Picts at Brunanburh

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937 (illustration by Alfred Pearse)


January is almost done, so this is a long-overdue first blogpost of 2014. As usual, the delay has been due to a lack of time for blogging. Among other distractions, I’m writing a new book – my fifth on early medieval history – of which more will be said in the near future. This post is a kind of spin-off from that project and deals with a topic I’ve blogged about before: the battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age.

Our earliest source is an Old English poem, probably composed within ten years of the battle and inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In stirring words, the poet celebrates the great victory at Brunanburh in which the English king Athelstan defeated an alliance of Vikings, Scots and (not mentioned in the poem) Strathclyde Britons. Some thirty years later, a briefer account of the battle was written by Aethelweard, a high-ranking English nobleman, in his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Aethelweard refers not to ‘Brunanburh’ but to ‘Brunandun’, one of several alternative names for the battlefield.

The Old English poem describes Scots fighting at Brunanburh under their grey-haired king Constantin, but Aethelweard mentions Picts as well. This requires a bit of explanation, as the Picts are usually thought to have ‘disappeared’ by about 900. Not that they vanished in a physical sense – they simply merged with the Scots or, to put it another way, they adopted a ‘Scottish’ identity.

Constantin’s kingdom, known by the Gaelic name Alba, was created in the late ninth century. Its royal dynasty – founded by Constantin’s grandfather, Cináed mac Ailpín, who died in 858 – was basically a family of Gaelic-speaking Picts. And, although Constantin’s predecessor was the first of the dynasty to be described in the Irish annals not as rex Pictorum (‘king of the Picts’) but as ri Albain (‘king of Alba’), the name Alba might really mean ‘Pictland’ anyway. So, even though Pictishness was being replaced by Scottishness before 900, the change was still fairly recent when Aethelweard wrote his chronicle in c.980, and even more recent in 937. Aethelweard’s reference to Pictish warriors fighting at Brunanburh might not be as anachronistic as it seems.

More could be said, of course, especially if we bring in the modern scholarship on Aethelweard’s writings to discuss his use of the term Picti. But this is meant to be a quick blogpost, so I’ll simply end it with the relevant passage from Aethelweard’s chronicle:

‘Nine hundred years plus twenty-six more had passed from the glorious Incarnation of our Saviour when the all-powerful king Athelstan assumed the crown of empire. Thirteen years later there was a huge battle against barbarians at Brunandun, which is still called the `great battle’ by common folk to the present day. Then the barbarian forces were overcome on all sides and no longer held superiority. Afterwards, he drove them from the shores of the sea, and the Scots and Picts alike bent their necks. The fields of Britain were joined as one, everywhere was at peace and had an abundance of all things. No fleet has since advanced against these shores and stayed without the consent of the English.’

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Notes & References

The standard edition of the Latin text is by Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Aethelweard (London, 1961).

See also: Leslie Whitbread, ‘Aethelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ English Historical Review vol.74 (1959), 577-89.

Aethelweard is one of the few writers from this period who wasn’t a monk. His career as an ealdorman (royal official) involved him in high-level politics, on which see Scott Ashley ‘The lay intellectual in Anglo-Saxon England’, pp.218-45 in Patrick Wormald & Janet Nelson (eds.) Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2007).

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Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)


The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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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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Book news

The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings
Birlinn Books of Edinburgh, the publishers of my books, have now transferred The Picts and The Makers Of Scotland to their main imprint. Both originally appeared under the John Donald subsidiary imprint, which is where Birlinn tend to place most of their scholarly non-fiction titles. My two academic books – The Men Of The North and Columba - will remain at John Donald.

The move has necessitated a format change for Picts and Makers, with both being slightly reduced in size. In the case of Makers, the contents have not been altered, except for tidying up a couple of stray typos. I have, however, made a small change to one part of Picts (in the chapter on Brude, son of Maelchon) to bring it into line with what I’ve written more recently in Columba. Those of you with copies of the original book can pick up the amendment at the end of this post.

Makers has a minor change to the front cover (see image above). The warrior is now looking out from the book rather than gazing over to the right. At the moment, Amazon UK seem to have both versions in stock, which means people have a choice between the original John Donald book (with the warrior’s face in profile) and the slightly smaller reprint (which is cheaper by a few pounds). This will last until copies of the original version run out.

The new versions of both books are available in paper and digital formats. Here are the paperback links on Amazon UK:

The Makers Of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels & Vikings

The Picts: a history

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(A note on the 2013 reprint of Picts)

Tim Clarkson, The Picts: a history (Birlinn). Amendment to the 2010 edition, page 80: new final paragraph in the section ‘Columba and the Picts’.

