The Kilmorie Cross

Kilmorie Cross

Illustration from J. Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland


My list of ‘must see’ monuments includes this magnificent cross-slab from the Rhinns of Galloway. It originally stood near St Mary’s Chapel at Kilmorie but was moved in the early nineteenth century to Kirkcolm, two and a half miles away, where it was used as a door-lintel in the parish church. It was moved again in 1821, to the grounds of nearby Corsewall House. There it was photographed by a Mr Hunter of Newton Stewart, the resulting image being reproduced in Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland of 1903. In 1989, the slab was returned to Kirkcolm church and placed in the churchyard where it resides today.

The slab is sometimes known as the Kilmorie Cross because of the large hammer-headed crosses on both sides. It stands a little over five feet high and is made of ‘greywacke’ sandstone. On one side, the hammerhead cross carries a rough representation of the Crucified Christ. Another figure stands below, flanked by two birds, a set of blacksmith’s tongs and an unidentified rectangular shape. It has been suggested that this lower figure is the Scandinavian hero Sigurd, juxtaposed with the Crucifixion to highlight the mingling of pagan and Christian beliefs in a region colonised by Vikings. On the other side of the slab, the hammerhead cross is decorated with spiral patterns, below which are two horns, a coiled serpent and a panel of interlace terminating in a pair of snakes.

Kilmorie Cross

Photographs from Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland


The slab was probably carved in the tenth century, a very obscure period in Galloway’s history. The region takes its name from a people known as Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’) whose origins are uncertain. They first turn up in the ninth century, as warbands serving Irish kings, probably as mercenaries. Their name suggests that they were Vikings who spoke Gaelic, or Gaels who behaved like Vikings. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, groups of Gall-Gaidhil seem to be in control of various seaways and coastlands in what is now South West Scotland, from Kintyre down to Galloway. At what point they gave their name to Galloway is unknown, but medieval chroniclers suggest that Gall-Gaidhil or ‘Galwegian’ lords ruled as far east as the district north of Carlisle. Current thinking envisages a sort of ‘Greater Galloway’ by c.1050, extending northward through Ayrshire to the Firth of Clyde, but whether this was a single realm or a patchwork of independent lordships is a mystery. The amount of Scandinavian culture introduced into this very large area is likewise a matter of debate. What the Kilmorie Cross seems to be telling us is that pagan Viking settlers and indigenous Christians were able to live side-by-side in one small corner of Galloway.

Map of Galloway

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Notes & references

Having not yet visited the Kilmorie Cross I don’t have any photographs of my own to accompany this blogpost. A couple of nice images can however be seen at the website of Kirkcolm parish church via these links to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the slab.

Kilmorie is a Gaelic place-name which may mean ‘Church of Mary’. Kirkcolm means ‘Church of Columba’, with Gaelic cille replaced by Old Norse kirkja.

The cultural affinities of Galloway’s early medieval sculpture have been discussed in a number of publications. A useful article is Derek Craig’s ‘Pre-Norman sculpture in Galloway: some territorial implications’, in Richard Oram & Geoffrey Stell (eds), Galloway: Land and Lordship (Edinburgh, 1991), pp.45-62.

The Kilmorie Cross is described on the Canmore database, which also has an entry for the old chapel of Kilmorie.

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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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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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The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

Sculptured cross from Riskbuie Chapel, Colonsay. Illustration from Allen & Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


According to the vita or ‘Life’ of Saint Columba written by Adomnán at the end of the seventh century, the monastery on Iona had a number of satellites on various islands and coastlands around Argyll. One of these was on an island called Hinba and seems to have been the chief daughter-house of Iona. Adomnán tells us that it was founded by Columba himself and comprised not only a monastery but also a separate hermitage. Frustratingly, the precise location of Hinba is not made clear, so we are left to wonder which of the numerous Hebridean islands it was.

People have been suggesting possible identifications for Hinba for a long time, ever since modern historians first began to study Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. The obvious starting-point is to rule out those islands which are clearly identifiable in Adomnán’s narrative, such as Skye, Islay, Tiree, Eigg, Mull and of course Iona itself. None of these was Hinba, so the search is immediately narrowed. It also seems clear that Hinba lay at no great distance from Iona, for Columba was able to visit the satellite monastery quite easily and frequently. His uncle Ernán, who served as prior on Hinba, was able to undertake the sea-voyage to Iona when very elderly and in poor health.

