossed where there is no ferry service. But the improvisational spirit in which we set out from Paisley in October 2013 (friends; a warm welcome and send-off) seemed entirely in keeping with the Dark Age task in hand. We knew there would be days when we might see no shop. No campsites existed on our route, so we took big packs, more than I have ever carried before on a long walk.
From Paisley a railway line runs west along the southern shore of the Clyde estuary, designed originally to bring workers into Glasgow and take day trippers to the seaside. From the windows of the train the hulking fist of Dumbarton Rock (Alt Clut in Brythonic: Rock of the Clyde), fortress of the British kings of these parts in Bede's day, appeared across the water.
I still feel a childlike sense of excitement at a ferry port and in climbing aboard a ship: the prow pointing towards the future and to adventure; the long wake of ruffled water aft a memory-cleansing refugee trail, like Ariadne's ball of string in the labyrinth of the minotaur. From Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on Bute is less than an hour across the Clyde, but the sun was setting, the light golden against dark clouds, and we had only the pure, uncluttered trail ahead to think of. I say uncluttered: by that I mean that the walker, unlike the driver or the traveller by train and plane, never has to wait; never has to rely on anything but his or her own wits. You start walking when it suits you. You stop for a pee when the need arises, for lunch when you find an agreeable spot or shelter. Your arrival at a day's destination is perfectly timed to coincide with you finding the right spot. You can't be late except on your own terms.
Even so, there's nothing like a good breakfast and a shower to set one up for the trials ahead; so we indulged in a room overlooking Rothesay harbour. Bute is a self-contained paradise, a short remove from the industry, bustle and energy of Glasgow; and yet, many Glaswegians have never been there. It is a comfortable island, sheltered, well watered and rarely suffering damaging frosts; twenty miles or so long, narrow in the waist and nestling between two long-flooded fjords at the southern end of the Cowal peninsula. Nowhere does the land rise above a thousand feet. It is famous, like Ireland, for its dairy and beef herds. The farms are prosperous; and yet, as we walked along Rothesay's seafront in an ultimately fruitful search for fish and chips, the town played us a pianola song, in a minor key, of lost Edwardian grandeur. We saw faded advertisements for bespoke headboards. The drab shop windows could have been used as a seventies film set; we struggled to find a postcard; the older buildings set back from the shore were falling into disrepair. In this sense Bute has more in common with Eastbourne or Filey than with Scotland's vibrant Silicon Glen. It has suffered a sort of genteel neglect; and that is part of its charm. Perhaps post-Roman Britain, far from the desolate, ruinous, plague-ridden chaos of Gildas's portrait, was a genteel, faded seaside town of a land. Perhaps.
Our first day's walk took us south towards Dunagoil and Kingarth. In spite of its well-behaved fields and pastoral somnolence, there is something ghostly about Bute's landscape. Prehistoric chambered cairns and tumuli, stone circles, cup-and-ring-marked rocks and duns — small prehistoric or Early Medieval forts — lie as if scattered by a giant's hand across field and wood. Labour invested in monuments and field boundaries is evidence of agricultural surplus and of social hierarchy. Bute's richness must therefore stretch back deep into a prehistory when the heavens were populated with hunters and bears and the rocks, trees and springs of the land by the ancestors. There are so many burial sites distributed across Bute — many, many more must have been lost — that one is tempted to think of it as a sort of island of the dead. The ancestors were everywhere, watching us. Even as we left the last houses of Rothesay behind, we came across a medieval chapel almost overwhelmed by the graveyard of its nineteenth-century replacement and dozens of rows of tombstones, their inscriptions etched sharp in bright early sun. A holly and a yew reminded us of ideas of the eternal; of the blood sacrifice of prophets; that symbols of death transcend religion.
From here to the southern tip of Bute was no more than an eight-mile walk, the first part along the banks of Loch Fad where we watched two fishermen casting from a white-painted rowing boat against the blue-black of the water and a rich late-summer green fringe of woodland behind them, so still that they might have been figures in a painting. An enterprising industrialist once fed this loch with aqueducts to power his cotton mill; but there are no mills on Bute these days. Beyond the loch was a more open land of whins and rough pasture; we realised we were following an old route, a droveway that kept to the modest ridge which is Bute's spine. Far to the south-west the mountains of Arran brooded beneath impenetrable grey clouds that we kept a sharp eye on all day. Above us the flying V of a flock of geese heading in the same direction told of the coming season. For the present, in early autumn, Bute was good country for the forager. We munched on Sunday-lunchtime water mint and handfuls of blackberries from passing hedgerows. We must have looked a slightly misplaced sight, tramps mingling with the dressed-up folk of Kingarth arriving at their village cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of loved ones. A little further on, following a mark on the map, we poked our heads into a conifer plantation where three giant monoliths, one of them held up by a jerry-rigged iron tie-bar, were all that remained of a once monumental stone circle. Memorial, it seemed, was the theme for the day.
Dunagoil is a whaleback massif of metamorphic rock that rises, not unlike Bamburgh in Northumberland or Dumbarton on the Clyde, almost out of the waves. A prehistoric fort once stood here. Somewhere on its east side are the remains of a small fortlet occupied from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period: our first bona fide Dark Age site. A small excavation in the late 1950s produced longhouse-type buildings and sherds of both Roman Samian pottery and exotic imports from later centuries. These are tell-tale signs of an Early Medieval kingly entrepôt, like Dunadd on a smaller scale. Such a site is irresistible to the archaeologist, so we had planned this as our first stop. Now, looking down from the farm track at the glowing orangey-green hill against the wine-dark sea and Arran's late afternoon battleship grey, and with grim weather looking like it might arrive from the Atlantic at any time, it seemed as if it might be a bleak place to spend the night. It was a treeless land.
