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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Llyfr Aneirin online

Gododdin of Aneirin

John Koch’s edition and translation of The Gododdin, published in 1997.


Lisa Spangenberg, who runs the excellent blog Scéla on things medieval and Celtic, recently posted an interesting piece of news: Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, is now available online. This thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript contains Y Gododdin, ‘The Gododdin’, a collection of verses seemingly commemorating the near-massacre of an army of Britons from Edinburgh at a place called Catraeth sometime around AD 600. Two versions of the collection are included in Llyfr Aneirin, each transcribed in a different hand.

It’s the manuscript itself that has been digitised, not an edition or translation, so what we’re seeing is one of the great artifacts of medieval Celtic literature in its original form. Whether any part of the contents – the heroic and enigmatic Gododdin verses – was actually composed in North Britain six centuries earlier is a different matter (and a highly controversial one).

I followed the link given by Lisa and selected a random page from Llyfr Aneirin. It contained one of several verses beginning with the words gwyr a aeth gatraeth (‘Men went to Catraeth’), neatly crafted in an elegant script from 800 years ago.

Lisa has helpfully added other relevant links to her blogpost, including the digitised version of Llyfr Taliesin, the Book of Taliesin. Elsewhere on her site you’ll find links to various useful resources, so I recommend a look around if your interests lean towards Celtic medievalia.

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Notes & links

Check out Lisa’s blogpost The Book of Aneirin digitized and online and her Celtic web resources page.

The National Library of Wales ran its own announcement last week: Warriors went to Catraeth.

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Question: How far does the poetry attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin reflect genuine North British history?
The jury is out, so we’re faced with a choice of answers. These range from wide-eyed enthusiasm (‘it’s all true’) through sensible scepticism (‘some of it might be true’) to sombre pessimism (‘this is poetry, not history’). Help is now at hand for those of us who aren’t specialists in Celtic literature, via the papers in Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. This very useful book, edited by Alex Woolf and published by the University of St Andrews in 2013, brings us up to date with current research. Anyone who wants to use the Taliesin poetry or The Gododdin as historical sources should read it. The papers represent a variety of opinions, all of them wise and measured, some more optimistic than others. But the main message is simple: let’s be more cautious when using these Old Welsh poems as ‘history’. Accepting them as authentic chronicles from the sixth or seventh centuries, or as reliable gazetteers of ancient North British place names, is no longer an option.

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The last king of Strathclyde

Earl Siward

From the front cover of History Scotland magazine, Nov/Dec 2013. The illustration of Earl Siward and his children is from a painting by James Smetham (1821-89).


‘The last king of Strathclyde’ is the title of my article in the current issue of History Scotland. It’s a discussion of the final phase of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, from the Battle of Carham (1018) to the eventual takeover by the Scots (sometime before 1070). I consider several possible candidates for the label ‘last king of Strathclyde’ during a time of political upheaval involving famous figures such as Earl Siward of Northumbria, the English king Edward the Confessor and the Scottish king Macbethad (Macbeth). In the end, I acknowledge that we cannot be certain who ruled the last remaining kingdom of the Cumbri on the eve of its demise, for the information presented by the written record is incomplete. We can only note that the last king named in the sources is Eugenius Calvus (‘Owain the Bald’) who, in alliance with the king of Scots, achieved a memorable victory over the English at Carham.

History Scotland
Here’s the full reference for my article:
Tim Clarkson, ‘The last king of Strathclyde’ History Scotland vol.13 no.6, Nov/Dec 2013, pp.24-7

- and here’s a link to the History Scotland website (issues are available in print and digital formats)

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Degsastan discovered?

Degsastan
Hot on the heels of his suggestion that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) was fought in County Durham comes another thought-provoking theory from Professor Andrew Breeze. This time, the battle in question was fought not in the tenth century but in the seventh, in the year 603. On one side stood an army of Scots from Dál Riata, led by King Áedán mac Gabráin. Facing them were the English of Bernicia under the command of their king Aethelfrith. The ambitions of these two mighty warlords clashed at a place called Degsa’s Stone, a name rendered in Latin as Lapis Degsa and in Old English as Degsastan.

The Venerable Bede, writing more than a hundred years after the battle, described Degsa’s Stone as a ‘very famous place’. Unfortunately, he didn’t give its precise location, although he did hint that it lay within the extensive territories controlled by Aethelfrith. As an Englishman and a Bernician, Bede resorted to triumphal rhetoric when describing the battle’s political repercussions:

‘From that time, no king of the Scots in Britain has dared to make war against the English nation to this day.’

As with many ‘lost’ battlefields, people have tended to begin a search for Degsastan by looking for similar-sounding names on a modern map. Long ago, this quest turned up the place-name Dawston, borne today by a stream and hillside in Liddesdale, the valley of the Liddel Water on the border between England and Scotland. Dawston has attracted many supporters, partly because it not only has the enticing D-st-n combination but is in an area where Áedán and Aethelfrith might have met in battle.

I’m not a supporter of Dawston. It’s too far south for me, and too far off the beaten track. In fact, I’m wary of using ‘sounds-like etymology’ as a starting-point when searching for lost battlefields. All too often, this technique brings forth a large red herring, which then slithers away in all kinds of strange directions with a posse of enthusiastic hunters in frantic pursuit. Much time is wasted, I believe, on the ‘sounds-like’ game. I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to begin the quest. Would it not make more sense to start from a different point, by using political considerations, landscape reconstructions and logistical factors to establish a likely geographical context, which could then be searched for possible place-name matches?

Andrew Breeze, an expert on place-names, thinks Dawston doesn’t even pass the test on linguistic grounds. He suggests instead a site further north, on the upper reaches of the River Tweed, near the village of Drumelzier between Biggar and Peebles. Here he notes the place name Dawyck, whch he says means ‘David’s settlement’ (where the first element is a North Brittonic personal name equivalent to Welsh Dewi). He proposes that a nearby monolith might once have been known as ‘Dewi’s Stone’, a name subsequently part-translated by speakers of Old English as Degsastan.

It’s an intriguing theory. While not being entirely swayed by the ‘Dewi’ argument, I am inclined to believe that this is the kind of area where we should be looking for the battlefield of 603. Upper Tweeddale lay on a key route linking the Clyde valley – and places further north and west – to the Bernician heartlands on the east coast. This seems to me a plausible setting for the earliest recorded clash between English and Scottish armies.

Andrew Breeze’s theory appears in a recent article in the Peebleshire News:
Ancient mystery battlefield discovered in Tweeddale

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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me the link.

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The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

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


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

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

Columba

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

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

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

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

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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Searching for Brunanburh

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

But where was Brunanburh?

Where was Wendune, another place associated with the battle?

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

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

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

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

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

Brunanburh

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

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

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

Karen Jolly’s blogpost on Brunanburh (with discussion)

Andrew Breeze on Lanchester as a candidate for Brunanburh

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

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

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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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