Columba

The hermitage on Hinba was situated near what Adomnán calls Muirbulc Mar, ‘Great Sea-Bay’. As with some other places in Vita Columbae he gives the name entirely in Gaelic – his own native language – rather than rendering it into a Latinised form. Muirbulc Mar must have been a prominent feature, so any island without a large bay can effectively be ruled out in our search for Hinba. For example, the small island of Eileach an Naoimh, ‘Rocky isle of the Saints’, in the Garvelloch archipelago has been suggested as a possible candidate for Hinba but it doesn’t have a prominent sea-bay. Also, Hinba is a Gaelic name, so it is very unlikely that it would be given an additional or alternative Gaelic one. Indeed, it is far more likely that it today bears a name of Norse origin, as do many of the Hebridean islands.

The eminent place-name scholar William Watson proposed that Hinba derives from inbe, a Gaelic word meaning ‘incision’. In this context, the ‘incision’ would presumably be the great sea-bay of Muirbulc Mar. If Watson’s derivation is correct, the bay must have appeared to slice through the island, as if the sea had bitten a big chunk out of the coastline.

Only two candidates seem to tick all the boxes: Jura, which has a large sea-bay called Loch Tarbert; and the single island which is formed by Colonsay and Oronsay when the sea-bay between them is at low tide. Jura and Colonsay/Oronsay have Viking names, and we don’t know what they were called in Adomnán’s time. Jura has an early church dedicated to Columba; Oronsay has a medieval priory with a Columba dedication and an old tradition of having been founded by the saint. In favour of Colonsay and Oronsay is the observation that they are closer to Iona.

The upshot is that the puzzle of Hinba remains unsolved. This mysterious island, so important in the early history of the Columban familia or network of monasteries, seems to float beyond our reach. My own view is that it is now the single island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide, and that Oronsay Priory stands on the site of Columba’s monastery.

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

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Notes

References to Hinba in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae occur at: Book 1, chapters 21 & 45; Book 2, chapter 24; Book 3, chapters 5, 17, 18 & 23. The Latin edition I use is the one edited by Alan and Marjorie Anderson in 1961 (revised in 1991). For an English version I use the Andersons’ translation and the one by Richard Sharpe for Penguin Classics (1995).

I discuss Hinba on pp.109-11 of my book on Saint Columba.

A useful summary of the various Hinba theories can be found on pp.91-102 of Alan Macquarrie’s The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1997).

Hinba is the island where Saint Columba narrowly escaped being murdered. The story is told in my blogpost Columba and the Pirates.

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Searching for Brunanburh

Brunanburh
The battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937, was a notable victory for the English king Athelstan. On the losing side stood an alliance of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons, led by their respective kings. Contemporary annals, later chronicles and an Anglo-Saxon poem have left us in no doubt of the battle’s importance. Some modern historians regard it as a defining moment in the history of Britain: the moment when ‘England’, the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, became a true political entity.

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

Where was the stretch of water called dinges mere – mentioned in the Brunanburh poem – if indeed this is a place-name at all?

Many theories have been put forward to answer these questions, but none has so far solved the mystery. Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula is often promoted as the best candidate for Brunanburh, primarily because it was recorded as Bruneburgh and Brunburg in twelfth-century documents. The place-name argument for Bromborough is certainly strong, but it is by no means decisive. Even if it was once known as Brunanburh, there is no certainty that the great battle of 937 was fought nearby, for we have no reason to assume Brunanburh was a unique place-name in Anglo-Saxon England. There might have been several places so named, in different areas, with not all of them being identifiable today behind modernised forms. It is also worth considering the position of Bromborough relative to tenth-century political geography: the Wirral peninsula is a long way from Scotland. Why would a combined force of Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight a battle there? If these northerners wanted to raid Athelstan’s territory and challenge him to a showdown, they could achieve both objectives without marching so far south.

Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre has recently proposed Lanchester in County Durham as an alternative candidate for Brunanburh. Andrew draws our attention to the nearby River Browney as a possible source of the Brun- element in the name. Could he be right? Lanchester clearly has a body of support and could even emerge as a strong rival to Bromborough, especially if the local media keep it in the spotlight.

