The Battle of Degsastan

In 603 the English king Aethelfrith of Bernicia defeated Aedan mac Gabrain and the Scots of Dál Riata in a great battle. Bede names the site of Aethelfrith’s victory as Degsastan (the Stone of Degsa) and calls it a “very famous place”.

Can Degsastan be pinpointed on a modern map? Some historians believe that the answer to this question should be Yes. They suggest that the battle took place at Dawston in Liddesdale near the present Anglo-Scottish border, thirty miles north of Carlisle. This is not a new theory: it made its first published appearance in 1692. Since then it has been cited so frequently that its origin as an unproven hypothesis seems to be forgotten in some quarters and it has consequently acquired the status of a factoid, a fact-shaped object.

What, then, are the merits of the Degsastan=Dawston theory?  Is it based on geographical hints in Bede’s account of the battle?  Does it derive from cryptic clues in obscure Scottish chronicles?  The answer to these questions is a resounding No. Dawston was suggested as the battle-site for no other reason than that its name begins with ‘D’, ends with ‘n’ and has ‘st’ in the middle. This is the sum total of supporting evidence for the identification. The name does not derive from Degsastan which, in its modern form, would today be something like Daystone.  Not a very convincing argument for the Dawston theory, you might think, but its flimsy foundations have not halted its unstoppable march into the pages of many an undergraduate text. Look in the index at the back of any book on early Scottish or Northumbrian history and you may see Dawston lurking there, either on its own or – more worryingly – in authoritative parentheses attached to the Bedan place-name, e.g. ‘Degsastan (Dawston)’.

The name Degsastan or Stone of Degsa was presumably borne by a prominent monolith in the early medieval landscape. The name Dawston, on the other hand, is borne by an insignificant stream – the Dawston Burn – which runs for a short distance beside a small patch of barren moorland called Dawston Rigg. Both stream and moor are situated in a bleak and very remote location among the hills at the head of Liddesdale (the valley of the River Liddel). Not the easiest place to get to, even by car, and not the kind of spot where one might expect a major battle to be fought.

mapdeg2

Rival theories are few and not very convincing, being based on various experiments with modern place-names using sounds like etymology. Dawston still runs far ahead of these rival sites because it is the only one with an enticing sequence of consonants (d-st-n) in its name. I don’t have any useful alternatives to pitch against Dawston but I do like to keep two thoughts in mind whenever this issue comes up:

1. The Degsastan=Dawston theory is a red herring and should be buried, preferably somewhere deep where it can be safely forgotten.

2. The battle of 603 was probably fought near a standing-stone or prominent (sacred?) glacial boulder in a location easily accessible to both armies.

In the final analysis the only theories about Degsastan that carry any real weight for me are those which identify the site of Aethelfrith’s great victory as one of the lost battlefields of Britain.

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76 comments on “The Battle of Degsastan

  1. Michelle says:

    Is Dawston very close to Arfderydd/Arthuret? The river Liddle seems to come to mind for Arthuret. This seems too far west for Aethelfrith before 603 although Bede claims he took more territory from the British than any previous English king. I’ve always credited the death of Dunod ap Pabo to Aethelfrith, though if memory serves me correctly that was about 595. Then again with all the inter-British warfare he could have fallen to another Briton. Anyway, I agree that Dawston doesn’t have any claim to the Battle of Degsastan.

    Degsastan does remind us how very important battle sites have been lost. Bede clearly thought it was one of the most important battle sites in his history and yet its lost. Then again so are the sites where Oswald, Penda, and Edwin fell. I guess I could argue that the death of young Aelfwine in 679 was the most important since it resulted in the border being set for centuries, but it is lost too.

  2. Tim says:

    Yes, Dawston and Arfderydd are fairly close and the River Liddel runs through both. The distance between the two places is only 20 miles (measured from Dawston Burn to the Arfderydd battle-site at Liddel Strength). The river brings the dark peaty waters of Dawston all the way down Liddesdale to the place where Gwenddoleu was slain in 573. The precise location was described by John of Fordun in c.1385 when he stated that the great battle was fought ‘in campo inter Lidel et Carwanolow’ (‘in the field between Liddel and Carwanolow’). In the 19th century the Scottish antiquary William Forbes Skene identified Carwanolow as the little stream now called Carwinley Burn on the northern edge of the parish of Arthuret, ten miles north of Carlisle. Skene correctly deduced that the place-name Arthuret derived from the Arfderydd of Welsh heroic poetry. He also realized that the name Carwanolow was originally ‘Caer Gwenddoleu’, the Fort of Gwenddoleu. Skene was unaware of the medieval motte known as Liddel Strength until he visited Arthuret in the 1870s but, as soon as he saw the impressive earthworks towering above the river, he enthusiastically proposed that the ruined Norman castle (also known as Liddel Moat) stood on the site of Gwenddoleu’s stronghold. This identification is probably right, though some historians suggest the Roman fort of Netherby as an alternative.

    Here’s a curious snippet of sixth-century trivia: In one group of Old Welsh poems Gwenddoleu’s personal bard was Merlin who allegedly went mad after witnessing the terrible carnage of Arfderydd and the death of his beloved lord. Nothing to do with the battle of Degsastan but slightly more entertaining.

  3. Pedant says:

    This was porposed by Hodgkin in 1808 – you seem to have copied his wording?

  4. tom moss says:

    We need some further investigation here. The river Liddel does not run through Arthuret as the Liddel joins the river Esk at the Willow Pool just south of Canonbie in Scottish ground.
    The Arfderydd battle site was not at Liddel Strength but west of Arthuret Church (modern day Longtown),or so I am led to believe.
    In both cases we are talking a few miles here and maybe that is not as relevent as I think but it is surely a worthy outcome to try and pinpoint exact places.
    Near the Dawston burn, it is rumoured, there was an abbey (there is still a small burn called Abbeysyke to this day). Although there is nothing left to see, in the nineteenth century two stone crosses were found in the vicinity.
    I wonder if this abbey was erected following the battle of Degsastan.
    See Robert Bruce Armstrong’s History of Liddesdale.
    I have also heard that Dalston near Carlisle could have been the site of Degsastan though I believe that this was too far west.
    Can anybody tell me what the significance of the ‘Catrail’ might have had?