–> What was Brude likely to gain by allowing a delegation from Iona to enter the heart of his realm? The answer probably lies in an awareness that the old gods of Pictavia now had little to offer. In every corner of the British Isles, paganism was retreating in the face of a sophisticated international religion whose leaders were rapidly gaining influence at the centres of political power. By contrast, the cults of the old gods operated in local contexts which must have seemed small and petty by comparison. To a wise and ambitious king such as Brude, the eventual triumph of Christianity may have seemed inevitable. To a hagiographer like Adomnán, the conflict between the old religion and the new required a more dramatic image. It was presented in the Vita as a face-to-face confrontation between Columba and the high priests of Pictish paganism. These ‘wizards’ or druids were trounced by a few spectacular miracles which proved the superiority of the Christian God. The chief druid was Broichan, Brude’s own foster-father, who continued to resent Columba even after the saint miraculously saved him from death. Broichan’s antipathy was not shared by Brude, for the monks were granted permission to preach throughout the kingdom, and some Picts received Christian baptism from Columba. The actual number of converts is unknown, but Adomnán gives no indication that Brude himself was among them. The king may have remained a pagan to the end of his days, perhaps as a matter of personal choice, or to maintain the goodwill of those among the Pictish elite who felt little enthusiasm for change.

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The Last Of The Free

The Highlands
With next year’s referendum fast approaching, the question of whether Scotland should regain her independence is being hotly debated. It’s a serious issue for everyone involved and emotions are running high on both sides. The entire process is something I’ll be observing from a distance, as I’m not a resident of Scotland (nor, indeed, am I of Scottish descent). We who dwell south of the Tweed, and especially those of us with no ancestral connections north of it, are mere bystanders. This is how it should be. Whatever the outcome, the referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide among themselves.

I am, however, interested in Scottish history, both the old and the new. Recently, I was reminded that the fundamental issue at the heart of the independence debate has a very long history indeed. The notion that the far northern parts of Britain should be free to govern their own affairs goes back much further than the arguments around the Act of Union in 1707, back even further than the Declaration of Arbroath and the wars of Wallace and Bruce. It finds echoes deep in the ancient past, in a time when the term Scotland had yet to come into being. It even pre-dates the Pictish period of c.300-900 AD.

The reminder came as I was leafing through my own historical study of the Picts in advance of its re-issue this month in a slightly smaller format. In the book’s second chapter (‘Caledonia and Rome’) I deal with campaigns waged by the Roman governor Agricola against the Caledonian tribes of the Highlands in the late first century AD. The Caledonians were one of the ancestral groups of the Picts, whose own descendants are a major component in today’s multi-faceted Scottish nation.

Agricola’s campaigns were well-documented by Tacitus, his son-in-law, who has given us a unique contemporary record of ancient Scottish history. Tacitus was a great admirer of Agricola and portrayed him in a glowing light – as a talented general respected by junior officers and held in high regard by ordinary soldiers. Looking past the dutiful tribute of a writer whose wife was Agricola’s daughter, we have no reason to doubt that Tacitus paints a fairly accurate portrait of the most dangerous individual ever unleashed by Rome upon the peoples of Northern Britain.

In this blogpost I want to focus on Agricola’s final campaign, which probably commenced in AD 83. Leading an army of 25,000 men, he marched north from what is now England to launch a massive assault on the untamed tribes of Caledonia – a wild region of hills and glens beyond the reach of Roman civilisation. In earlier campaigning seasons he had conquered all the lands up to the River Forth, crushing the native tribes and stamping out any pockets of resistance, but the people whom he encountered across the Firth of Tay were not so easily cowed. He soon learned that these highlanders were masters of guerilla warfare, adept at using hit-and-run tactics to disrupt his advance. At night, they pounced on the Roman camps while the soldiers slept, wreaking havoc among the tents before vanishing into dark forests. By day, they shadowed the marching columns and – to Agricola’s profound annoyance – refused to be drawn into a pitched battle. Tacitus noted that the Caledonians had a close relationship with their landscape, which became their ally against the invaders. Agricola expressed his own frustration with the constant guerilla attacks by describing the Caledonians as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. In reality, he knew that these lightly-armed warriors were as brave as any adversary he had ever met. He also knew that what they were doing, in military terms, was exploiting the tactical advantages of their homeland’s rugged terrain. Their strategy was so successful that Agricola’s own officers urged him to abandon the campaign, but he was determined to continue the long northward march.