The omens weren't good: I failed to spot the wires of a powerful electric fence, 'accidentally' earthing through the farm gate and I received a punch in the arm that stopped me in my tracks. Slightly disconcerted, we made our way down to the shore in the lee of the giant natural ramparts. Our luck was in: here was shelter. A small brook a couple of hundred yards away offered water for boiling up and we found plenty of flotsam and jetsam to gather for fuel. The rain held off. We pitched in a discreet spot in a little natural bowl of rough grass looking out magnificently onto the Sound of Bute. Neither the sheep nor the oyster-catchers paid us any attention. As we busied ourselves setting up stove and bedding, a curious seal, who was to follow our fortunes for three days, bobbed its grey head out of the water to see what we were about.
I am not one for fancy technology on a walk; too many gadgets can wear out or run out of fuel. So I cook on a Wild Woodgas stove. It is light and simple, cannot fail or break. It is fuelled with sticks that one finds lying about on almost any campsite, leaves no trace behind and cooks beautifully; and I always carry with me a bag of dry birch bark — the perfect waxy kindling, light as paper. There being two of us, we had indulged in the luxury of a storm kettle too, for nearly instant hot water. It's no more than a small aluminium chimney with a water sleeve around it and a fire tray at the bottom. It will light in just about any weather and for a quick, morale-boosting cuppa laced with whisky it is hard to beat. We ate well, and in the fading orange light I went off to explore the remains of the fort. In truth, humps and bumps in the landscape are not always much more revealing for the archaeologist than for the casual tripper. I had already read the site report, however, so I knew what to look for: rectangular stone foundations and the grassed-over remains of a timber-laced rampart which had enhanced the natural battlements of this rocky fortress.
What counts, on this sort of journey, is the sense of place, the passing of time. There is no better way to insinuate oneself into the Dark Age mind than to camp close to the ramparts of an ancient fort on the edge of the limitless sea and ponder the spiritual and secular worlds of those who built it. To properly understand these people, if that is possible, it helps to have read the literature, and there is more of that than one might think. But the key to Dunagoil was not just in the notes of the excavators, nor even in its striking setting and naturally defensive architecture. The secret lay just beyond the next hill.
The first night on a trail can be strange and disorienting. You are not quite sure where you are when dawn breaks and the only sounds are those of sheep munching the grass next to the tent and the odd bird calling overhead. At Dunagoil the night was so peaceful that even the rhythmic lapping of waves on the shore did not disturb us. One of the many pleasures of walking with Sarah is that, being a Scot, she will make porridge for breakfast come hell or high water. Oats are the best trail-setting food: full of slow-release carbohydrates; light to carry and easily flavoured with honey, hedgerow fruits or hazelnuts.
I was keen to get started: I wanted to see St Blane's church, which lay hidden behind a bluff immediately to the east of Dunagoil. None of the pictures or plans I had seen gave much idea of its setting. By nine o'clock in the morning we were tramping along the small path that led off a narrow road through a field of dairy cows. Our breath was cloudy but the sun was up and the air perfectly clear. The church was invisible until the last few yards, when the subtlety of its location became apparent. A key component of that location, inevitably, was its proximity to Dunagoil. Encircled by two walls which have created a sort of concentric terraced citadel, the monastery was set in a natural bowl sheltered by hills and trees but with a narrow view out to sea and easy access to the protective fort. There was, and is, open pasture near by, and the year-round fruits of the sea; and early monastic communities were nothing if not handy when it came to farming. The church, built in the sixth century like Iona Abbey, much altered and enlarged in a twelfth-century rebuild and now partly ruined, is nevertheless a jewel in the Early Medieval landscape of Scotland's west coast. Stone-built cells, a chapel, burial ground, the core functions of an early monastic foundation, were later complemented by guest house, bakery, workshops, a scriptorium, perhaps, and the lodgings of the abbot. The beach at Dunagoil gave access to the water; not just to the coast of Bute but to its Kyles with their fine fishing and to other monasteries and centres of power sited on the hundreds of miles of Argyll's shores. Ireland, Erin, lay three days' sailing away.
Excerpted from In the Land of Giants by Max Adams. Copyright © 2015 Max Adams. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Author's note xi
Prologue It is written 1
Chapter 1 The kingdom of Dál Riata Rothesay to Kilmartin 20
Interlude Gil stand to Haltwhistle 55
Chapter 2 Marches: Telford to Wrexham 62
Interlude Haltwhistle to Holbank 91
Chapter 3 Looking for giants: London to Sutton Hoo 98
Interlude Once Brewed to Warden Hill 136
Chapter 4 Eda Frandsen: Falmouth to Mallaig 144
Interlude A Corbridge circular 179
Chapter 5 Heroes: Wareham to Yatton 190
Interlude Walking cm the Wall on the spot 231
Chapter 6 Time among the Britons: Anglesey to Bardsey Island 236
Interlude The Tyne: Hexham to Ovingham 281
Chapter 7 Sense of place: Donegal 288
Interlude Ovingham to Newcastle 327
Chapter 8 Speed: Meigle to Canterbury 336
Interlude: Newcastle to Jarrow 374
Chapter 9 Midwinter: York to Whitby 384
Postscript Who are the British? 423
Appendix 1 Journey distances 427
Appendix 2 Timeline 429
Recommended reading 443