  5. Tim says:

    I think the idea of the battle of Arfderydd being fought in the vicinity of Arthuret Church started with Skene after he visited the Arthuret Knowes. These were two small hills, one (now demolished) apparently with some kind of earthwork on the summit. Arthuret parish is (or was) quite extensive and encompassed a wide area beyond the focal point of the church. My own view is that the medieval parish relates to an earlier unit of secular or ecclesiastical lordship, possibly dating back to the era of the battle.

    I’ve heard of a cross being found on the moors above the Dawston Burn but I wonder how strong are the traditions about an abbey. The name Abbeysike has to come from somewhere but could it denote grazing land owned by monks from an abbey further away?

    Dalston looks like a red herring as far as Degsastan is concerned. A very slight similarity between the names seems to be the only reason it was ever suggested, although the same can be said of Dawston too.

    The Catrail is still a mystery, as far as I know. It has been recently mentioned at this blog in the comments on Catraeth & Gwen Ystrat.

  6. tom moss says:

    I am no academic but I am becoming really interested in your site and the comments posted.
    I have travelled extensively in Liddesdale because of my interest in the Border Reivers and once spent many hours locating the Whele Kirk, near Peel Fell, primarily because Edward l stayed there in 1296 before the Sack of Berwick, a landmark in Scottish/English relationship. As a result I was always aware, though only mildly interested, that the battle of Degsastan (Degsa’s stone or ‘stane’) was near to Dawston Rigg and the Dawston burn.
    Do you know if anybody has ever walked the site? Who or what was Degsa, anybody any idea? I was ‘fired up’ to go and look about but if the consensus of opinion is that it is pure conjecture based on a similiarity in names only then I wonder if it will be worth it.
    To walk from the road to the Whele Kirk one crosses what was the Catrail though there is nothing left at this point as it has been obliterated by that bain of modern Liddesdale, the ‘Scottish disease: Forestry.
    As for the Abbey in the vicinity of Dawston Rigg, its whereabouts and authenticity, I am at a loss, but places are not named for no reason. The two stone crosses found in the vicinity in the nineteenth century I think, one in the Dawston burn, the other nearby, were for many years in the museum at Hawick. I intend to pay a visit and see if they are still there. There are drawings of them in Robert Bruce Armstrong’s History of Liddesdale.
    I am touching on your area of expertise because I am trying to determine why the Border folk became so lawless. It has opened a whole new world to me, the changing Border line before and after the Conquest, the kingdom of Alba, the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons and Strathclyde, and its final settlement in 1237.
    I will be back often.
    Regards,
    Tom.

  7. Tim says:

    Thanks for your continuing interest in the site, Tom. As far as Degsastan is concerned I think the name is still a mystery, i.e. nobody knows who “Degsa” was. To me it looks like an Old English personal name but I’m no philologist and this is just a wild guess. Bede calls Degsa’s Stone a very famous place but gives no clue as to how it earned this fame. Perhaps it was famous only in the eyes of Bede and his countrymen? Or did the local Britons also regard it as an important site? If the former, then Degsa may have been a famous Bernician hero of old wars, or an ancient Germanic deity re-located to Britain by the earliest English settlers. If Degsa was famous among the native Britons he (or she?) could have been an ancient hero who fought the Romans or perhaps a local Celtic god. These are just my idle musings on a puzzle we are unlikely to see solved unless additional clues come to light.

    Scepticism about Dawston has led historians to look elsewhere for the battlefield of 603, particularly to the name Addinston in Lauderdale which some have interpreted as “Aedan’s Stone”. Although ingenious this theory seems to me another red herring. Early forms of the name Addinston allow a possible derivation from “Aedan” but it requires a big leap of faith to link this to the battle.

    I would think a visit to the Dawston area is still worthwhile, if only to see what is actually there. Maybe some clue as to the origin of Abbeysike might turn up? I would be interested to know if the Dawston crosses are still at Hawick and, if so, what the museum says about them.

    My main area of interest extends to c.1200 so there is a bit of crossover with your research on the Border. I’m especially interested in the fate of the Strathclyde Britons after the demise of their kingdom in the 11th century.

  8. tom moss says:

    Hello Tim.
    I have been in touch with the Hawick Archeological Society and received copies of three of their transactions on Dawstone Rigg, the two crosses and the Battle of Degsastan.
    I have scanned all three. If you are interested please let me know.
    I cannot vouchsafe for their worth but all seem to have some interest.Speaking for myself I now know where the Battle is supposed to have taken place and will take a look very soon.
    I am told the crosses are still in the museum so will pay a visit,
    Regards,
    Tom.

  9. Tim says:

    Tom,
    The Hawick info sounds interesting. I may already have the Degsastan article if it’s the one entitled ‘A famous old battlefield’, previously published in the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Transactions. I tend to be a bit sceptical about old articles from the late 19th/early 20th centuries but if you could post a comment here about the date assigned to the crosses I think it would be very useful. Thanks again for your input on this topic.

  10. tom moss says:

    Hi Tim,
    Went to Wilton Park Museum in Hawick last Sunday to have a look at the two crosses found in and near the confluence of the Dawston burn and Abbey syke in mid nineteenth century.
    Unfortunately no-one has ever endeavoured to date them so not much help there but treated admirably well by the curator.
    The title above the two stones said ‘Two of the Crosses’ etc. so I asked if this meant there were others. Apparently there was another cross found in 1983. Does anyone know anything about that? The curator knew only that one had been found so I have emailed the Hawick News and asked them if they will look through their archives for 1983.
    In a book ‘Liddesdale: Historical and Descriptive’ John Byers, the author, ventures ‘Most of the land in this region belonged to the church, and these crosses may have been boundary marks’. (As you suggested, and probably belonging to Jedburgh).
    Also in the same book a quotation from a Dr Evans in about 1942: ‘At the lower or south end of the Rig (Dawston) stands a rough, flat stone about 4ft 5ins high with a grave beside it. The grave is comparatively shallow, 20 ins; it is 10ft long and 2 ft broad, carefully built of large stones on the floor, roof and sides; and its long axis runs east and west. The upright stone had fallen down,but was raised some years ago when the grave was examined… one might, if wildly speculative, conclude that Theobald, the brother of Athelfrith was laid here…
    A real leap in the dark I know.
    I will have to go back to Dawston Rig and find this standing stone and tomb.
    I presume the significance of the ‘east to west’ line of the tomb infers that the burial was christian.
    Hope this is of interest.
    Regards,
    Tom.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for posting again, Tom. It seems you’re on a roll with this line of inquiry. The stone-lined grave does sound like an Early Christian cist burial, unless it’s a prehistoric cist with a random east-west alignment. I hope it’s still there, still intact and awaiting rediscovery, when you conduct your search. Theobald was presumably a pagan like his brother so I wouldn’t expect him to receive a Christian burial (even if Degsastan=Dawston). As for the crosses, I suspect you’re right about a Jedburgh connection. I’m interested to learn what you find on your next visit.