For myself, I prefer to look west – not east – of the Pennines. I’ve said so in a couple of comments at Revealing Words, the fascinating blog run by Anglo-Saxon specialist Karen Jolly. Fans of the Brunanburh debate might like to know a few of us have been discussing the battle at Karen’s blog in the past week or so. Some interesting ideas are being bounced around, with input from various points of the spectrum.

The map below shows Lanchester, Bromborough and other candidates. More places could be added, but then things would get rather cluttered. These five sites should, however, be enough to show that Brunanburh has not yet been identified.

Brunanburh

I’ve been working on a Brunanburh-related blogpost of my own, to show where my thoughts are heading at the moment. It means I’ll be dusting off my old thesis to refresh half-forgotten memories of early medieval military logistics, as well as reading some newer stuff. I now have in my possession a pristine copy of the ‘Brunanburh Casebook’, which I’ll be examining closely in the next couple of weeks. Not sure when the blogpost will appear, but it won’t be imminent. It will be preceded by a couple of others from the Senchus backlog, one of which will be on St Columba.

I will also be looking at Brunanburh in my fifth book, which I’m due to start very soon. It’s about the kingdom of Strathclyde and will probably include an entire chapter on the Brunanburh campaign. An announcement of this new project will appear here at Senchus and at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links to explore….

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

The case for Bromborough, summarised by Michael Livingston, editor of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook.

A concise blogpost from three years ago, written by Diane McIlmoyle.

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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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Kirkmadrine: a major monastery?

Kirkmadrine Church

Kirkmadrine Church (Photo © B Keeling

The Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow hosts a series of lectures, many of which I would dearly love to attend if I could get there easily. Those of us who don’t reside within a 200-mile radius of Glasgow can, however, see useful summaries of the lectures at the Centre’s blog.

Back in May, a lecture that I was particularly sorry to miss was given by Katherine Forsyth and Adrián Maldonado. Their title was A magnum monasterium in South West Scotland? New work on Kirkmadrine and its stones. Kirkmadrine, as many readers of this blog will know, is in the Rhinns of Galloway, ten miles south of Stranraer. It has a little church – in a quiet, rural setting – and three Early Christian memorial stones, one of which commemorates two sacerdotes (‘chief priests’ or bishops). I’ve visited Kirkmadrine a couple of times and it’s definitely one of those places with a special kind of aura.

In the first part of the lecture, Dr Maldonado placed the church in its topographical context, looking at the pre-modern landscape via old maps and antiquarian accounts. He drew attention to the surrounding boggy terrain and to a number of nearby springs and suggested that the church seems to be located within a pre-Christian ritual landscape. He also pointed out that no archaeological excavations have taken place at Kirkmadrine since 1889.

The lecture continued with Dr Forsyth explaining that the Early Christian stones can be dated to the mid-sixth/early seventh century. They are therefore earlier than the oldest ecclesiastical sculpture at nearby Whithorn, traditionally identified as the site of a monastery associated with the famous sixth-century saints Ninian and Finnian (who might be one and the same). Moreover, Dr Forsyth observed that Whithorn didn’t become an important ecclesiastical centre until a later period, its earliest Christian stones being memorials to a secular elite. Kirkmadrine, on the other hand, with its high-ranking sacerdotes, was evidently an organized religious community at the very time when Ninian and Finnian were active. Perhaps, then, we should think of Kirkmadrine, not Whithorn, as the place associated with these two saints? In this scenario, Kirkmadrine’s early importance would have been eclipsed when Whithorn became the centre of an English (Northumbrian) bishopric in the late seventh century and, subsequently, the focus of a major cult devoted to Ninian. The scenario is certainly worth considering, not least because it fits rather neatly with the sculptural evidence from both sites, but it has significant implications for our traditional view of early monastic settlement in Galloway.

Kirkmadrine Stone

The sacerdotes stone, now protected behind glass (Photo © B Keeling)

Below is a link to the lecture summary at the CSCS blog.

