Award winning historian and writer Alistair Moffat gives his verdict on history drama series Britannia.

Our ancestors were not like us. They believed differently and behaved differently. In a series of caves at Covesea near Lossiemouth, children were decapitated, either alive or dead –some time in the late Bronze Age – and their decorated heads were hung from the roof of one cave. Much later, Roman commentators reported that before battle some Celtic warriors worked themselves into what was called "the rage-fit" and fought naked, protected only by their torques and their magical tattoos. You might want to call it woad rage.

Tattoos like these gave Britain its name. The earliest Celtic root-name for its people was Pretani and it meant something like the People of the Designs, by which they meant tattoos. By the time the Emperor Claudius ordered an invasion in 43AD, it had become known as Britannia.

All of which the makers of the Britannia drama series (Sky Atlantic) must have known. It is covered in tattoos and skulls are piled high. The portrayal of the Romans is fairly standard stuff with brisk, cocky, confident types in red cloaks marching in step and dishing out routine brutality, with added crucifixions. But the way in which the Celtic kingdoms of the south of England are realized is nothing short of brilliant. Tribal blood feuds, powerful women as well as men – and best of all, the Druids.

These priests and their demented followers feel like the core of this marvellous tale (I have watched the first two episodes) and they are led by a miracle of makeup, Mackenzie Crook. There are also two wonderful women. When Zoe Wanamaker, as Queen of the Regni, sits down in rival territory, it makes her ‘arse itch’, and the red wig worn by Kelly Reilly appears to have a life of its own. She plays what seems to be an early version of Boudicca.

The opening titles relate that Julius Caesar landed in Britain 90 years before but didn’t stay long – because of the Druids. Maybe. Mackenzie Crook certainly scared the pants off me. The Romans believed that the Druids fomented resistance for they sent an expedition to the sacred island of Anglesey to destroy them. When the Twentieth Legion arrived at the shores of the Menai Straits they saw ranks of warriors with lime-washed spiky hair and black-clad women moving amongst them, screaming curses at the Romans. Behind were the Druids and their ghost fences, rows of skulls on poles facing the invaders.

If that sounds scary, the makers of Britannia have taken history and made it even more bowel-loosening. Sure, there are some hilarious gaffes. Two fugitives catch and argue about skinning a rabbit, as well they might since rabbits were not introduced to Britain until the Romans came. There are runes everywhere – even on the forehead of the King of Kent – and these don’t appear in the historical record until 150AD at the earliest (although by contrast, Aulus Plautius, the Roman general well played by David Morrissey, writes perfect Latin cursive). But none of that matters one whit. This is not a documentary – it is a marvellously conceived yarn that creates what I suspect is a very close approximation to what Britain was like 2,000 years ago.

Alistair Moffat is the author of Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History, published by Thames & Hudson.