  11. Charles Baker says:

    Hi All,
    Just came across this blog and found many details very interesting. I have been following your line of enquiry about lost battle sites, which is always a bit of a downer when trying to formulate answers to many age old questions. I was, however, very intrigued by the Northumbrian Connection with my neck of the woods; South Yorkshire. There have been loose links with the Battle of Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, where Edwin was reportedly slain. For years local traditions stated that Edwin was slain at Hatfield itself, but further investigations revealed that this battle was likely to have been held at Cuckney, North Nottinghamshire, once part of the great Hatfield Chase. However, I digress from my main point. I have been researching some of these lost ancient battle sites and a recurring theme has been with crosses, especially Degsastan. However, nearby Churchlands which have helped me identify Hatfield Chase battle was precisely the location of two crosses, both marked episcopal boundaries between York and Lincoln. In view of Edwin’s early conversion to Christianity and the fact he was Saxon may also help you confirm similar circumstances regarding this location. I personally have never held much faith in Dawston, it sounds too convenient, but I must admit that the train of enquiry emerging within my fellow researchers on this blog, coupled with the ermerging information about two, or more, stone crosses along boundaries, may indeed eventually lead to either confirmation that it is indeed Dawston or at least help us cancel this location out once and for all. In view of Bede’s account; he was never going to get this location right because he was drawing on earlier sources, which have been well known to be widely variable at best and often totally incorrect. I am increasingly becoming invloved with this area, often for many similar reasons as you guys so I shall be happy to supply any additional information I find to help my fellow enquirers. Excellent blog spot, by the way, keep up the good work.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your comment, Charles. You raise an interesting point about the association between battles and crosses. I’ve yet to delve into the details about the re-location of Edwin’s defeat to the Nottinghamshire Hatfield (near Cuckney) but the theory does seem persuasive, especially when we consider the nearby monument called Edwin’s Cross. I have the original article somewhere (by Revill) but I believe the theory has been re-stated more recently (in C. Zaluckyj, Mercia: the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England, 2001). As far as Dawston is concerned the crosses mentioned by Tom are clearly significant in some context. Whether they are connected with the battle of Degsastan is an unanswered question. Tom’s latest update on Dawston has just appeared so I’ll take a look now at what he has found out.

  12. tom moss says:

    Have just spent another half-day walking what I think is the battle site. If the battle was on Dawston Rig then I would ask if some-one can pinpoint this on a map of Liddesdale.
    Have looked at a lot of maps of this area dating back to 1528 I find one only which tells me that Dawston Rig is now called Hudhouse Rig. I know Hudshouse well as I identified where the remains of Hudshouse Tower was a few years ago. It was the home of the Croziers in the Reiving times.
    Anyway I looked in vain for the cist which is supposedly on the south side of the Rig above the defunct railway bed of the line which led from Keilder to the Dawston viaduct. I intend to keep searching. It was a pleasant walk if nothing else.
    Can I venture the following. Please take it as the thoughts of a man who is not an academic with only a limited knowledge of your field of expertise:
    Tim, in your deliberations on the veracity of Dawston in Liddesdale as the field of battle you say- ‘the name(Dawston) does not derive from Degsastan , which in its modern form, would today be something like Daystone…’ and ‘Dawston was suggested as the battle site for no other reason than that its name begins with ‘D’ and ends with ‘n’ and has ‘st’ in the middle…’
    This set me to thinking last night on my return from Liddesdale. Place names that end in ‘ton’ are usually Anglo-Saxon or so I think. (I live in Walton, Cumbria hard by Hadrian’s wall and anglo-saxon in origin). So what does ‘Dawston’ mean?
    Presumably, if I am right, it has an anglo-saxon deriviation. So what does ‘Daws’ mean?
    As far as I can ascertain it comes from old english which means dawn or day.
    So, if Degsastan can be construed as Daystone then the Rig and the burn are aptly named. Whether before or after the battle, food for thought that maybe Liddesdale is the right place.
    Dalston near Carlisle is also anglo-saxon, but Dals means valley or dale so no obvious connection there as in Dawston.
    I might be far from the beaten track with my ramblings and if so, I would like you to say so.
    I won’t, however, give up looking for the cist or other signs that a battle took place on Dawston Rig.
    I get more intrigued by the day.

  13. Tim says:

    Tom, as far as I can pinpoint Dawston Rigg it seems to be the moorland on the west side of the B6357 road, approximately 1 mile north of Saughtree (where the minor road from Kielder joins the B6357). Dawston Rigg is basically the eastern edge of Saughtree Fell. As to the meaning of ‘Dawston’ I’m not really sure but I expect you’re right about an Old English derivation. Early forms of the name are lacking in old documents so it is difficult to trace an original OE form. The medieval charters of Jedburgh Abbey would no doubt have helped but these, unfortunately, have not survived. Ironically and quite frustratingly we can trace the name of the battle in Bede’s text through seven hundred years of manuscript transmission, from ‘Degsastan’ in 737 to ‘Daysastagne’ in a copy of c.1400. My wild guess at the origin of ‘Dawston’ is an OE personal name + ‘tun’, e.g. ‘Deor’s tun’ or something similar. I base this on the oldest recorded forms ‘Darston’ (Roy’s map of c.1750) and Dasten (Pont’s map of c.1600). Until a much older form of the name turns up (an unlikely event) we can do no more than make wild shots in the dark. But keep on searching and fieldwalking nonetheless. The Dawston area is turning out to be more interesting than I expected, and maybe something noteworthy did happen there in Early Historic times.

