The day before…

Senchus is a blog about history, archaeology and related topics. The content here is apolitical, and politically neutral, especially towards modern politics. This isn’t to deny political history a place here – it’s just that any politics that do appear tend to be pretty old. Anyway, there are more than enough blogs out there which cover the up-to-date stuff.

All of which is an explanation of why I – despite being neither apolitical nor politically neutral – haven’t written much on the topic of Scottish independence. As a non-participant in the referendum, and as someone whose online presence deals solely with old history, I have chosen to stay out of the wider debate. I have, however, followed the situation closely for the past couple of years, especially on social media. My personal opinion doesn’t count towards the result but, for what it’s worth, I hope Scotland regains her independence. I would take a Yes victory as a sign that the current political landscape in Britain can be changed – and by that I mean in England too.

Today, the day before the referendum, I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme which was broadcast last Saturday. Alex Woolf, an English-born historian who has been based in Scotland for many years, explains why he is voting Yes. Alex is a renowned authority on early Scottish history. His publications are regularly cited here at Senchus and in the bibliographies of my books. Much of what he says in the radio programme resonates with me, not least because we are both Englishmen. A link to the podcast appears at the end of this post.

And finally… Although this blog deals with Scottish themes, only two posts touch on issues relating to the referendum:
Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness (a look at the misuse of terminology)
The Last of the Free (the struggle for independence in ancient Caledonia)

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BBC Radio 4 – iPM, 13 September 2014 – Podcast

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Scottish independence and the idea of Britishness

I don’t have a particular axe to grind as far as Scottish independence is concerned. I’m not a Scot, nor do I live in Scotland. I don’t have a vote in the referendum. However, as someone with a keen interest in Scottish history I do take an interest in the debate. I’m particularly interested in how the terms ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ (and ‘Scot’ and ‘Briton’) are used by people on both sides, usually when a point about identity is being raised. In recent years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how these terms were used in Scotland in the early medieval period or ‘Dark Ages’, the era of the Picts and Vikings. In two books (one already published, the other forthcoming) I’ve looked at what it meant to be a Briton in the Scotland of a thousand years ago, and why people in those days regarded ‘Britishness’ as different from both ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Englishness’. Early medieval texts show that even the umbrella term ‘Britain’ could be used in ways that excluded Scotland and England, to distinguish the territories of the Britons from those of the Scots and English.

The Britons of early medieval times were descended from the people we used to call ‘Ancient Britons’ in the school history lessons of my childhood. We were taught that the Britons fought the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons (the ancestors of the English) and that their language survives today in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. All of this is broadly true, although more could be said. In Scotland, the clearest reminder of the Britons of old is the distinctive, twin-peaked mass of Dumbarton Rock, which gets its name from Gaelic Dùn Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’.

Dumbarton Rock

‘Fortress of the Britons': Dumbarton Rock, viewed from the south bank of the River Clyde.


Fast forward a thousand years and we’re all Britons now, regardless of whether we live in England, Scotland or Wales. The modern notion of a common British identity is fairly easy to grasp – or at least it should be. Unfortunately, not everyone who voices an opinion on Scottish independence seems to understand what ‘Britishness’ means in the twenty-first century. Some commentators think the name ‘Britain’ applies exclusively to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They believe a Yes vote on 18th September will herald the ‘end’ or ‘break up’ of Britain. They’re mistaken. Britain is a geographical entity, a large island in the North Atlantic, known as ‘Great Britain’ to distinguish it from Brittany or ‘Little Britain'; the UK is a political entity, constituted in the early twentieth century after the creation of the Irish Free State. An independent Scotland will still be part of the island of Great Britain. The people of an independent Scotland will still be British. Separation from the UK will not dilute their ‘Britishness’ in any way. This is a simple geographical fact. It is not affected by the outcome of next week’s referendum.

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Epilogue: Some references to ‘Britishness’ in early medieval Scotland
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1. Scots, Britons and English (Anglo-Saxons) as separate peoples.

From the Annals of Ulster:
952 AD – Cath for Firu Alban & Bretnu & Saxonu ria Gallaibh.
‘A battle over the men of Alba [Scots] and the Britons and the Saxons [English] was won by the Foreigners [Vikings].’

From the Prophecy of Berchan:
c.960 AD (reign of King Ildulb of Alba) – ‘Bretain, Saxain, maircc fria a linn, fria a re an lonsaiglithigh airmglirinn mo glienar Albancha leis idir thuaith is eglais.
‘Woe to Britons and Saxons in his time, during the reign of the champion of fine weapons; joy to the Scots with him, both laity and clergy.’

