Battle of Clontarf anniversary

Battle of Clontarf
This year marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf, fought on the outskirts of Dublin on 23 April 1014. The battle is often depicted as a defining moment in Irish history: a great victory by King Brian Boru over the Vikings. In popular mythology, it heralded the end of two hundred years of Viking influence in Ireland. But, as with many of the best myths, the true picture is somewhat different. Like most battles of the Viking period, Clontarf was first and foremost a clash between ambitious rulers rather than a struggle between Celts and Scandinavians. Both sides mobilised Irish and Viking forces, each contingent serving the interests of its own leader, with scant regard for the ethnic origin of friend or foe. It would have been no great surprise to Brian’s Irish warriors to learn that their enemies were led not only by Sihtric Silkbeard, king of the Dublin Norse, but also by the Irish ruler Mael Morda, king of Leinster, or that their own allies included Vikings from Limerick.

By setting aside the myths we can see the battle for what it really was: a mighty contest for superiority in which forces from all over Ireland took part. Its significance will be highlighted in 2014 with a series of commemorative events. Links to some of these can be found at the end of this blogpost, but more are being announced as the anniversary of the battle approaches.

The battle has a Scottish connection, too, which is why it gets a mention here at Senchus. For, although the causes of the conflict lay among a complex web of rivalries and overlordships in Ireland, the pattern of wider allegiances brought warriors from further afield into the fray. On Brian’s side, the list of slain commanders included Domnall, son of Eimin son of Cainnech, the lord of Mar (now part of Aberdeenshire), while on the other side the casualties included Earl Sigurd of Orkney.

Click the links below for more information on the millennial celebrations:

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

Battle of Clontarf

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Notes:

Boru is an Anglicised form of Bóruma which might mean something like ‘taker of cattle-tribute’, a suitable epithet for a Dark Age king.

The information about Sigurd of Orkney and Domnall of Mar comes from the Annals of Ulster.

Much of the mythologising which turned Clontarf into a contest between the native Irish and the Vikings is due to the twelfth-century text Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), written as propaganda for Brian’s descendants. In its account of the battle of Clontarf it tells of a fight between the Scottish nobleman Domnall of Mar and a Viking called Plait who may have come from Normandy.

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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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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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Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

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


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

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

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

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

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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The Last Of The Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

picts

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‘Against iron swords’: Dun Nechtáin, AD 685

Aberlemno Pictish stone

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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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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