  14. tom moss says:

    Another post. I hope the interest is not waning!
    Last few nights looking at my notes on the Debateable Land, a tract of land in the western Borders which, until 1552, was contested by both England and Scotland. Although the Border had been agreed in 1237 at the Treaty of York, this area remained a no-man’s land.
    Today the parish of Canonbie is in Scotland, that of Kirkandrews-on-Esk in England. Together these two parishes, before 1552, constituted the major part of land that was ‘threpe’, ‘batable’ or debateable.
    After 1138, Canonbie, the religious house of the Barony of Liddel ( an English Barony) and the advowson of the church of Kirkandrews were given by the incumbent of the Barony to the newly founded Priory of Jedburgh.
    The foundation of Jedburgh was in 1138.
    This throws open to further investigation (I hope) the supposition (mine and maybe others) that the crosses found in or about the Dawston burn in Liddesdale in the late nineteenth century were truly markers for the boundary of Jedburgh Abbey.
    Firstly it is clear that the lands owned by Jedburgh Abbey came as far south as the river Esk so why put up boundary markers at Dawston, maybe twenty miles to the north of the Esk?
    Secondly, and I’m in the dark here, are the crosses found at Dawston representative, typical of 12th century crosses (the foundation of Jedburgh)?
    Their appearance begs some kind of confirmation that they are or not. They look far older to me but maybe that is just a hope.
    I will be out on Dawston Rig this weekend. I will find the standing stone though it may take a while.
    I am disappointed that nobody I have contacted seems to know anything about the cross found in 1983 but I am determined to pursue the matter,
    Tom.

    • Tim says:

      Tom, looking at the information you’ve unearthed so far a connection with the landholdings or routeways of Jedburgh Abbey still seems (to me) the most likely explanation for the crosses, even if the abbey’s lands extended further south. However, the upright stone and the cist grave do sound much earlier. If the stone is not merely a grave-marker but a memorial it might even have had an inscription on it, presumably too weathered to be noticed by Evans in 1942 (just as the not-too-far-distant Early Christian stone at Yarrow has an inscription which is illegible today). Did any of the old antiquarian scholars write a report on the Dawston stone, I wonder? Evans or Byers would surely have mentioned any previously-published description, even if it was just a short note in an obscure Victorian journal. Maybe the stone simply got overlooked?

  15. Mike says:

    Site of Degsatan. How about:

    “Degsastan, a very famous place”

    Possibly the Lochmabon Stone, historically a very famous place for armies to assemble, battles to be fought, truces to be negotiated, prisoners exchanged etc etc.

    Prehistorically ”Locus Maponi” = Clach Mabon = Mabon stone

    Mabon, Celtic god linked to Apollo, God of light and the sun – ie the Apollo Maponis of Romano-British inscriptions.

    Dag/Daeg/Dagr, Saxon/Norse god personifying day, whose steed “draws day to mankind”

    Therefore Clachmabon (Mabons stone) = Degsastan (Dags stone).

    Situated close to the border, a few hunderd yards from the shore of the Solway firth (the battle shore, Catraeth??)

    • Tim says:

      The Lochmaben Stone or Clochmabenstane is certainly the most famous stone in the region, as Mike points out, and we don’t know what the Anglo-Saxons called it. They would have heard the local Britons calling it ‘Mabon’s Stone’ but there is no reason why they should adopt this name rather than coin a new one in their own language. I’m not aware of this monument being suggested as a possible site for Degsastan before but it does seem worthy of consideration. Some supporters of the Dawston theory have wondered if the Scots arrived at the battle by sea, sailing up the Solway Firth before mooring their ships and marching up Liddesdale. As the most well-known ancient landmark in the Solway the Clochmabenstane might seem a more obvious site for a clash of armies, as much in 603 as in the 1500s.

  16. Tim, stumbled across this blog and found it really interesting. I live in Canonbie and I’m really interested in the history of the area. Have you come across Battle Knowe in Canonbie? I’d be really interested in any information you might have on it. here’s a link to the RCAHMS site re battle knowe, unfortunately there isn’t much information there.
    http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/67834/details/todsykehead+battle+knowe/
    The satellite images of the area are quite interesting however.
    http://www.bing.com/maps/default.aspx?q=canonbie&mkt=en-GB&FORM=BYFD

    hope those links work. If not look for Todsykehead or
    Todcleughside on the old road east of Canonbie toward rowanburn (parallel to the B6357)

    Cheers,

    Howard.

    • Tim says:

      Howard, I had not heard of Battle Knowe before. I looked it up on Canmore via the link you posted, then checked the grid ref on my 20-year old 1:25K OS map but the site is not marked. I was however interested to note that it lies only 2km from Liddel Strength where many people (myself included) think the battle of Arfderydd took place in AD 573. On my OS map the approximate location of Battle Knowe seems to be near a farm called Prioryhill which looks like a name with medieval connotations.

  17. Howard says:

    Tim, thanks for the feedback.
    The Priory was wsw of the Battle Knowe site http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/67847/details/canonbie+priory/
    lots of place names nearby associated with the Priory. Canonbie itself is believed to be named because of the Augustinian Canons at the Priory. I think there is a mention earlier in the blogg of the Jedburgh connection.

    cheers,

    Howard.

  18. Tom Moss says:

    Hi Tim,
    Have not given up looking for the cist on Dawston Rig. I will find it. Don’t know what finding it might achieve, probably nothing, but I love the area so like to spend time there.
    Interesting comments from Howard.
    The Barony of Liddel was a cross Border holding which included both Kirkandrews on Esk and Canonbie.So it was an English Barony which included land north of the river Esk which had become the de facto Border after the invasion of Cumberland by William Rufus in 1092.
    Canonbie, as its name implies, had a priory which was known or referred to as the ‘religious house of Liddel’.
    In the 1530’s Henry V111 claimed it to be English and thus said Canonbie was English. This argument was part of the complex issues which had led to the land becoming Debateable or Threap.
    In 1542 the English defeated the Scots at the Battle of Solway Moss and in the reprisals that followed, demolished the priory of Canonbie.
    It is said that as the Scots that survived the battle fled northwards they were butchered by the Border Reiver clans. That is lore as little facts survive but I wonder if the places Howard mentions are burial grounds for some of the Scots ambushed in Liddesdale.
    Just a thought which I hope adds to the debate.
    All this is so intriguing.
    I have recently come across another potential site for Degsastan. Oh no, he groans! Florida near the old village of Castleton (the predecessor of Newcastleton in Liddesdale). Will let you know more about this after I take a visit, Regards, Tom.