[The Britons mentioned in these two references were the people of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the Britons in the North.]
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2. Britain = ‘territory ruled by Britons’ (not ‘the island of Britain’ as a whole)

From the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba:
c.972 AD – Cinadius filius Maelcolaim regnavit [xxiv] annis. Statim praedavit Britanniam ex parte.
‘Cináed son of Máel Coluim reigned 24 years. He frequently plundered part of Britain.’

['Britain' here means Strathclyde which lay on the south-west border of Cináed's kingdom.]

Govan The Sun Stone

Sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons: the Sun Stone at Govan (tenth century AD).

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Bannockburn (and other battles)

Battle of Bannockburn
I recently visited the heritage centre at Bannockburn which commemorates Robert Bruce’s famous victory over the English. The centre and the nearby monuments have been given a makeover to commemorate the battle’s 700th anniversary.

Because this is a fourteenth-century battle (fought in 1314, just in case anyone needs reminding) it lies beyond the usual horizons of Senchus and is well-documented elsewhere. I don’t tend to blog about the period of Bruce and Wallace unless the topic has direct relevance to something from before c.1150. However, I wanted to show some pictures of the Bannockburn monuments, partly because I think their recent makeover has turned out pretty well. Also, they remind me that commemorations of major Scottish battles from earlier periods are rare, with only a few receiving any kind of acknowledgment in the modern landscape. In many cases, this must be because the site cannot be pinpointed, not even approximately. In others, it may be because the historical significance of the event has yet to be recognised/promoted by the heritage tourism sector. I’m thinking here of important ‘Dark Age’ battles whose outcomes affected the wider balance of power, such as Strathcarron (642/643 – location uncertain), Dun Nechtáin (685 – location disputed) and Carham (1018 – location known but barely publicised). Two others in which Scottish forces were involved – Degsastan (603) and Brunanburh (937) – were undoubtedly very significant but, as well as being impossible to locate, their sites may lie south of the Border.

I remember visiting Mugdock Castle (near Milngavie) some years ago and wondering why local tourism authorities hadn’t tapped into the Pictish heritage market by putting up an information board saying ‘Historians believe that the famous battle of Mocetauc was fought near here in AD 750′, maybe with a bit of text and some coloured drawings of Picts fighting Britons. Mocetauc was a major defeat endured by the powerful Pictish king Onuist (Óengus) at the hands of an army of Britons led by the king of Dumbarton. It was famous enough to be mentioned in contemporary chronicles on both sides of the Irish Sea. Modern historians think it very likely that the battlefield lay in the vicinity of Mugdock in the valley of Strathblane, a few miles north of Glasgow. People in the Mugdock area have long been aware of this battle and have linked it – via their own folklore – to places in the local landscape. It may even be the historical event behind vague traditions of a victory won by ‘King Arthur’ at nearby Loch Ardinning, where there is apparently a sign dating the Arthurian battle to 570. With such stories already circulating in the area, and with plenty of academic support for the identification of Mocetauc as Mugdock, a project to commemorate the historical eighth-century battle with some kind of permanent marker wouldn’t come out of the blue. I imagine this is the type of project that could apply for resources from one of the community-based strands of the Heritage Lottery Fund. As I said, it’s a while since I visited the area, so if anyone knows of something already in place, or in the pipeline, please let me know.

At Dunnichen in Angus the Pictish victory over the English at Dun Nechtáin in May 685 is commemorated by a cairn with a small plaque giving a bit of historical info. Unfortunately, opinion is divided on whether Angus is the correct setting for this battle, so a more substantial memorial is hard to justify. Personally, I’m with the Dunnichen folk as far as the location is concerned, but the counter-argument (for Dunachton in Badenoch) has been well-argued by Alex Woolf and cannot be lightly set aside.

Meanwhile, at Carham on the River Tweed, we hear that the defeat of the English earl of Bamburgh in 1018 (at the hands of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons) is to be commemorated in the millennial year 2018. Perhaps a battlefield memorial is already planned? There are no doubts about the identification of Carham as the place called Carrum in a Northumbrian account written in the following century, so some kind of marker or monument would be justifiable. I discuss this battle at some length in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

After these musings on Dark Age battles we return to Bannockburn and to the monuments behind the new visitor centre. The following images show how Scotland’s iconic national victory continues to be commemorated on a suitably grand scale.

Battle of Bannockburn

Sculptured timeline at the rear of the visitor centre.


Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn
Battle of Bannockburn

The refurbished Rotunda (built in the 1960s) and its Victorian flagpole.


Battle of Bannockburn

Plaque on the memorial cairn within the Rotunda.


Battle of Bannockburn

The new ring beam encircling the Rotunda carries a poem by Kathleen Jamie.


Battle of Bannockburn

The Bruce Monument.

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Here’s a link to the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre.

