How British is Scotland?

Pictish warriors

Warriors on a Pictish stone at Aberlemno (8th century AD)


A recent post by Ross Crawford at the website of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish & Celtic Studies summarised a two-part lecture on the theme How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland. The speakers were Professor Stephen Driscoll and Dr Ewan Campbell – familiar names to students of early Scottish history and archaeology.

Modern perceptions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Scottishness’ are obviously topical in the run-up to September’s referendum, but their roots lie deep in the past, reaching back to the so-called Dark Ages of the first millennium AD. As with all abstract notions of nationality, the origins of both terms are too complex for a simple explanation. Current thinking envisages a fluid pattern of ‘ethnicities’ and cultural affiliations in early medieval Scotland. Older theories are being questioned, among them a popular belief that the Scots originated in Ireland – a subject I’ve blogged about before. As far as the Picts are concerned, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to write the name ‘Pictland’ on a map without wondering if such a concept ever existed in the Pictish mindset.

Below is a link to Ross Crawford’s post at the CSCS website.

How British is Scotland? Archaeological Origins of Scotland

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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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Columba and the Seal Thief

Female grey seal
Saint Columba, founder and first abbot of the monastery on Iona, died in AD 597. A hundred years or so after his death, a hagiographical Vita or ‘Life’ was written by Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona. Among many tales related by Adomnán is the story of Erc moccu Druidi, an inhabitant of the island of Coll, who came to Columba’s attention for all the wrong reasons.

The tale begins when Columba informs two of his monks that ‘a thief called Erc’ has turned up on Mull, on the shore directly opposite Iona. With only a narrow strait separating the two islands, Erc is rather too close for comfort. More than that, he is plainly up to no good, as Columba explains:

“He arrived from Coll last night, alone and in secret, and has made himself a hiding place under his upturned boat, which he has camouflaged with grass. Here he tries to conceal himself all day so that by night he can sail across to the little island that is the breeding-place of the seals we reckon as our own. His plan is to kill them, to fill his boat with what does not belong to him and take it away to his home. He is a greedy thief.”

Map of Mull & Iona
Columba ordered the two monks to bring Erc to him. Taking a boat across the strait, they sailed over to the Ross of Mull and located the thief, whom they escorted back to Iona. Erc was brought before Columba, who gave him a stern rebuke:
“To what end,” said the saint, “do you persistently offend against the Lord’s commandment and steal what belongs to others? If you are in need, and come to us, you will receive the necessities you request.”

As a gesture of goodwill, Columba offered some freshly slaughtered sheep as compensation for the seals Erc would otherwise have stolen. What happened next is not reported by Adomnán, but Columba presumably told Erc to return to his own island of Coll.

Grey seals

Seal pup sleeping.


An epilogue to the story tells of a vision experienced by Columba in which he perceived that Erc was close to death. The saint immediately ordered his cousin, a senior monk, to take a gift of meat and grain to the dying man. Adomnán does not say where Erc spent his final days but we can probably assume the location was Coll. The gift from Iona arrived almost too late, on the day of Erc’s passing, so it was consumed at his funeral feast instead.

Among a number of interesting points in the story I’ve highlighted five:

1. The monastery of Iona claimed the right to cull seals on one (or more) of the small rocky islands off the Ross of Mull. This may have been one of a bundle of informal rights exercised by the monks along the shoreline on the east side of the strait, or it may have been a formal concession granted by a landowner. In another story, Adomnán makes it clear that the monks did not have free rein to take whatever they wanted from the opposite shore: Columba compensated a man called Findchán who was upset to find monks cutting branches on his land at Delcros, probably an estate or farm on the Ross of Mull. The wood was being shipped back to Iona as building material for a new guesthouse, but it was being taken without Findchán’s permission.

Grey seals

Grey seal female and newborn pup.