    • Tim says:

      Florida rings a few bells, Tom. I think the name refers to a farm or hamlet. Apparently it is near (or on the site of) an earlier settlement called Daegstones which seems temptingly close to how the name Degsastan might appear in later times. To me this looks at first glance like another red herring but it’s a much better ‘soundalike’ than Dawston and probably worth investigating.

  19. Tom Moss says:

    Hello Tim,
    Congratulations on the new book. I will read it with great interest.
    On the battle of Degsastan, did you know that two other places live in current memory.
    In Liddesdale, a few miles to the west of Hudshouse (Dawston) Rig there is an ancient stone circle known as the Nine Stane Rig. It is famous in Border legend because of its association with the de Soulis family, first Lords of Liddesdale.
    In the vicinity of the Nine Stane Rig there is a standing stone which is thought by the locals to be the Daystone.
    Do you know of this?
    Have just been reading the history of Northumberland by Cadwallader Bates. He states that the battle of Degsastan was a few miles west of Newcastle at a place called Dissington.
    The mystery goes on!
    Tom.

    • Tim says:

      I didn’t know about the standing stone near Nine Stane Rig. If the locals think it’s Degsa’s Stone, I wonder how far back this tradition goes?

      I think Dissington was suggested by Bates because it sounds a bit like Degsastan. The name looks like it originally ended in ‘tun’ not ‘stone’.

      As you say, Tom, the mystery keeps on running.

      • Phil says:

        In his recent book ‘The Faded Map’ Alastair Moffat suggests Degsastan as being Addinston in Lauderdale.

  20. Tim says:

    As a follow-up to Phil’s comment I’ll add a couple of points about Addinston (which came up earlier in this thread).

    1. To me, Lauderdale does seem a better candidate than Dawston on geographical grounds, i.e. it’s on the southern fringe of Lothian/Gododdin, in what was probably a regular conflict zone in 603.
    2. Unfortunately, the Addinston theory relies on a guess that the place name means ‘at Aedan’s Stone’. It requires us to ignore several early forms of the name which don’t fit the theory.

  21. Karl Craig says:

    This is a most intriguing discussion, and one of interest to me as I’m writing a novel that covers Aedan’s rule and the later Æthelings (needless to say, Degsaston is vital to that story).
    I can’t offer anything about the excellent forensics above, but I’ve wondered about a few things:

    1. If Aedan led a mounted warband of Dalriadans and Bernician exiles (100-400 strong?), what route would he have taken to attack south? Would he have followed old Roman roads? How would he traverse Riderch’s territory (with or without sanction)?
    2. Was he attacking Æthelfrith, or defending against Anglian incursions? If these were Anglian raids, why is it not Rhun of Rheged or Riderch of Strathclyde leading the van?
    3. Was the restoration of Hering to the Bernician throne an objective? Dalriadan forces supported Oswald’s restoration 30 years later, so why not Hering? And Oswald arrived at Heavensfield (near Hexham and much further east) for his campaign (following what route from the north?).
    4. If Hering’s restoration was an objective, why would Aedan’s warband find itself in Liddesdale? And how would Æthelfrith know to cut him off so far from Bamburg?
    5. If (as suggested by Mike above) Aedan used the well-attested Dalriadan naval prowess to land troops at Solway (a 200+ mile journey), how would he then move them to Bernicia? Would he get horses locally, or was he expecting Æthelfrith to be within marching distance. The latter doesn’t seem likely, as any intelligence putting Anglian forces in the region would be several weeks old by the time Aedan could raise a force and sail down the coast.
    6. If a naval campaign was the chosen method, why wouldn’t the Dalriadan force sail from Manau on the Firth of Forth and attack Bernician soil directly (about 100 miles along the coast)?
    7. Just how far could a warband march/ride/sail in day in those days? Napoleon used to get 15 miles a day out of his troops.

    I know that none of this can be answered definitively, but reflecting on these issues makes it look less likely that there could be any strategic reason for Liddesdale. If Dawston proved correct, what would that indicate? First guess is that Aedan would likely be attacking determined Anglian invaders. Æthelfrith was no mummy’s boy; he attacked Chester just 10 years later, a 200-mile march from Bamburg – so 75 miles to Dawston was perfectly doable.

    If Æthelfrith was that far west in 603, and was in the district long enough for Aedan to make a counter-attack, it changes our vision of the Northumbrian advance. It might be that Aedan actually stopped Æthelfrith from annexing Rheged at that time, even though his own forces suffered badly. So, my guess is: if Dawson=Degsaston, then Aedan was defending against Anglian invasion; if Aedan was invading, then Dawson looks highly unlikely.

    To make the waters mucky, there is a Dagonstone 100 miles NW of Dawston. It can be seen in Darvel, East Ayrshire. Here’s a link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dagonstonedarvel1.JPG
    (the round stone on top is a late addition). And no, I don’t think this is a possibility for Degsaston … well, probably not.

    Also, there is a great website that discusses all sort of standing stones in the borders of Scotland:
    http://www.ancient-stones.co.uk/borders/explorer.htm
    … maybe we can all find our Degsa Stane somewhere there.

    • Tim says:

      Karl,
      The Dagon Stone looks intriguing, even if it turns out to have no connection with the battle of 603. I was unaware of it before you posted the link. Given its location 15 miles west of the main Glasgow-Carlisle road I wouldn’t entirely rule it out of the search for Degsastan. Strategically, in the context of a clash between Aedan and Aethelfrith, it probably scores higher than Dawston.

      Off the top of my head, some quick responses to your questions…

      1. Aedan’s route: maybe via Roman roads and prehistoric trackways. Rhydderch of Alt Clut was possibly a vassal of Aedan (inference from Adomnan and the Welsh Triads) and thus obliged to let him pass through and/or lend military support.

      2. Bede implies that the aggressor was Aedan, issuing a challenge to Aethelfrith, but it could have been vice-versa.

      3. Aedan’s support for Hering’s claim on the Bernician kingship is indeed a plausible motive for the campaign.

      4. This question goes right to the heart of the Dawston-Degsastan debate, i.e. why would Liddesdale seem important to either Aedan or Aethelfrith?