Eventually, as summer faded towards autumn, the Caledonians decided to make a stand by meeting the enemy in a head-on clash. Gathering their scattered forces together in one place, they massed on the slopes of a prominent hill known to the Romans as Mons Graupius. With their families hidden away in places of safety, the native warriors waited for Agricola to arrive. According to Tacitus, they were commanded by a great chieftain called Calgacus, whose name means ‘The Swordsman’. They knew what was at stake: their land, their independence, their right to govern their own affairs. But they also knew what was coming to meet them: a large Roman army, spearheaded by three war-hardened legions and commanded by a seemingly invincible general.

What the Caledonian warriors needed in that crucial moment was something to rouse their hopes, something to put iron in their veins and fire in their hearts. They needed encouragement, and leadership, and strong words spoken from the soul. And so they turned to Calgacus, who responded by urging them to put aside their fear. He pointed out that no invader had ever conquered them, and that even their isolation on the edge of the world was a protection.

Below is a shortened version of his speech, with its main points retained. The ancient Caledonians spoke a Celtic language, the ancestral tongue of Pictish and Welsh, but theirs was a pre-literate culture that bequeathed no documents to posterity. Everything we know about this proud people comes from Roman texts written in Latin. But what follows is essentially what Calgacus is supposed to have said to his warriors, as Tacitus reported it:

‘When I consider the motives we have for fighting, and the critical position we are in, I have a strong feeling that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and all of you are free.

‘We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name. Now, the furthest bounds of Britain lie open to our enemies. And what men know nothing about they always assume to be a valuable prize.

‘But there are no more nations beyond us: nothing is there except waves and rocks. And – more deadly than these – the Romans, for they have an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. To robbery, butchery and rapine they give the false name ‘government’. They create a desolation and call it Peace.

‘Our courage, too, and our warlike spirit are against us: masters do not like such qualities in their subjects. Even our remoteness and isolation, while they give us protection, are bound to make the Romans wonder what mischief we are up to. Therefore, since you cannot hope for mercy, take courage – before it is too late – to fight for what you hold most dear, whether it be life or honour. And let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve!

‘All that can spur men on to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Look at them – a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around them. And beyond this army that you see, there is nothing to be frightened of – only forts without garrisons, colonies of old men, and sick towns distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters.

‘Which will you choose – to follow your leader into battle, or to submit to taxation, forced labour in the mines, and all the other tribulations of slavery? Whether you are to endure these for ever, or take quick vengeance, this day must decide.

‘On, then, into action! And, as you go, think of those who have gone before you and of those who shall come after.’

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Whether or not these stirring words really were spoken by a Caledonian chieftain called Calgacus, or merely invented by Tacitus to give his readers a romanticised image of the ‘heroic barbarian’, is a question I don’t intend to go into in this blogpost. My distillation of the speech is presented here simply for what it says about the idea of ‘Scottish’ independence as perceived by people who lived nearly 2000 years ago. It has no particular relevance to modern political issues. Nonetheless, for me at least, it is one small piece in the jigsaw that forms a wider historical background to the current debate.

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Epilogue

Tacitus tells us that Agricola gave a similarly rousing speech to his own troops, telling them that the Caledonians were not so much massing for a pitched battle as milling around in desperation ‘because they are cornered’. With both armies fired up by their respective commanders, the ensuing battle was fiercely contested. It went on for many hours, raging back and forth on the open ground in the shadow of Mons Graupius. By nightfall, the last of the savage fighting was over, and victory went to the Romans. According to Tacitus, the Caledonians lost 10,000 men, a third of their army.

But the Romans were unable to consolidate their victory. Agricola recognised that the Highlands were too vast, too inhospitable, to be effectively controlled by forts and roads. And besides, autumn was fast approaching and the grim Caledonian winter would follow. So he turned around and led his army southward, back to the safety of areas already under Roman rule. Soon after, the emperor recalled him to Rome, and he was never seen in Britain again.

Despite its awesome military power, and despite a few more attempts, the Roman army never conquered Caledonia. Unlike their neighbours in the southern parts of Britain, the people of the Highlands steadfastly kept their independence, from Agricola’s time right through to the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Largely untouched by Roman influences, they retained their ancient culture and continued to look after their own affairs. They were truly, as Calgacus had told them, the Last of the Free.

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My condensed version of Calgacus’ speech is from the Penguin Classics translation (by H. Mattingley) of the writings of Tacitus, published in 1948 and revised (by S. Handford) in 1970.