2. The island of the seals is described as a breeding-ground, a place where females come ashore to give birth (Adomnán uses the Latin phrase generantur et generant). It must have been an extensive area, attracting large numbers of seals, to tempt a poacher like Erc to make a sea-journey of sixteen or seventeen miles. This might help to identify the location of the island, especially if it is still used by grey seals in the breeding season.

3. Archaeological evidence from excavations on Iona shows that seal-meat was on the monastic menu. The animals also yielded other useful products such as skin and oil. Sealskin is a naturally waterproof material, while the soft fur of the pups provides a warm lining for clothes. The sporrans worn with Scottish kilts are traditionally made from sealskin, although synthetic versions are less controversial (seal products have been subject to a European ban since 2010). In Adomnán’s time, Irish seal-hunters used a special harpoon called a murga (‘sea spear’) or rongai (‘seal spear’). Adult grey seals are large predators and can seriously injure any human whom they perceive as a threat. Erc moccu Druidi would have been well aware of this danger, but he did not sail to the Ross of Mull to challenge full-grown male seals (which can grow to 10 feet in length). His target, as Columba observed, was the breeding-ground where mothers and newborns would have been particularly vulnerable. British and Irish grey seals breed in the autumn, so Erc’s visit to Mull probably took place in October or November.

Grey seals
4. Erc does not seem to have been a person of high status. He owned a boat small enough to be turned upside down and used as a rudimentary shelter – it was most likely a small currach or coracle, a light but sturdy craft with a hull of animal skin. He was probably not a landowner or farmer, hence his need to hunt seals. Back home on Coll he had family or friends who valued him: when he died, they arranged a funeral and held a feast in his honour. They may have been members of moccu Druidi, ‘the people of Druidi’, the kin-group or clan to which he belonged. This group was presumably based on Coll and evidently spoke Gaelic rather than Pictish or British. Erc was seemingly a Christian, but not – as Columba points out – a rigid devotee of the Eighth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not steal’).

5. Erc lived on Coll and would have been answerable to a local lord there. He was not answerable to Columba on secular (i.e. non-religious) matters and could have refused the saint’s request to come to Iona. His acquiescence suggests that Columba’s authority as a spiritual leader was recognised by Christians on Coll. We might infer from this that any clergy working on the island in the late sixth century were members of the Iona brethren.

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Notes

The story of Erc moccu Druidi appears in Book 1, Chapter 41 of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. For this blogpost I have used the Andersons’ edition (1961; revised 1991) for the Latin text. The passages in English come from Richard Sharpe’s translation, published by Penguin Classics in 1995.

For Adomnán and his contemporary audience, the main point of the story was Columba’s miraculous power of farsight in knowing when Erc was about to die. Vita Columbae, like many hagiographical texts, is basically a collection of miracle stories testifying to the special status of the saint (and, by association, to the importance of his monastery and the authority of his successors).

My information on early Irish seal-hunting and on the archaeological evidence (animal bones) from Iona can be found on pp.302-3 of the Penguin Classics translation, where Richard Sharpe cites useful references.

Adomnán says Erc lived on insula Colosi, ‘the island of Colosus’. This is not, as was once thought, the isle of Colonsay. Scholars now accept that Colonsay has a name of Norse origin (probably ‘Kolbein’s Island’) coined long after Adomnán’s time. Its original Celtic name may have been Hinba, an idea I’ve discussed in an earlier blogpost.

Erc and the seals get a brief mention on page 97 of my book on Saint Columba.

The photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling. They were taken in November 2013 at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, a traditional breeding ground for grey seals. Hundreds of bulls (adult males) and cows (adult females) come ashore onto the beach each autumn. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has a webpage for the Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

Grey seals

Seal pup near the fence alongside the visitor path at Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

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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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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 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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The son of the king of the Cumbrians

Govan hogback

Viking Age hogback tombstone at Govan (Photo © B Keeling)


A new post at my Govan blog deals with a series of events around the middle of the 11th century – a fairly mysterious period in Scottish history – and with a shadowy figure described as ‘the son of the king of the Cumbrians’. It also mentions various other people who were major players in the political events of the time: King Cnut (‘Canute’), King Edward (‘The Confessor’), Macbethad (‘Macbeth’) and Earl Siward of Northumbria. The main purpose of the blogpost is to seek an answer to a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland in AD 1054?