      5 & 6. The logistical side is a puzzle. Did Aedan arrive by land or sea? If his boats were a type of large, hide-covered currach they weren’t ideally suited as horse-transports. But they could probably carry one or two horses. Some very large currachs of c.1700, as depicted in old sketches, were apparently capable of doing so. However, I tend to lean towards the idea of Aedan leading an overland march.

      7. Rate of march for medieval armies probably 15-20 miles per day, whether on foot or horseback. A good article on this is John Nesbitt, ‘The rate of march of Crusading armies in Europe: a study and computation,’ Traditio 19 (1963), pp.167-82.

      I checked out the link you posted (Ancient Stones). Interesting site. I wouldn’t be surprised if Degsa’s Stone lurks unrecognised among the monoliths listed there.

  22. Wow
    This is a really good discussion on this subject. I am also “desperately seeking Degsastan” for the purposes of a historical fiction novel set in this time period.
    I will most likely have to make an educated stab in the dark but I think you have given me a lot to look over. Those documents by the local archaeological society sound well worth a read.

    I have to say I was studying a detailed map of the area and trying to work out WHY Aethelfrith would be taking an army through Liddesdale. If his armies had been moving North and West from Bernicia after Catreath, expanding into the areas belonging to the Goddodin (around Edingburgh)and the Kingdom of Strathclyde (so through the Peebles, Galashiels, Jedburgh region) and Aedann Mac Gabrain resolved to strike against him, perhaps gathering an alliance of Scots, Picts and Northern British you would imagine a clash would be more to the North west.

    The only way I can tie it in with Dawstone is if he was moving SW from his new territories TOWARDS Carlisle for some reason and was ambushed in that valley.It is a fairly direct road from Jedburgh to Carlisle.

    Still I am intrigued enough to pop up in a few weeks and drive along that valley. See if I can find some of the spots mentioned here.

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad you found the discussion useful, Richard. The idea of Aethelfrith heading towards Carlisle ties in with the theories about Aedan arriving by ship via the Solway Firth. I’m still inclined to think of an overland march by both armies to the more northerly region you mentioned. Feel free to pop back here with your views on Dawston etc after your visit to Liddesdale.

      • I will feedback. That Seabourne move to the Solway area sounds interesting. Where would the boats most likely dock. Would they just drag up on a beach or is there a dock or something (nothing dating back that far of course but I mean somewhere likely).

        • Tim says:

          Hide-covered boats, and the lightest wooden ones, could be dragged up a beach. Larger wooden vessels would probably need an actual mooring-place, but I’m not sure where this would be in early medieval times. Iron rings, like the ones used for tying a ship’s rope to, were apparently found near the Roman fort at Netherby (north of Longtown). This suggests passage for large boats some way upstream along the Esk, almost as far as the confluence with Liddel Water, but I’m not sure if this idea is still valid.

      • What you are saying then is that IF (and all this is speculation of course) Aedann came by sea it its QUITE likely they would row up river almost to the Liddelwater?

        IF he did that and wanted to strike at Aethelfrith then a march along that valley aimed at Jedburgh would actually threaten to come up behind an army campaigning north and west and cut across the new Bernician
        conquests.

        We continue the IFS here. BUT if Aethelfrith caught wind of that might he not meet that attack in that valley.

        Straw clutching in the extreme I imagine but If I was AEdann and i had a decent navy and wanted to use that advantage to surprise Aethelfrith some plan like that would have merits.

        Oh for one decent record of this battle eh?

        • Tim says:

          Continuing in the same speculative vein, I wonder if another option for a landing-place might have been Carlisle, which presumably still had moorings from Roman times. This brings us to the question of how many boats would be involved, which gets into all kinds of speculation about the size of armies in this period. Supporters of the Dawston theory could point to Aedan’s raid on Orkney (which was undoubtedly a naval expedition) and imagine similar numbers of troops/boats sailing up the Solway in 603. But then we’re back to ‘how many?’ and it’s hard to make even an informed guess. Small armies of a few hundreds seem to fit with most estimates of Britain’s early medieval population and this gives us a rough idea of the logistical issues involved in a seaborne campaign by Aedan (or any other king, for that matter). Plenty of ‘ifs’ to deal with, as always, but I’m up for a bit of musing if it helps to work through the various theories.

  23. Howard says:

    Here’s a an aerial view, which may be of interest, of the area around the Lochmabon Stone. The view is to the south with Scotland in the foreground and England across the Solway.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/letsbikeit/5542357909/

    Howard.

    • Thanks for that Howard.
      It is this stone yes:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lochmaben_Stone
      IE the site of the 1448 Stormont battle near Gretna.
      Might take that in on my brief visit.

      Looks like it might have been a famous stone in 603 (an later when Bede mentioned it)

      • Tim says:

        Curiously, the Wikipedia entry doesn’t refer to the likelihood that the stone marks the Scottish side of the ancient Sulwath ford which gave the Solway Firth its name.

        I imagine this stone has been an important feature in the local landscape since prehistoric times. A wooden signpost points the way from the end of the road which runs past Old Graitney farm.

  24. Tim says:

    A quick message to anyone who’s following this discussion…. I recommend taking a look at the picture link in Howard’s comment. It takes you to an excellent photo of the eastern end of the Solway Firth from the Scottish side, looking south across the outflow of the River Esk towards Cumbria. This kind of sweeping view gives an idea of the relationship between land and water at this historically significant location. It makes me wonder how much the shape of the various features has changed over the centuries. Many thanks to Howard for posting the link.

  25. Tom Moss says:

    Good evening everyone,
    As there has been a ‘revival’ of interest in the Battle of Degsastan I thought I would leave a link to the two photographs I took of Dawston Rig (the battle site?) last June.
    They might be of some interest to any-one pursuing the origins of the battle,
    Regards,
    Tom Moss.

    http://flickriver.com/photos/rcahms/tags/hudshouse/

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the picture link, Tom. For many people, this will be their first-ever view of one of the key sites in the Degsastan debate.

  26. Howard says:

    Tom,

    Have you explored further north? I was going to try and find the ‘Knocking Stone’ marked on the OS map to the north of Saughtree Fell. Looks like access could be gained via the track past Saughtree Grain
    Howard

    • Tim says:

      Interesting, Howard. I always understood a ‘knocking stone’ to be a pot for grinding barley, but the site description at Canmore makes this one sound like a cross-base. I wonder if it has any connection (maybe even in a literal sense) with the crosses mentioned by Tom in earlier comments?

