New book on the Viking period

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

My fifth book on early medieval Scotland was published this week.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age traces the history of relations between the Cumbri or North Britons and their English neighbours through the eighth to eleventh centuries AD. It looks at the wars, treaties and other high-level dealings that characterised this volatile relationship. Woven into the story are the policies and ambitions of other powers, most notably the Scots and Vikings, with whom both the North Britons and Anglo-Saxons were variously in alliance or at war.

As well as presenting a narrative history of the kingdom of Strathclyde, this book also discusses the names ‘Cumbria’ and ‘Cumberland’, both of which now refer to parts of north-west England. The origins of these names, and their meanings to people who lived in Viking-Age Britain, are examined and explained.

The book’s main contents are as follows:

Chapter 1 – Cumbrians and Anglo-Saxons
A discussion of terminology and sources.

Chapter 2 – Early Contacts
Relations between the Clyde Britons and the English in pre-Viking times (sixth to eighth centuries AD).

Chapter 3 – Raiders and Settlers
The arrival of the Vikings in northern Britain, the destruction of Alt Clut and the beginning of the kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbria.

Chapter 4 – Strathclyde and Wessex
Contacts between the ‘kings of the Cumbrians’ and the family of Alfred the Great.

Chapter 5 – Athelstan
The period 924 to 939 in which the ambitions of a powerful English king clashed with those of his Celtic and Scandinavian neighbours. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Brunanburh.

Chapter 6 – King Dunmail
The reign of Dyfnwal, king of Strathclyde (c.940-970) and the English invasion of ‘Cumberland’ in 945.

Chapter 7 – The Late Tenth Century
Strathclyde’s relations with the kings of England in the last decades of the first millennium.

Chapter 8 – Borderlands
The earls of Bamburgh and their dealings with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. Includes a discussion of the Battle of Carham (1018).

Chapter 9 – The Fall of Strathclyde
The shadowy period around the mid-eleventh century when the last kingdom of the North Britons was finally conquered.

Chapter 10 – The Anglo-Norman Period
Anglo-Scottish relations in the early twelfth century and the origin of the English county of Cumberland.

Chapter 11 – Conclusions

Notes for each chapter direct the reader to a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Illustrations include maps, photographs and genealogical tables.

Published by Birlinn of Edinburgh, under the John Donald imprint, and available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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Clan Galbraith: Part 4 – Viking Britons (again)

Viking Longship
It’s been three years since my last blogpost on the origins of Clan Galbraith. Back in 2011, in the third installment of the series, I considered the possibility that the name of the clan (Gaelic: Gall Breathnach, ‘Foreign Briton’) might derive from ancestors who were ‘Viking Britons’. The reasoning behind this theory was based on the fact that Gaelic speakers in early medieval Scotland and Ireland usually applied the term Gall (‘Foreigner’) to people of Viking stock. I speculated that the original ‘Foreign Britons’ whose descendants emerged as the Galbraiths of the Lennox in the twelfth century were associated with the kingdom of Strathclyde, perhaps as warriors of Scandinavian stock who served the kings of the Britons as mercenaries. By way of analogy, I pointed to theories about the mysterious Gall-Gáidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’ –> ‘Viking Gaels’) of the ninth to eleventh centuries. The Gall-Gáidhil are generally regarded as Gaelic-speakers from Ireland or the Hebrides who adopted a ‘Viking’ lifestyle of sea-roving and raiding. Why they chose to behave in this way is uncertain: it may have been due to Scandinavian ancestry or to prolonged contact with Vikings. Three years ago, I wondered if the forefathers of Clan Galbraith were members of a similar group among the Britons of Strathclyde, perhaps arriving originally as Vikings but eventually assimilating by intermarriage until they became Britons themselves. They would, I proposed, have adopted the Cumbric language of their hosts, eventually switching to Gaelic after the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century. All of this seemed to fit with the Galbraiths’ ancestral connection with the Lennox – the land between Loch Lomond and the River Clyde – and with their self-identification as Breatanuich (Gaelic: ‘The Britons’) and Clann-a-Breatannuich (‘Children of the Britons’).

Strathclyde Lennox Map

Loch Lomond and the western part of the Lennox. The red dot indicates the island of Inchgalbraith, ancient stronghold of the Galbraiths.

I described my theory as ‘new’ but acknowledged that it might not be. At the time, I knew of only one similar train of thought, which I had found in William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland of 1926. Watson saw a possible analogy between Gall-Gáidhil and Gall Breathnach when he wrote that ‘the name Galbraith goes to show, as has been noted, that there were ‘foreign Britons’ as well as ‘foreign Gael’.’ It occurred to me that Watson and myself were probably not the only people to wonder if these two enigmatic names might have similar origins. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that other references were out there. I figured that if historians were in broad agreement that the Gall-Gáidhil were ‘Gaels who behaved like Vikings’, then surely some must have speculated that the Gall Breathnach were people of similar sort, i.e. a group of Britons who displayed Viking traits.

Fast forward to January 2014 and I found myself re-reading a bunch of old journal articles as research material for my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. One of these was a landmark study in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1960. Its author, P.A. Wilson, demonstrated beyond doubt that the term ‘Cumbria’ was used in early medieval times as an alternative name for the kingdom of Strathclyde. In one section, he also discussed the origin of the territorial name ‘Galloway':
‘The form from which the medieval and modern territorial name derives was the name of a people, the Gall-gael, the foreigners, no doubt preponderantly Norsemen, who were Gaelic-speakers (having supposedly acquired that speech from Ireland). The survival of the personal name Galbraith suggests that there were also British speakers who were recognised as in some sense ‘foreign'; perhaps they were natives who had adopted the mode of life, and even the religion, of the foreigners.’