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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The Men Of The North is 4

The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland
I’m pleased to see my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland back on the online bookshelves after a month or two of being listed as ‘out of stock’. It was recently reprinted by the publisher – Birlinn of Edinburgh – which means normal service has now resumed at Amazon and elsewhere.

The reprint has coincided with the fourth anniversary of the book’s publication, almost to the day. Much has happened since August 2010, not least the inevitable appearance of new research relating to the North Britons. I’ve been able to pick up on some of the latest developments for my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age but this only deals with the period after AD 750. I have no new output in the pipeline for the earlier period (c.400-700), with which The Men Of The North is primarily concerned. My only current publication on the era of Urien Rheged and his contemporaries is a book review of Beyond The Gododdin which appeared in the journal Northern History a couple of months ago. Writing the review necessitated a detailed reading of the book itself, which turned out to be a very valuable exercise. For instance, it enabled me to catch up on the latest research (primarily linguistic and technical) on the poetry attributed to the sixth-century bards Taliesin and Aneirin. It would be useful to add some of this material to The Men Of The North, if only in the chapter endnotes and bibliography, but this will only happen if a second edition appears at some point in the future. I would especially like to cite those parts of Beyond The Gododdin that support my scepticism – expressed in Chapter Four of my book – on the way in which Taliesin and Aneirin are frequently accepted as reliable guides to sixth-century political geography. In the absence of a new edition of The Men Of The North, and with no similar publications on my ‘to do’ list, I may have to use this blog as the place to update my bibliographic references on Rheged, Gododdin and other North British kingdoms.

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The Men Of The North: The Britons Of Southern Scotland

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Dunbar Castle

Dunbar Castle
The image above is from the early nineteenth century. It’s an engraving by John Greig (from a drawing by Luke Clennell) and was published as a plate illustration in Sir Walter Scott’s The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland. A number of prints were made from the original and some of these were hand-coloured by later artists. I recently found one of the coloured versions, neatly mounted on white card, in a car boot sale at Falkirk Football Club.

The picture gives a clear impression of the great mass of rock upon which the Scottish earls of Dunbar built their castle, a structure now so ruinous as to be deemed too dangerous for the public. To the left of the castle – but not shown in the engraving – is the headland known as Castle Park where archaeological excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed traces of an ancient promontory fort. This older stronghold was occupied as far back as the Iron Age and continued to be used in early medieval times as an important centre of power. Originally a fortress of the native Britons, it was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century when its name was recorded as Dynbaer (from Brittonic din+bar, ‘summit fort’). In the ninth century it was attacked by the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine) and eventually became part of the kingdom of Alba in the time of Cináed’s descendants. The site of the fortress is now occupied by a leisure centre.

Much of the history of Dunbar’s medieval castle falls outside the remit of this blog but is well worth a look, especially by anyone with an interest in the Anglo-Scottish wars. The castle’s most famous resident was the formidable Black Agnes, wife of the 9th earl, who successfully resisted an English siege in the fourteenth century.

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Further reading:

David Perry and Mark Blackburn, Castle Park, Dunbar: two thousand years on a fortified headland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2000)

The Canmore record for Castle Park can be found at the RCAHMS website.

Elsa Hamilton, Mighty subjects: the Dunbar earls in Scotland, c.1072-1289 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Eamont 927
Regular visitors to Senchus may have noticed a lack of activity this year, with barely one new blogpost per month. The slowdown has been due to a major distraction – I’ve been writing a new book on early medieval history.

The title of my latest tome is Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. It’s my fifth book on Dark Age Scotland and my second on the North Britons. It can almost be described as a sequel to The Men Of The North – or more accurately as an expanded version of the last couple of chapters – and is similarly pitched as an undergraduate-level textbook. The primary focus is on the relationship between the Strathclyde Britons or ‘Cumbrians’ and their English neighbours in the Viking period (roughly 800 to 1100 AD). Much of this relationship was characterised by mutual hostility, which is why an early working title for the book was The Cumbrian Wars. These wars, although now absent from the title itself, still represent a major theme running through the book. Many of them are obscure and little-known, partly because Strathclyde has all too often been overlooked or ignored by historians, and partly due to misconceptions about what the term ‘Cumbrian’ actually means in an early medieval context.

Most of these conflicts were fought in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in other contemporary texts alongside periods of uneasy peace or temporary alliance. This was a volatile era in which ambitious kings in Britain and Ireland competed with one another for land, wealth and status. Treaties were forged, pledges were given and oaths of fealty were broken. Each generation brought a new set of alliances and a reshuffle in the balance of power. Add a few Viking warlords to the mix and it starts looking a bit like Game Of Thrones.

