Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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10 comments on “Degsastan discovered?

  1. kljolly says:

    I love your red herring, slithering away! Indeed, starting from modern place names that sound like it leads to all kinds of problems. At best, one should start with recorded historic place names at least from the Middle Ages, if not pre-Conquest.

  2. Steve says:

    A quick Google map search reveals a plethora of D and Stone words near Drumelzier , (Deva , Dramore ,Dawyck Pykestone Altarstone pool etc .As we know many Ancient Battles was fought next to a river in this case being the Tweed .May i suggest a meaning for Degsastan ? well Deg (…) can mean in old English “Day or Death or Dye , Sas (Sassernach or Saxon ) and then Stone ,
    so perhaps Degsastan means the Saxons won the day at this stone , or the Saxons at the stone died …(i think i will just stick to Arthur of Cumbria , at least i am sure about the location of many of Arthurs Battles)!
    One more thing , in a peculiar way Deysas stone sounds alot like Jesus so could there be an Early Christian cross in the vicinity ?

  3. kevin halloran says:

    We periodically get fads in history and philology is definitely flavour of the month. Unfortunately, in a debased academia it is inevitable that practitioners of a skill are tempted to make ever more extravagant claims for their particular area of expertise. Largely it’s nonsense: the role of evidence and its separate existence from the needs of a particular case is forgotten. Reading a survey of English place names in bed the other night (sad, I know) I noted a half-dozen identical or near identical names of settlements scattered throughout England. These each had several recorded forms surviving in documents from the tenth century (more usually, the eleventh or twelfth) onwards. I thought it might be an amusing exercise to ask one or more of our leading experts to allocate particular forms to the correct place. The warnings of Tout on the limitations of place name evidence in attempting to identify an unknown location are as relevant today as they were in 1918.

  4. Steve says:

    In all cases ,place names are a “signpost to the past” (Gelling title).However its how far back we can take it really , dont forget that a lot of place names really do sound like their form several centuries ago (Londinium Mamucium Carluguvalium) .

  5. kevin halloran says:

    Steve, we encounter particular problems when seeking to identify an unknown location that is (a) quite possibly a relatively insignificant landscape feature rather than a major settlement and (b) where one or more elements of the name are very common forms. More complexities arise when different sources give different spellings or even completely different names. My objection is to the widespread use of dubious methods of pseudo-scientific analysis to ‘prove’ that the spellings and variants that support the particular identification advanced are better than those that do not.

  6. Jo Woolf says:

    Very interesting – I had never heard of the battle of Degsastan, but it sounds very important in the history of England and Scotland!

  7. Ian Woods says:

    Segaston is the local pronunciation of Sacriston near Durham City. Its quite near the mark! This suggestion may also serve as a lesson in how a fairly recent imposition of received pronunciation on the North of Britain has further complicated the linguistic guessing game with place names!

  8. tsmorangles says:

    Hi. A simple question. To fight/win any battle, you need troops and said troops need transport. Thus in early medieval days: footwork or horsework. Even if Saxons/Scots were for mysterious reasons unable to conceive what advantage a fit cavalry can bring when ones plans to … win, still one needs horses thus roads in a fit state or sort of. Is this town anywhere near an old Roman road; because if not it does not sound logical. Mind you, our ancestors were not logical, and neither are we.

    • Ian Woods says:

      Sacriston lies between Lanchester and Chestr le Street. With Dere Street aka A68 closeby it would be possible.

      • tsmorangles says:

        Thanks. I suspect the old theory of Britain totally falling into anarchy within a few years of the Romans leaving is getting so many holes into it it is a miracle it is still the theory taught to the public… all Britain needs now is the discovery writing had never stopped and History will be rewritten

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