A magnum monasterium in South West Scotland? New work on Kirkmadrine and its stones

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A note on the place-name

Kirkmadrine probably means ‘Church of Mathurinus’ or ‘Church of My-Drine’ (where ‘my’ has the honorific meaning ‘my dear’). William Watson in CPNS (The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, 1922) thought Drine might be an Anglicized form of Gaelic Draigne (pronounced ‘Droyn’). An otherwise unknown Draigne, identified as a Briton, appears in an ancient Irish list of saints. See CPNS, pp.162-3.

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The legend of the Saltire

Scottish Saltire flag
Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire, is reputedly the oldest in Europe. According to legend, its origins can be traced back to the ninth century AD, to a battle fought by a combined army of Scots and Picts against the English of Northumbria. On the night before the battle, the Pictish king ‘Hungus’ vowed to make Andrew the patron saint of Scotland if the English were defeated. In response, the Apostle himself appeared in a vision, promising Hungus and his Dál Riatan allies a great victory. The next morning, as the opposing forces prepared to fight, a strange cloud-formation in the shape of a huge diagonal cross appeared in the blue sky. Flushed with hope, the Picts and Scots attacked their enemies ferociously, despite being heavily outnumbered. The English and their king ‘Athelstan’ were soundly beaten, and the Cross of Saint Andrew became the emblem of Scotland.

Hungus, king of the Picts

The Pictish king Hungus: stained glass window at Athelstaneford parish church, East Lothian.


It’s a good story, even if it isn’t based on real events. It may have been created in the thirteenth century, around the time when Saint Andrew’s Cross started being used as a national emblem. Before 1286, the diagonal cross traditionally associated with the Apostle’s crucifixion had been used in Scotland but only in religious contexts, as an emblem of St Andrews Cathedral. The fabled Pictish king ‘Hungus’ turns up as a key figure in the cathedral’s own origin-legends, so his appearance in the Saltire story is certainly appropriate.
Scottish Saltire memorial

Battle-scene on the Saltire memorial at Athelstaneford.


The battle in which the Saltire appeared in the sky supposedly took place in the year 832, near the present-day village of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. The village proudly proclaims its status as the birthplace of Scotland’s flag. In the graveyard of the parish church stands an impressive memorial commemorating the great victory. The main panel shows King Hungus and his army facing the defeated English, who have thrown down their weapons in token of surrender. Above is a smaller panel containing an inscription with these words:

‘Tradition says that near this place in times remote, Pictish and Scottish warriors about to defeat an army of Northumbrians saw against a blue sky a great white cross like Saint Andrew’s, and in its image made a banner which became the flag of Scotland’

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Doocot (built 1583) now the Scottish Flag Heritage Centre.


Behind the church is a doocot (the Scots word for ‘dovecote’) constructed in the sixteenth century as a nesting-place for pigeons. Inside this tiny building is the Flag Heritage Centre where visitors can learn about the Saltire legend via an audiovisual presentation. A leaflet describing the battle, the memorial, the church and the doocot is also available. It gives additional information, telling us that the battle was said to have taken place at an ancient ford on the Peffer Burn. The village of Athelstaneford takes its name from this crossing-point.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre: lightshow image of a warrior during the audiovisual presentation.


A few snippets of real history are embedded in the legend. We know, for instance, that the figure of King Hungus is based on one or more genuine Pictish kings who bore the name ‘Angus’ (Óengus in Gaelic; Onuist or Unust in Pictish). The most famous of these was the great warlord Óengus, son of Fergus, who conquered Dál Riata in the eighth century. A slightly later namesake – probably a member of the same family – ruled the Picts from 820 to 834 and is usually identified as the king in both the Saltire legend and the foundation-tale of St Andrews Cathedral. The Scots who fought alongside Hungus at Athelstaneford were commanded by Eochaid, grandfather of Cináed mac Ailpín. Little is known of Eochaid but he appears in the genealogical traditions attached to Cináed and may have been a historical figure. The defeated Northumbrian ruler ‘Athelstan’ is presumably based on the famous English king of this name, a West Saxon by birth, who lived a century after the Saltire battle. In 832, the traditional date of the legendary encounter, the Northumbrians were actually ruled by a king called Eanred.

Scottish Flag Heritage Centre

Sign outside the parish church.