It is clear that Wilson was musing on the possibility that the Galbraith forefathers were not Vikings who assimilated with Britons – as I suggested in my blogpost – but native Britons who behaved like Vikings. Unfortunately, he left the matter there and didn’t pursue it any further. I do, however, think his idea is worth considering. In fact, I’m tempted to prefer it to my own. Back in 2011, my thoughts were influenced by the supposedly Scandinavian character of the five hogback tombstones at Govan – the most impressive examples of sculptural art from the kingdom of Strathclyde. Three years later, I’ve realised that these monuments might have little or no connection with Scandinavian culture. In other words, their presence in the last kingdom of the North Britons does not necessarily imply an influx of Viking settlers. If the Govan hogbacks did not mark Viking graves, then there is no need to envisage a distinct Scandinavian community in the heartland of Strathclyde. This also removes the need to identify the Gall Breathnach as people of Scandinavian ancestry. They may have been, as Wilson suggested, a group of native Britons who embraced the Viking lifestyle. One plausible scenario is that they were members of the Strathclyde nobility who simply chose to increase their wealth by piracy, perhaps plying the seaways in dragon-prowed longships. Another possibility was mooted to me in an email from Barry McCain who has been studying the ancestry of his own clan. Barry suggested that the Gall Breathnach could have been a group of Cumbric-speakers among the predominantly Gaelic-speaking Gall-Gáidhil. Whatever the true origin of the name Galbraith, the idea of ‘Viking Britons’ prowling the Firth of Clyde in the ninth to eleventh centuries – whether as part of the Gall-Gáidhil or as an independent group of raiders – seems far from outlandish.

Govan Hogback

One of the hogbacks at Govan Old Parish Church.

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Notes & references

My 2011 blogpost: Clan Galbraith: Part 3 – Viking Britons?

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). The Galbraith reference is in a footnote on page 174.

Wilson, P.A., ‘On the use of the terms Strathclyde and Cumbria’ Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. 2nd series, vol.66 (1960), 57-92. The Galbraith reference is on page 91.

Barry McCain runs the McCain Clan Blog and the website of the Mid-Argyll Kingship Group. His genealogical research looks at historical documents alongside DNA data.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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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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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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Llyfr Aneirin online

Gododdin of Aneirin

John Koch’s edition and translation of The Gododdin, published in 1997.


Lisa Spangenberg, who runs the excellent blog Scéla on things medieval and Celtic, recently posted an interesting piece of news: Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, is now available online. This thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript contains Y Gododdin, ‘The Gododdin’, a collection of verses seemingly commemorating the near-massacre of an army of Britons from Edinburgh at a place called Catraeth sometime around AD 600. Two versions of the collection are included in Llyfr Aneirin, each transcribed in a different hand.

It’s the manuscript itself that has been digitised, not an edition or translation, so what we’re seeing is one of the great artifacts of medieval Celtic literature in its original form. Whether any part of the contents – the heroic and enigmatic Gododdin verses – was actually composed in North Britain six centuries earlier is a different matter (and a highly controversial one).

I followed the link given by Lisa and selected a random page from Llyfr Aneirin. It contained one of several verses beginning with the words gwyr a aeth gatraeth (‘Men went to Catraeth’), neatly crafted in an elegant script from 800 years ago.

Lisa has helpfully added other relevant links to her blogpost, including the digitised version of Llyfr Taliesin, the Book of Taliesin. Elsewhere on her site you’ll find links to various useful resources, so I recommend a look around if your interests lean towards Celtic medievalia.

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Notes & links

Check out Lisa’s blogpost The Book of Aneirin digitized and online and her Celtic web resources page.

The National Library of Wales ran its own announcement last week: Warriors went to Catraeth.

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Question: How far does the poetry attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin reflect genuine North British history?
The jury is out, so we’re faced with a choice of answers. These range from wide-eyed enthusiasm (‘it’s all true’) through sensible scepticism (‘some of it might be true’) to sombre pessimism (‘this is poetry, not history’). Help is now at hand for those of us who aren’t specialists in Celtic literature, via the papers in Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. This very useful book, edited by Alex Woolf and published by the University of St Andrews in 2013, brings us up to date with current research. Anyone who wants to use the Taliesin poetry or The Gododdin as historical sources should read it. The papers represent a variety of opinions, all of them wise and measured, some more optimistic than others. But the main message is simple: let’s be more cautious when using these Old Welsh poems as ‘history’. Accepting them as authentic chronicles from the sixth or seventh centuries, or as reliable gazetteers of ancient North British place names, is no longer an option.

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The last king of Strathclyde

Earl Siward

From the front cover of History Scotland magazine, Nov/Dec 2013. The illustration of Earl Siward and his children is from a painting by James Smetham (1821-89).


‘The last king of Strathclyde’ is the title of my article in the current issue of History Scotland. It’s a discussion of the final phase of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, from the Battle of Carham (1018) to the eventual takeover by the Scots (sometime before 1070). I consider several possible candidates for the label ‘last king of Strathclyde’ during a time of political upheaval involving famous figures such as Earl Siward of Northumbria, the English king Edward the Confessor and the Scottish king Macbethad (Macbeth). In the end, I acknowledge that we cannot be certain who ruled the last remaining kingdom of the Cumbri on the eve of its demise, for the information presented by the written record is incomplete. We can only note that the last king named in the sources is Eugenius Calvus (‘Owain the Bald’) who, in alliance with the king of Scots, achieved a memorable victory over the English at Carham.

History Scotland
Here’s the full reference for my article:
Tim Clarkson, ‘The last king of Strathclyde’ History Scotland vol.13 no.6, Nov/Dec 2013, pp.24-7

- and here’s a link to the History Scotland website (issues are available in print and digital formats)

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The location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)


Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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