Heart of the Kingdom: A Govanite on the Scottish throne

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Discussing Degsastan (again)

In an earlier post I set out my views on the location of the battle of Degsastan, an event described by Bede and dated by him to the year 603. The post attracted a large number of comments, which turned into a useful discussion of the various places that have been proposed as the site of the battlefield. In the end, with more than 70 comments attached to the post, I closed the thread because it had reached what I consider to be its allotted space at this blog.

However, due to continuing interest in the topic and several requests for the discussion to resume, I’m adding this post as an area for new comments. Please feel free to add your views and theories below.

For information, the old discussion can be found via this link.

Some questions we may want to consider:
* Where was Degsastan?
* Is Dawston in Liddesdale a plausible candidate?
* Did the Britons take part in the battle and, if so, on which side did they fight?
* What was the real political outcome of Aethelfrith’s victory?

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Lady Macbeth

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889 (from a painting by J.S. Sargent)


Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda (‘Malcolm, son of Kenneth’) succeeded his cousin Cinaed, son of Dub, as king of Alba in 1005. The succession was apparently contested by the rulers of Moray in the person of Findlaech, son of Ruaidri, who lodged a rival claim for the kingship. Findlaech, the mormaer (‘great steward’) of Moray, was described in the Irish annals as ‘king of Alba’ when they reported his death in 1020. His nephew Mael Coluim, son of Mael Brigte, died nine years later and was likewise accorded the same royal title by the annalists. Both men must have claimed the throne of Alba when its legitimate incumbent was Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, who reigned from 1005 to 1034. On two occasions, then, the authority of Cinaed’s son was challenged by the lords of Moray.
The kingdom of Alba

The kingdom of Alba


The Moravians themselves appear to have been riven by internal strife. Rivalry between Findlaech and his brother Mael Brigte led to the former’s death at the hands of the latter’s sons. The most likely context was a military struggle for the mormaership. After Findlaech’s slaying in 1020 his murderous nephews – Mael Coluim and Gilla Comgain – ruled Moray for a further twelve years. Mael Coluim was the above-mentioned claimant on the kingship of Alba, the man whose death in 1029 was reported in the Irish annals. After staking his royal claim, as a rival of his namesake Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, he seems to have appointed his brother Gilla Comgain as mormaer of Moray. But Gilla Comgain was in turn challenged by Findlaech’s son Macbethad, an ambitious individual who was soon to emerge as a key player on the wider political stage. In later centuries Macbethad found greater fame on a different kind of stage, being borrowed by William Shakespeare as the inspiration for his devious character Macbeth. In the meantime, the historical Macbeth made his first appearance around the year 1030, as a challenger to Gilla Comgain’s authority in Moray. This may have prompted Gilla Comgain to strengthen his own position with a political marriage, for his bride was a lady of high royal blood. Her name was Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and she was a close kinswoman of King Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, perhaps his niece or the daughter of one of his cousins.

Gilla Comgain continued to rule as mormaer of Moray until his death in 1031 or 1032. His grisly demise was noted in the Irish annals:

Gilla Comgain, son of Mael Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.