I discuss Agricola’s northern campaigns under the sub-heading ‘Agricola and the Highlands’ in Chapter Two of my book The Picts (published by Birlinn in 2010 and re-issued in 2013). There I note that the location of Mons Graupius – the site of one of the most famous battles in Scottish history – remains elusive.

picts

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Trusty’s Hill: Guided Walk Training

Here’s a great idea from the Galloway Picts Project – a training session on how to conduct a tour of the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill. Archaeologist Ronan Toolis, co-director of last year’s excavations, will be running this free event. It will be held on Saturday 8 June at the Mill on the Fleet in Gatehouse-of-Fleet, starting at 10.00am and finishing at 1.00pm after a visit to the hillfort. This is a training session for non-specialists who just want to be able to show family and friends around one of the most fascinating Dark Age sites in Scotland.

Click the link below to see a flyer for the event at the Galloway Picts website:

Trusty’s Hill: Guided Walk Training, Saturday 8 June 2013

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Discover Dark Age Galloway

‘In Galloway, on the fringes of what had been Roman Britain’s northern frontier, the kingdom of Rheged emerged in the fifth and sixth century AD.’

So says Discover Dark Age Galloway, a new leaflet produced by GUARD Archaeology for the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This attractive little publication is available free of charge from a number of tourist venues in the area.

It’s well-written and informative, and also nicely illustrated. The colourful reconstruction drawings of the hillforts of Tynron Doon, Mote of Mark and Trusty’s Hill, and of the monastic site at Whithorn, are certainly worth a look. As previously reported here at Senchus, last year’s excavations at Trusty’s Hill yielded a wealth of data relating to what was happening there in the sixth to eighth centuries AD. People of high status lived on the summit, in a settlement associated with a rock on which Pictish symbols were carved.

This was indeed the era of Rheged, a place identified by the authors of the new leaflet as a kingdom centred on Galloway. They believe that the archaeological evidence from the fort on Trusty’s Hill supports the view that it was an important site within the kingdom. They may be right. If they are, I’ll stop musing on the possibility that the core of Rheged lay further north in the valley of the River Tweed.

Click the link below to see an announcement about the leaflet (and a reduced online version) at the Galloway Picts Project website. Those of you with your own theories on the location of Rheged may be interested in this part:
‘Rheged, for so long a lost kingdom, thought to be somewhere in South-west Scotland or North-west England, can now perhaps for the first time be fixed to the ground, not in Cumbria or Lancashire or Dumfriesshire, but in Galloway.’

The Galloway Picts Project – Discover Dark Age Galloway

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‘Against iron swords’: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

Aberlemno Pictish stone

A mounted warrior, possibly a Northumbrian, on an 8th-century Pictish stone in the kirkyard at Aberlemno in Angus. (Copyright © B Keeling)


Today is the anniversary of the battle of Dun Nechtáin in which the Picts, led by their king Bridei, defeated the English of Northumbria. It was fought on 20th May 685, one of the most famous dates in early Scottish history. The Pictish victory was decisive: the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith was cut down and nearly all his warriors were slain. His people back home regarded the defeat as a catastrophe, a disastrous reversal of fortune for the royal dynasty.

Years later, the Venerable Bede wrote about the battle in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He had been a young boy of twelve, a novice monk in the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow, when news of Egcfrith’s fall came south from the land of the Picts. Looking back in the twilight of his life, Bede recalled the battle with sadness and regret. ‘From that time,’ he wrote, ‘the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.’

Bede does not name the battlefield, saying only that it took place in Pictish territory ‘in a tight place of inaccessible mountains’. Geographical detail, although useful to modern historians, was less important to him than his key point or ‘message’. To Bede, the Pictish victory was God’s revenge on Ecgfrith for an event of the previous year: a savage Northumbrian raid on Brega in Ireland in which defenceless monasteries were plundered. Another English monk, writing at Ripon in Yorkshire, was similarly vague on the geography of Ecgfrith’s defeat. He was more concerned with describing the battle as ‘a woeful disaster’ inflicted by an enemy who sprang from ‘the bestial Pictish peoples’.

Much of our information comes from other sources, from writers in the Celtic lands where people in the seventh century were no strangers to English aggression. From the Irish annalists, for instance, we learn the Gaelic name of the battlefield:

The battle of Dun Nechtáin was fought on the 20th day of the month of May, a Saturday, in which Ecgfrith son of Oswiu, king of the Saxons, having completed the fifteenth year of his reign, was killed with the greater part of his warriors by Bridei son of Bili, the king of Fortriu.’

