When Tim Clarkson writes of the Cumbrian people, he refers neither to the natives of Cumberland, nor modern Cumbria, but to the “North Britons” of the former kingdom of Strathclyde. From Govan, its cultural and political centre, the Cumbrian realm extended southward beyond the Solway Firth, leaving indelible marks that remain today. Clarkson’s latest offering, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, takes a theoretically informed approach to tracing this largely forgotten kingdom’s fortunes through to its absorption by the Scots in the eleventh century.
Contrary to present fashions, rather than introducing a thesis before reinforcing the same point with the bluntest available instrument for 150-odd pages, Clarkson’s text commences with what equates to a literature review, judicially discerning whether surviving contemporary sources are “useful” or otherwise to his study. Such a structure prevails as the relevant charters, chronicles and hagiographical accounts from across the British Isles are conflated with archaeological, etymological, astronomical, and empirical observations to form an enlightening, if occasionally convoluted, narrative. Central is his reassessment of erring but prevalent theories; often the consequence of “guesses” with which contemporaries have “run too far”. Written in what can resemble a chiding tone, conclusions reached using “sounds-like etymology”, and other such undesirable practices, are contrasted with his own studies of political and linguistic geography. Combined with discriminating analysis of surviving material, Clarkson comes to resemble a voice of authority for a period bereft of certainty.
From this body of original research emerges a chronicle of kings and high politics, rooted in a complex web of neighbourly relations. So entrenched is his narrative in royal dealings with the Northumbrian and Scottish realms, that the historical Strathclyde is often dwarfed by its ornate framing. Events afforded pages of discussion, such as the Battle of Carham, sometimes only warrant inclusion on the “assumption” of Cumbrian involvement. A dearth of verifiable material ensures that, despite Clarkson’s evident expertise, his attempts to attribute “personalities” to various figures resemble the “guesswork” he so decries. This crescendo of pervasive uncertainty climaxes with the penultimate chapter’s twelve-year timeframe for the kingdom’s demise: an unfulfilling inference. Historiographically, Clarkson’s work defies compartmentalisation but not through choice. Instead, it reflects the perils of straining for a narrative amongst a shortage of millennium-old snippets. Given the material at hand, the historian must be applauded for demonstrating the former status of Strathclyde so robustly, even if, in many cases, this entails little more than ascertaining its Viking Age existence.
Far from being a natural storyteller, Clarkson’s prose lacks eloquence, sometimes to the point of being a little stilted. In addition, rich information on both subject and methodology can render the text dense and impenetrable. Every aspect of etymological minutiae is accounted for, while opposing theories are regularly dismissed in a handful of words. Invariably more familiar with the contemporary texts than any reader is likely to be, the depth of commentary on analytical processes can distract from his subject-at-hand. Repeated material is presented as new on multiple occasions, further effecting a disjointed air. Catering for reference use in such a fashion might afford a conciseness of thought and primary source relation ideally suited to his undergraduate target-audience; as a narrative, however, it lacks fluency.
The accessibility of Clarkson’s narrative might be hampered by its scholarly intentions, and the Viking Age Strathclyde largely unknowable in its historical remoteness. Nevertheless, the historian’s methodological rigour and exemplary source-handling add much-needed weight to what could otherwise prove an unrewarding endeavour. Creating a chronicle of his own from a complex web of frequently contradictory sources, Clarkson dispels innumerable prevailing myths to compose a respectably authoritative account of a topic devoid of certainties.