Saints in Scottish Place-Names

Keills Cross Knapdale

Ancient chapel and cross at Keills in Knapdale, beside Loch Sween. Photograph by Erskine Beveridge in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


A research project in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow has produced a fascinating online resource: a searchable database of hagiotoponyms in Scotland. Hagiotoponyms are place-names that commemorate saints. They are found all over the Scottish landscape as names of old parishes, medieval churches, holy wells and standing stones. Many of them give clues about the geography and chronology of the cults of saints. In some cases, the cult is localised to one small district or even to a single site. In others, the cult is linked to important religious or political changes that affected a very large area. The introduction of the cult of St Andrew, for example, was obviously significant in the evolution of a national ideology for the kingdom of Alba. On a regional level, the promotion of Mungo (Kentigern) as the patron saint of Glasgow seems to have played a role in the Gaelicisation of Strathclyde.

The original project was called Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names. It gathered information on a bewildering number of hagiotoponyms, ranging from the well-known (e.g. St Andrews) to the obscure (e.g. Exmagirdle). The project team clearly worked hard, for the resulting database is huge: 13000 place-names, 5000 places, 750 saints. I only wish it had been up and running a couple of years ago, when I was writing my book on Saint Columba. Back then, my main source of toponymic information was the ever-redoubtable CPNS (aka William Watson’s History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland) but an online resource would have been a useful quick-reference tool. Databases are always faster than printed book-indexes when you’re trying to work out which Kildonan is the one you really need.

The link below will take you straight to the database. Enjoy!

Saints in Scottish Place-Names

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Notes, references & more links

Terry O’Hagan wrote on this topic at the Vox Hiberionacum blog last month. Terry is a specialist on Early Irish Christianity, which means he knows a thing or two about Scotland as well. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re interested in Celtic saints.

In addition to the database, the project Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names has its own webpage at the University of Glasgow.

William Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926). This indispensable tool for students of early Scottish history is available as a paperback from Birlinn Books.

Birlinn is also the publisher of my book on Saint Columba.

columba_cover2

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Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

King Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English (924-39), in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert.


Last Thursday evening (4th December) the eminent philologist Andrew Breeze gave a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries at their headquarters in London. His main topic was the battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937, one of the most famous events of the Viking Age. The victor was the English king Athelstan who thwarted an alliance of Norsemen, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Frustratingly, the site of this mighty clash of arms is unknown. Some historians think it took place on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, near the present-day village of Bromborough. Others think Cheshire is too far south and instead suggest alternative locations, one of these being the River Browney in County Durham. Professor Breeze believes that the Roman fort of Lanchester, slightly north of the Browney, may be the lost ‘fort of Bruna’ implied by the Old English place-name Brunanburh.

The lecture is now available on YouTube. Although I’m not convinced by the Lanchester theory, I like to keep up with the Brunanburh debate so I enjoyed watching the video. At the heart of Professor Breeze’s argument is his belief that the Norsemen sailed in via the Humber estuary – as indeed the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester said they did – before mooring their ships and marching to the battlefield. Not everyone is happy to accept the chronicler’s words on this important logistical point. Some sceptical folk (myself included) think it more likely that the Norse commander Anlaf Guthfrithsson brought his army across the Irish Sea to a landfall on the western coast of Britain. The earliest source for the battle of Brunanburh is a tenth-century poem which says that Anlaf fled across the sea to Dublin after his defeat. I support the theory that he probably arrived at the battlefield via the same western route rather than by sailing all the way around Scotland to come down to the Humber.

The link below will take you to the video of the lecture. Look out for a glimpse of my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Needless to say, Professor Breeze isn’t convinced by what I’ve written in the book’s fifth chapter, which mostly deals with the Brunanburh debate. There I suggest that the great battle may have been fought in North Lancashire, although I conclude that the true location is likely to remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Society of Antiquaries [YouTube] – Brunanburh in 937: Bromborough or Lanchester?

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Notes

I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for telling me about the lecture and video.

A brief summary of the lecture can be seen at the Society of Antiquaries events pages.

I mentioned both Lanchester and Bromborough in a blogpost published here last October.

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Dunblane’s ‘Late Pictish’ cross-slab

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Early medieval cross-slab in Dunblane Cathedral (© B Keeling)


Two early medieval carved stones were discovered at Dunblane Cathedral during restoration work in the late nineteenth century. One is a broken rectangular slab with carved patterns along one edge only, the rest being unadorned. The other is a fully ornamented cross-slab, with carvings on front and back. Both stones were found under a staircase in the Lady Chapel or Chapter House but can now be seen at the west end of the North Aisle. They were probably carved in the tenth century and are usually regarded as late examples of Pictish sculpture. This may mean that they are not really Pictish at all, for the Picts appear to have developed new ideas about cultural and political identity at the end of the ninth century. Close contact between the Picts and their Scottish neighbours in the Gaelic West eventually led to the complete disappearance of ‘Pictishness’ and its replacement by ‘Scottishness’. It might be more accurate, then, to associate the Dunblane stones with the new, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba which emerged around AD 900 in what had formerly been the Pictish heartlands.

