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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The Arthurlie Cross

The Arthurlie Cross

(Photo © B Keeling)


Some examples of Pictish sculpture are off the beaten track and not always easy to get to, especially if sited on agricultural land or at a considerable distance from a road. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with the carved stones of Strathclyde which are generally quite accessible, even though none are signposted. They are, of course, far fewer in number than the Pictish stones, and are confined within a much smaller area. I should add that I’m referring here to stones displayed outside rather than those in museums or churches, and I’m excluding items hidden away in storage (such as the Stanely Cross fragment).

Two of the most striking Strathclyde monuments can be found just off major highways running out from the south side of Glasgow. One is the still-complete Netherton Cross, now standing in the grounds of the new parish church in the centre of Hamilton. The other is the headless cross-shaft at Arthurlie, near a road-junction in a residential area of Barrhead.

I’ve recently written a brief post on the Arthurlie Cross at my other blog Heart Of The Kingdom (see link below). The cross-shaft is a fine example of early medieval Celtic sculpture, with well-preserved carvings on three sides. As well as being in an urban setting which makes visiting easy, it is also the only monument of the Strathclyde Britons clearly visible on Google Street View.

Heart Of The Kingdom – The Arthurlie Cross

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Visit the Govan Stones

Govan Jordanhill Cross

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


Last week saw the official unveiling of the Govan Stones in their new positions, following a major project to improve their display and interpretation. This stunning collection of early medieval sculpture has now re-opened for the summer season and can be visited free of charge. The 31 monuments include the magnificent Govan Sarcophagus, carved from a single block of sandstone and depicting a hunting scene reminiscent of Pictish examples. Similarly impressive are five hogback gravestones – traditionally associated with the Vikings – and the enigmatic Sun Stone.
Govan hogback stones

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


What makes the Govan collection unique is that it represents the stonecarving tradition of the Strathclyde Britons, a people whose role in Scottish history is frequently overlooked. The Britons are less well-known, for instance, than their Pictish neighbours, despite playing an equally important part in the shaping of medieval Scotland. Govan was a major religious and ceremonial centre for the kings of Strathclyde at the height of their power in the 9th-11th centuries.
Govan Sun Stone

Copyright © Tom Manley Photography


This fine assemblage of ‘Dark Age’ Celtic sculpture is housed in the old parish church (known as Govan Old) on the south bank of the River Clyde. The church, which occupies a site of Christian worship reaching back to the fifth century, sits in a distinctive heart-shaped graveyard. It is easily accessible to visitors arriving by car or public transport, or on foot from the Riverside Museum on the opposite shore (via a free ferry service running until 11 August 2013). A selection of books and leaflets can be purchased inside the church, and guided tours of the sculpture are available. Refreshments can be found nearby in the excellent Cafe 13 which has recently moved to a new location at Govan Cross, just across the road from the subway station.

So, if you’re visiting Glasgow in the next couple of months, or simply passing through the south side of the city with a few hours to spare, make a short detour and visit the old parish church beside the river. If you’re an admirer of Celtic art and ancient carved stones, and you’re planning a trip to Scotland this summer, be sure to add the Govan collection to your ‘must see’ list.

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Opening times for Summer 2013: Saturday to Thursday, 1pm to 4pm.
Entry is Free.
See the Govan Stones website for further information.

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Many thanks to Tom Manley for permission to use his brilliant photographs, which can also be seen in this gallery at his website.

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