The true origin of the name Athelstaneford is unknown. It might commemorate the real King Athelstan – who campaigned in Scotland in the 930s – or perhaps a local namesake who happened to own land around the Peffer Burn. Whatever the truth of the matter, this quiet East Lothian village is forever linked to the most recognizable symbol of Scottish nationhood. If you like old folklore, Pictish legends and half-forgotten history, it’s well worth a visit.

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The Flag Heritage Centre is maintained by the Scottish Flag Trust.

Information about the Cross of Saint Andrew can be found at the National Archives of Scotland.

Athelstaneford village has its own website.

Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about the two Pictish kings named Óengus and their connection with St Andrews.

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Dunnichen left out of battlefield list

Aberlemno Pictish stone

Reverse of the Pictish cross-slab in the kirkyard at Aberlemno, Angus (Photograph © B Keeling)


To the disappointment of many folk in Angus, a new inventory of Scottish battlefields has omitted the great battle of Dun Nechtáin (AD 685) in which the Picts defeated an invading army from English Northumbria. The site of the battle has traditionally been identified with the area around Dunnichen Hill, 3 miles east of Forfar, by historians as well as by local people. This was questioned by Alex Woolf in a significant paper published in 2006. Woolf suggested that the Dun Nechtáin of 685 may have lain much further north, in Badenoch, in the vicinity of Dunachton. In the light of such uncertainty, the compilers of the battlefield inventory felt unable to include Dunnichen in their list.

Although I remain supportive of the Dunnichen theory, I believe the compilers reached the right decision. A particular place proposed as the site of a famous battle cannot be given an ‘official’ stamp of recognition while the location of the event is in doubt. No amount of circumstantial evidence can change that. Not even the scenes of warfare on a Pictish stone at nearby Aberlemno can clinch the identification in Dunnichen’s favour, for we cannot be certain that the sculptor was thinking of Northumbrians (rather than Britons, Scots or even other Picts) when he carved the ‘enemy’ warriors.

For a local perspective, take a look at this report published a couple of weeks ago in Dundee-based newspaper The Courier.

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I first mentioned the battlefield inventory in a round-up of online news last July.

Here’s the full reference to Alex Woolf’s article: ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201

Those of you who have access to James Fraser’s excellent (and essential) book From Caledonia to Pictland will find reasons for continuing to support Dunnichen at pp.215-6. As Fraser points out, the main plank of Woolf’s argument (i.e., that nowhere in Angus fits Bede’s placing of the battle among ‘inaccessible mountains’) depends on a very narrow interpretation of Latin mons as an impressive Highland peak like those in Badenoch rather than as a smaller hill like those in the gentler landscape of Angus.

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Bede’s ‘Wilfaresdun’

I suppose this qualifies as one of my occasional ‘non-Scottish’ blogposts as it doesn’t deal with places or events in Scotland. There is, however, a slight Scottish connection, because the main event referred to here marked a significant milestone in the career of Oswiu, king of Bernicia, whose realm included parts of what are now Lothian and the Borders.

We begin with the words of an Englishman, the Venerable Bede, writing c.730 at the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow. In Book 3, Chapter 14 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede tells us that two northern English kings prepared to do battle with one another in the summer of 651. One was Oswine, ruler of Deira, a kingdom roughly coterminous with the pre-1974 county of Yorkshire. The other was Oswiu of Bernicia, whose territory lay north of the River Tees and whose chief citadel lay on the imposing rock of Bamburgh. According to Bede….

“Each raised an army against the other, but Oswine – realising that he could not fight against an enemy with far greater resources – considered it wiser to give up the idea of war and wait for better times. So he disbanded the army which he had assembled at Wilfaresdun (Uilfaresdun), that is Wilfar’s Hill (Mons Uilfari), about ten miles north-west of the village of Catterick (vico Cataractone).”

But better times were not on the menu for Oswine. After disbanding his army, he sought refuge in the home of a local lord, supposedly a loyal henchman, who held land at Gilling. There he was betrayed to Oswiu and cruelly murdered, his death occurring on 20 August.

Bede says good things about Oswine, whom he regarded as a man of piety and generosity. Oswiu on the other hand emerges from the story with little credit, but went on to become one of the greatest of all Northumbrian kings, ruling Deira and Bernicia as a single realm. The story is useful in giving us an insight into the tensions that simmered between the respective Deiran and Bernician royal dynasties in the mid-seventh century, before they were brought together as a unified Northumbria in the era of Oswiu and his sons.