Dunblane Pictish Stone

The Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab stands a little over 6 feet high. Its carvings were described in detail by John Romilly Allen in an article published in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1881. Allen’s own drawings of the front and rear faces appeared at the end of the article and were reproduced twenty-two years later in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, his great collaborative venture with Joseph Anderson. The text below, taken from the entry for Dunblane on pages 315 to 317 of ECMS, describes the carvings on the rear of the slab.

‘A single panel, containing (at the top, nearly in the middle) a pair of beasts sitting up on their hind quarters, facing each other and with their fore-legs crossed; (at the right hand upper corner) a single spiral; (below the beasts on the left) square key-pattern No. 886; (on the right of this) a square figure with five raised bosses like the spots on a die; (next in order going down the slab, on the left) a small cross of shape No. 102A; (to the right of this) a figure resembling a keyhole plate as much as anything; (then) a horseman armed with a spear and accompanied by a hound; (below on the right) a circular disc ornamented with a cruciform device, there being traces of a very rudely executed key-pattern on the background; (at the bottom of the slab on the left) a man holding a staff in his right hand; and (at the right-hand lower corner) a single spiral.’

[Note: To illustrate similarities between sculptural styles in different parts of Scotland, Allen and Anderson used a numerical classification for the most common types of carving, e.g. ‘key-pattern No.886′]

Dunblane Pictish Stone

Allen’s drawing of the Dunblane Cathedral cross-slab.


Assigning a precise historical context to the cross-slab is no easy task. Dunblane is in Strathallan, the valley of the Allan Water, in the former county of Perthshire. It lies on the southern edge of what is generally considered to have been ‘Pictland’ in earlier times. To what extent (if any) its tenth-century inhabitants still regarded themselves as Picts is a matter of debate. The rulers of Alba – descendants of the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (died 858) – certainly identified as ‘Scots’ in the early 900s and many of their subjects no doubt followed suit.

The place-name Dunblane (Gaelic: Dún Blááin,’fort of Blane’) was originally Dol Blááin ‘Blane’s water-meadow’, both names being traditionally associated with the sixth-century saint Blane or Bláán whose main monastery lay at Kingarth on the Isle of Bute. One possible scenario is that monks from Kingarth, seeking a refuge from Viking raids in the ninth century, established a new community at Dunblane on a site later occupied by the cathedral. This early religious settlement may have been targeted by the Britons of Dumbarton, who are said to have burned Dunblane during the reign of Cináed mac Ailpín. The same monastery might also be the unidentified civitas Nrurim where, according to the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, Cináed’s son Áed was killed in 878 (in this period, the Latin word civitas meant ‘major religious settlement’ as well as ‘city’ or ‘fortress’). Other sources place Áed’s death in Strathallan, so Nrurim might be an older name for the newly founded monastery of Dol Blááin, or perhaps a garbled version of it.

Unlike some other early medieval carved stones, the Dunblane cross-slab is easy to find. It is certainly worth seeing, not least because it shows how ‘Late Pictish’ stonecarving had declined from the high craftsmanship of earlier periods (compare, for instance, the Dupplin Cross of c.830). The cathedral is open all year round but it’s advisable to check beforehand if planning a special trip – see the link below.

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Links & references

Record for Dunblane Cathedral on the RCAHMS Canmore database

Dunblane Cathedral opening hours

John Romilly Allen, ‘Notice of Sculptured Stones at Kilbride, Kilmartin and Dunblane’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol.15 (1880-81), 254-61.

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903) [A facsimile reprint is available from the Pinkfoot Press in Brechin]

Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (extract from the entry for Cináed mac Ailpín) -
‘Septimo anno regni sui, reliquias Sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit, et invasit sexies Saxoniam; et concremavit Dunbarre atque Marlos usurpata. Britanni autem concremaverunt Dubblain, atque Danari vastaverunt Pictaviam, ad Cluanan et Duncalden.’
[‘In the seventh year of his rule, he transferred the remains of Saint Columba to the church which he built (at Dunkeld), and he attacked England six times; and he burned Dunbar and captured Melrose. However, the Britons burned Dunblane, and the Danes laid waste to Pictland, as far as Clunie and Dunkeld.’]

The suggestion that the unidentified civitas Nrurim might be Dunblane was made by Alex Woolf on page 116 of his book From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007)

Photos of the two Dunblane stones (via the Canmore database)

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Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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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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