The book is scheduled for publication by Birlinn of Edinburgh in September 2014. At the moment, the front cover is being created (by a designer) and a final ‘proof’ of the text is being checked (by me). In the meantime, I’ve set up a WordPress blog where I’ll post updates on the book’s progress, as well as information on the Viking period in general.

I invite all readers of Senchus and Heart of the Kingdom to take a look at the new blog, which went online today. Click on the link below…

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

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Galloway’s lost kingdom?

TDGNHAS2013
Some weeks ago I received my copy of the latest TDGNHAS through the post. This year’s volume contains the customary banquet of history and archaeology, with Senchus-related topics featuring in three articles and a book review. One of the articles, written by Warren Bailie of GUARD Archaeology Limited, gives an interesting summary of an investigation at Carzield Roman Fort near Dumfries. It is preceded by an article from Ronan Toolis (also of GUARD) and Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) on the excavations undertaken at Trusty’s Hill by the Galloway Picts Project in 2012. I’ve given occasional updates on this project, usually with links to relevant posts at the Galloway Picts website, but the article in TDGNHAS is the first lengthy printed report.

As many of you will know, Trusty’s Hill is famous for the Pictish symbols carved on a stone near the summit. What makes them special is their presence at a site so far away from the Pictish heartlands further north. On the summit of the hill are the remains of an ancient fort long assumed to have been a major Dark Age stronghold. The Galloway Picts Project set out to place both the fort and the symbols in a clearer historical context. In particular, it was hoped that the question of whether or not the symbols were fakes could be settled once and for all.

Trusty's Hill Pictish Symbols

The Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill. Illustration by J.R. Allen (1903).


The TDGNHAS article contains far too much good stuff to summarise in this brief blogpost, but I’ll mention three of the most significant findings. First, there is now no doubt that the fort was occupied by people of high status in the fifth to seventh centuries; second, the fort was destroyed by fire – presumably at the hands of enemies – in the early seventh century; and third, the two Pictish symbols are indeed ancient and were almost certainly carved in the time of the historical Picts (the horned head turns out to be of nineteenth-century origin).

A fuller, more detailed report on the excavations is in the pipeline. It will appear under the intriguing title The Lost Kingdom of Rheged: the Dark Age Royal Stronghold of Trusty’s Hill, Dumfries & Galloway and will be published by Oxbow Books of Oxford. Rheged appears in medieval Welsh tradition as one of several places ruled by a sixth-century king called Urien and his son Owain. Our main source of information on these figures is a group of poems attributed to Taliesin who sems to have been Urien’s principal court-poet or personal bard .

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the full report, I do wonder about the title, which links the archaeological data from the excavations to the rather less solid evidence for Rheged. In the TDGNHAS article, Ronan and Chris describe Trusty’s Hill as ‘a strong contender as a royal centre from which Urien and Owain struck out.’ This is probably true, but I’m not sure the point can be pressed any further. Fixing the location of Rheged on a modern map has always been a guessing game, like the one where a blindfolded person tries to pin a paper tail on a drawing of a donkey. None of the old Welsh texts actually tells us where Rheged was, or even what it was. The idea that it was a kingdom (rather than a smaller territorial unit) emerged in the nineteenth century and is not a necessary inference from the Taliesin poems. I’ve said all this before, in print and online, and I’ll continue to repeat it, even though it puts me at odds with the popular belief that Rheged was a very large realm straddling the Solway Firth. The theory put forward by Ronan and Chris in their article conforms to the conventional view. So does the statement by Andrew Breeze in his review of Beyond The Gododdin 150 pages later. Professor Breeze, an expert on Celtic place-names, asserts that ‘the territories of Urien Rheged stretched from the Ayr to the Yorkshire Ouse’, thus encompassing the Solway lands (present-day Cumbria with Dumfries & Galloway) and of course Trusty’s Hill itself. I’m not convinced. ‘The simple truth is that we cannot deduce the location of Urien’s kingdom from the data currently available’. I wrote these words on page 75 of The Men of the North and I still stand by them four years later. Perhaps the full report of the Trusty’s Hill excavations will go some way towards thawing my scepticism? I shall wait and see.

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TDGNHAS = Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The contents of Volume 87 (2013) include the following:

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles ‘Excavations at Trusty’s Hill, 2012′ [pp.27-50]

Warren R. Bailie ‘Recent Investigations at Carzield Roman Fort, Kirkton, Dumfries and Galloway’ [pp.51-80]

D.C. McWhannell ‘Gaill, Gáidheil, Gall-Gháidheil and the Cenéla of Greater Galloway’ [pp.81-116]

Andrew Breeze: Review of Alex Woolf (ed.) Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales (St Andrews, 2013) [pp.197-9]

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Here’s a link to the website of the Galloway Picts Project

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I discuss the location of Rheged on pp.68-75 of The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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