Two of the places mentioned in the story are easy to find on a modern map. Catterick, here referred to by Bede under its Latin name Cataracto or Cataracta, was a former Roman town on the main north-south highway running along the eastern side of Britain. It lay close to a major junction, now known as ‘Scotch Corner’, where another road branched off to Carlisle via the high moorlands of Stainmore. Gilling, which Bede called Ingetlingum, lies south of this branch-road and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The present village is known today as Gilling West.

But where was Wilfaresdun, Wilfar’s Hill?

Historians have occasionally puzzled over this question. Some have suggested possible answers, while others have concluded that the place cannot now be identified. Suggestions have tended to focus on a belief that the place-name may have survived, with modern equivalents being sought as far afield as Wilbarston in Northamptonshire. Wilbarston is too distant to be a viable candidate but it comes under the spotlight because no similar name survives within the broad range of Bede’s “about ten miles north-west of Catterick”. In these situations the desperate search for ‘sounds like’ place-names on a modern map sometimes takes precedence over rational thought or even, as in this case, over the testimony of a contemporary chronicler. Hence we find the small North Yorkshire village of Garriston being proposed as a possibly close match to Wilfaresdun because the two names share a superficial similarity. But Garriston poses a couple of serious problems: first, it lies south-west of Catterick, an orientation that must rule it out of any serious search; and, second, it was unlikely to have ever been known as Wilfaresdun. It has the rather different name Gerdestone when it is first mentioned in the historical record (in Domesday Book in the late eleventh century). In any case, we have no good reason to doubt the geographical context given by Bede, whose information probably came from Ceolfrith, the renowned abbot of Jarrow. Ceolfrith had formerly been a monk at Gilling, where the murdered King Oswine was venerated as a saint. The Gilling monastery had been founded by Oswiu himself in atonement for the treacherous assassination of his rival.

The monks of Gilling kept alive a memory of Oswine and undoubtedly preserved authentic stories about his life. Ceolfrith would have been familiar with these tales during his time there as a novice monk. It was surely from Ceolfrith that Bede obtained his information about the location of Wilfaresdun and we can therefore take it at face value. Wilfar’s Hill, then, lay approximately ten miles north-west of Catterick. These were Roman miles, shorter than today’s measure, so the true distance in modern terms is roughly nine miles. Bede and his contemporaries had no satellite imaging or aerial photography, so their measurements of distance were based on how far a traveller had to walk or ride along roads and tracks. If we follow the Roman highway from Catterick, steering a north-west course, we soon find ourselves on the branch-road to Carlisle. There are few significant or prominent hills in the early stages of this route, for we are still in the rolling agricultural countryside of Richmondshire. In fact, there is only one noticeable landmark worthy of note. Standing on the north side of the Roman road, some eight miles out from Catterick, it rises alone from the surrounding fields and is visible from a considerable distance. Its name on modern maps is Diddersley Hill.

Diddersley Hill

The southern flank of Diddersley Hill, viewed from the Roman road.

The suggestion that this hill might be Bede’s Wilfaresdun was made by Andrew Breeze in an article published seven years ago. Having visited the location this summer I am inclined to think Professor Breeze may be right, and that Mons Wilfari has been rediscovered. I also share his belief that Diddersley Hill may have been a traditional mustering-point for the armies of Deira, not just in the summer of 651 but at other times too. It certainly fits the requirements: a conspicuous landscape feature, visible to military forces approaching along the Roman road from east or west, an ideal venue for a king to gather an army comprising the warbands of subordinate lords. It is not difficult to imagine Oswine summoning his henchmen to this place in preparation for a decisive battle with Oswiu. Perhaps it was here, on the slopes of this hill, that the Deiran king surveyed his forces and deemed them insufficient for the task.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, viewed from the north.

Diddersley Hill

Diddersley Hill, from the north, in its landscape context.

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Andrew Breeze, ‘Where were Bede’s Uilfaresdun and Paegnalaech?’ Northern History 42 (2005), 189-91.

The three photographs of Diddersley Hill are copyright © B Keeling 2012.

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