To the disappointment of many folk in Angus, a new inventory of Scottish battlefields has omitted the great battle of Dun Nechtáin (AD 685) in which the Picts defeated an invading army from English Northumbria. The site of the battle has traditionally been identified with the area around Dunnichen Hill, 3 miles east of Forfar, by historians as well as by local people. This was questioned by Alex Woolf in a significant paper published in 2006. Woolf suggested that the Dun Nechtáin of 685 may have lain much further north, in Badenoch, in the vicinity of Dunachton. In the light of such uncertainty, the compilers of the battlefield inventory felt unable to include Dunnichen in their list.
Although I remain supportive of the Dunnichen theory, I believe the compilers reached the right decision. A particular place proposed as the site of a famous battle cannot be given an ‘official’ stamp of recognition while the location of the event is in doubt. No amount of circumstantial evidence can change that. Not even the scenes of warfare on a Pictish stone at nearby Aberlemno can clinch the identification in Dunnichen’s favour, for we cannot be certain that the sculptor was thinking of Northumbrians (rather than Britons, Scots or even other Picts) when he carved the ‘enemy’ warriors.
For a local perspective, take a look at this report published a couple of weeks ago in Dundee-based newspaper The Courier.
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I first mentioned the battlefield inventory in a round-up of online news last July.
Here’s the full reference to Alex Woolf’s article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201
Those of you who have access to James Fraser’s excellent (and essential) book From Caledonia to Pictland will find reasons for continuing to support Dunnichen at pp.215-6. As Fraser points out, the main plank of Woolf’s argument (i.e., that nowhere in Angus fits Bede’s placing of the battle among ‘inaccessible mountains’) depends on a very narrow interpretation of Latin mons as an impressive Highland peak like those in Badenoch rather than as a smaller hill like those in the gentler landscape of Angus.
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