An Irish monk, probably based at the great monastery of Bangor on the shore of Belfast Lough, composed a poem on the battle. He described Ecgfrith’s demise with grim satisfaction and, like Bede, saw the Pictish victory as God’s punishment for the brutal Northumbrian raid on Brega in 684:

Today Bridei gives battle
over the land of his grandfather,
unless it is the wish of the Son of God
that restitution be made.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain
in battle against iron swords.
Even though he did penance,
it was penance too late.
Today the son of Oswiu is slain,
he who took the black draughts.
Christ has heard our prayer
that Bridei would avenge Brega
.’

Among the Britons there was a similar absence of affection for Ecgfrith, whose forebears had waged many wars against the native kingdoms of Wales and the North. A Welsh chronicler, writing in the early 800s, compiled a list of Northumbrian kings for his book Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’). When he reached Ecgfrith he paused to add this note: ‘He is the one who made war against his kinsman who was the Pictish king called Bridei, and he fell there with all the strength of his army, and the Picts with their king emerged as victors, and the Saxon thugs never again ventured forth to take tribute from the Picts.’

Such sentiments appear to conform to the ‘Celt versus Saxon’ view of seventh-century warfare. However, before we run too far with the idea of an inter-ethnic dimension to these military campaigns, we might take note of an old Northumbrian tradition on the fate of Ecgfrith’s body. According to a chronicle written at Durham in the 1100s, the dead English king was not left on the battlefield to be devoured by wolves and ravens. Instead, his Pictish foes carried him away with honour, to be buried in the most hallowed place in the Celtic Christian lands. In the words of the Durham chronicler, Ecgfrith was defeated and slain…

at Nechtanesmere, which is the Lake of Nechtan, on the 20th of May in the fifteenth year of his reign. His body was buried on Iona, the island of Columba.’

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Notes

* In this blogpost I have avoided any discussion of the location of Dun Nechtáin. I still think it was Dunnichen Hill near Forfar in Angus. Others think it was somewhere near Dunachton in Badenoch. The arguments and counter-arguments are set out by Alex Woolf in an important article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

* Bridei represents the likely Pictish form of a name written in Gaelic sources as Brude.

* The usual pronunciation of Ecgfrith is ‘Edge-frith’.

* In the quoted extracts above, the English translations are based on those in the appendices of James Fraser’s book The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Stroud, 2002).

* The ‘black draughts’ in the Irish poem are thought by some historians to represent dark, gaping wounds received by Ecgfrith at Dun Nechtáin.

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Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

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.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Illustration from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The old parish church at Nigg in Easter Ross probably stands on the site of an important Pictish monastery. The present building dates from the 1600s and is home to one of the most famous examples of Pictish sculpture: a magnificent cross-slab, 7 feet high, carved in the late eighth century. The slab’s decoration is very intricate. On the front face, above the cross, is a cameo showing Saint Paul and Saint Anthony receiving bread from a raven sent by God. The cross itself is surrounded by delicate interlace, swirling snakes and circular bosses. The back of the stone shows figures of humans and animals, with a Biblical scene (King David of Israel slaying a lion) and, at the top, an eagle above a mysterious ‘Pictish beast’.
Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab: Paul & Anthony. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


The slab has suffered considerable damage over the past 1200 years. It once stood near the entrance to the churchyard, until it was toppled by a storm in 1727. It was then re-positioned beside the church but, during a later move, it broke into three pieces. One piece – a narrow middle section containing part of the Pictish beast – was thrown away when the upper and lower pieces were joined together with metal staples. The discarded piece disappeared and was thought to be lost for ever.
Nigg Pictish stone

Top section of slab: eagle & ‘Pictish beast’. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


A major project to conserve the slab was undertaken by Nigg Old Trust, the guardians of the church, who obtained funding for detailed restoration work by a stone conservator. The work was painstaking and time-consuming, because the monument had sustained so much damage in the past. The project also included a new display-area inside the church to enhance the experience for the many visitors who come to admire this masterpiece of Pictish art. This year, at the beginning of April, the restored slab was unveiled to the people of Nigg.

Nigg Pictish stone

Nigg cross-slab. Drawing by C. Petley, from The Early Christian Monuments Of Scotland, 1903.


An interesting footnote to the project is the fate of the middle section which vanished when the slab shattered in the 18th century. In 1998, a fragment of this missing piece was discovered in a nearby stream by Niall Robertson (former editor of the Pictish Arts Society Journal). It has now been reunited with the rest of the monument.

Nigg Pictish stone

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Useful links

The website of Nigg Old Trust has information on the Pictish stone and the restoration project.

Site record for Nigg at the RCAHMS Canmore database

BBC news report from 10 April 2013 on the completed restoration

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