This was probably the final act in a bitter kin-strife that had started in the previous generation. Although the annalists do not say who was responsible for the burning it was surely the work of Macbethad, who thus became the new mormaer of Moray. In a politically astute move he quickly married Gruoch, Gilla Comgain’s widow, thereby linking himself to the royal dynasty of Alba. The marriage also made him stepfather and protector of Gruoch’s son Lulach, Gilla Comgain’s heir, who was probably a small child at the time. Whether Gruoch entered this union willingly or grudgingly is unknown, for the sources give no further information. If, as seems likely, Macbethad was the instigator of her first husband’s death, she might have been his reluctant bride. Alternatively, she might have regarded Macbethad as a useful match for her own ambitions. Did she perhaps play some part in Gilla Comgain’s downfall? Such speculation, although interesting, could tempt us to cross the line between fact and fiction, for Gruoch is the historical figure behind the ruthless Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

Mormaers of Moray in the 11th Century


Macbethad’s career was as dramatic as any playwright’s narrative. Within months of his seizure of power in Moray he joined Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, the king of Alba, in a pledge of fealty to King Cnut of England. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which placed this event under the year 1031, Macbethad is described as a king. The label need not be taken at face value, for it is unlikely that he had launched a bid for the throne of Alba at so early a date. Indeed, he may have continued to rule Moray not as a potential rival to Mael Coluim but as a loyal subordinate or vassal guarding an important territory on the king’s northern frontier.

Gruoch’s kinship with the royal dynasty would have proved useful to Macbethad. It brought him closer to the centres of power and would have enabled him to forge useful alliances at the king’s court. His wife’s connections with the ruling elite undoubtedly helped him gather support for the coup d’etat which would one day elevate him to the throne. But he nurtured his ambitions slowly and carefully, biding his time until the right moment. Thus, after Mael Coluim’s death in 1034 brought his grandson Donnchad (‘Duncan’) to power, Macbethad gave his allegiance to the new king and played the role of loyal henchman. He eventually made his move in the summer of 1040, not long after Donnchad suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the English. The Irish chronicler Marianus Scotus, writing forty years later, gave a near-contemporary account of Donnchad’s fall:

Donnchad, king of Scots, was killed in the autumn, on 14 August, by his dux Macbethad son of Findlaech, who succeeded to the kingdom for seventeen years.

In this context, the Latin term dux (‘duke’) might be an attempt by Marianus to translate Gaelic mormaer. In a more general sense it indicates that Donnchad was slain during the revolt of a subordinate lord. It was this deed of treachery that prompted later Scottish writers, and eventually Shakespeare himself, to cast Macbethad in the role of villain. In an 11th-century context, however, the toppling of a king by an ambitious rival was a normal method of regime-change.

Her husband’s victory made Gruoch the most powerful woman in Alba. She was now the Queen of Scots, a position she may have coveted from afar during her years of marriage to two successive lords of Moray. As queen, she would have played an important part in the smooth running of royal business. She would have had her own entourage of courtiers and retainers, as well as her own network of clients and friends. At times she would have accompanied the king on his periodic tours of the realm, and we have documentary evidence of this in a charter to which she bore witness alongside her husband. The document in question recorded a gift of land to the monastery of Loch Leven in Fife. Its scribe began by naming the royal benefactors: Machbet filius Finlach …. et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum (‘Macbethad, son of Findlaech …. and Gruoch, daughter of Boite, King and Queen of Scots’).

In late 1049 or early 1050, Macbethad embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was not an unusual task for a king from the British Isles to undertake. Others had made the same journey before him, seeking forgiveness for past sins by visiting the Eternal City. Most royal pilgrims were in their later years, or had already offloaded the reins of power to designated heirs. Macbethad was certainly a man of middle age when he began his pilgrimage. From a rough chronology of his career we can deduce that he was around fifty years old. It is likely that Gruoch did not accompany him, and that she stayed at home to maintain a royal presence at court. How much authority might then have been delegated to her in Macbethad’s absence is hard to say but he must have trusted her to support his kingship while he was away. This is actually a key point, because potential royal claimants were surely lurking in the wings. The probability that Macbethad left his wife behind suggests that he had no doubts about her political loyalty. It might also suggest that he perceived little or no threat from Lulach, Gruoch’s son by Gilla Comgain, whose own claim on the throne she might otherwise have promoted.