  27. Has anyone done a map (he says trying to get a easy guide the the spot) showing where the key places are in the vicinity. I am staring at an OS map and trying to work out where the crosses were found, where the POSSIBLE theobold burial crypt might be etc.

    The discussion has been all about this area:
    http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/degsastan.html

    Tom where were the photos taken in relation to this map.
    I am a bit puzzled because it looks like the stream is closer to you than the road (ie on the south side) but you say the photo was taken from the east looking west.
    Yet on the map it looks like the stream runs NORTH of the road
    Being dim here.

  28. Tom Moss says:

    Good evening to Howard and Richard.
    Howard, like Tim, I have always thought of a knocking stone as a grinding stone but if this stone is cross base it is worth investigating. I’ll go up this weekend and have a look. At Annatshiel in Liddesdale there is a knocking stone which, according to that great worthy of Copshaw (Newcastleton) John Byers, was a grinding stone but looking at it, it could be the base stone of a cross.
    Howard, if you would like to go up to Saughtree Grain with an ‘accomplice’ give me a call. We might benefit from the encounter and learn something new.

    Richard, the photos were taken from the east on the same side of the valley as Muckle Rae Cleuch which is, I think, to the east and south of Dawston Rig. The stream is the Liddel Water and the road, again I think, is definitely north of it. The cist is on the south side of Dawston Rig which I think culminates at the Helcaldron Burn though I have always been unsure of this. My trampings have always been on the south side of the Rig but on level ground above the inclines to the south as I see no logic in anyone burying a man in sloping ground. I could obviously be wrong but will pursue this tack starting this weekend. Should I find the cist it benefits me little in my quest to understand the beginnings of the Border Reivers but I now look upon it as a quest which must have an outcome and maybe something which is relevant to yours and other peoples’ research.
    The crosses (on view in Hawick Museum) were found in or near the Dawston Burn to the west of Dawston (Hudshouse) Rig.

    • Ah this explains my confusion
      I was looking along the northern side of Hudshouse Rig and the B road (where the Dawston Burn does run along the North side of the road).

      But this prompts another question.
      Tom your searches have been along that valley where the minor road to Kielder runs along the Liddelwater. I can now see the ancient settlement markings on the map so I am looking at the same spot.

      What specifically drew you to that spot.
      Is its something in the Archaeological papers you mentioned?
      How did you identify Hudshouse Rig as being Dawstone Rig?

      I ask because the particular road (assuming in 603 the paths/ tracks/ routes followed similar routes to today) drifts away south ward and winds around a lot. The B road NORTH of that Rig seems a more substantial route going to Jedburgh. There is even an “old road” marked on the map

      I had assumed the Northern road would be a more likely one for the Bernician army to come down especially if they were campaigning in the borders region.

    • Howard says:

      Tom,
      I’d really like to explore the area with you Drop me an email to howard_mattinson@hotmail.com
      Cheers,

      Howard.

  29. Tom very kindly sent over some of the pdfs of the extracts from that Archaeological society. I have uploaded them and his images here:
    http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/degsastan.html

    Hope that is of use.

    • Tim says:

      I found the map extract useful in contextualising several places mentioned earlier in this thread, e.g. Abbey Sike, Hudhouse Rig and the Knocking Stone. Tom’s photos then give a 3D representation of the contour lines.

      • There are now some new files on my website that Tom sent me today with a discussion of the possible burial site Tom has discussed.

        • Tim says:

          I enjoyed reading the Evans paper. At first glance, the upright stone looks like a possible Early Christian memorial. Its rough shape and isolated setting remind me of the Yarrow Stone (which isn’t far away). The other item that caught my interest was the broken Longbar obelisk, and the suggestion that the Bewcastle Cross was sourced from the same place. I must admit to letting my imagination run a bit wild with this one, by wondering if the obelisk might be an unfinished, abandoned prototype for Bewcastle. This indeed seems to be what Reverend Maughan had in mind when he visited the site.

  30. Hope this article may be of related interest. A blog I did on writing Fiction in the c600 AD period:
    http://news.richarddenning.co.uk/?p=357

  31. Well I am off to Liddesdale next weekend. Hope to find some of these spots and at least get a feel for the landscape.

  32. That is superb and should be very helpful. Just need to study it with the map and figure out where you took each image. Wonder why the Catrail is not maked on maps.

  33. I am being dim.
    Is that the Catrail then marked above the settlement?

  34. Howard says:

    On the maps I have the earthwork that I’ve called the Catrail is called ‘Ancient Earthwork’. Further east there is an earthwotk labelled Catrail.
    My use of the word Catrail is probable inaccurate as I tend to think that most linear earth works across the Southern Uplands are called The Catrail.
    Howard

  35. what map do you have? Is it a OS map.

  36. Just looked over those pictures. Very good and helpful. Now have a better feel for the area.

  37. Howard says:

    Richard,
    I’ve got an OS map Saughtree Sheet NY 59 1:25000 first series.
    Checkout old-maps.co.uk search for saughtree, pick one of the newcastleton ones. ‘fine tune’ by dragging the map to the required location, mark it (click on the map) then choose one of the ‘old maps’ from the boxes on the right. view the 1899 1:10500 roxburghshire, (if you only get ‘partial coverage’ move a bit further north.)Try a selection of the old maps, places appear and disappear through time…
    Hope this makes sense!
    Howard.

  38. Great – many thanks that site is useful and thanks for sending me a scan of a bit of it.
    I have it now here:
    http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/degsastan.html
    What is interesting is that the Catrail is called OLD road on some maps – a bit confusing that.
    Its also interesting that the Catrail runs NE to SW here as if a border against the Bernicians ???
    But the earthwork on the RIG is running NW to SE. Do you think that is an unrelated defence??
    Was it the Catrail curving round for some reason?

    Or – to throw a fanciful idea in the air was it hastily constructed across the rig by AEdann and his allies ahead of the advancing Bernicians coming from the NE heading for Carlisle.
    OK OK – I am reaching now !!! ;-)

    • Tim says:

      Maybe this section of the Catrail has the appearance of a medieval ‘hollow way’ and was consequently identified by the modern surveyors as an old road?

      On the Victorian map, I see what looks like a track coming up over the moorland west of Hob Knowe, heading for a ford over Liddel Water and continuing thence to Dawston Rig. Doesn’t seem to be on the modern map.

      Interesting to see the ‘Abbey’ marked on the old map but absent from the modern one. I wonder how this site looks on an aerial view? Howard’s photograph at Flickr shows an intriguing pile of stones which might be part of a destroyed drystone wall, or perhaps a spoil-heap. It’s quite feasible that the Jedburgh monks built a small chapel here.

      Seeing the ‘White Stones’ marked on the north side of Saughtree Grain I was reminded of the battle of Gwen Ystrat, which Taliesin associates with Llech Wen, ‘The White Stone’. In Meirion Pennar’s 1988 translation: ‘I saw a fine host around Urien when he grappled with his foe at Llech Wen’. White stones are fairly common, of course, but Taliesin connected one such feature with a sixth-century battle, and it must have been somewhere.

  39. Well I had a good trip to Liddsdale. Mainly focused on the south side near the encampments and the stream.

    There are images here:
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.10150236253275100.363220.606620099

  40. Put some photos with comments on Flickr
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/16533580@N03/sets/72157626656430028/

    Very interesting spot

  41. Tom Moss says:

    Good evening to all.
    I don’t know if these names or this discovery will ring any bells with anyone or if they have any relevance to Degsastan but here goes:-
    In 1933 a stone measuring 5’8″ tall, 1’8″ breadth and 8 to 11″ thick was found at the confluence of the Ralton burn with the Liddel. It is inscribed with the following:-
    ‘hic jacit Caranti fili Cupitanus’ or ‘here lies Carantus son of Cupitanus.
    An ‘expert’ of the time said the stone was 7th century.
    Are these names of the same times as Aethelfrith? Anybody ever come across them?
    Regards,
    Tom.

    • TO me they sounded Roman/latin names. INdeed I found a couple of papers online discussing Roman and Celtic names and Carantus appears in it. Possibly that could be a Romano-British name then. The period is right of course but is Ralton burn over near Newcastleton?

      If so this is NOT the stone mentioned on the south side of the Rig but another. It could of course be the burial of a Pict or a Roman-Brit killed at Degsastan.

  42. Tom Moss says:

    Hello Richard,
    Yes, the Ralton Burn is near Newcastleton and no, it is not the stone mentioned on the south side of the Dawston Rig. I just wondered if there was any connection, inter-action between the Angles and the Romano-British that is known about that might throw a little light on the Battle.
    It would appear that the people involved where Romano- British, the names are obviously Roman and the inscription is in Latin. In your readings can a Carantus be pinpointed to 7th century Strathclyde/Cumbria?
    Regards,
    Tom.

    • Tim says:

      Tom and Richard,

      The stone in question is sometimes referred to as the ‘Brox’ stone, because it was found near a house of that name. Various scholars have studied it over the years, with slight variations in how they transcribe the inscription. The preferred reading now seems to be:

      HIC IACIT CARANTI FILI CUPITIANI
      ‘Here lies Carant[i]us, the son of Cupitianus’

      The style of lettering in the inscription belongs to the early 6th century. This date seems secure, being based on the opinions of current experts in Late Latin scripts (such as the Italian scholar Carlo Tedeschi).

      The stone’s historical context was discussed by Katherine Forsyth of Glasgow University in a 2005 paper. Dr Forsyth regards the Brox stone as similar to the one at Yarrow (near Selkirk) on which two princes ‘the sons of Liberalis’ are commemorated. Both monuments, she suggests, were set up by elite families of Christian Britons who displayed their high status by using Roman names. They believed such names made them seem more ‘imperial’ and therefore more powerful, especially to neighbours who used non-Roman (i.e. Celtic) names.

      According to Dr Forsyth, the inscribed stones from Brox and Yarrow ‘were erected by members of the lay elite of an already Christian society, not simply as an act of personal piety but as a statement of authority. The emphasis on lineage and the setting at significant points in the secular landscape reflect the sources of political power to which these monuments appeal: the kin-group and its control of land.’ (Forsyth 2005, 119)

      There appears to be no connection between Carant[i]us and Degsastan. His memorial was carved a hundred years before the battle. On the other hand, it does identify a family of Britons who held authority in Liddesdale, and who owned land in roughly the same district as Dawston. They were among what Katherine Forsyth describes as ‘emerging militarised elites … forging a new identity as a landed aristocracy’. Their descendants presumably made a stand against Anglo-Saxon encroachment in the 7th century.

      Information about the discovery of the Brox stone can be found at the Celtic Inscribed Stones website at University College London.

      The full reference for Katherine Forsyth’s paper is:
      ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the inscribed stones of sub-Roman southern Scotland’, pp.113-34 in Sally Foster and Morag Cross (eds), Able minds and practised hands: Scotland’s early medieval sculpture in the 21st century. Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph series. (Oxford, 2005)

  43. Monica Cornall says:

    Very interesting. I’m interested in the history of Dunstan Steads – near Dunstanburgh – on the east coast of Northumberland about 8 miles south of Bamburgh. When the sun rises it comes up right behind Dunstanburgh – there is a standing rock out of the sea – possibility for ‘day stone’. Just a though – any reason why this battle was in the west??

    • Tim says:

      As far as I can tell, Monica, there seems no reason why the battle can’t be in the east, even as far east as the Northumberland coast. Bede gives no indication that Degsastan lay in the west. Indeed, if Aedan entered Bernician territory via the Dere Street Roman road, he would be heading roughly southeastward.

  44. Tim says:

    I’ve closed the comments thread for this blogpost because it now has 70+ comments. I feel this is enough webspace and enough scrolling-down for one post, so I’ve drawn a line underneath it. Regular visitors may recall that I did something similar with one of the posts in the Clan Galbraith series.

    Many thanks to all who have contributed on Degsastan. To them, and to the readers who’ve followed this thread, I have a small announcement to make…..

    In recent weeks I’ve become aware that people would like to continue the discussion. Rather than reopening this already lengthy thread I’ve decided to make space for a new one by creating a sort of Degsastan mini-forum. This has appeared in the guise of a separate blogpost and can be reached via this link.

    *** Comments here are now closed ***

  45. […] For information, the old discussion can be found via this link. […]

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