Macbethad thus returned from Rome to find his kingship still intact. He resumed his reign and faced no serious challenge to his position for a number of years. His subjects clearly respected him, as did folk living beyond the borders of Alba. Ambitious warriors from other lands were attracted to his court, perhaps because he gave rich rewards for military service. One group of Norman adventurers, having been made unwelcome in England, travelled north to place their swords at his disposal. These men died in battle in 1054, fighting to defend Macbethad from an English invasion which succeeded in casting him from the throne. The architect of his defeat was Earl Siward of Northumbria, a powerful henchman of the English king Edward the Confessor. What happened to Macbethad in the aftermath is not recorded but he may have sought refuge among his kinsmen in Moray, unless he found a safer haven elsewhere. Wherever he went, we can be fairly sure that Gruoch and her son accompanied him. Siward, meanwhile, appointed a man called Mael Coluim as the new king of Alba. Despite his Gaelic name, this Mael Coluim was a prince of the Strathclyde Britons. His eligibility for kingship of the Scots must nevertheless have derived from ancestry, and his name seems to hint at mixed Gaelic-British parentage. His father was the king of Strathclyde; perhaps his mother was a royal princess of Alba?

Mael Coluim’s reign did not last long. His position would have weakened considerably after Siward’s death in 1055. With the menace of the Northumbrian earl removed, Macbethad was able to expel Mael Coluim and take back the throne. He ruled for a few more years until his own death at the battle of Lumphanan in 1058. His nemesis was Mael Coluim mac Donnchadha, a figure otherwise known as ‘Malcolm Canmore’ (Gaelic ceann mor, ‘big head’). Mael Coluim’s victory thus avenged the slaying of his father, King Donnchad, whom Macbethad had destroyed eighteen years earlier.

We do not know what happened to Gruoch in the wake of her husband’s death. Her son Lulach seems to have held the kingship of Alba for a few months until he, too, was defeated and slain by Mael Coluim. Widowed and alone, Gruoch may have found herself at the mercy of the new king. Her fate would then have depended on her usefulness as a dowager queen, a royal lady of wealth and influence – if indeed she could be persuaded to pledge allegiance to Mael Coluim. The fact that she was his kinswoman, a female elder of the royal dynasty, would not have guaranteed her survival. Against whatever political value she still retained was the threat she undoubtedly posed to the stability of the realm. She might, for instance, become a figurehead for disgruntled supporters of Macbethad, especially in Moray where Mael Coluim’s authority was unlikely to have been strong. So what were her options, if indeed she was not murdered, or chased out of the kingdom, or imprisoned in some dark dungeon? If she somehow managed to survive the upheavals of 1058 she may have been allowed to enter monastic retirement, becoming the abbess of a religious house to which she had been a benefactor in former times. Alternatively, she may have simply retired to one of her estates, in semi-exile from the royal court, quietly living out her remaining years as a relic of past troubles.

Probable ancestry of Gruoch, daughter of Boite.


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References

Archibald Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), p.32.

Benjamin Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.136-8.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North (London,1979), pp.41-2.

Archibald Lawrie (ed.), Early Scottish Charters prior to 1153 (Glasgow, 1905), pp.5-6.

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.247 & 255-65.

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Alwin not Ailín

Earls of Lennox

Earl of Lennox

Peter Kincaid who runs the Kyncades website has recently written an interesting article on the first known earls of Lennox, both of whom were called Alwin. Peter has noticed a tendency in some quarters to convert this name to Ailín, a Gaelicised form that he argues has no warrant in the oldest historical sources. His article is well-researched and sets out a convincing case for retaining the forms Alwin and Alwyn as shown in documents of the 12th and 13th centuries.

I’m mentioning this because I have a particular interest in the history of the Lennox, an area once ruled by the kings of Strathclyde. Peter’s ancestors originated in the lands of Kyncaith which were part of the Lennox earldom. A brief discussion of these lands and their early history took place between Peter and myself in comments attached to my third blogpost on Clan Galbraith.

Read Peter’s article as a PDF on his website

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